Re-wilding and Re-membering Ancestral Ecologies

by russell sparks, thought partnered and collaboratively edited by lara birchler & will scott

On the new moon in October 2019, I arrived in indigenous Purhepecha lands in Michoacan, Mexico, on the edge of Lake Patzcuaro.  Twice in the nights leading up to travel, dreams of traditional bowhunting had visited me.  Soon on arrival, a Purhepecha man and I discovered we were both hunters, with a shared kinship for the deer people in our respective home lands.  ‘Pish piri’ he called me, generously, every time we met: friend.  The sweet jolt of shared connection to ancient human practices, across culture and experience, held some essence of why I had made the journey.

Ten years ago, I began co-organizing the Buckeye Ancestral Skills Gathering on the west coast of Turtle Island in California.  My early youth in the state of Montana filled me with a love and reverence for wild rivers, fishing and hunting.  Although I spent my teens and early 20’s in more urban and activist modes, I eventually came back around to these ancient modes but wanted to engage with them in more sacred, traditional ways than I had known how.  When I followed the path of learning how to bowhunt and use all the parts of deer, it led me to the ancestral skills community, and ultimately to organizing a week-long event to gather students and teachers together, camping outdoors. 

Buckeye invites teachers and students of traditional handcrafts and awarenesses, such as basket weaving, wildtending, tracking, bird language, friction fire, wildcrafting, hunting, pottery, animal processing, buckskin, and more.  We do this, among a family of reasons, to invigorate our land-based consciousness, rekindle a handmade life, and offer practical ways to deindustrialize in the anthropocene.  

I arrived in Purhepecha territory on behalf of Buckeye and a cousin organization, Weaving Earth Center for Relational Education. Both exist in an ecology of place and nature-based organizations. As I began to land in Mexico, I felt an odd tension: I had been forgetful of a level of sociopolitical & personal awareness, coming from my privileged place in the global north and, at the same time, I was reminded there is something unique in our ecologically-based movement back home that is indeed radical: rooted, sourcing from origins, and inhabiting wild edges. How to be with this tension is one of the questions I carried through my time in Mexico, and beyond it.

The “movement” I speak of extends beyond the hub of efforts happening with outdoor and experiential education in California to the fertile edges of new and ancient paradigms of learning. Within this ecology of learning environments are practitioners of traditional ecological knowledge, relational education, rewilding, queer futurism, deep nature connection, rites of passage, survival/thrival schools & ancestral skills, many of whom are working at the intersections of social and environmental justice. 

AN ECOSYSTEM OF PEDAGOGIES

Will Scott, one of the founders of Weaving Earth, spoke to some of what he perceives to be at play, and how it may contribute to broader inquiries into the future of education in these times:

“There is a fundamental remembering and re-orienting towards nature that is taking place for many people. The real atrocities and false promises offered by endless capitalistic growth are being grappled with by widening demographics. The socialization of humans as separate from nature is eroding against the strong current of longing for connection and belonging felt by so many.  When people who forgot begin to remember that we are part of this, we then have to ask: how did we get so far away from it, and at what cost? As educators in these times we must turn towards natural systems both to help re-member what has been oppressed, repressed, and forgotten, as well as to orient our next steps within a more coherent story than the one so many of us were taught by westernized society. This making-whole is where the grit and grace needed for our times gets honed.”

Weaving Earth offers an adult immersion program creating educational experiences aimed at remembering and strengthening relationships to self, community and the planet. I graduated from three years in the program, changed by the wisdom of both time spent in deep nature connection and in community circles, practicing various forms of holistic leadership. Weaving Earth is dedicated to the “un-silo-ing” of social and environmental justice, remembering that the elements needing attention in our world are all bound to one another. This “Relational Education” offers a multiplicity of practices aimed ultimately at the cultivation of deep skills of awareness and pattern recognition: interpreting the language of the birds, tracking animals, tracking wind, tracking social positioning, tracking power, tracking water, and the internal patterns left by legacies of resilience and harm.  All of it is balanced with council, play, ritual, song and the re-membering that comes from time in nature and community.  

At the School of Lost Borders, guides have been midwifing nature-based rites of passage for over 40 years.  The elegance of their work is to hand the ancient art of initiation over to its oldest teacher: the land itself. They say: “Solitude and silence in wild nature, the commitment to community, honoring of personal intent, and the acknowledgment and responsibility to bring forth one’s gifts, are the foundation of our ceremonies and teachings.” The vitality of these four principles cannot be understated, and invites us to move into authentic adulthood, elderhood, and relationship to death.

Complementary to evolving one’s own personal/collective mythos in the wilderness is the particular rite of passage of time spent living with only the support of mother nature, as humans have done for the majority of our time on the planet. Ancestral skills gatherings descended from the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, a forerunner of generations of teachers and schools. One of their core philosophies is ‘know more, carry less.’ The transformative experience of spending days and weeks cooperating to find water, shelter, and food can serve as a reconnection to a basic human consciousness and humility. Survival education, in form and resulting cultural function, can also encourage us to thrive together with a lighter footprint. In earth systems, natural rhythms and cycles foster awareness of sustainable limits: scarcity ~ and scarcity’s beautiful offspring, gratitude.  

