What is it with the wild? A dialogue between Sophie Christophy and Max Hope

 Authors: Sophie Christophy & Max Hope

Sophie Christophy and Max Hope love being outdoors and connecting with wild places but are curious about whether their experiences of ‘the wild’ and ‘nature’ are the same. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge, two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. Max is Director of Rewilding Education, co-facilitator of Call of The Wild and co-lead at The Lodge. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore the overall theme of ‘what is it with the wild’? and debate what it means to feel deeply connected to nature.

This dialogue follows on from two previous ones: the first on Rewilding and Unschooling and the second on Creating Radical Changes in Education.

Sophie:

Max, at the end of our last piece of writing, we were exploring the question of where we put ourselves in the process of change and activated work. In part of it I mention the “self-healing through nature-based experiences” aspect of your work. You make reference to the Mary Oliver quote and question: “how will I use my one wild and precious life?”, and in our first piece of writing together we dove into the query of whether rewilding and deschooling (and then unschooling) are theoretically and experientially comparable.

I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘going out into nature’ – words we often say, often in moments where there is a need for relief – and how that idea shows up in our work and lives. I’m interested in what this means to you, because it is such a strong inspiration and constant theme. Why do we care about this? What does it mean to and for you, for us? It’s easy to say the words, but what is the story behind them for you? How is it defined, significant? Can you maybe tell me how this all began for you?

Max:

Let’s start with language. Nature. Going into nature. Nature connection. What does it really mean? I’m going to come clean here. Although I am surrounded by folk who use the term ‘nature’ and ‘nature connection’, and I sometimes use it myself, I don’t like these phrases very much. I far prefer talking about the wild. That’s my language. The wild. Rewilding. The wilderness.

What even is ‘nature connection’? I do like the distinction between ‘nature contact and ‘nature connection’. Going outside and walking up a hill whilst wearing headphones and looking at the ground is an example of nature contact. We are with it and yet not in it. We are not really engaged, not connected. Nature connection is deeper than this. It is about seeing, hearing, paying attention, caring, being impacted, and so on.

Having a relationship with the wild implies reciprocity. It is not a one-way relationship. It’s not about using the wild as a resource and taking, taking, taking. It’s not simply about saying ‘being in the wild makes me feel better and so I’ll do more of it.’ I mean, it’s great if being in the wild makes me feel better, of course, but what does the wild get out of this? How can I have a relationship, a real relationship, with birds and animals and rocks and the sea and the sky and the elements? What does this mean?

I have been lucky to have had some profound experiences in the wild. I remember lying on the earth one night, as part of a wilderness solo, and hearing the earth breathing. I have shouted for the wind and the elements and asked them for help in lighting my impossible-to-light fire and watching in amazement as the flames burst to life. I have slept next to a river (yes, the beautiful River Dart) and waited as the water connected directly with my soul.  Crazy huh? Must be my imagination playing tricks on me. Must be the influence of tiredness or illegal substances. No. Really, no. I have come to know and see and believe that I am a part of the wild, a small part of a deeply interconnected ecosystem. This is not a cognitive or intellectual realisation. It is a felt sense, an embodied experience. It’s real and it’s important, to me anyway.

I find it so hard to explain. I get the sense that some folk know what I am talking about. They know. They feel it too. They have a yearning, a deep desire, a longing, a longing to be part of the wild. Other do not. They might enjoy being outdoors, going to the seaside, walking in the countryside, but not in the same way. These folk enjoy the outdoors, but they enjoy lots of other things too. For me, this is about finding the place where my soul can be still, where my mind can settle, where I can zoom out and find a different perspective. I go into the wild when I need solitude, when I need support, when I need to find myself. My inner compass is strongest in the wild. I can hear myself. I can tune into my soul.

What is the wild like for you Sophie? How do you feel when you are in the wild?

Sophie:

I’m going to write in response to two of the things that you mentioned: language, and your last question. Language is important, and at the same time, I also hear myself saying “I don’t care about language”. I think this is because there’s two things going on at the same time for me: one is a desire to clearly express myself and be understood, and the other is a desire for a better shared language to start with – one that doesn’t require to mop up the mess and expend energy on clarifying difficulties in understanding caused by our patriarchal, coloniser belief system constructed language starting point – our shared language is so problematic from the start that it’s hard to communicate when you are speaking from a place that is trying to exist out of that culture. And then it gets fatiguing to even bother trying to get on the same page and understand each other, which is where the “I don’t care about language” thing. I care about feeling and communication, but wrestling with the inadequate expression and depth of the English language and dominant culture feels like a waste of my energy.

My definitions of nature and wild, just so it’s clear what I mean in using those words:

Nature: true essence

Wild: undomesticated, untamed spaces and experiences

What is the wild like for me? How do I feel in the wild? I think that really depends. I don’t have a romanticised view of the wild. I understand it as a space of life and death. I know the feeling that you speak of, the sense of interconnectivity, of being part of an energetic system, an eco system, grounded and bigger than just our selves. I know the sixth sense of feeling intimately connected to shall we say, plant and land nature – feeling connection to and kinship with trees, earth, moss and lichen. Wanting to feel aligned with the birds, and animals, and have a sense of understanding and rhythm with them – to learn from experiences and witnessings.

I also know the feeling of loss and death, and near misses, that I also associate with the wild. The most extreme until now probably having been the experience of giving birth – that for sure was my wildest experience to date. I wanted it to be unmedicated, as ‘medically’ unassisted as possible, I knew strongly on some level that it was important to the transition to feel every aspect of that process and be present for it, as part of my own transformation and initiation to motherhood. I trusted I was held in it. It was also the closest I have ever felt to my own oblivion, the most extreme and intense physical experience, something that felt ‘to hell and back’, that took me to edges I didn’t know existed. Some people do die in that process – is there anything wilder than that? Nothing is the same after that. And maybe in other ways, being caught in a huge storm where you feel and think that you might die, could be equally personally catalystic. But maybe not just a storm, what about the ‘wild’ experience of a separation, an intense grief. But also, nearly drowning in the sea, or feeling lost somewhere and not knowing if you will be found or can find your way?

What do you think about these different edges of wild? The potential for holding and feeling of connection, but also the near death and the breaking down?

Max:

Is there anything wilder than the experience of giving birth? Wow, What a question. Although I have never given birth myself, as you know, I am sure you are right. The way you describe it is so visceral, elemental, connected, at one with the universe. And yes, so life and death. Mothers die. Babies die. Just like they do in the wild. As humans, we believe that we have got to a stage where we can control everything, control life and death, medicalise and intervene in every process but of course, we can’t. I wonder whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals, that also share this visceral life-or-death experience?

Your story has also taken me down a different train of thought, and that is about women and their wildness. It hadn’t occurred to me until a couple of years ago when someone told me that they thought a ‘wild man’ was to be celebrated and yet a ‘wild woman’ was to be feared. What they meant, I think, is that wild women are characterised by a particular energy: an undomesticated, untamed, dare I say uncontrollable one. Taming wild women, controlling the wildness within women, is therefore a function of patriarchy. Wild women are colonised, their bodies are controlled, their experiences are diminished or belittled. From the moment that girls are born – or more accurately, from the moment that they are allocated a gender with a set of social expectations about passivity, gentleness, nurture, kindness, care – they are tamed. And yet childbirth, as you describe, is not always controllable, not always containable. Wild women burst forth.

I fear I haven’t answered your questions. Your writing was not just about birth. You also mentioned other ‘extreme’ human experiences that might bring us closer to our wildness. Drowning. Feeling lost. Possibly having a near-fatal accident. Being stranded somewhere overnight without food and with no certainty of rescue. The authentic feeling of being in a life-or-death situation. I haven’t had any of these. I mean, I continually get lost, as you know, and it can at times feel as if I will never find my way back, but I think that somewhere, even in my panicked state, I do know that I will survive. It’s not really life or death.

I am thinking about the growing interest in creating (or recreating) extreme experiences in the wild. Vision Quests. Rites of passage adventures. Trekking up Mount Everest. Camping out amongst wild animals. Some of these are designed in such a way as to take the human experience to an edge, with fasting, sleep deprivation, deliberate severance from routines and day-to-day resources, all with the intention of intensifying the experience of nature and bringing us closer to our wild selves. I wonder if these experiences are trying to take us closer to the life-or-death experiences that you mention. I have chosen to sign up for some of these experiences. I have done Vision Quests. I have done solos in the wild. I have camped out in Alaska amongst wolves and bears and lynx. I can attest that my senses were heightened. I did feel more connected to the wild world and to myself. These were powerful, transformational experiences. They give me something different, some visceral, that everyday life does not.

I’ll end for now. So much to say. So many questions. I invite you to go down any of the paths I have been exploring here, but if you do want a particular question, I would be curious to know your thoughts about wildness, gender, and patriarchy?

Sophie:

I’m so happy that this writing has taken this turn. It feels really good and juicy, and to the point, which I love. I’m going to reply to the question “whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals?” Yes, is my answer. It felt very animal, and very wild in the sense that it fragmented all that is culture and containing of our deepest energy. Giving birth felt very animal to me, and it felt very sacred at the same time. It felt deep and important in that it reached all the edges and went beyond. I felt forever blown apart and changed. My body also felt very animal, all of the things, the fluids, the fur, the skin, the membranes, the breastfeeding, I was like an animal mama with my animal baby.

