The Essence of Rewilding

by Benjamin Weiss

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A Step Beyond the Dogma??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Four epochs of the sciences:


poetic, superstitious;


investigative, curious;


didactic, pedantic;


methodical, mystical.

–Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen

(via Dale Pendell’s Pharmako/Dynamis)

“Native philosophy has always been broad-based. It is not based on rational thought alone but incorporates to the fullest degree all aspects of interactions of “human in and of nature,” that is, the knowledge and truth gained from interaction of body, mind, soul, and spirit with all aspects of nature.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

Water is consciousness. Water is spirit. The scientific worldview that industrial civilization is founded upon is reductionist. Inherent in this reductionism is an insistence that all aspects of the universe have a material basis, a physical source. This assertion is not wholly incorrect, but it is only a portion of the truth, and does not accurately describe the totality of the universal pattern. My studies of the worldviews of non-industrial cultures have repeatedly revealed to me that a more accurate cosmology entails a recognition of at least three fundamental media of which the world is comprised, which correspond to a view of three ways that a human experiences life.

These three modes of experience, nested in the body, heart, and brain, channel sensory stimuli into a field we call “mind” which is not the brain but an interface between our awareness and our experience. The body is comprised of, moves within, and experiences the physical universe, that which reductionists insist is all. But the heart experiences something called emotion, and the brain thinks and imagines, and where these emotions and thoughts exist in the physical universe has not been adequately explained by reductionism. Yes, modern science has found analogues between these subtleties and physical systems within the body, but that still does not explain where in the universe a thought actually exists, for when I think, I am completely unaware of synapses, neural pathways, and complex chemicals in my brain, yet I am aware of the thought itself, the words and imagery.

The experience of our body is evidence that the universe is a physical place comprised of matter. And, the experiences of our minds and hearts reveal that there are other fundamental realms of the universe. I will name two other realms, and call them consciousness and spirit, corresponding to the experiences of the thinking center, and the emotional center, and you, surely, could articulate other delineations of the realms of the universe. Where, for example, does time fit in this equation? And, yes, everything can be reduced rationally to a physical source, however, everything can also be reduced rationally to a conscious source and a spirit source. I believe that a more accurate description of the universe traces all phenomenon to multiple fundamental media, such as the three I’ve just articulated, not simply to matter/energy.

A Re-focus on Learning From

“(The) focus in permaculture on learning from indigenous tribal cultures is based on the evidence that these cultures have existed in relative balance with their environment and survived for longer than any of our more recent experiments in civilization.”

–David Holmgren, Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

“In process, reflection, and practice, Native science embodies the natural system characteristics of diversity, optimization, cooperation, self-regulation, change, creativity, connectedness, and niche.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

In permaculture, as in many other new scientific disciplines based on systems analysis (an effort to move away from reductionism) there is an anxious clinging to classical science borne of a fear of rejection by academia, the mainstream scientific community, and the general public. This clinging arises from a fear of alienation, a fear that is a deep-rooted human instinct for cooperation and interdependence within community. But the arrival of these new sciences is the result of a realization by many edge thinkers that it is in large part the old science of these decrepit institutions that has perpetuated the worldview that gave rise to industrialization and destroyed human community by severing our link to the great and wide community of life through reckless mythology and outright barbarism.

In the permaculture community, we now deal with the result of one of these reckless myths: the idea that humanity’s understanding of the universe has been an ascent; that through mechanical magnification of our own senses, modern science has articulated truths that no ancient person could have discerned. For me, this present-centric view of the scientific capabilities of non-industrial peoples has been laid to waste through my efforts to locate, in history, examples of cultures that sustained themselves for millennia without wreaking ecological chaos on their surroundings.  The idealistic nostalgia that many contemporary rejectionists of industrialism have toward pre-industrial, and especially indigenous cultures, as being pervasively sustainable is, I think, rooted in a visceral reaction against the atrocities done to the earth and these cultures by our own societies, but is actually oversimplified and wrong. Nonetheless, there are scattered examples of ideal cultures and societies that remain in both anthropological (scientific myth) and mythological literature. And the empirical, social, and spiritual technologies that these ideal societies developed are the result of sciences far DSC02064more advanced than our own, and birthed cosmologies far more accurate than the inane, barely functional, jumble of cultural nonsense articulated by the cataclysmic collision of religion and science in modern times.

The idea, even, that these “primitive” ancient cultures had science is difficult or impossible for modern people to grasp, even for those whose gut rejection of modernism is fierce. This, perhaps, is mostly a linguistic problem, for the word “science” denotes to modern people an objective, technocratic, method for discovering inherent aspects of our world previously unimaginable, and the “scientist” is a highly learned, highly accredited expert whose intellectual and technological prowess dwarfs that of the average person. Now throw away that impression and examine, for a moment, the creed of modern science itself: the scientific method. This method is simple: observe, ponder, guess, test, observe, ponder, guess, test… And the result is supposed to be the recognition of a discernible, predictable pattern by the observer out of which understanding and technology can be built. You don’t have to be a “scientist” to follow this method.  

