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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 5 December 2020
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Rewilding: ‘This shutdown gives us a chance to return to seeing the world as if for the first time’

Lucy O’Hagan of the Phoenix Forest School believes this is a chance for us to reengage with nature.

Lucy O’Hagan

THESE DAYS, LIKE many others around the world, I am experiencing the sense of stillness that has swept over my life. I’m spending lots of time with trees, finding support from their sturdy trunks and their lessons of connectivity. And in being still, I’m noticing that nothing else in nature is still at this time. 

The birds are busy singing in a new mate, firmly holding territory and flying around with beaks of nest materials. The new cubs of badgers and foxes are beginning to emerge from their winter homes. Eyes fresh to a new world. Bees are starting to find their way into my home again and the swallow’s chirps, whines and gurgles return to our skies. No, nothing is still in spring. 

The other morning, I set out in a new direction from my door to see what lay in the 2km radius. I came upon a place of pure magic, where animal trails meandered through the whitewash of blooming wood anemones and the bluebells started to sound their arrival.

Lying quietly in this place-apart, I was struck by how such little pockets of magic can go un-noticed by human eyes for so long, fading into the green wallpaper as our eyes search for what lies beyond the horizon. 

shutterstock_1413267107 Suillus collinitus pine bolete, mycorrhizal with Aleppo pine Pinus halepensis, growing from floor of an Aleppo pine Pinus halepensis wood. Malta Source: Shutterstock/Wirestock Images

‘Silver Branch perception’

The work of Irish eco-poet and philosopher, John Moriarty, greatly influences my own experiences of connection to place here on the land of Éiru. Moriarty adopted the phrase ‘Silver Branch perception’ from the ancient Irish story of Bran mac Feabhail. This he describes as ‘a return to seeing the world as if for the first time’; approaching nature with child-like curiosity and playfulness. It seems that, given the proper dedication, this is something that each of us could graduate into at this time. 

Seeing the world with old eyes, those of our ancestors takes a little bit of practice but essentially it’s hard-wired into our DNA. You don’t need to know what every plant is, just hold an openness to learn more (and common sense not to eat something you’re not 100% sure about), a willingness to be flexible and the courage to be wrong sometimes.

Start by asking yourself the following:

  • Do you know what wild animals live near you?
  • Would you recognise their tracks or signs?
  • What plants grow closest to your door?
  • Where is the nearest river to you and how did it come to be?
  • Where does your water come from?
  • What birds are returning to your surroundings and where have they been up until now?
  • Have you heard the cuckoo call in the Spring yet? 

From the underground, the place of mycorrhizal networks, worms and micro-organisms, moving up through the stems of the plants growing around you, follow the ethnobotanical threads to our ancestor’s needs for food, medicine, textiles, dyes, crafts – up through the fibres of trees, the lungs of the Earth, harbingers of spiritual wisdom, to the sky, Venus glowing brightly above us right now and the stories in the stars.

There are endless threads to pull at and untangle. The very idea that so many of us shared in collective awe of the recent full super moon and share stories of wild animals reclaiming the streets tells me that we are not yet bored of the mystical.

garda fox A fox spotted at Dublin's Ha'penny bridge on 6 April. Source: Twitter/An Garda Síochána

What’s special for me in learning about nature in this slow, deep way, is a feeling of returning to the source. Many indigenous cultures around the world look to the natural world as a teacher. We have, after all, only been here for the blink of an eye so it seems sage to ask an elder (by a billion or so years) for some guidance. 

Childlike wonder

In the summer of 2015, I set foot in the Furry Glen area of the Phoenix Park and set up camp for a Forest School to grow there beneath the branches of a twisted Hawthorn. Now, five years on, a wonderful team of Forest School practitioners and volunteers welcome children from as young as four to join us in a circle around that very same Hawthorn; the guardian tree of Phoenix Forest School.
Some of the children, who began with us five years ago, are still in attendance at our weekly after-school sessions. They’re ready to take over and become Forest School leaders themselves. We’re only too happy to step back and support them to do that!
Forest School continues to blossom across the island of Ireland and provides children with a place to come and spend time connecting to their own soul’s gift through regular, ongoing contact with the natural world within a nature-based community.

shutterstock_298208537 Source: Shutterstock/Oksana Mizina

The whole idea is that we’re following the interests of the young person, supporting them to grow in confidence and resilience. It’s incredible to watch the development of each individual, not just in their whittling, foraging or fire-lighting skills, but also in their interactions with each other and their ability to co-create this incredible, welcoming community amongst the trees. They are my inspiration for how to play, how to interact with the natural world and to see the magic in the tiniest of places.  
When this pandemic passes, and it’s safe to be together again, we’ll gather as usual around the fire, beneath the towering trees, and continue to co-create the world that we want to live in. A world where children are free to play together in the meadows, streams and woods, build dens and practise becoming good ancestors.

An Ireland connected

In our own tradition, things seem to have been similar to other indigenous groups. Ireland is dotted with many wells and they appear often in our mythology as places from where deep wisdom rises with the waters. This belief nods to our ancient reverence for the earth, and not to wisdom being bestowed only onto a few saints from one all-powerful God, but as coming from the depths of the earth and being widely available to all who drink from the source. 

In this global rite of passage, How can we re-explore our own connection to the land and reweave a culture for ourselves that isn’t dictated by corporate advertising or inflatable leprechauns? Ours is a culture which is soaked in natural beauty and a well-sourced of inspiration. 

One inspiration for me in this time is those towering, wooden beauties who stand witness to the rise and fall of civilisations. Richard Powers in his stunning book, ‘The Overstory’ tells us:

We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.

Looking at them from a distance, we could be forgiven for thinking that the trees themselves were practising ‘social distancing’. But not-so-deep below the surface, webs of Mycorrhizal fungal networks stretch out beneath our feet, connecting each living being on earth.

Communicating with one another and helping one another. Studies have shown that trees feed and heal each other, protect the young and the weak and pool together their resources into a communal pot to support those in need. There are no individuals. There is no competing for resources; only co-operation and mutual aid.

Wild-Awake-BOD-0J4A0072 Lucy organises the ‘Phoenix Forest School’ in Dublin’s Phoenix Park as well as long-term Rites of Passage programmes for young people. Source: Bríd O'Donovan

Step into the flow

For me, now is time to remember what and who we have come from. Not only about our strong and wise ancestors who lived fully, joyously and in difficult times, but so too our wider plant, animal and fungal ancestors.

Somewhere, millions of years ago, we parted ways from them on our evolutionary path, and yet we still share common genes and ancient ancestors. Somewhere along our own path, we have forgotten that, and we have forgotten one crucial piece of our understanding:

That we, too, are nature. We are made of the same cells, the same matter. Our bodies are 75% water. We have evolved ‘out there’, not ‘in here’. But wherever we are, we have made it this far by sticking together, supporting the most vulnerable and looking after the place we call home. 

In a world of things that divide us, how can we build and maintain these connections? In these fertile times, I might just try standing like a tree with my roots dug down, my branches wide and open.

Lucy O’Hagan is an Ancestral Skills teacher, Rites of Passage guide and Forest School practitioner. She is the owner and director of Wild Awake & Phoenix Forest School and is a member of Irish Forest School Association & The Association of Foragers.

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Lucy O’Hagan

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