“For everyone who has a sense of something missing, who wishes to make a difference in the world, nature has much to offer to all who will listen.”Catriona MacGregor, author and activist
Why would anyone forsake the familiar and the comfortable to venture alone into wilderness and deliberately choose to be between a rock and a hard place?
What, I’ve been asked, would possess people of seemingly sound mind to voluntarily go without food or formal shelter, to do so in the scorching heat of summer and even to pay for this dubious privilege?
I notice the cynicism of some who are addicted to their comforts or frightened by the idea of change. To quote one: “To cry out for a vision, for heaven’s sake. Come on, get a grip on yourself!”
Is it a kind of divine madness that drives a handful of us to abandon everything we’ve striven for, even if only for a few hours or days, leaving behind a structured world of comfy beds, hot showers, flush toilets and well-stocked refrigerators? To explore seemingly harsh landscapes inhabited by snakes, scorpions, spiders and all manner of things that creep, crawl, slither and fly? Not to mention sting and bite.
Is there not a better place to ask age-old questions that won’t go away. Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Am I part of a divine plan? Why is Spaceship Earth in such a mess? What’s mine to do? And, more recently, what are the possible gifts of a global pandemic.
It is against this backdrop that the vision quest, or wilderness fast, calls modern-day humans to walk in the footsteps of the ancestors. To leave the trappings of supposedly civilised life behind. To become immersed in the womb of wild nature and seek new ways of being in the world. It’s a death and rebirth. And for a while it’s goodbye to technology.
What? You want me to leave my smartphone behind? You gotta be kidding!
It’s an opportunity to discover that alone can become ‘all-one’ when we reconnect with the natural world and experience the interconnectedness of all life. It’s a place of magic and mystery. Time slows down, life is simple and, if we’re lucky, we meet our true selves.
Almost always I’ve felt lovingly held and protected in wilderness – and many report that, especially when they enter the realm of wildness consciously. Author and poet JR Tolkien famously observed that not all those who wander are lost.
Solo wanderings into the wild heart of our inner and outer landscapes often provide profound insights and visions. And the concept of time apart from the everyday isn’t exactly new. Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree, Jesus found his calling after 40 days in the wilderness, Muhammed in a cave outside Mecca and Moses on Mount Sinai.
I’ve quested many times, usually participating in a structured 11-day programme that includes four days and nights solo without food or formal shelter. And mostly it has been two remarkable humans – Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris – who’ve been my guides.
I’m mildly embarrassed to admit that when we first met I inwardly wondered what I could learn from two overweight 50-something women? Ouch! I was that mired in my patriarchal prejudices!
What I did learn was enormous and the beginnings of a fabulous friendship. And I continue to learn from these two loving and inspiring women.
One of the gifts has been to practise devout listening. To be still and really to listen. To listen to the land, the creatures, others, to the silence. And to inner prompts – those whispers of inner knowing.
I write this just hours after gratefully participating in a three-day wilderness vigil guided by ecotherapist, herbalist and rites of passage guide Jess Tyrrell and her friend Wiebke Nedel, a seasoned leadership coach and vision fast guide.
I headed out into the loving embrace of a private nature reserve in the magnificent Scarborough area of the Cape Peninsula and soon found a rocky outcrop as a temporary home. The wind was howling, the sun blazing and my makeshift abode provided both shade and wind protection.
Soon I was enveloped in a deep peace, feeling unattached to outcomes. I’ve noticed that each successive wilderness immersion has nudged me further along my life path and revealed fresh clues to my soul calling. This time was no different.
And the beauty of my environment and open-hearted fellow questers were breathtaking and a powerful support.
I search for words to explain the process and feel that author and veteran guide Bill Plotkin does it so eloquently in his book Soulcraft: “The soul is like an acorn. Just as the acorn gives instructions to the oak about how to grow and what to become, the human soul carries an image or vision that shows us how to grow, what gift we carry for others, the nature of our true life.”
He argues that at least once in our lives we are likely to experience emptiness and a sense that something important is missing. That our lives don’t make sense, having somehow disconnected from our soul purpose. It can be terrifying and disorientating.
A wilderness quest is a way to meet and better understand our true selves.
“There’s so much more to who you are than you know right now. You are indeed something mysterious and someone magnificent,” he writes. “You hold within you – secreted for safekeeping within your heart – a great gift for this world. Although you might sometimes feel like a cog in a huge machine, and that you don’t really matter in the great scheme of things, the truth is that you are fully eligible for a meaningful life, a mystical life, a life of the greatest fulfilment and service.”
Sitting on my rock in the wilderness, I feel that. In place of an emptiness I become aware of gradually being filled with something new and as yet undefined. Nature is working her healing and regenerative magic.