At the December American Sustainable Business Network conference, I led a workshop called Transformative Experiences in Nature: A Path to a Livable Planet. My goal was to bring a deeper awareness of nature into the thinking and planning of the successful, socially-oriented business leaders in attendance. The method was the sharing of transformative stories with nature—a key ingredient for personal and societal change. Storytelling has been a means of communicating wisdom since ancient times. It reaches the deepest levels of our human psyche, where real learning and change occurs.
The focus of this approach is threefold: 1) help us reconnect to forgotten, repressed, or minimized experiences that changed how we saw our place in nature and strengthened our connection to other living beings; 2) support us in the sharing of these stories, thereby bringing the truth inherent in them more into conscious awareness; and 3) encourage living our lives in accordance with these experiences. This is what Earthfire calls Reconnection Ecology®, a framework in which we make ecological decisions based on a visceral sense of our interconnectedness, integrated with our scientific understandings. Deep connection opens channels through which information, strength, and healing flows, leading to practical solutions for our environmental crises—practical in the sense that they work for the whole of life on our planet.
We began with a potent example of how a transformative experience leads to a more livable planet. In the film My Octopus Teacher, author Craig Foster’s incredible one-on-one connection with an octopus became the impetus behind the creation of the international Sea Change Project, spearheading a new awareness of the critical role kelp forests play in our ocean ecology.
That was a scientific outcome of an intimate connection with another life form. But during his time in the kelp forest, he also began to feel the reality of the “forest mind,” something far larger and more complex than any individual in the system. He writes, “Countless generations are living together, growing, forming one great interwoven intelligence: a giant ecological mind.” Such vivid, intuitive understandings lead to action that is effective, precisely because it is guided by a connection to how life systems actually work.
This type of profound experience can be found in interactions with any life form, in any setting. It does not have to be dramatic to be powerful. Each of us has access to this—it is part of our heritage.
And there is yet another wonderful thing that occurs during transformative experiences in nature: the enduring richness and sense of stability it adds to our own human lives as we gain awareness of and live within an interconnected world of magical wonder.
Research, statistics, heartfelt pleas, and disaster videos haven’t led to a meaningful change of priorities among most political and corporate entities, which maintain business as usual. What would happen if we placed our trust in individual change by sharing seemingly fantastical personal stories that initiate life-changing epiphanies about our place in the world? Many of us have a memory tucked away about an experience in nature that defies belief; a story that resists any traditional explanation, so we are hesitant to share openly. We need to support one another in telling our stories and being open to deeper conversations about them.
The ASBN workshop was also oriented to those of us who may not have had these types of experiences but were intrigued by the idea. We hoped that through such sharing, others would awaken to the possibility and thus be moved to seek out a closer relationship with nature.
The depth, power, and beauty of the stories shared in the workshop were mind-bending. There were stories of connection to trees, crows, condors, pigs, mushrooms, and to forces of nature in general. Some of them bring into question our cultural concepts of reality to such a degree that to tell them without context would not do them justice. Those are to be told in person, in a setting where we feel safe to share, able to suspend our usual belief systems, and open to multi-layered concepts of how the world works.
We begin our exploration of transformational experiences with Janie Hoffman’s story:
“I grew up in a family and neighborhood where there was a lot of violence. You never knew when it was coming and my nervous system was often shot and working overtime as a kid. I was frequently in fight, flight, or freeze, and I quickly learned the survival skills of fawning and appeasement. A block away from my house was this amazing magnolia tree that my 4-year-old self could climb into. The bark was so smooth and the branches cradled me perfectly. It was the most nurturing feeling. I found very early on that I could escape into this magnolia tree, although it wasn’t really an escape as I actually felt like I was coming home. The magnolia tree was my Beloved, and I knew while in her embrace that I was the Beloved, too. It was in this tree that deep contemplative prayer came into my life.
“I found myself in that beautiful magnolia countless times until I was 16 and moved to California for college. When I go back to Illinois, I drive to see her. Most of her branches are gone now, but there are still a few little stumps. This wise magnolia tree was my most beloved friend, and she brought me home to my true nature. It was the beginning of a love affair with the Beloved, Mother Nature, the Divine—call it what you will. To me, it is this great and grand holiness we are all a part of.”
In a follow-up conversation, tracing the arc of her life, Janie said, “Until this moment, it never dawned on me that the relationship I had with this beautiful, magnificent magnolia tree helped me tune into other plants. I live in a very small house and I have over 35 houseplants inside. A friend asked if I used moisture sensors to water them. That has never occurred to me. I put my hands over a plant and it tells me when it is thirsty or when it’s had too much water. You can just feel that if you’re open to feeling it.”
Janie’s tree and her healing experience took place in an urban setting in the middle of a declining midwestern city. The tree was located on a very busy street—the same main thoroughfare where the projects were located, less than a half mile down the road. She was growing between a gas station and concrete on one side, and an alley, set back from the street a bit. A vast variety of wildflowers grew below her. She had created this little ecosystem that was quite remarkable. In her story, the tree is feminine, a “mother” tree supporting life in the midst of desolation.
Janie went on to found a highly successful plant-based business which continues to thrive.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll offer stories from workshop attendees and people around the world. As we gather these stories, we’ll extend an open invitation to join online salons and group conversations (first to be hosted on March 8th, stay tuned) to delve more deeply into our wild, entangled existence with our Earth. When we can trust the authenticity of our transformational stories, we are more able to support effective, heart-based action on behalf of all global ecosystems. It’s in the sharing that these stories begin to exert their power.