Charlotte Du Cann is a writer and editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project.
EASTBRIDGE, England — Last May, as the first lockdown took hold, I found myself taking part in an online discussion about a theater production called “The Encounter” by Simon McBurney and the Complicité company. Inspired by a book by the Romanian-American writer Petru Popescu, the one-man performance follows the real-life track of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who becomes lost in the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people. The encounter plunged him into another world where he has to navigate with a different consciousness as the tribe retreats deep into the forest to escape destruction.
On the panel, the Indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro spoke of having to adopt “two minds,” a double consciousness, to both maintain his own culture and deal with the modern world that was encroaching on his people’s way of life. I responded that I feel it should be the other way round, that we need to develop a consciousness to re-entangle ourselves in the sentient Earth, as McIntyre was challenged to do in the forest. The only way we can deal with the devastation our civilization continues to wreak is to radically change how we perceive the natural world and our place within it.
But how do we go about this? Is it even possible? Can we, like the Mayoruna, find a ritual that enables us to start again?
In the 1990s, I went on a journey, like thousands of other seekers, in search of another language. I went to South America, whose culture was still threaded with hawks and flowers and wild rivers — unlike the urban, alienated tongue of my native Britain. I realized I was not in another country to find a more Earth-based story to live by, but to deconstruct a story I had unknowingly inherited. And it wasn’t a journey that took me to a place of clarity and understanding that I could carry home in a suitcase. It took me off track entirely.
I never went back to my fashionable city life. The travelling was the beginning of another kind of return altogether.
In his groundbreaking work, “The Master and His Emissary,” the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explored the very different kinds of perception orchestrated by the two hemispheres of the brain. The left focuses on detail, while the right perceives the whole picture. The left hemisphere deals with the abstract and prefers mechanisms to living things; the right has a more flexible and immediate relationship with the physical world. To see the complexity of the Earth — to make complex, consensus decisions — means you need to use the focus of the left hemisphere in tandem with the wide-ranging implications perceived by the right.
Without this working relationship, the untempered, unconscious forces within ourselves and our societies run amok. We think we make rational, fair decisions, even though it has been proved, particularly in the case of governance, that we are swayed by our unconscious feelings, embedded in and frequently manipulated by dominating belief systems.
McGilchrist has argued that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with perilous consequences. So, to become entangled in the world, to regain kinship and our place on the planet, requires a deliberate engagement with the consciousness of the right hemisphere.
2. The Map Is Not The Territory
It is commonly assumed that our connection to the wild world, the one Takumã and his people have kept, has been lost and is not possible to regain. But that’s not true. It has been forgotten, yet still lies deep within us.
Every person is born with archaic intelligence embedded in their bones. Though our minds are distracted by numbers, algorithms, facts and data, our physical beings, stepping into a rainforest or a mountain path, still instinctively recognize the patterns of fur and feather, stone and leaf. We see the moving shapes of clouds and rivers, but we just don’t remember how to communicate with each other about what we experience.
I went to the deserts of the Americas to remember the ancestral language of belonging and obligation that my own culture had tried to erase centuries ago. I investigated the lexicon of plants and the territories of dreams in practices that followed those travels. Encounters with the physical planet and its language formed the key that opened the door.
The main challenge in learning the lexicon of the brain’s right hemisphere is ironically the words themselves. “In the beginning was the Word,” reads the first chapter of the Gospel of John in the New Testament, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Words reign supreme in our left-hemisphere-dominated world: treaties, laws, religions of the book. All are constructed of words, all seek to capture and control the world in linear and grandiose language, names and categories, everything put to use. Even approaching the nonhuman world by labeling it “nonhuman” sticks it into a category of things that can be owned, like placing a shamanic drum in a museum instead of playing it and traveling to other worlds.
To reengage with the world as kin requires an entirely different approach. It is no good shouting English (or Latin) words at the nonhuman world if you want to hold a dialogue. You’ll have to learn a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with your education; you’ll have to use your whole body and slow down to the pace of your heart. Most of all you’ll have to learn to stop talking in your head. You have to listen.
