When I was a little girl I used to lose myself in the woods behind our house, making up songs and stories with my imaginary forest friends. There was a particular grove of maples where I would gather my loot at the end of a day well-spent. Stones and leaves from the dark gorge filled with clay, bulrushes from the pond where I watched tiny tadpoles grow into frogs over the summer, or wildflowers from the meadow where I’d hear snakes slithering through the tall, dry grass. Nature was for me the great mother who, in times of growing turbulence in my family, always welcomed me into belonging with her.
I returned to that beautiful woods some twenty years later only to find a crowded housing development as far as the eye could see. Gone was the treeline which marked the end of human-centricity, gone was the path that connected meadow and gorge and forest, gone too were the unseen snakes and frogs and evening songbirds. I remember being disoriented for a long moment, sure that I was in the wrong place, unable to locate myself without those important natural features.
Reflecting on our present-day relationship with nature, you could say that we are collectively and chronically disoriented. I believe a great deal of the lostness we feel as a culture is a result of how alienated from the natural world we’ve become. Not only are we disconnected from nature but anaesthetised to the enormity of that loss. Many people don’t even realise what is missing because they’ve never known it, but underneath our preoccupations with getting ahead and being accepted, there is a deep well of pain: our unbelonging to the earth herself.
Of course, we can never truly be separated from the natural world because, like every other living being, we are quite literally expressions of the earth. But in the grandness of what we as a species have created and called civilization, we have come to think of ourselves as conquerors of the wild. Forgetting, in some pandemic amnesia, the true origins that make any of it possible.
Our consciousness is so disconnected from the web of life that we have come to think of the earth’s generosities as our own resources to privatize and commodify for profit. We are so enamoured with the construction of our own endless, narrow tunnels of productivity that we have become alienated from the very body that supports and sustains us. We no longer see how it is through the sacrificed life of others that we are sheltered and nourished every day.
Now we are faced with the consequences of that one-sided ideology. Along with climate change, the pollution of our oceans and air, and the dwindling of natural resources, we are, as Joanna Macy describes, facing the sixth mass extinction on our planet. Even with the rapid decline of species and the growing number of ecological disasters that are the direct result of human greed and intervention, amazingly, there are still people who deny our responsibility in this slow apocalypse.
How did we go from being a part of this greater earthbody to feeling apart from her? And how might we practice belonging ourselves back to the ecosystem?
Our overemphasis on rationalism has sent the feeling life into atrophy, but it is the feeling capacity which connects us to empathy. This empathy is essential to our interrelatedness with each other and all living beings. It is the sense of interbeing with a group or place that makes us feel cheerfully responsible for it. We are called to serve it with our lives. Without feeling connected to other forms of life, they become expendable. And isn’t that feeling of being expendable at the root of our personal exile as well?
We’ve spoken about our focus on materialism, and how it has resulted in the loss of the mythic life. But without the wisdom of the earth, as transmitted through the stories of our elders, we have ended up in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Instead of being in daily communion with the teaching stories that come from plants and dreams, animal spirits and ancestors, our next generations are being raised on increasingly empty images.
When we are not guided by a mythic perspective, our individual and collective lives cease to have meaning. Our goals are no longer governed by a larger quest for the good of all, but by the empire’s competitive system focused on the dominance of the individual over others, and the species over nature. It isn’t difficult to see why we bully each other out of belonging, because such a mindset requires us to isolate and serve ourselves alone.
Which brings us to narcissism. I believe a huge part of our collective feeling of emptiness comes from living in this self-centred phase of our evolution as a species, where everything begins with I. I want this object, I want to succeed. I want to improve myself. Even: I want to belong. But true happiness depends upon our reciprocity with the environment in which we are embedded, and unto which we are indebted. In the same way that mitochondria work to break down nutrients and turn it into energy for our bodies, we too are but a single component of a greater biosphere that sees no hierarchy between ferns and redwoods, worms and eagles.
