How a shift in narrative can empower us to heal in times of chaos and uncertainty

As the world is currently many weeks deep into the coronavirus pandemic, there is one big question on the minds of many: what awaits us after this period of confinement and social isolation? What will the “post-corona” world look like? Are we going to let ourselves fall back into the unrealistic and unsustainable ideals of the capitalist state, or are we going to take action into creating something different and much more sustainable for all? 

I can’t help but perceive these days, weeks, and soon to be months of social distancing as a liminal period of cultural limbo. The anthropologist Victor Turner describes the “liminal phase” as the “between” phase when an individual or group passes from one state to the next. It represents a threshold that one can’t avoid passing through or over as a shift occurs. In indigenous cultures worldwide, and even within some contexts in modern western cultures, we have rites of passage that enable us to transition through the liminal phase. Examples include the more extreme rites of passage that boys in some Papua New Guinea communities go through in order to become men, all the way through to how we celebrate birthdays, weddings, or the shift from one season to another. As I observe and analyse the big picture of the current crisis from this point of view, I wonder what rituals we will put into place that will enable us to transition to the next phase. However, rituals only carry meaning when there is a strong cultural and social narrative in place. So what is our current narrative, and how will this either hinder or help us to gracefully grow into the next phase of our existence on this planet? 

How do you imagine your life after this pandemic? Do you want to live as you have been living up until now, going back to “normal”? (this eye opening UK survey suggests otherwise!) Or do you want to make some fundamental changes in order to live in a more balanced and sustainable way? What is this period of liminality teaching you about yourself, your values? 

More importantly, on a bigger scale, what story are we going to tell and imagine as we come out of this liminal phase? 

Understanding our past, to re-imagine our future

If we are to envision an alternate future paradigm that is to take us away from the grasp of the current flawed system (yes, I think it’s safe for me to say it is flawed), it is essential that we first understand where we have come from and why the world is going through these moments of crisis. Why isn’t the system working and how has it led us to this current mess? This is one of the questions at the heart of the rewilding perspective and philosophy, and some of the answers lie much further back in history than most of us usually take our minds to. 

With a different perspective, we can look as far back as the Agricultural Revolution (10-15,000 years ago) in order to understand the massive cultural transition that occured over many millennia as we went from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities to a sedentary, agrarian, state-run society. With monocrop agriculture came patriarchy, hierarchy, gender inequality, the rise of the individual and one of the biggest issues we face: nature-divorcement (for more on this refer to Arthur Haines). This transition has become more extreme with time, and has shaped the world we currently live in. Most of us no longer know how to live in a community setting close to, and in interaction with, our local natural ecosystems. Fast-forward some more and our whole education and perception of this Earth we live on no longer takes into account a deep understanding of the natural world we live in, or the fundamental understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. 

To illustrate this, I will draw upon a fascinating and eye-opening essay recently published by Martin Witiecki, Searching for the Anti-Virus | Covid-19 as Quantum Phenomenon, in which he draws upon insights ranging from indigenous knowledge to quantum physics in order to shed light on the manifestation of the current phenomenon and how we might imagine and understand possible alternate futures. He refers to the understanding and definition of “wetiko”, an indigenous term by the Algonquin (original natives of southern Quebec and eastern Ontario in Canada) to shed light on the sickness of the “white man”: 

The Algonquin and other Indigenous First Nations identified the mental illness of the white man, upon his arrival to their native homelands in the 15th and 16th centuries, as “Wetiko,” literally translating as cannibalism: “the consuming of another’s life for [one’s] own private purpose or profit.” Forbes concludes by saying, “This disease is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man.”