Let that being in a dream, that flower, come to you and reveal its nature. Humbleness is required, not knowing is required, a shift of attention is required. You are no longer commandeering the world like Alexander: describing, analyzing, putting everything in a spreadsheet. Quite often, you are not going to like what you feel.
There are corporations now ransacking the Amazon in pursuit of cures for cancer and other diseases of the modern world, as well as individuals who travel there seeking life-changing experiences to heal addiction and depression, but the vegetalistas, those who work with plants, go to the forest to remain in harmony and dialog with it. It is an ongoing relationship they maintain with ritual and story and song. If you ask them where they get their knowledge from, they will tell you the plants told them, the animals came, a spirit arrived in a dream.
From dreams you learn, slowly, that animals speak by their presence, the way they move within a landscape, their relationships. You learn you have an affinity with some more than others — birds, whales, snakes — how you feel when you are with them. You learn that plants reveal their intelligence in elegantly framed storyboards and koans. Some are more “talkative” than others.
After this practice, you do what human beings have done for eons in response to this conversation: You sing, dance, paint, find words. You forge a lexicon to remember and share with the world, a bridge that spans between the dimensions of the human, animal and plant kingdoms.
But you also go to meet something else.
3. Here Be Dragons
Around 1960, an anthropology researcher named Michael Harner began to work with the Shipibo-Conibo tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. To understand us, they told him, you must take the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca. Harner wrote a book that would remind the modern world of the pan-global practice of shamanism; in it, he describes his first encounter with the “vine of death” where giant reptilian creatures spoke with him from the depths of the back of his brain. The creatures showed him the planet before there was any life, and how they came to Earth from the sky to escape an enemy.
“The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence,” he wrote. “Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation — hundreds of millions of years of activity — took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man. They were the true masters of humanity and the entire planet, they told me. We humans were but the receptacles and servants of these creatures. For this reason they could speak to me from within myself.”
“We are in charge,” they told him — and everything that was human inside of him rebelled. Afterward, he told a wise elder about his experience. “They always say that,” the shaman responded.
In a time of colonial reckoning, where movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter challenge the exploitation of human bodies, the urge to re-indigenize ourselves and reconnect with the natural world becomes stronger.
In many ways, the geography we find ourselves in dictates what we have to deal with to find this re-entanglement. Each country brings its own challenges. In the New World, Indigenous cultures still exist, but a reconnection to the land by its settlers brings a heavy historical karma to bear. The Native American myths embedded in the land are not easily understood, and for settlers to engage with the mythos of their motherlands means facing the conditions that forced them or their ancestors to emigrate.
In Europe, the links to a land-connected Indigenous culture are buried in deep time, their myths turned into children’s tales or fanciful spirituality. Wild places are severely compromised by industrialization and feudal property laws. A kind of amnesia prevails.
The gate that bars most modern, industrialized people from access to nonhuman realms has to be broken open, whether by encounter, plant medicine or iatromantic (shamanic) practice. Our ordinary night dreams can be allies in this rediscovery, but only so long as we understand they are communications from the right hemisphere — part of the world’s dreaming, not a psychological problem to be sorted by modern medicine.
When you embark on a journey of return, you realize that individual work is only relevant if it takes place within the collective realm. No matter how revolutionary or forward-thinking a social movement can be, it will always be at the mercy of the unconscious forces of the collective within which it operates, unless it develops a protocol for dealing with them. The dragons are always in the room. The modern group practice of “staying with the trouble” gives the right hemisphere time and attention to voice what is missed in any left-hemisphere conversation, but only if the individuals taking part have undertaken their own inquiry.
When you work with dreams, you realize no one cares about your righteous thoughts and opinions. Immersed in a kind of violent detective drama, you are always a fugitive. To withstand and not be at the mercy of a dream’s forcefields, you need to learn fast that the “language” these places speak is physical and energetic. What matters is not what you think but how you act: how you move out of stuck places, how you refuse to take an inferior position, how you stand up to the monsters advancing toward you. The act of opening your mouth and voicing your feelings out loud is what liberates you from their dominion.