And yes, your question about wildness, gender and patriarchy. Patriarchy is a process of control, dismembering and dominance. Just look at what happened when patriarchal colonisers encountered indigenous community and culture – they sought to sterilise and destroy it in equal measure. Patriarchy is a violent fuck up, as is its false notion of a gender binary and binary gender based socialisation. Boys are tamed out of their wildness of heart and care, out of a large amount of their emotional range and experience. Out of their bodies and boundaries too I think to allow them to receive and deliver violence. Out of their own feminine leaning energy. Girls are socialised out of their strength, confidence, leadership, loudness, bodies and boundaries too. All are conditioned to please and achieve through domination or withdrawal. The impact of patriarchy goes on and on. Wild women are feared, for sure. Wild men are rare, maybe, adding to their allure, perhaps because of the hint that they might be both strong and emotionally connected too. Unless by wild men it is meant violent men, but that is surely something other than what we mean here. I don’t know how many truly wild men and women there are, given the culture we marinate in and contexts accessible to us to meaningfully explore this. It’s a tough path back to wildness and nature.

I wanted to write also about something else that you mentioned, this idea that you shared that you haven’t been in a life or death situation, in an ‘extreme’ human experience. And I want to ask you, was it not like that when you came out? Didn’t that feel like a tightrope of life and death, the risk of telling? We can feel the risk of death in different ways. Feeling rejected, that you don’t belong, that you aren’t approved of, or ‘ok’, that need to belong, to be loved, that being threatened can feel like a life or death situation – I think that’s why people stay closeted to a certain extent, there’s a fear that to come out would be tantamount to dying. Or causing the death of the person that other people think you are, and not wanting to do that. Do you think that coming out counts as a wild experience, like the ones we are talking about here? There are some many ways to come out in a patriarchal culture. I think it’s all pretty wild to cross those lines, but what do you think?

Max:

Is ‘coming out’ a wild experience? Hum. I’ve never thought about it in that way. My coming out happened a long long time ago – over 30 years ago – which was way before I thought much about wildness. Or, I should say, my initial coming out, my first coming out, my most important coming out, the one to myself and to those closest to me. Coming out is not a one-off experience in our world, as you know. But let me think back to that time.

If we consider wildness as an internal process, as you have described earlier, as a return to self, a return to our own true essence or nature, as a connection to authenticity, then yes, accepting myself as queer and then choosing to tell others about this was indeed a part of returning to my wild self. For me, denying this would have forced me to live a deeply inauthentic life. I couldn’t – or chose not to – do this. Coming out was about my own alignment.

But is it life or death, an extreme human experience? What if we look at it though this framing of wildness, like surviving a storm or getting lost in the wilderness? Yes, I guess it is in a metaphorical sense although I don’t want to exaggerate my own experience. Many LGBTQ+ people face a real danger in coming out. They are disowned and diminished, and they face physical, emotional and sexual violence. They are murdered. This really is life or death. It was not like that for me, and even in my darker moments and most disturbing fantasies, I did not envisage an actual threat to my life. I knew I would be OK. I knew I would survive. And I did. But the fear of what might happen was real. The fear of being cut off, shut out, of being a disappointment, of not living up to expectations, of losing family and friends. The fear was real. And some of those fears did play out, yes. And so, I think it is probably right to say that it was an extreme experience. An unsettling, life-shattering, life-changing experience.

How can the wild – the external wild – help us with these experiences? When people choose to go on a Vision Quest, it is often framed as having three stages – severance, the quest, and the return. The first stage is a deliberate separation from the things that tether us to our everyday lives. This includes identities, societal expectations, gendered roles, family dynamics and so on. A death – or a death of a particular aspect of the self – might be a welcome outcome of a quest. This includes gender identities. I have heard stories of people who have gone out on quest with one name and gender identity and returned with new ones. That’s powerful. The fact that they go through this transition alone, cut off from other humans, whilst held in a wild space, is significant here. The wild can hold us and be with us in many ways. The wild does not have the same expectations as our selves, our families, our communities and so on. The wild just lets us be.

I am reading a book about gender identities, and it contains this short poem:

In a forest

With snow

Down a path.

I ask,

‘If a person is alone in a forest

Do they have a gender?’

(Mina Tolu in Non Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities).

For me, having an LGBTQ+ identity leads to interesting questions when I am in the wild. Do I belong here? Can I see my experiences mirrored in nature? What can the wild tell me about myself and the way I live my life? What can it tell me about human constructions of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on?

Sophie. I would love you to tell me more about what you think in relation to these questions?

Sophie:

I would love to start by adding more to what you have said about death. I’ve said before, that I feel like I’ve “died a thousand times”. These haven’t been physical deaths, but deaths and ending of sorts. My experience of death in this way, is when you feel and let everything shatter around yourself, radically let go, in order to do what needs to be done, what you can feel inside is the right thing to do. Even when this is against the dominant culture. Even when this should be a recipe for shame and rejection. Even when this feels like entering an unknown and unforecast existence. 

This might sound dramatic, but I’m not talking about big moves necessarily. I’m talking about small and silent deaths, and more obvious and visible ones. The experience of “stepping out alone” can feel like a death in a world where we mostly try to belong and conform to one extent or another in order to be safe. Now that I use tarot cards and other divination tools, and am keenly aware of my own intuition and spiritual connection, I can understand these deaths and their purpose in that context, in their necessity. Being in and feeling connection to nature and it’s cycles, also normalises this as part of life- in fact, not accepting and being embracing of death and change seems unnatural and counter intuitive when you can witness the cycles, rhythms and movement around you.

The snake that sheds its skin. The creature that transforms from caterpillar to butterfly, with a melted stage in the middle. The cycle of deciduous trees that gradually emerge, are lush and bear flower and fruit, then turn to brown, wither and shed to rot back into the ground. The waves, and movement of the tide, rushing in, rushing out, being high, being low, being still, being in storm. 

A bodily death is inevitable to us all, but there are many other deaths to experience on the course of a life time, and many accompany a path of self-liberation and rewilding when you live in a culture with a violent history of patriarchy, coloniality, disconnected from all that is and instead based on fearful coercive and controlling power over dynamics.

For me, what nature can do for us, and this is coming back to the questions at the end of your last writing, is open up that space for questioning, for difference, for the crack in the door. In nature we can see diversity and difference, we can see changes, cycles, rotting, rebirth. We can see options. We can see all kinds of behaviours and non-verbal expression. We can slow down and find ourselves in the mess of it all. And perhaps from there, we can look back at the rest (our lives, the dominant culture etc), and decide what it is we want to do with that. What do we keep, what has to go. The wild doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live. But it can create the space for us to hear those questions for ourselves, and look around us, and see that there are options. It can potentially still our nervous systems enough, for a little while, to move out of personal coping, defence strategies and survival behaviours, and into something more grounded, free, centred, and connected. Maybe we can actually hear ourselves. And if we can hold onto something of that when we return to ‘life’, we’re in a more powerful place to accept and even initiate change, for ‘death’, for our own liberation, for an ecosystemic experience. 

What is it that you find most difficult to hold on to, when you return from the wild? 

Max:

The wild has everything. When I allow myself the time and space to slow down and pay attention, it is easy to see life and death, gentleness and ferocity, nurture and destructiveness, and everything in between. What I see, most of all, is all beings – animals, plants, mosses, birds, soil, wind, rivers, seas etc – just getting on and doing their thing. They do not seem overly preoccupied with what anyone or anything else is doing. Although they operate as part of an interconnected ecosystem, they do not seem to worry about the bigger picture. They are just living, existing, surviving, thriving, living, dying and so on.

When I am in the wild, I slow down, and I can see myself in this same way. One small being, just doing my thing, doing my best, operating as part of an interconnected ecosystem. Living and dying. Surviving. Thriving. I can feel myself letting go of many everyday preoccupations and allowing myself to still my mind and body. My nervous system calms down. I can hear myself, I can feel my own internal compass, I can become grounded. It is a deeply nurturing and calming experience.

This is where it gets hard, and this is where I come back to your specific question. As I return from these experiences in the wild, whether they have lasted for a day or a week or longer, I can become overwhelmed by noise. I don’t mean the traffic noise and the sounds of human voices. I mean the noise that accompanies the lives of many of us. The noise of emails, of text messages, of people. The noise that is associated with a routine and a job and a family and friendships. The demands that are put on me and that I put on myself. The expectations that I have internalised about what it means to be a good person, a sibling, a child, a colleague, a friend, a lover, a partner and so on. All of that. Do birds and animals do that? Do they feel that pressure? The louder it gets, the harder it is to keep hold of myself. In my view, human beings have developed a way of being and of living that is very complicated. We are socialised to think, feel, and behave in particular ways and it is exhausting. For me, anyway. To try and peel back some of those layers – as you are so good at doing Sophie – is a continual process and it is hard work. In the wild, the caterpillar metamorphosises into a butterfly in the way you have described above, but with humans, this does not feel like a linear process. It is back and forth, one step forward and two steps back, slowly edging towards a more authentic and truer expression of ourselves.

The wild helps me to come back to myself.

Returning from the wild presents a challenge in keeping hold of myself, of being able to hear my soul calling to me.

My question for you, Sophie, runs the risk of anthropomorphising the wild world, but I am going to ask it anyway. Can you see yourself in the wild, and in particular, is there a creature or plant or other being that you feel a particular resonance with?

Sophie:

I loved reading that Max, and I’d love to answer your question! Yes I can see myself in the wild. I think I am the wild and so I can see myself all over the place! I think I see myself, and I also see difference to myself, and actually it’s in those spaces of contrast that I find the wild deeply helpful as it opens a question and a challenge. For example, when I see a fern growing out of a rocky wall, seemingly with no soil or traditional place to grow from, I see myself, my own resilience and ability to grow out of what looks like nothing, almost a mystery to the onlooker to understand: how does she do that? A beautiful mystery that must be being nourished and meeting it’s needs somehow. Then when I see the snail, and how it moves along at its slower pace, tracing this line, slowly along the surface, I think “Wow, I could be like that snail”. I could slow down, let everything fall away, go slow, leave a slippery glistening trail, let myself be led and inspired by that snail. And that helps me learn how I can be with myself in different ways and give myself the things that I need that don’t necessarily come to or occur to me in my usual way of being.