Listen to Stephen Harrod Buhner’s interview entitled “The Citizen Scientist” on the Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann.

And perhaps the greatest mistake of the modern scientific community is the assertion that eventually  these well-understood and predictable patterns can be observed as so regular that they must never change, they must be “constants,” and therefore it is safe for the scientist to assume that they will never change. In English, we have one short word for this concept: faith. Here, another linguistic problem brought about by our culture’s inability to bestow communally shared understandings of the essential meanings of words for the sake of generating conversations that lead to shared knowledge rather than confusion and disagreement. How difficult is it for us to consider the possibility that a highly advanced scientific culture would consider the refinement of language a technological process vastly more important than the refinement of iron ore?

As permaculturists, we must undertake processes to unravel our convoluted conceptual inheritance so that we can begin to craft culture in the image of these ancients we so highly revere. The unraveling of our nonsensical worldviews and biases is done through the application of technologies that have often been labeled in our movement with the idiotic term: “woo-woo.” Examples of such technologies, which modern edge thinkers have mostly borrowed or retrofitted from non-industrial cultures, include meditation, mediation, the use of mind-altering scenarios, ritual, dreaming, story-telling, and rites of passage. It is time for us to accept these technologies as scientific, and to pay homage to the historical sustainable cultures we celebrate with actions more than words.

A Step into the Sea of Meaning

 “A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves.”

–Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

“Ritual and ceremony can be personal or communal “technologies” for accessing knowledge, and symbols are used to remember key understandings of the natural world.”

–Gregory Cajete, Native Science

Ancient sustainable cultures maintained fluid cosmologies that were artfully crafted by the addition of each individual’s dreaming of the present reality of the community of people and its relationship with the community of life. But dreams of such import and value do not typically arise in the untrained mind. Tibetan Buddhism has articulated a brilliant technology known in the west as “Dream Yoga.” Three different degrees of dreams are defined in this system. The basest, sometimes called karmic dreams, are full of unprocessed pieces of our waking life and comprise the vast majority of most people’s dreams. The second, finer kind of dreams are called in the west: “lucid dreams,” in which a person is aware of the dream-state and has some power over the dream, and hence, some capacity for active growth and discovery. The third kind of dreams, sometimes called “clear light,” are prophetic or telepathic, and often result in a great epiphany or profound personal growth.

I can validate through experience that lucid and clear light dreams are made more valuable and occur more often as the result of certain kinds of practice, and that even karmic dreams can yield otherwise inaccessible information about the waking life if the dreamer learns to interpret the dream. To generate lucid and clear light dreams, a person must practice two kinds of techniques: firstly, meditation, which is some form of honing mental acuity and stabilizing attention, and secondly, the art of navigating severely altered states of consciousness. And to make any of the three kinds of dreams valuable, a practitioner must be able to extract meaning from them, which is made vastly more DSC02357possible through the acquisition of literacy in the pantheon of cultural symbolism.

Because all aspects of culture derive initially from human observation of and interaction with the natural world, symbols have the same origin. Communication is the conveyance of information between two entities. Symbols originally conveyed information from and about nature to human minds. So, symbology, initially was the shared language of the community of life, an encoded version of the shared experience of human with non-human.

All of the ecosystems on Earth contain a mechanism for self-perpetuation, and this mechanism can be generalized as the cycling of energy to delay entropy or the maintenance of the necessary conditions for existence. All aspects of an ecosystem must contribute to this function of self-perpetuation or the ecosystem will fail, and all of the Earth’s ecosystems must contribute to this function of the global ecosystem, the biosphere, or the biosphere will fail. Culture, then, as an aspect of the human ecosystem, wielded as a tool by humanity, rather than acting as an unharnessed force that shapes our societies without our conscious participation, can be the crucial technology to engineer sustainability.  No amount of renewable energy will make our civilization sustainable if we do not have a cosmology that values the other members of the community of life as equal to ourselves.

Only through deep observation of nature, and through a symbolic conversation with the intelligence of the Earth can we build such sustainable culture. Our rational thinking mind alone does not have the capacity to distill meaning from the voice of the Earth. The “woo-woo” processes, such as Tibetan Dream Yoga, that hone a person’s ability to comprehend complex systems are technologies that blend, within the human being, the various ways of experiencing the various realms of the universe into a whole, a gestalt, that is not possible in the linear, reductionist format of modern science. A human being, as a phenomenon manifest from nature, is suited to understand and act in coordination with the myriad forces of nature, but the ability can, and must, be honed.

An Answer to Elder Brother’s Warning

“People coming unexpectedly on a great rock formation or tremendous old-growth tree sometimes experience a sudden feeling of awe… Some powerful living force –despite the years of schooled reductionism –touches a person when they have such an experience. And for  a few minutes in time, they are held in the embrace of the world’s touch, taken out of the mechanical world in which they have been submerged since their schooling began, experiencing, as our ancestors once did, the living reality of the world –connected to the… Earth, to some living and intelligent phenomenon that will not let us go until we feel its touch.”

–Stephen Harrod Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal realm

“We the Mamas know that there are special sites and they are threaded together. We’re explaining this to our brothers across the sea and showing the connection between places.”