In the dualist narrative in which most of our lives play out, one side always must be the victor and the other defeated. But in the world of consciousness, where nothing is black and white, the monster, the dragon, is also the seat of your energetic power and all your creativity. A treasure they famously guard with fire and claw.
Trapped in a hostile story of civilization, we are always conquering monsters when we need to be standing up to them — learning at the entrance of their caves. The ancient myths tell us about the travails of the Underworld, the fairy stories of initiations in the deep forest. All these tales bequeath “technologies” for dealing with challenging encounters on an individual basis, so that we return and hold that knowledge and experience within the wider world.
But this is not an easy task. The terror that most people feel when opening up to let in the nonhuman — the wild world, the mythos, the microbial universes within their own bodies — is the terror constructed by the left hemisphere so it can maintain control. The dragons rule absolutely in patriarchal monotheistic civilizations, where the human heart and creaturehood exist only to acquiesce to their command. Any step out of line is met with playground bullying and humiliation. You only have to see how the right-wing press and politicians howl with derision at any mention of “woke” culture, deliberately obfuscating the cruelty and extortions of empires, to know how any shift toward a recognition of interdependence is met, both within the self and outside it.
Nevertheless, there are people waking up to the historical injustices meted out on the “savages” of the “undeveloped” world. They are defending the creatures and the forests. The more-than-human world is still an ally in any move by human beings toward regeneration.
At some point, you realize that when you say human beings are not central to life, not superior over everything, it means you must radically reconfigure your position beyond words. Not by taking the human out of the picture, but by becoming the kind of human being who is kin with nature, who can speak both the language of a falling empire and the language of the wild, mythic world it is forever trying to keep in bondage. We have, like Harner over half a century ago, to stand up to the authoritarian rulers inside us, to loosen our shackles and declare emancipation.
4. Entering The Sanctuary
At the end of 2020, as countries continued to be ravaged by the pandemic, hundreds of people tuned into a broadcast by the philosopher and teacher, Bayo Akomolafe. The online course was held over three months, and its goal was to “make sanctuary together.” Sanctuary is defined in this context as a space to which people escape from the “plantation” of civilization, where we can discover the “technologies of fugitivity.” A place where we can meet the world differently and re-entangle our bodies and imaginations within a shifting biome.
Akomolafe used the story of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the Yoruba mythic trickster Èṣù, to help us navigate this territory. In doing so, he brought us face to face with our own colonial past and took us beyond the modern tale of confusion and fragmentation. In a sense, to find out why we are so lost is to understand that these times of fall are also a collective journey into shadow, and that the myths of Indigenous people — those of our own native lands and those of the countries once held under colonial rule — are the ships we need to cross what seems like an unnavigable ocean.
In “The Encounter,” the protagonist crucially loses both his watch and his way. This vulnerability and loss of control over time and space allowed him to meet the forest tribe and witness their ritual return, the burning of their material possessions, everything they have known and loved, in order to start again.
Like Takumã’s people who have had to learn the ways of the modernist world in order to survive it, we too have to learn another language in order to negotiate our hollowed-out world, to remake a place for ourselves within the living web of Earth. But this way means we, like the tribe, have to begin again, and let go of what we have held onto.
Becoming fugitive means losing the story of our place in the plantation, losing our form in a world of hierarchy where form is what counts. This we do not want to do, because we lose what we have worked hard for, we lose status and comfort. But we make gains in another way: our own agency and meaning for being here.
We gain kinship with the beasts. We gain the “kingdom” of the fairy stories and bring back treasure from the Underworld. And we advance toward the unknown, come what may, because somewhere deep inside us we know that no amount of worldly prestige or riches can ever match the experience of knowing our true worth as a creature among our fellows on this all-communicating Earth.