When I see a big strong oak tree, old as hundreds of years, that has been here forever, thick of trunk with deep roots strongly anchored in the earth and strong branches that can with stand any storm, staying strong and true and centred in its treeness, I think: yes, I am an oak tree, strong in the face of it all, an anchor for the eco-system around me, able to withstand the hurly and burly of the elements and time and the human made world, certain and secure. But then, when I see it’s thinner branches, and leaves, waving in the breeze, a sense of swaying and flexibility, a movement, response and softening to the wind and changes around it, it reminds that as well as being strong and anchored and secure, I can be an oak and also find some of that movement, that flexibility, that ‘give’, which ultimately is what helps the tree to endure and truly be strong over time. How both are needed in order to continue.

I guess in the wild I look for sameness and resonance, and difference and therefore opportunity to learn. Where can I see myself and feel connected and affirmed in my own nature and wildness, where can I see difference and potential and opportunity that might otherwise not be in my awareness as an option and possibility to explore, experiment with and potentially grow into.

The creatures in the wild that I am most drawn to are the most quirky and unusual (and perhaps often misunderstood): snails, bats, shrews, rats, woodlice, moles, frogs, sea horses and leafy sea dragons for example. The scrappy creatures that are funny and amazing and different, with special talents and intriguing ways of being. I love marsupials and platypuses in Australia – I have links to Australia and I think since childhood a connection to those animals that has formed some of my experience of wild life. I love them because they’ve survived with their quirks seemingly against the odds, and they strike me as creative and inspiring. I like possums and koalas and echidnas – animals with pouches! I breast-fed and put my babies in a pouch, so it’s no wonder really that I feel an affinity with these creatures. I’m grateful for the animals that remind us all that there’s lots of ways to look and be, so many different definitions of ‘cute’ and ways to exist in the world beyond the traditional, mainstream perspective.

How about you? What do you see of yourself in the wild?

Max:

I am drawn to the wolf. The symbolism of the wolf and the actual wolf. Wolf as the ultimate representation of the wild. Wolf as the domesticated dog gone feral (or is it the other way round?). But do I see myself in the wolf? Am I the wolf? The answer is no.

Much as I would love to see myself in the totem animals, the wolf and the bear and the lynx, the lion and the tiger and the whale, I have accepted that I am not these beings. I am a part of the ecosystem, along with everything else, but I am small. I do my thing in my own way, working hard to survive and thrive, but often I am unseen. When I had this realisation, whilst sleeping on the ground under some towering trees, I initially felt some sadness, but quite quickly this feeling was transformed into relief. As human beings, we are often burdened with a pressure of needing to ‘make an impact’ or ‘change the world’ and I have spent a lot of time worrying about whether my impact was enough, whether I really could change the world. Now, we could debate for hours about what impact I might or might not have had during my time on this earth, but for me, the acceptance that I was only a small being and operated as part of an interconnected system was significant. Pressure off. Ego in check. Focus on the here-and-now rather than the legacy that might be left behind. A tiny being. A blink of an eye. One gust of wind. A worker bee. One garden bird. A single fish. All important, of their own way, but only because every being is important. That is where I see myself.

Having said that, I picture a flock of birds where one is flying slightly differently, a school of fish where one looks as if it is carving out its own route, a cluster of trees in which one is standing apart from the rest. I see myself in non-conformity, in not fitting in. I see myself in beings which are surviving and thriving in unexpected ways. Queer ducks. Gender-bending clown fish. I see myself in the nature stories which are unreported and invisible and must be sought out.  Stories which are hidden within the dominant discourse of male dominance and survival of the fittest. Stories which are deliberately ignored by those who can only see the world through their own patriarchal lens. These beings are out there, in their thousands, and I see myself as one of them. The wild is diverse and if we want to see ourselves in the wild, we can find ourselves in that diversity. We just have to look more closely. We just have to pay attention.

Sophie, you started this piece by citing Mary Oliver, who asks “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Poem: A Summer Day).

In the same poem, she also says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

And here, Sophie, is my question to you … but one for another day and another piece of writing. What for you, is a prayer?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Lost things (i)

Author: Jenny Rose

I have lost these things:

faith

plants which died

relationships

my health

a step ladder

a set of fire tools

the capacity to walk or drive very far

sleep

clothes I used to love

names

things I wrote 25 years ago.

Somewhere, is there a forest of lost things? My step ladder standing like a strange tree, adorned with clothes – that silk dress, the cord jacket, the hoodie. Next to it, a thicket of pokers, shovel and bellows. In a hollow, shrivelled plants-that-were. There is a dell, where a mist of sleep floats hazily, and around it stand shadows of people who were once with me and now are not. Around their feet, a carpet not of leaves, but of scraps of paper, the writing on them (my writing) blurred by light, water and time. My health is scattered, some of it trodden mud by the path, some of it buried by squirrels, much of it slowly composting down. And curious flowers sprout around – their blossoms intricate filigree that, when I look closely, spells out the words I forget – names of people, places, objects and ordinary things.

Can I trust the forest to hold these things? Can I trust that I will be ok to go on without them – that, as I have managed without the fire tools, I will also manage without the words? That the loss of physical capacity has made space for new things to grow?

As much as has been lost, what has been found?

Lost things’ inspired by Kristen Roderick’s ‘The Power of Lost Things’ ritual, https://www.spiritmoving.org/blog1

This poem was originally posted in April 2022 by Jenny Rose on: Of Owls and Ancestors (wordpress.com)

Breathing is not an indulgence

Author: Mirel

On this land,

winter is ending

and I can still rest.

I am kept awake only by coffee and screens,

and endless reems of news.

As I scroll from bed,

I hear groans, I hear screams,

from beneath the rubble

of bombed out theatres

and decimated apartment blocks.

When I stretch,

I slowly awake to the world again.

When I rise,

I take my body out on the land again.

In another land,

bodies stretchered out of hospitals,

bodies on the roadside,

body bags tipped into pits.

In another land,

the war dead are singing in the rite of spring.

– – –

Our breathing is not an indulgence. 

From Pain to Power: a collection of writing from the Soul Fire Writing Retreat, March 2022

Introduction

The Soul Fire Writing Retreat was held in March 2022 and was facilitated by Max Hope and Sophie Christophy. Our intention was to offer a supportive and encouraging environment for those attending to re-connect with the ‘why’ behind their work. We were inspired by bell hooks and her thoughts and practices on feminism, social justice, truth-telling, and the practice of love.

During the retreat, we wanted to co-create a piece of writing that we could publish at the end of the weekend, something which communicated our collective and personal commitments to change making, authenticity, speaking our truth, and speaking from the heart.

This collection of writing – a chain letter – is the result.

‘From Pain to Power’, a prominent theme in the work and words of bell hooks, created the focus for the chain letter, and was a thread that wove throughout writing provocations and embodied sessions during the retreat. The writing process worked like this: one person started writing and finished with a question. It was then passed to the next person who wrote their response and finished with a question. Their writing (and not that from the first person) was passed on to the third person, and so on and so forth. The speed of the chain letter sped up as the weekend progressed until finally, after 30 hours, we had finished. The order of the fifteen writers was picked randomly, literally as names out of a hat, and each writer was under time pressure to complete their contribution. No-one saw what everyone else had written until we had all finished.

This is the finished chain letter. This is as it was written, mistakes and all.

MAX HOPE

Max is a facilitator, educator, researcher, activist, and writer and the creator of Write On Changemakershttps://maxhope.co.uk/

This is it. Today is the day. There are fifteen of us at a writer’s retreat and the sun is shining. We are here are we are ready. This retreat is for activists and changemakers. It is about building connections and creating community. It is about writing and speaking our truth.

We are here and we have stuff to say.

We are a mixed bunch of people. We do not speak with one voice. We do not sing in tune. We are united in a desire to advance social and environment justice, but what does that mean? What do we do? What do we think? Who are we, really, at the core of ourselves?

Our retreat is inspired by the work of bell hooks (1952-2021), a prolific author, activist and academic who persistently spoke her truth, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Her courage, her intellect, her compassion, and her fire are with us here. She wrote about feminism, social justice, racism, colonisation, inequality, patriarchy, love, power, and so much more. She wrote in authentic but unconventional ways. She went against the grain. She refused to follow the rules. The power of her work was not always recognised by the establishment, but it is recognised by us. We honour her and the hundreds of other activists who gone before us.

bell hooks said that: “People are hungry for dissent. People are hungry for provocative voices that go to the heart of the matter.” (quote from Speaking Freely)

We have provocative voices.

We want to go to the heart of the matter.

My own journey as an activist began as a young child. I was born into a political family. My parents were Quakers and were involved in party politics and they created a home environment in which the status quo was questioned. My mum stood for parliament. My dad was a local councillor. They volunteered their time for causes to advance social justice. Housing and homelessness. Romanian orphanages. Pacifism. Environmentalism. Sustainability. Food poverty. The list goes on. The point is that I never fell into the trap of believing that politicians and other powerful people were right or that mainstream ways of thinking were the best way to proceed. Everything was open to question. It was OK to think differently.

I have found my own fire, my own rage, my own purpose. I have chosen where to put my energy and where to fight. I stand alongside other folk who are doing other things and I cheer them on, but their fight is not always the same as mine. We must choose what burns most brightly for us, what keeps us awake at night. My fight is about children and young people, about education and social justice, about the wild world.