If we imagine an invisible mycelial network under the visible surface of things, of which we are but fruiting bodies, then we see how our lives should be in service to feeding the whole forest together. Our negligence of that reciprocity is, more than any other factor, what fosters unbelonging. It is at the root of loneliness, because without the greater intelligence of the mission coursing through our veins, making our purpose meaningful, we are but isolated bodies going through empty motions. This is why people who experience tremendous success can still feel lonely and unhappy.
The word “animism” refers to something so commonplace, so taken for granted in tribal cultures, that most don’t even have a word for it—it is the foundational belief that spirit and matter are one. That all things are imbued with a soul; not just humans and animals, but mountains, thunder, shadows, and even the wind. If we learn to listen to and engage in a dialogue with that diversity of voices, we begin to see how there is a constant dynamism taking place between waking and dreaming, seen and unseen, mundane and holy. Like a tree whose roots are hidden in the rich darkness of the soil, human beings are meant to take our cues from the inner life—not the other way around.
Following on this idea that there is a symmetry between the inner and outer worlds, we might begin to see our global crisis as a collective initiation which each of us must, reluctantly, go through alone. Initiation has several distinct phases. First we become separated from false belonging, which is a kind of awakening when the wool is pulled from our eyes. Then we must wholeheartedly grieve the losses we have sustained in exile. And if we grieve well, we come into conversation with our true values, listening for the call to act. If we rise to the challenge, we’ll bring back the medicine we’ve retrieved from our descent, and become contributing agents to global transformation. What sets us apart from all other species is that we have the free will to choose how to move across this frightening threshold. As evolutionary biologist Andrew Cohen puts it, “We must liberate the power of choice from unconsciousness.”
Instead of being swept up in the urgency to attend to the world “before it’s too late,” let the way that we walk be slow. Let us listen to the pleas of our surrounding thirsts. Let us acknowledge the forgetting that drifted us onto this terrifying precipice. Let the grief of it all make its encounter with us through our remembering. And may beauty come alive then, under our feet.
As we learn to listen to our bodies and honor the intelligence of our feelings and dreams, we are contributing to the awakening of what some call Gaia Consciousness. Our personal embodiment practice reverberates at the level of the whole. The cues we are taking from our inner nature are the cues of our greater dreambody, calling us to make choices that result in collective harmony and sustainability.
We are remembering how to be an ecosystem. As sustainable living writer Vicki Robin suggests, “Treat everyone within fifty miles like you love them.” I would add that we include in our image of “everyone” the standing people, the feathered people, the rock people, the water bodies, and so on. We must reconstitute the world through our many small contributions, collaborations, and togetherness. As we work to protect the last stands of wilderness around and within us, creating beauty from loss and heartbreak, we will meet each other: those with no extraordinary power but the devotion to do what we know we must do—and look after each other. We include each other whenever we can by doing things in pairs or circles and groups, like work parties and generosity circles, clothing swaps and protests, practicing at the power of our belonging together. Because as times get tougher, we will need a strong, reciprocal web of skills and attributes to be called upon.
When I moved to the country, I was thrust into a sudden relationship with the sun and the moon, the stars and the landscape, where the most impressive thing on the horizon was trees. In a city, the greatest things on our horizon are towers made of glass and steel, man-made testaments to our dominance and virility. Only taller than trees are mountains. And only wider than mountains is the sky, and pastures spread out as far as the eye can see. It alters the psyche entirely to be in a place where nature prevails in that it relativizes our importance in the larger family of things.
Nobody knows if humans will survive this crossing, if we’ll leave anything habitable behind for future generations, but I believe our global catastrophe is a clarion call to our highest abilities. Whether we’ll be successful or not, we must give everything we have to doing what we believe is right. We are but disappearing comets who must summon the grace to accept our fate while working to leave an elegant and contributive streak behind us as we go.
Excerpted from Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home by Toko-pa Turner (belongingbook.com).
 Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012). Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library.
 Keogh, M. J. (2010). Hope beneath our feet: Restoring our place in the natural world: An anthology. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
 Robin, V. (2010). Letter from the Future. In Keogh, M. (Ed.). Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring our place in the natural world: An anthology. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Aerial view of forest, river and marsh, important bald eagle habitat near Aberdeen Proving Ground by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region. (CC PDM 1.0)