–Mama Manuel, Aluna

“Important sites along the line on the coast are connected to esuamas in the mountain. We collect materials here on the shore to make payments in the mountains. And we bring materials from the mountain to make payments down here.”

–Mama Shibulata, Aluna

“You don’t have to give up your lives, but you must protect the rivers.”

–Mama Shibulata, Aluna

Obvious to anyone who studies permaculture or systems ecology, obvious to any environmentalist, is the truth that humanity needs to move swiftly to protect and rehabilitate the essential elements of the biosphere in order to continue to survive. And it is not difficult for most environmentally conscious people to see that a paradigm shift away from the commoditization and subordination of nature is a necessary prelude to implementing the technological infrastructure that will be needed for the rehabilitation of the Earth. This process will be massive. Yet, in any system, there is a leverage point by which a designer may, with small effort, cause vast systemic change. And there is a story, hidden far back in the depths of culture, and spoken at us by the Earth in a language most of us never learned to speak, about this leverage point, this place of immense ecological power.

The Kogi people of Columbia maintain a concept called an esuama. An esuama is a sacred site where the physical universe connects directly with the other realms of existence, and most importantly, with the dream of creation. In the films Elder Brother’s Warning and Aluna, the Kogi holy men, called the Mamas, have sent a message to humanity: rediscover and protect the esuamas or the Earth will die. In Aluna, producer and narrator Alan Ereira follows a group of Mamas as they unravel a golden thread for hundreds of kilometers linking recognized esuamas as a demonstration to those of us they call “Younger Brother.” Though, as the film progresses, Ereira is convinced that the Kogi’s understanding of ecology is highly advanced, and that their main message is about the fragile interconnectedness of nature, I believe that he missed the main point that the Kogi were trying to relay. Most modern people would miss it too, because it is so far outside the boundaries of our language and concepts that it appears to be nothing more than “superstition.” But it is not.

Through the film, the Kogi are trying to relay to us an essential aspect of being human that is gone from our culture: the ability to listen to the voice of the Earth. Not metaphorically. The ability to receive direction from the forces that create the universe. The responsibility to act on these instructions and to assist the flow consciousness and spirit from the realm of the dream throughout the physical universe, and back again. The Kogi rituals of gathering shells at esuamas on the coast and placing them at sacred sites on mountain tops, and bringing leaves and feathers from the esuamas on the mountain to esuamas on the shore are not symbolic acts. These “payments” are not tokens that represent the Kogi’s respect for ecology. These payments, and the pilgrimages to these places, are acts of recognition of the pouring forth of life-force at these sites, a recognition that is necessary for the pouring forth to continue. The Kogi, like every other indigenous group whom have spoken out against industrial culture’s destruction of sacred places, understand that for our world to exist, we must acknowledge its flowing into existence, and these esuamas represent potent points along that flow. Seeing the Earth and sacred sites in this way, by removing the biases of our modern “scientific” cosmology, and listening to Elder Brother’s words as direct truth rather than metaphor is so very difficult, but if you can do it, the cultural history of the world will suddenly make much more sense.

Years before I saw either of these films, in my efforts to utilize ancient technologies such as shamanic dreaming, vision questing, trance, and other rituals to learn to listen to the land, I began to be drawn, not through my rational mind, but rather through my intuition, to certain sites, always on high places or near bodies of water. I asked the community of life (I would use the word prayed but it will send some of you running because we do not have ???????????????a shared understanding of what that word means) why I was drawn to these places, and I was told that it is because they are places of immense power. When I asked how I might honor these places, I would be given specific instructions about small tokens from other sites that should be brought. A golden gingko leaf from a massive tree in a cemetery should be sent floating down the Conestoga River at a very specific bend where two fallen sycamore trees make an arch shape that mirrors the shape of the hill on the far bank. Rounded river rocks should be brought from gullies on a rugged island in the middle of the great Susquehanna River to the same bend in the Conestoga. Small pieces of green serpentine stone should be gathered at the Serpentine Barrens far to the south of my local watershed, and placed on the tops of stone cairns at all of the various power places near my home. And these places told me their names. Place of Walking on Air. Place of the Blue Eagle Heron. And the creeks began to tell me their names as well. Coyuniquan. Manitequan. For the rivers themselves are a reflection, in physical form, of the flow of spirit and consciousness through the universe from the dream of creation to animate all beings, and back again to the dream. Water is consciousness. Water is spirit.

To rediscover the esuamas, we must utilize technologies that cannot exist in the modern scientific worldview. This kind of task is the essence of rewilding. Listen to the elders. They tell us that no matter how many species we can identify with our field guides, no matter how many riparian buffers we build, no matter how good we are at stalking a deer, or building fire with a bow-drill, or designing agroforestry systems, if we do not listen to the Earth, we will do no good. The esuamas are the leverage points. Protection and maintenance of the esuamas, by even a few people, will begin to influence the rebuilding of communities that revere the Earth. These communities will begin to take on the hard work of rehabilitating the ecosystems. But if the dream of creation is forgotten, then there is nothing to re-create.

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