I am curious about what lights other people up, what keeps them awake at night, what makes them do something to change the world.

Mirel, what is your fire and where did it come from?

MIREL

What burns most brightly for me – when I feel into that question more, I do wonder. I feel like my fire, whatever it was, has burnt down to a smoulder. It would need more fuel than I have available to me right now, as well as some energetic fanning, for it to blaze brightly again. Honestly, at this time, I feel my task is simply to keep a single ember aglow until I have the resources available to kindle my fire again.

Right now, I need to rest and take stock of things. I need to regain a sense of perspective.

It’s all well and good talking about changing the status quo, for a more equitable society, blah-di-blah-di-blah, but much of change needs to happen from within. And I’m tired of trying so hard. It’s exhausting, simultaneously trying to affect change outside and in. I’m faced with living a kind of paradox – spurred on to enact some change in the world but not fully equipped to enact it either. Discovering at times I am motivated by very sense of heroism that I am trying to kick against. Becoming more resourced the more I don’t achieve what I set out to do. And somehow ending up affecting change when and where I least expect it, or not at all. And sometimes fizzling out.

I don’t mind all of that but it’s the negative internal monologuing that’s the biggest pain in the ass. The judging, the self-deprecation, the sense of being an impostor. Actually, that’s probably the most difficult thing to change – not “the world”, but the self the world I am trying to change created.

Let’s think about that for a second: The self that the world created is trying to change the world. Right.

Things have their own way of working out. Mystery has a sick sense of humour. For me, the work is just that – not the outcome, but the engagement. There is an irony to trying to make change happen whilst still being part of the problem. The best resource I have in this process is ownership of my own imperfection, curiosity around that, kindness around that. And perhaps my soul’s calling is simply to lean into life, embracing these paradoxes, with humility, and to develop a quality of steadfastness that will probably take me my whole lifetime, filling up my saddle bags with enough self-awareness and self-compassion for the ride.

Caitlin, what is your soul’s calling?

CAITLIN HARRISON

Caitlin Harrison: Unschooling parent, adventurer and abolitionist

Mirel, thank you.  My soul will get to itself in a moment.  I promise.  

First, I want to repeat your precise and poignant invitation to think about the fact that, “The self that the world created is trying to change the world.”  Yes!  Thank you!

I am so grateful for your delicious articulation. I recognise and experience this phenomenon as a whirlpool of responsibility, a swirling whirling within which my response-ability is formed and born as a direct effect of the oppressive structures to which I must respond.  And in this fluid, dynamic, cyclical and spinning space, my soul’s calling is to recognise moments to practice freedom, to respond as though I have been in-formed by the worlds I wish to inhabit, worlds defined by love, passion, peace, transformation, truths, honesty.  My soul’s calling is to humbly recognise, moment by moment, the ways in which my multiple intersecting identity privileges create illusory freedoms and ease that depend on the dehumanisation of “others.”  My soul’s calling is to practice, enact and embody disparate freedoms that are contingent upon everyone’s liberation.

I believe that part of my soul’s part is to play a role in making the world that formed me and us more visible, to expose and interrogate hegemony.  My soul feels called to share socialisation’s complexity while reducing our obsessions with individual culpability.  I believe this may free up energy for collective responsibility.

Sara, where do you locate your Self within the concept of responsibility, as it relates to social change?

SARA PAIOLA

Sara Paiola is a feminist, a mother, an associate tutor in law, and the co-founder of Free We Grow a child-directed, play based, educational space. www.freewegrow.co.uk https://www.facebook.com/freewegrow

Caitlin, thank you. So your question to me: “where do I locate myself within the concept of responsibility, as it relates to social change?”

I feel responsible. The most important aspect of this for me is to be the change I want to see in the world. For supporting/making a social change. At the same time I know it is not down to me only so I do not feel guilty, if and when, I cannot do more. I do what I manage. I don’t like the neoliberal idea of individual/ised responsibility. Meaning indeed we are all responsible but for instance my recycling will not clean up the world. This individualised idea tends to divide people instead of creating solidarity and collectivity. Of course, for instance, I keep recycling as an individual but I think that voting for politicians that will struggle to bring some change in the country is more important than for instance recycling but not voting. Even though of course without proportional representation in the UK voters have less influence on the results and on how much social change happens.

I come from a very political/activist family who spoke about world issues a lot and as much as it was great in many respects it added some kind of heaviness to me as a child. So I think there is a balance between involving children in social change and letting them off the hook so to speak as it is more our responsibility as adults to change the world our children/the future children live in. They are not responsible for the mess we are in so why make them feel guilty/pressured. Then it will be their turn – to make social change – when they are ready. Maybe as a child I felt too responsible. I think children learn from imitation/modelling so if we adults are socially responsible – or socially conscious enough – they will most likely grow a social consciousness too. If we trust humans/children to be innately curious and self directed then there is no point to push them and expose them too much to social change issues as to me it seems a sign of us adults being anxious. Basically a sign of us adults not being able to control /tolerate our anxiety and feel the need to put pressure on people/children to become socially conscious – sometimes at the expenses of letting this passion grow naturally and letting them be.

For years I have worked in jobs that align with my beliefs in social change. Or, I volunteered in positions that align with my beliefs. I believe that in giving a better start to children they will create a better world so I have worked with children for many years (with refugee children and children who lived in refuges with their mothers who had experienced domestic and gender violence). A happier childhood can give the possibility to children to be more fulfilled adults and create a more peaceful and equal world.

Jenny “What does ‘love in action’ look like to you?

JENNY ROSE

My activism in the world is exploring what ‘Living well, Unwell’ means, and what healing and inclusion looks like for those of us going through this world in bodies with chronic and ongoing symptoms.) https://ofowlsandancestors.wordpress.com/

Sara, you wrote about responsibility, and then you have asked me ‘what does love in action look like?’

I suppose I’d start by thinking a bit about what that word ‘love’ encompasses – as it holds so, so much! And I think it gets used in a way that can feel idealistic, or vague and woolly, or naive. I know I can get irritated by hearing or reading a sort of ‘love is all you need’ perspective, that seems to ignore issues like social justice or power and privilege and oppression. So what does it mean to truly love? I think of the phrase ‘fierce compassion’ (not my words) and a sense that love can totally include fierceness and holding people to account. What does it mean to love someone who is so unhappy in their being and dysfunctional in their behaviour that they are seriously hurting others or causing damage? You ended your piece speaking about children. Parenting has been such a massive part of my life and it feels like a good place to learn from. Parenting consciously and presently has taught me about protectiveness, advocacy, boundaries, fear, respect, connection, safety, among other things. These aspects of love crop in my work around chronic illness too, in different ways…

Love in action looks like caring enough to step in but knowing when to step away and learning how to;

Love in action means being able to say no – and learning to hear no;

Love in action can be valuing others’ presence enough to make space to include them, whatever that means and even if we can’t relate to the things that are needed for that inclusion;

Love in action looks like being really clear about our own self-care – really radical self-care where we work to discern what our bodymind and soul need;

Love in action looks like coming back into our body and making peace with it – so that we can come into connection with others and with the world and the earth;

Love in action means courage – huge courage!

Basically, operating from a place of love means acting counter to most of society’s default ways of being – which come from a place of dominance and hierarchy and exclusion – and having a foundation of kindness, compassion, care, inclusion and valuing being as well as doing;

Love in action could be as fundamental as regulating our own nervous system, it could be as brave as challenging someone making offensive comments, it could be as expansive as taking the air fresheners out of our venue so that someone with chemical sensitivities can come to a group more easily;

And it means starting with ourselves, because we are part of the world and part of nature; the more we heal, the deeper that connection and the more our healing can impact others – and love in action is a feedback loop, I believe, where we are nourished too.

So, Sara, what does healing and self-care mean to you?

SARA MOON

Sara Moon (she/they). Sara is an emerging Hebrew Priestess and co-founder of Miknaf Ha’aretz, a collective devoted to building wild, radical-diasporist multi-generational Jewish community in the UK. IG @jewdica

Thank you Jenny. This is a pretty live question for me as I emerge from a recent episode of a pretty serious depression. I’m still in a tender place and having to honour very intentional self-care routines to stay well. Such episodes are a part of my life and I have learnt to live in a way that enables me to straddle their interruptions through quite an elaborate scaffolding of self-care.

For me, healing and self-care is part of the justice we can make for ourselves in this broken world. Reclaiming that part of ourselves uncorrupted by the forces that have sought to belittle or destroy us. To re-build our souls.

Audre Lorde, the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ shares,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

I don’t nearly face the same struggles Audre Lorde did but this sentiment rings so true and is applicable for all of us trying to survive amidst hetero-normative, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. And for me, self-care really does feel like an act of self-preservation though it’s taken me many years to get to this knowing. Especially as someone fiercely committed to social change and all too aware of the urgency of many struggles we face. How can I focus on myself when so much needs fixing? How can I turn my back on struggles I’m committed to? I have found this a hard line to tread. But discovered the hard way that I’m no good to the movement burnt out and exhausted!

And yet, for me, the journey of self-care can also be slippery. It can be tricky to find the balance, to know what efforts will topple me, what I can bear. And as I wrap myself up in a state of wellness and resource, suddenly suffused with a sense of joy, even liberation, am I deluding myself, when still, the material conditions of the world are still so unequal?

I wonder a lot about how to stay in the joy of self-preservation without dispelling the rightful rage, without destroying the fire that will propel us to act for justice… I think this also goes back to what you said Jenny about ‘fierce compassion’ and part of ‘love in action’ being to hold people to account. I think this must include ourselves too. I have found myself in recent years taking so much care to stay well I have felt I have not held myself to account enough to do the activism the world needs me to do….