Martin then goes on to explain: 

After 5000 years of patriarchy, 500 years of capitalism and 50 years of neoliberalism, Wetiko has come to define nearly every area of our (Western) world and lives

Two stories / Two imagined outcomes

Near the end of his essay, Martin elegantly imagines two possible scenarios, Near the end of his essay, Martin elegantly imagines two possible scenarios, which I see as two different “stories” that could be played out. On one hand he lays out the scenario of “surveillance capitalism” in which the world’s governments enter an era of extreme control of the people in the name of health and safety. A world where decisions based on fear dominate and the rights and sovereignty of the individual, larger communities, as well as the health of the environment are massively compromised. It is important that we understand this possible scenario, but I believe it is equally important we don’t focus  on this story too much as this will not do us any good in the long run. For that reason I will not go much further into that here, so please refer to his essay for more, yet I’m sure you can imagine and see the kind of world I am talking about here. . 

The second scenario is one I am much more excited to explore and imagine in its different and diverse manifestations, as on many levels it is beautifully in line with the imaginings and ideals of human rewilding. It is a story of ‘ecological and social emancipation’ where:

 …The emergency initiatives of neighborhood aid now turn into more long-term initiatives of social, economic and ecological re-organization. People start collective gardens and food cooperatives to supply themselves with local organic crops and open solar energy task forces to decentralize and democratize their energy supply. More and more people leave the cities to found communities in the countryside, where they engage in restoring ecosystems and radical social experimentation for a more trust-based and loving way of living…”

Martin Witiecki, Searching for the Anti-Virus | Covid-19 as Quantum Phenomenon

This is, I believe, is a story that can only benefit us to start to imagine and put our collective quantum energy into. 

Rewilding reflections

There are three main independent yet intertwined aspects that I have identified within the rewilding philosophy that help me when I try to make sense of all of this: nature, community and the individual. When I look at each of these, I ask myself: what can I do as an individual that will realign me with my rewilded self? What can we do as a community to grow trust amongst one another and learn how to work together more harmoniously? How can we reconnect with nature and the Earth that we have evolved out of, yet distanced ourselves from? 

These questions are much too big to delve into here, and this is not my goal for this article. What I wish to do is to ignite a curiosity about a different way of thinking based on a rewilded ‘filter’ or ‘lens’. In my attempt to answer these questions I imagine myself as a hunter-gatherer, integrated into the flow of a tribe that is immersed in its natural surroundings and doesn’t require “wetiko” in order to survive. I then reinterpret this within the modern context and see a world where our education and that of our children is based around a deep understanding of the natural world, indigenous and ancestral knowledge, and the incredible science we now have backing this up bit by bit. A world where each and every one of us has a local community to connect with that is there to support each individual in finding their path as well as helping them work towards personal growth, creativity, and releasing and healing from the traumas of a society and system based on capitalistic ideals. A world where we are not afraid of remembering how to use our strong primal and animal bodies, and where our physical and mental health is allowed to thrive. I could go on but I will let you imagine the rest yourself. 

This ideal already exists on many levels and in many places. There are many of us out there already living out these remembered values and seeing our human existence and natural world in a new (yet fundamentally old!) light. From the development of ecovillages, to sustainable and local initiatives, building earthships for homes, to the sharing of spiritual practices, movement practices, permaculture design, and community initiatives that grow trust and dissipate fear. Yet we push this narrative further if we are to bring about larger societal, economic and political change. I do not have all the answers here, myself, but I believe that this time in isolation is an incredible time to re-evaluate our values individually to then put into motion our solutions step by step, as a community. 

The story of urban exodus: One possible solution?

Something that has excited and fascinated me for a long time is the phenomenon of urban exodus that I have observed in places I have travelled around the world. During the industrial era the opposite happened, where on a mass scale people moved from the countryside into the cities in the hope of work and success. It is something that is still happening of course as it has become much harder to survive outside of cities. However, as people have become conscious of the imbalances of an urban lifestyle, many have also decided to build homes back in more natural, quiet, and less polluted surroundings. There has been a push by individuals to build communities and become more autonomous by growing their own fruit & veg, and even by becoming fully off-grid. I’ve seen and heard about this in countries all around the world. 