Rewilding as a movement and framework holistically expands various nature-based educations. It invites us to source at our roots, before the expansion of civilizations, to question large scale agrarian growth, and to aim to create ‘autonomous, place-based, regenerative subsistence cultures’ as Peter Bauer and the team at Rewild Portland put it. Peter has been a catalyst of the theory and practice for years, since before the current wave of popularity and commodification. Rewilding’s broad regenerative lens questions the essential health of domesticity for any species, individually and collectively, and seeks the many layers where humans can reengage with natural cycles. At its best, it encourages a resilient range of localized possibilities for collaborative futures, and describes a diverse family of movements.  

 

SOME DEEPER TENSIONS

A deep sense of belonging with the natural world, a ‘sacred bond’ as Robin Wall Kimmerer calls it, is rooted in millenia of indigenous tribes and cultures.  Nature-based movements, reconnecting with this inheritance, have at times sidelined the effects of the long trauma of imperialism & colonization.  Recent years have seen a renewed wave of reckoning in the United States with the legacies of a country founded on genocide and slavery, and an engagement with the social and environmental justice work of decolonizing movements from within.  

Especially relevant in communities that are reconnecting to indigenous lifeways is the ongoing appropriation of Native communities’ culture and resources.  What underpins nature-based education is the living legacy of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, a complex accumulation of cultural place-based wisdom refined and cared for over countless inter-generations.  As we listen, research, experiment, and rediscover, a deep question for many organizations doing this work is how to attune to the nuances between the well-worn habits of cultural appropriation and healthy cross-cultural exchanges.  This includes respecting the wishes of local indigenous people, asking permission to tend and harvest, and sharing the lineages and stories of where skills and crafts are learned ~ in many ways, engaging with the memories and healing of places and legacies.  Unlearning the habits and frameworks of colonization is itself an expression of a healthy ecological system at work, as it helps transform relationships from extractive to reciprocal to regenerative.

On the leading growth edge of ecologically-based education organizations is Queer Nature, run by Pinar Ates Sinopolous-Lloyd and So Sinopolous-Lloyd.  Queer Nature “actively dreams into decolonially-informed queer ‘ancestral futurism’ through mentorship in place-based skills with awareness of post-industrial/globalized/ecocidal contexts. Place-based skills and recognition of colonial and indigenous histories of land emphasizes deep listening and relationship building with living and non-living earth systems.”

The little time that I have been around So and Pinar’s teaching, I can feel a fundamental expansion and deepening of the way that I have known these skills to be shared. When we made fire by friction, I felt an embodiment of the (re)animation of complex living ecologies through awareness and attention.  In liminal spaces and transition zones, life is especially dynamic, creative, diverse, and full of possibility; the mycelial health of the whole is informed by a focus on co-creating spaces of belonging for LGBTQ2+ community.

Lara Birchler, graduate of the 3 year Weaving Earth program, says, 

“I am an able-bodied, white, cis-gender person [deeply trained in individualism]; to me, one of the many offerings Queer Nature brings is the dignified embodied practice of humility and awareness around what it actually takes for all people to access the time, safe-enoughness, and spaces to practice ancestral skills, stealthcraft, tracking, bird-language etc.  I am learning from Queer Nature folx that such pathways to remembering, belonging & enchantment with the more-than-human world, are, actually, everywhere; and we can build community to protect, enrich, and support the birthright of all beings to belong in this wild magic.”

 

RE-INTEGRATING OUR PRACTICES WITH THE INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM?

As these movements seek source material from the healthy, intact aspects of cultures across time, and directly from the earth, a common question among nature educators is how to best incorporate teachings, to bring lessons back from edges so they become life practices and create systemic shifts. Though these pedagogies have a diversity of incorporation practices, consistent tensions still surface in place-and nature-based education from the lack of a more holistic context, within the particular isolations of western civilization. 

It is the human design to live together in tribes, in communities, to collectivize our intelligences; a natural inclination can arise to be ‘villages running programs’, rather than ‘programs running villages.’  This is especially true when our teaching seeks to integrate healthy essences of our ancestries, which were fostered in collective interrelationship. Whether we lean into the co-creation of ecovillages or other creative ways to share deep connection to specific geographies, it feels essential to increase the resilience of our networks in these times so that organizations do not become isolated, ‘siloed’, or over-specialized.  

As we dream into new stories and ways of being, some questions about climate and justice are alive for me: 

  • What winds will best carry these seeds and spores of place-and nature-based awarenesses as broadly as possible, like crafty mycelium, widely across the globe and deeper into our own practices, in the age of climate change and multinational corporations? 
  • What will best inspire and support nature-and-place-based organizations to authentically ally with indigenous resistance, sovereignty, and revitalization?  
  • What might lead to more collaboration between global north organizations in the heart of the domination paradigm to think and act in rooted solidarity with the global south?  

During my last days in Mexico, when we began to build the Animeecha Kejsitakwa / Day of the Dead altar together, inspiration filled me where I had felt shyness.  In our creativity and ritual, weaving marigolds through tall palms, the reasons I had come began to unfold.  We planted our ancestors on the altar together, a multiplicity of roots intertwining.  As the candles flickered into the night, and I watched my grandparents dance next to a friend’s Mexican uncle, some special channel opened and mysterious and natural tears flowed from me into the earth.  I felt a palpable sense of healing; it wasn’t just me with ~pish piri~ here, it was my beloved dead ancestors as well. 

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