It is so counter-intuitive to ‘do nothing’ as the world burns and so many struggles are raging. But for me, the journey of healing & self-care must be embedded into our activism. Not something we stop activism to do. This is a part of the ‘pre-figurative’ politics I believe in. That how we build is what we build. That we go at right pace. That we ‘do’ activism in a way that’s conducive not just to our long-term health and mental wellness but to regenerative, juicy & creative activism too.

For me, these are some of the ways I am bringing my full power to my life and activism.

Sophie, what do you need to be in your power?

SOPHIE LOVETT

Writer and changemaker inspiring parents to empower our children – and ourselves – to shape a fairer, kinder, more sustainable future. www.raisingrevolutionaries.co.uk Instagram: @raising_revolutionaries Facebook: @raisingrevolutionaries Twitter: @sophieblovett 

Oof.

Thanks for this, Sara. It’s a pertinent question for me right now as I feel like lately I’ve been struggling to inhabit that place of power, struggling to bring my whole self to the work I want – need – to be doing. 

There’s a fine balance for me between pushing myself right to the edges of my capabilities to feel the fizz of energy that drives real and meaningful change, and sustaining that in a way that nourishes my soul’s energy rather than draining it. 

I am certain there is little power to be found in comfort, in doing the things I’ve always done in a way that becomes unconscious: unthinking, unintentional.

The biggest catalyst to action for me was the transition into motherhood: the greatest physical challenge of my life, and one laden with spiritual and emotional challenges too. It still carries me now, still takes me to new and surprising places. But I comfortably inhabit that role of ‘mother’ now, so I have been sensing that I need something new. 

And yet in seeking that there is still a place for ritual, particularly when it brings me out of my head and into my body.

I am recharged on a regular basis by the river, the icy waters searing my skin and cleansing my mind of the prickling anxiety that all too quickly takes over nowadays. There’s a clarity of purpose that comes in the minutes and hours that follow – it’s simultaneously familiar and unexpected. 

It’s not just that physical effect either: there’s something about immersing myself so viscerally in the natural world that reminds me of the ecosystem that I’m a part of, that is a part of me.

There’s something about that ecosystem that is an integral part of my power.

Being in nature – by the sea, in the woods, on the moor. Tuning into the turning of the earth and the moon, honouring the seasonal shifts both outside and within me. Learning new old rhythms to replace the old new ones foisted upon us by the patriarchy.

Recognising too that humans are a part of nature, a part of the ecosystem that challenges and sustains me. And that the right humans are the ultimate source of empowerment.

We are not supposed to do this alone. And it is exhausting to always have to fight to be understood. It is so resourcing to be buoyed up by the explosive energy of like minds meeting, to hold each other in a cocoon of shared values and together find that place of stretch.

And on that note, Hannah, the question I’d love to ask is  – have you found loving communities of resistance? 

HANNAH ROWAN

Hannah is a mother, a daughter, a football playing lover of the sea, the woods, books, words, and radical thought and action.

The short answer is yes.

The more complicated answer is that I have been aware of them for at least half of my life, felt drawn to them, felt very firmly outside of them. Sure they were for others, not for me.

There’s a lifetime of being willfully left out behind that certainty. I’ve discovered over the past few years that the people and the spaces that were not for me, were exactly that: they were the people and spaces that were not for me. And that just because they were not, it did not mean that there were no spaces or people for me.

So I became brave. I put myself out there in the spaces I felt a draw to and have found that not only are there loving communities of resistance there, but that I have what feels like a welcome place in them. It can be hard to trust the acceptance and welcome when I am on my own and my doubts creep in. But the sense of community and belonging grows all the time.

They are not just loving communities of resistance, but supportive and nurturing.

The sense of belonging comes not from open arms and a loving landing space (though when that has been needed, it has been there, and thankfully so), but from feeling like my own self, my thoughts, my own offers of support are valued and a part of a growing wholeness.

I have a part within the communities I have found, and they have a part in what I have found within me. And so the communities grow while I grow. Or I do while they do. Communities aren’t really found, they’re continually grown, but I am glad to have found that I have space within communities that are made up of people wanting to grow a world that I want to live in.

Rachel, where does love feature in your life and work?

RACHEL MUSSON

Rachel Musson is a teacher, writer, speaker, facilitator and thought-leader on regenerative education and holistic wellbeing in schools. www.thoughtboxeducation.com www.rachelmusson79.com https://twitter.com/rachelmusson79 https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-musson/

I really hear you stepping into your bravery. Sharing how nourishing being part of a loving community of resistance feels to you echoes strongly in my own landscape of inner growth and outer change. The process of being brave, being safe and being connected has allowed me to strengthen my work from within and without, whilst recognising my own sense of connection growing all of the time.

Connection, for me, is what love is and is all about.

Since leaving my teaching career in mainstream education and journeying (both literally and metaphorically) down a different pathway, I have spent a lot of the past decade exploring and twirling in the delicate dance between being and doing. Almost every step I have taken off the mainstream pathway has felt a step into something more nourishing, more rewarding, more natural, more energising, more connected.

Teaching, learning, writing, travelling and journeying across the world and into my inner landscape, I’ve met love in many guises. I’ve learned to welcome the invitation to deepen my own sense of being love in balance with the love I give and receive. Learning how to dance lightly in this space has allowed me to strongly feel into the simple, universal power and value of connection.

Life’s logic springs through connection. We may be forgiven for believing that we’re all individuals out here doing our thing, but our singular lives only flourish because of all of the invisible webs of connection happening out of sight, allowing each of us to thrive. Like the mycelium networks in the soil, we’re all of us sharing, caring, feeding and resourcing each other, all of us part of infinite webs of connection, all of us thriving through a conscious and unconscious network of care. Of love. 

Birthing a social enterprise focused on regenerating education for a thriving world has allowed me to land in a place wherein I am both practising and sharing the core values of love and connection on a daily basis. Through my work I am helping young people, educators, school communities, I’m working to help stitch back together the places and spaces many of us have become separated – from ourselves, from each other and from the rest of the natural world.  My work is enabling and allowing people to remember how (and why) to love again: how to love ourselves, how to love each other and how to love the rest of the natural world.

I am living the ethos, values, offerings and focus of my work within my own life by living a life built on the foundations of conscious care: of self-care, people-care and earth-care. My life and work weave themselves together in a balance of being the change and doing the change by remembering how to be fully human and celebrate the interconnectedness of life. I feel I have landed fully into my soul’s purpose in a way that both nourishes myself and others in the process.

Jo, what is really at the heart of you and your work?

JO McANDREWS

Jo is working with bold adhd genius for paradigm, change to grow resilience for children and young people in the face of climate crisis and all that it brings. https://www.jomcandrews.com/

Thank you for this question. It makes my heart sing and my belly squirm with excitement and discomfort. How can I find words to answer? Well, I can at least give it a good go!

At the heart of my work is a longing for life, love and peace. I see the pain of the world, the injustice, the destruction of life and I feel that pain in my own life, in my own body.

I am immersed in the study of human neurobiology, trauma, resilience and earth connection. I know what we need to live. I know how to solve climate change. I know what we need to live with respect and love on the earth into future generations. What a massively bold claim! This is at the heart of my work. I see what has gone wrong and I know how to put it right, and crucially, I am driven by urgency and longing to change the world.

My work has pretty much always been around supporting children and young people, to support their voice in the world, to advocate for their needs and to build networks of resourced adults who have the capacity to meet their needs. I have worked with bereaved children, then set up as a funeral director, put my heart and soul into creating community based unschooling projects, then trained many hundreds of education, health and social care professionals in understanding and meeting children’s basic needs for thriving.

At the heart of all that is the knowledge that childhood creates culture. It is not just that I want children to be happy, it is also that I know that everything an adult does and does not do, is rooted in their childhood, and that this in turn creates the systems that humans create. Warm care and love creates values of inclusivity and justice. Capitalism and colonialism depend on destroying this capacity to love and it is now destroying all life.

Now I am focussed on growing children’s resilience in the face of climate and social collapse. The stakes have never been so high. At the heart of all this is the sure and certain knowledge that humans need love to survive and to be able to honour the life of others. And the certainty that the systems of separation and domination that are the basis of our economic, political and social systems are stealing this from us and making us incapable of living fully.

So I see the connection between a mother, supported and valued by her community, smiling into the eyes of her baby, and the survival of life on earth. It is a direct link.

At the heart of my life and work is a longing to share the urgency of the change that is needed and to embody the qualities of clarity and compassion that is needed to make it happen. Love in action, together.

Emily, what are the most radical things you want to say to the world?

EMILY YOUNG

I am Emily, a mother/writer/designer/interior architect helping to take down the walls of oppressive systems brick by brick through de-schooling myself and asking awkward questions since 1983. https://www.facebook.com/emilystinywindows/ instagram.com/emilys_tiny_window https://tinywindows.wixsite.com/tinywindows

Thank you, Jo M, for your question and very moving piece “childhood creates culture” – I love and honour this.

In answer to the question, I will start with my reaction to the word radical. I feel like the word suffers from a bad reputation, and I initially let this construct get in my way. I read ‘radical’ and jumped to radicalised and thought extremism and the idea of the problems that came from fundamentalism rather than taking the positive perspective of the word ‘radical’. My subconscious walked me down the binary path that my conscious mind has been stepping away from and in this, I believe lies one answer to the question – I want to say to the world that humanity is not polaric and I feel this oppositional thinking is the cause of so much destruction, trauma and pain.