From my twin sister living out this dream in the depths of the Southern Hemisphere in Tasmania, to the community I am currently studying and filming for my Masters in La Drome in the South of France, people are putting their needs into action and creating real solutions steering away from a dependence on the wider system that has been imposed upon them. 

Something that has been highlighted for me during this pandemic has been the fact that all these people who have decided to step away from a dependence on the larger system as much as possible are the ones that by far are in the best situation during these times of crisis. For them, very little has changed in their day-to-day lives. Many are already socially ‘distancing’ themselves as they don’t live in urban areas among a highly dense population that they need to ‘avoid’ in order to stay safe. As they live in a community they are not  alone and have people to talk to and share their worries with face to face (albeit for most, still respecting rules of distancing). As for the most part they are autonomous in food (and even energy), there has been no need to panic buy at the supermarkets. They have created their own security, independent of the larger system.

To be completely honest with you, as my current living situation involves living out this crisis in a city, my first thought and instinct was to flee the city and go and stay with anyone that I knew who lived in the countryside closer to community and nature. It just makes so much more sense. I am aware that I am not the only one that had that natural survival instinct kick in, and many people did indeed go and confine themselves in the countryside and closer to nature.

Call for action: Time to tell a different story

So, what has confinement/isolation during these times meant for you? With all this time given to you to reassess your values and lifestyle, do you feel content and happy with your situation, or have you felt the need to change something? What do you really want? Have you felt the desperate need to also start growing your own vegetables, even if humbly from the confinement of your city apartment?

This is a call for action from me to you. Now is the time to use your imagination and rewrite your/our story. You don’t have to take massive steps to do this. All it takes at first is a shift in perspective. But collectively, if we understand our evolutionary roots better, and why things are how they are today, I believe it will give us strength and courage to at least give us a chance to move in the right direction instead of repeating the same old patterns. It seems there is no better time than now! Let’s shift our narrative away from fear and use this shift to empower us and heal in times of chaos and uncertainty.

Here is a quote from a recent article by Joshua Sterlin that shares a similar vision: 

We must instead endeavour to use this moment, and our best civilizational inheritances, in the mitigation of our worst ones, and at the service of just and sustainable cultures. By doing so might we live not in old, but in utterly new ways.

Quote from an article by Joshua Sterlin, Earth Day: The roots of our current environmental crisis go back 12,000 years

And for some more inspiration, Tamera (a community based Peach Research & Education Center located in Portugal) has laid out some more inspiring suggestions on how the pandemic can help us change the system.

We believe this includes building communities that dissolve mistrust and historical trauma among themselves and become capable of trust, truth, and autonomous thinking; regions that produce their own food and energy on the basis of cooperation with nature; a deep understanding of the sacred matrix and the Earth as a living being; healing love and reconciliation of the sexes; and cooperation with universal powers – the indefinable mystery to which we all belong.


Endless possibilities

The world we once knew has changed dramatically in the last few months, showing us the extent of possible change and the speed at which this can happen. Realistically, not everyone will move to the countryside, grow their own food and start a community, but there are some trends that we might see occur in the not so distant future and which are in line with rewilding. I believe a massive shift to local ways of producing, comsuming, working, and living are likely happen, and inevitably alread have due to the pandemic. The creation of community gardens in urban settings could be one seemingly small yet effective solution. As many of us face a difficult economic crisis, will people come together and create initiatives bringing together local communities, as well as creating local currencies, or even alternative ways of exchanging goods and knowledge that will no longer depend on the money we are so used to? We shall see. The possibilities are endless.

At this point it is hard to say, yet as mentioned throughout this article, I believe that by coming together and creating a new story full of diverse initiatives and positive solutions that bring us back to the land, nature, community, and ourselves, we might just stand a chance. 

Photographic content

Copyright – by © Camilla Howe Photography

Bibliographic content

Arthur Haines, A New Path: To transcend the great forgetting, through incorporating ancestral practices into contemporary living, V.F. Thomas Co., 2017

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Transaction Publishers, 1995

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