On a macro scale, the Earth has poles, creating a magnetic field and providing direction, which our Western post Enlightenment culture interprets as linear: north – south. So, we go from A to B in a linear fashion, often ignoring all the nuanced beauty in between. Yet, nature knows that the Earth is spherical, and the magnetic field creates a beautifully circular, all-encompassing spectrum.

On a meso scale, humanity has constructed the complications of ownership and dominance; have – have not. The fallout from this has created pretty much all the trauma humans live with and normalise, collectively and individually and as Jo M spoke about, this dominance has resulted in the separation from the Earth, from each other and I would like to add, from ourselves, wherein we find the micro scale.

The separation from ourselves is the (heart)breaking point. My radical position on this is that I want to have safe and consensual containers for everyone to express their deepest and darkest shadows, however radical or seemingly unacceptable they may be.

If adults can express this part of themselves, rather than be locked away, buried, suppressed under years of shame and conditioning, I believe people will be able to better accept their whole selves and love will ensue.

I have so much hope for the generation of children that witness this substantial healing. Their shackles will be so much less constricting, and their freedom will bring so much love.

So, in the Jo sandwich, I ask you Jo S: What practices do you use to help transform pain into power?

JO SYMES

Jo Symes is the founder of https://www.progressiveeducation.org/ which is an online inspiration hub exploring alternatives to conventional methods in education. “Progressive Education Group” on Facebook; @ProgEducat on Twitter/Insta/Fb page

Thanks Emily, what a great question. Before I answer it, just to give you some context, my pain comes from the trauma around my sons’ experiences of starting school. They both became fearful of school, their lights went out and they lost their love of learning. They were in pain and so I was in pain. It continues to break my heart how our education system fails to put mental health/wellbeing, social justice and children’s rights at the core.

There are three things that spring to mind when I think about how I work to transform this pain into power:

  1. Putting my energy into something positive.

To quote bell hooks:

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”

So in my work, rather than simply focusing on the problems and the criticisms of the education system, I strive to focus on raising awareness of more human centred alternatives to mainstream, as well as showcasing innovations within the state sector to celebrate the work of pioneering educators.

I aim to raise the profile of alternatives to conventional methods in education a) to help families who need something different now and b), to inspire change within the mainstream.

This work involves trying to normalise ‘radical’ approaches. I agree with you Emily when you say that the word ‘radical’ suffers from a bad reputation. In trying to normalise ‘radical’ approaches – such as unschooling or democratic, self-directed education – I steer clear from terminology like ‘radical’, ‘extreme’, and even ‘alternative’. These words make educational approaches which have their roots in social justice and children’s rights sound outrageous, ‘for others’, and irrelevant to the mainstream. I work hard to normalise these approaches as they are not extreme at all, they are simply common sense when you think about how children naturally learn, neuroscience, traditional indigenous communities and how humans have evolved. It is the conventional school system that seems outrageous, extreme and unnatural when you really think about it.

  • Kindness. I think it’s important to try to be kind to all, even those with opposing views. In the spirit of trying to be the change we want to see, I don’t think we should shame or blame, and I don’t think it’s helpful to have a them and us culture and see people with opposing views as the enemy. Noone intentionally sets out to harm children or uphold outdated harmful practices.
  • Self care and community. The most important thing which keeps me going is connecting with like-minded people. My facebook group has been my lifeline really, along with the Freedom to Learn Forum which I attended a couple of years ago, as well as connections with other social entrepreneurs and changemakers. I am particularly grateful for this retreat and being part of the Write On Changemakers community. Community and connection is key for me.

So, over to you Jai, how do you stay motivated as an activist?

JAI BREITNAUER

Jai Breitnauer, journalist, mother, disability rights campaigner and daily adventurer. @Breitideas on Twitter

At one point in my life it was my choice to be an activist. But it is no longer true that I can choose. Activism is simply how I exist and my motivation is the quest for lived, equitable experience.

I grew up in a nice white family, in a nice white town, with all the assumed privilege that implies. I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, something my parents believed was about furthering my education to get a better job, or to gain more respect. I have no doubt that they enjoyed, and perhaps still do enjoy, telling people I have a degree and an MA from a well-regarded establishment.

I’d flirted with activism before university, but it was during the six years I spent studying that I really found the ability to question the world and my place in it. Before that, I had assumed being academic meant knowing all the answers. University taught me that academic rigour is having the confidence to acknowledge you don’t have any answers, and to seek them out with the help of others.

Still, as a young adult, I was able to pick and choose my causes. I joined the Socialist Worker movement, I protested the war in Iraq. I was part of an occupation relating to data sharing and breaches, and I joined numerous letter writing campaigns. All these causes were important to me but I wasn’t directly affected by the outcomes. I was an activist because it felt like it was my duty, to use my voice and my platform to speak for those who couldn’t. It was this feeling, this belief that motivated both my career in journalism and working in communications with not for profits.

It wasn’t until I had children that activism became daily life. It wasn’t until I became a mother that activism became my lived experience. That inequity became a reality for me that I needed to fight to live.

The beginning was childbirth, and the lies women are told to get them into hospital and on pain relief. The next reality was the hypocrisy of immigration rules. As my partner, willing to work but bound into unemployment by his visa, stood on the precipice of deportation, I cradled our child and wondered how we would pay the mortgage without him. Meanwhile the taxpayer continued to whine about having to support mothers like me while also whining about jobs for the British. The next target then, was the patriarchy, the root cause of the issues our family had been facing. I’ve always identified as a feminist, but once I truly understood the damage the patriarchy does to men, and I could align myself with the progression of all genders through the breaking down of misogynistic frameworks, I found myself free to make these arguments with clarity. The natural progression of anti-patriarchal work, is anti-capitalist work, and that is the moment you realise everything is connected.

But even when I am not actively activist, I am still an activist. My existence, as a neurodiverse woman, is an act of activism in its own right. And daily I fight for the supports needed so my autistic children can equitably access education, healthcare, leisure facilities … I fight not just for changes in welfare and statutory provisions, but in the necessary change to the social narrative that is needed to provide true accessibility. I don’t want people to ask what they can do to help effect positive change, I want people to understand they need help to change themselves.

This is the truth I have to speak simply to live and breathe. It isn’t my choice but it is my privilege.

So, J, what truth do you need to speak, and why are you the woman to speak it?

J YEUNG

Unschooling mum of 2

The act of speaking my truth out loud and allowing others to hear or read it is terrifying for me.  I am immediately flooded with thoughts of my voice being unworthy in a sea of voices which are already out there.  There are already so many ideas, opinions and stories that it can be overwhelming at times to hear them all so what possible value can my truth offer? 

But I am slowly beginning to see that hearing the truths of others can be a balm, a deep comfort, it has certainly been the case for me in times of deep pain.   And this is why I am willing to speak my truth, in the hope that even one person may find some comfort and hope.

As a new mother, engulfed with advice, opinions and judgments from all angles and not knowing who to believe and what to do, I felt lost, lonely and unsure of myself – for almost 3 years.  The ‘perfect mother’ that I tried to be and the ‘perfect life’ that I tried to create was not the life that my son needed.  He resisted at every turn.  He spoke his own truth loudly and clearly.  It took me a while to hear it, and it was when my daughter was born that I could no longer ignore it.  I broke down, I felt deep pain and it was the hardest and best thing that ever happened to me.  I am eternally grateful to my son for this act.

I now know that the deep pain that had unravelled me was caused by a lack of freedom.  As a stay at home mother, I had a role in society and I knew that it was highly judged but not valued and so I tried harder and harder to convince people of my worth.  But it never worked.  I was put in a box and I needed to stay there and I didn’t dare express all of the frustrations that this brought up in me.

And then I began to look around and see this story repeated over and over again with other mothers, everywhere I looked, throughout history and all around me.  And then my scope widened and I began to see the effects of a lack of freedom everywhere, I couldn’t unsee the effects that it had on people.  In those closest to me, those out in the wider world and in the stories of those who came before us.  It was terrifying. Where freedom was lacking, no matter on how small a scale, I saw a missed chance for people to be their whole selves and when we can’t be our whole selves, then who are we?  This seemed to me to be the cause of so much of people’s pain.  How had I never noticed this before?

With the support of many wonderful people, mostly mothers themselves and this new realisation, I reclaimed myself and started to create a new structure for our family.  One that was built on freedom, freedom for each of us to express ourselves fully.  This thread of freedom is one I now weave into my life.  It guides my decisions and my actions everyday and I now see many inspiring people all around me doing the same and the incredible things that stem from this. This finally brings me great peace and hope.  This is at the heart of my work now and in the future.  This is my truth.

And I want to ask you now Sophie, what is really at the heart of you and your work?

SOPHIE CHRISTOPHY

https://sophiechristophy.com/

At the heart of me and my work is divine spirit. That is what I believe is at our core, and it is my reverence for this, that moves me to persist against all odds. It is life force. Pure light. A pool of it sits at our heart’s centre, and spans through our veins like rivers, streams and tributaries throughout our whole body. To our genitals, to our toes, to the tips of our fingers and to the tip of the nose. It is what makes us animate, what gives us life, where sound comes from. It’s desire is to run through us, down and into the earth, through the soles of our feet, or our asses, or whatever is closest to the ground.

And from above, from our heads, it wants to shoot up, into the sky. Into somewhere that feels like home, up there in the untouchable universe. A collective space, a collective pool, a place that feels safe and known, all embracing. A place from which we all come and all return. High high up in the sky, beyond anyone’s reach. Beyond anyone’s physical reach, that is.

We each have a birth right as a human creature on this planet to fully express ourselves in our divine glory. This is what I believe. And I want to see that right realised for each and every one of us. We are all needed. We are plants that want to grow, and we should be able to do so. To grow into the gnarly and/or smooth, ragged and/or lean, great and/or light potential brilliance that is embedded in us just like how a seed holds its own code to become manifest in its full glory.

Given, the sun, water, earth and air/loving care that it needs. Given the space that it needs, the cogent environment that knows what it is, that treats it like a plant and not like a fucking robot.

So the heart of my work, is to bring, or in the very least, not obstruct, those things: the light, the water, the nutrients of the soil, the fresh space and air. To bring the loving care. To hold the space for myself every day, and for others as much as I can manage.

The Joy of Missing Out

Author: Mirel

I choose the joy of missing out.

I choose to sign out without feeling like I should be doing something, without doing what everyone else is doing, without apology or feeling guilty, or buying Into feeling like I missed out. Without feeling like something is missing.

With JOMO, there is completeness in my own experience.

JOMO is… reading bell hooks in the corner whilst others are chatting. 

JOMO is… having a nap during a writing session.

JOMO is… ducking out of a work activity to write.

JOMO is… having a bath by candlelight while everyone else is at the fireside.

JOMO is… going to bed early.

JOMO is… not knowing where anyone else is. 

Creating radical changes in education … is it more effective to work ‘within the system’ or innovate from ‘the outside’? A dialogue between Max Hope and Sophie Christophy

Authors: Max Hope & Sophie Christophy

Max Hope and Sophie Christophy share an aspiration to radically change the education system, but the journeys that brought them together have been completely different. Max started out as a youth worker and spent a decade as a university academic, researcher and lecturer and writer before becoming Director of Rewilding Education and Co-Lead of The Lodge. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge, two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore whether it is more effective to work within the system or to innovate from the outside and unpick some of the painful decisions that they – and others – must make when deciding where to position themselves and put their energies.

This dialogue follows on from a previous one about Rewilding and Unschooling.

Max: I want to radically transform education. I have spent many years trying to do this. Sophie, you know this, and we share so many of the same values and visions about how we want the world to be. But our histories of how we have done our work are different, and I’d love to dive into some of the debates that we have had about a) what is the most effective way to try and ignite and inspire change; and b) what personal choices we have made – and are still to make – about how we want to use our ‘wild and precious lives’.

My journey started as a youth and community worker for a radical charity that worked with young people who were on the margins of society. That job did not feel like I was ‘in the system’ at all, even though most of the young people I worked with had been involved in (or excluded from) mainstream school. After fifteen years, I left this job and started a PhD. I felt burnt out and exhausted from listening to young people who had been so battered by the education system, and I wanted to get to the root of the problem. What was going wrong with mainstream education? How could it change in ways that would be more inspiring, engaging, and useful for young people? What could be learnt from some of the more radical types of education that were happening in ‘alternative’ settings?

My decade as a university academic felt like I was trying to change the system from within. I spent time in mainstream and alternative schools. I worked with teachers and ex-teachers. I created projects which engaged with students and tried to support them to have increased agency in their schools. And the university itself, like it or not, was a mainstream institution. There were rules and procedures and formal outcomes. I was teaching, researching, and writing within this mainstream system, and trying to push at the boundaries of what I could ‘get away with’ so that I could practice in the way that I wanted. Eventually, I left, and although I miss some of the work that I was able to do, I certainly do not miss the stress and strain of being in that system.

Sophie, we met through Phoenix Education, a charity that has big ambitions about transforming education. At that point, you were home educating your children and had already set up The Cabin. You were firmly rooted outside the system. You were a pioneer. I was still inside the system, working for the university and undertaking research in and with schools. I was excited about all the amazing stuff that was happening outside the system but was still deeply committed to putting my energy into changing the mainstream.

Our lives have both changed. I would love to know where you stand now. What, for you, is the most effective way to operate? Is it as an innovator within the system or as a pioneer outside of mainstream? And what does this mean for you personally right now?

Sophie: For me personally, it is about finding ways to be a change maker that are manageable and sustainable in the context of my own life. Consistent, persistent effort, that can last a lifetime is part of my theory of change, and it influences the work that I do, how I use my time and energy, and how I care for myself along the way. As you said – when we met, it was as I joined the Board of Trustees at Phoenix. I was at the time and still am an unschooling, home educating parent. I’d just co-founded the Cabin the year before and was a few cycles in running the Consent-Based Education courses. I’d spent years before that running community-based projects creating spaces for children’s rights, establishing home ed community in my local area, and prior to that nature based space in the woods for families with young children in London.

I was already writing – a blog, and for the local paper and a local families magazine, about children’s rights in the family and raising awareness of home education as choice. In 2014-15 I had tested out the potential for making change via mainstream politics, by standing as Green Party candidate in the General Election. I had done some speaking and workshops, on change making and the political and personal transition from patriarchy to consent-based culture. I was deep in the experience of motherhood and parenting discourse. In all of this I was also doing my best to love and support my children in staying connected to and in-tune with themselves, to grow in a way that nurtured them and met their needs. That’s no small feat in the dominant culture in which we live. 

I think what I’m trying to say by sharing this is that I was in a period of experimentation, learning, agitation, and high activity. I was desperate at times, and up against deadlines such as the school starting age that put pressure on my activism and work, but I was determined. I always wanted to do right by my own children but not only them. I wanted to do right by all children and for society to change. I wanted social and environmental justice not some time but now, and I was serious. But I was also overextending myself and out of what felt like necessity in a burn out cycle that was not good. 

You asked about whether it’s more effective to innovate from inside or outside the system. I would say it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now. To first experiment with yourself. To learn and understand as much as you can about your own values, and to try to live them in every small moment, action and thought. To understand your strengths and skills, to understand your gaps for learning and do that learning. And then use those skills, that learning, and yourself, to be impactful in your exact current circumstances. Wherever that is. And test that as far as you can go, until you know it’s time to start trying to do something else. What do you think?

Max: My drive for wanting to transform the education system didn’t come through my own experience of having my own children. I didn’t have to make a personal choice about whether to put my own children into school or to choose which school might be the most suitable option. Would I have been prepared to move house? Would I have home educated? Would I have set up an alternative like The Cabin? It is all hypothetical because my life’s path did not lead me to having to make those choices or to act from that place.

Instead, I encountered dozens and dozens of other people’s children in my role as a youth worker. I learnt so much from them and from my experiences of trying to develop innovative ways of re-engaging them with learning again. We had to create exciting, relevant, and fun activities that did not, under any circumstances, remind people of being ‘at school’. What I learnt, and this felt important, was that it was really not that difficult to find ways of engaging even the most ‘hard-to-reach’ young people if the relationships between us were respectful, genuine and trustworthy. Young people could smell inauthenticity. They knew when they were being conned. And, by contrast, when they were trusted to self-direct their own process and make their own decisions, they rose to the challenge and were eminently capable to doing so.

To me, this was not hard to understand. It was not rocket science.

I continued to be shocked that the mainstream education system continued to get it so wrong. Year after year, young people would tell me the same stories. Young people being bullied for being gay, sometimes by their own teachers. Being disciplined for wearing the wrong shoes. Kicked out for talking back. Forced to do certain subjects because they were not in the right group to choose other options. Made to stay in isolation booths for the whole day. On and on and on.

That was in 2007. That was where I was at in my own life. Tired and frustrated and angry.

It felt like a deeply personal move to leave youth work and head into a university. This was not about my career or professional journey or anything else. This was about wanting to make an impact in the lives of children and young people. I genuinely believed that this was my best chance to do that, and I never lost sight of that aspiration.

Sophie, you say that “it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now.” I agree – and I don’t. I agree in that we can start from where we are at, whether that be as a parent, a youth worker, a policy maker, a politician. We can all do something from the place we are, and it gives us a sense if agency to know that. We can all do something – and we can often do more than we imagine we can. So yes, I do agree with that.

Where I disagree is that I also think that we can choose to position ourselves in a place where we believe we might have the greatest impact. I can choose to position myself in a university, a school, a policy institute, a picket line, a home education setting. I can be an anonymous blogger, a teacher, a journalist and so on.

We don’t all get to make the same choices.

This isn’t a competition.

But we get to make our own choices from our own unique circumstances.

Right now, I am choosing to co-lead The Lodge with you, the new setting which flows on from The Cabin. This is outside of mainstream and is aimed at home educated young people aged 10-12. This positions me as ‘outside of the system’ and I am finding it energising, refreshing, and healing. I love it. I am still holding an ambition that our practice might, in one way of another, influence mainstream practice but I am no longer fixated on trying to make this happen.

When I look at Two Loops Theory – which you introduced me to whilst we were at Phoenix – I can plot my own journey. As a youth worker, I was in a ‘hospicing’ role in that I was picking up casualties from a broken system and trying to help them get through. At the university, I was trying to innovate within the system itself, whilst also trying to shine a light on the work of pioneers in the hope that it would influence the mainstream. I am now more removed from the mainstream and less preoccupied with it and am instead focussing on pioneering practices which take place in the new paradigm, outside of the system.

I find it more energising and less exhausting to be outside of the system. There is a breeze out here and it feels hopeful and optimistic. We are creating and inhabiting the world that we want to see.

But Sophie, sometimes I also feel guilty.

Most children and young people are within the system. They cannot get out and play with us over here.

If we want to change things for a larger number of young people, don’t we have a responsibility to try and change the mainstream?

Sophie: You feel guilty? Why do you feel guilty? You haven’t done anything wrong or anything to feel guilty for as far as I am aware. I don’t feel guilty. I’m not going to carry the guilt of a system that was never built to respect children. That guilt deserves to sit elsewhere. I don’t feel guilty for making difficult choices at personal cost including extreme experiences of loneliness and isolation at times, in order to do what I thought was right for the health and well being of my children, just because I couldn’t extend that same opportunity to all children. I sure have tried to open as many doors as possible to other folk to make their own choices that included not participating in schooling. To create community other than school, which is one of if not the main draws of school for many people – a sense of belonging and the chance to be around other young people.

The fucked thing about this is the level of denial around the issue itself. It’s hard for people to stare in the face of the coercive and controlling dynamic of traditional schooling, the cruel methods of behaviour management, the marginalising and degrading of young people that don’t ‘fit’ for whatever reason, and let that sink in when they are part of it or dependent on it. Perhaps that comes as a reaction to the scale of the issue and the seemingly insurmountable challenge to create meaningful and lasting change, the sense of powerlessness that is felt. Some of it is because the system as it stands, despite being fundamentally unethical, still meets many needs of the people that are in it, and of parents and young people, that are hard to meet otherwise. The relationship between teachers, families and the education system continues, even into depths of unhealth and dysfunction. Each person propping it up in their own way.

Writing about this has made me feel upset inside. It provokes pain in me which comes out in harsh and confrontational tone. And that is because it is a painful thing, that just keeps ticking on, and on, year after year. You asked if we have a responsibility to try to change the mainstream, and I would say yes, we absolutely do. Not out of guilt, because I believe we are working hard and doing our best and shouldn’t take on guilt for that which is not our doing. But because everything else is peripheral, and what we ultimately want to see is widespread change and transformation, and for that to happen mainstream culture has to be moved. How that happens though is through a radical tapestry, a patchwork, of many, many activated change makers, all throughout the Two Loops Model. So the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect. And the best way to do that in my opinion, beautifully, is to inhabit consent-based and self-directed principles, in order to navigate to the right spot to be lined up for the unique contribution that you are designed to make.

What do you think the mainstream needs most from those of us innovating and experimenting outside of its limitations?

Max: Phew. I can feel an exhalation and a sigh of relief.

When you say that ‘the guilt deserves to sit elsewhere’, I can totally see that. I did not create the mainstream system and I do not do anything to deliberately reinforce it. To the contrary, I have worked to challenge it and change it, and now I am putting my energy into the creation of innovative new models which are healing and restorative. Isn’t it interesting how my default is to somehow feel responsible for harm and damage which is not mine and which I cannot control? I wonder if that is part of the how the system upholds and replicates itself? How many teachers and other educators are within the mainstream because they feel responsible for trying to make it better, for reducing the harm that such a system inevitably inflicts?

Now I have stepped away from directly trying to change the mainstream, I feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm to exploring the alternatives from the inside-out. Actually, when I say ‘alternative’, it might give the impression of ‘different but equal’. That is not what I mean. It’s not like ‘dairy milk and alternative milk’. Or ‘conventional medicine and alternative medicine’. What we are investing all our time and energy into creating is not simply an alternative. It is a new paradigm. We must find some way of explaining that in a more convincing way. Sometimes, alternative is better, and we need to be bold about that.

What do I think the mainstream needs most from us? First, I think that people in mainstream need to be respected and supported because many of them are genuinely doing their best within a system that works against them and their own values. Next, I think that we need to encourage mainstream folk – especially leaders and policy makers – to radically rethink their educational philosophy and values. What I mean I that it is not enough to simply tinker with the system, to make incremental changes, to go for small improvements. The scale of the change that we need is far bigger than that, and it needs to happen quickly. We need to rethink our whole concept of education and ask some searching questions about: a) what are schools even trying to achieve anyway? b) how can schools be reconstructed so that they are underpinned by a deep respect and trust in children and young people? c) how can teachers and other adults be in honest, authentic, and open relationships with one another and with children and young people?

This is, of course, where the role of schools and learning communities which operate within the ‘new paradigm’ come into play. Mainstream folk will often struggle with answering the questions I have outlined above because they simply cannot imagine how things could be different. In my experience, they tend to say things like, ‘this sounds great, but it would never work in practice’, or ‘it might work for certain kids but not for the ones that I have to teach’. We need to be able to hold up real-life, practical examples as case studies. We need to show them the new paradigm so that they can start to dream differently about their own settings and their own practices.

What would you say to a teacher in a mainstream setting who was choosing to stay there but also wanted to bring in consent-based and self-directed practices? I would love to know whether you think this is even possible, and if so, what your words of advice might be?

Sophie: I would say to them that it’s like beating a drum. But first, there is a need for people to be open to learning. To letting go, opening up, and being willing to learn something new from other folk actually doing this practice. Egos need to go to the side, and they need to be willing to admit what they do and don’t understand, and what they do and don’t need to work on to have integrity and authenticity in this work.

If they are willing to do that, and are committed to change, they can find out what their space of change and opportunity is in their lives and places of work, and then they need to start beating this new practice like a drum. Like a heartbeat. A strong, regular beat, with integrity, with commitment, with consistent repetition. It’s OK if the beat is quiet and light to start off with, but it needs to start. There needs to be a high level of conviction because this practice is standing against the tide of the dominant culture of school. Like trying to keep your footing standing in the middle of a river swollen and rushing with some kind of downpour. So they need to think about what they need and what they can do to protect and withstand that.  

Then you start to beat your drum in a determined space. What I mean by that is you try to create a space that is separate to and different from the rest, whilst still within that place. Call it a club if you want, a society, an extra, or a designated part of your week, but it must be marked as different to the rest, with its own set of ways. This is key to the new culture having a chance of integrity and surviving. Once you get you drum beating and the culture rolling, it is contagious. I have no doubt in that. It’s like you can’t unsee what you have seen – it’s hard to accept coercive control and dominator culture when you can feel and know that something else is possible, that it is a choice and not necessary.

So, the key is to getting it going and digging in. Understand why you are doing it, understand and believe in how important it is. Understand it as an ethical imperative and the right next step. There needs to be pride in this work, pride, and strength. And then you’ve got to keep beating that drum for as long as you can.

And there has to be an acceptance that there will be break down as part of this process. Transitions and change hurts and it requires facing up to things including dark and painful truths. So be ready for difficult and painful situations, within yourself, as a practitioner, and in your situation with others. Have a strategy for how you are going to deal with that, how you will process it so that it doesn’t trash what is happening.  Dominant systems try to protect and maintain themselves, so you need to have the resolve to be ready to deal with that.

I recently got a steel tongue drum. It’s healing. This drum of this practice is healing too.  But healing journeys bring up all kinds of things, including pain and trauma that needs to be processed and released.

What would be your go to first thing when working with someone in the mainstream system? What do you think the first step is in supporting them in this transition?

Max: The first thing?

For me, the burning core is about relationships between teachers and students. Some call it student voice. Others call it agency. It’s all kind of things, all wrapped together.

I would want to invite mainstream teachers into a conversation about the connections they have with students in their classes. We know, for sure, that small things really matter to students. Remember their names. Pronounce their names correctly. Use their preferred pronouns. Look directly at them. Smile at them. Connect with them as human beings, and more than that, as equals. Be interested. Ask them what they think. Listen to them. Care. Pay attention. Do whatever you can to respond to what they tell you. Do not assume that they all think the same thing. Do not assume that they are consenting because they haven’t said otherwise. Think about whether there are ways in which you can develop threads of authentic connection with them whereby they can start to feel seen, known, understood. Trust them wherever and whenever you can.

This may seem small, but this stuff really matters.

In your Consent-Based Education course (CBE course), you talk about Covey’s circle of concern and circle of influence. This makes a lot of sense here. Mainstream teachers have many things that concern them, but they get overwhelmed with the size of the task in radically transforming education. You know this. They get exhausted and they get lost in the problem.

Sometimes they think they have no control and no influence, but this is not true. Even people in the most difficult of circumstances have choices to make.

When people get overwhelmed by all the things in the wider circle of concern, they can feel helpless and hopeless and burnt out. I have been in this place myself and I still work hard to not fall back into it. It is not a healthy place to be, but more than that, it is also not an effective place from which to try and be a radical practitioner. As you said earlier, ‘the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect.’

For some people, being in the mainstream and working from that space of influence is a deliberate choice, and it can be a powerful place to influence change. I am grateful to all the folk who are choosing to position themselves in schools, in universities, in colleges and in other formal settings. There is no doubt that we need good people – radical people – to choose to be there. These folk are often hidden to the wider world as they are just doing their own things in their own places, frequently hidden from view.

But Sophie, where are you? What are your reflections on the place where you can have maximum effect, and does it help to circle back to Two Loops Theory in exploring this? You introduced me to this theory, and I am really into it right now as I think it is a brilliant frame for exploring these types of questions. Over to you.

Sophie: I think Two Loops theory is great. Not only because it can help people to identify where they sit in the process of change, but also because it clearly shows this process as a paradigm shift, with all that that entails. The old paradigm, and the care that needs to happen there as it descends. The walk out folk – those setting away from the old paradigm to investigate and innovate the new – and the ‘grey zone’ that they inhabit as they unlearn, unfold, deschool, deconstruct, reform, restore, and create the new paradigm. I love how Debbie Frieze talks about what is needed in this process also, around support and connections. Consent-based education is both an alchemy for this change and the change itself.

For me, my main place of residence in the Two Loops Theory is as deep into the new paradigm as possible. Inhabiting it, living it, breathing it, being immersed in it, in the practice, in the life. Making it normal life. This is how the new paradigm comes into being anyway. By being it, it becomes manifest. The more folk that make it to that place, the more along the process things become, the more we move through the diffusion of innovation process. The stronger, more robust and capable of carrying the transition the new paradigm becomes. I’m in deep, with good reason. My heart, and body beats that drum, and it’s what gives me integrity in my work and what helps me be of use to others and to create culture in community. I’m in the core. Your work exploring education through the lens of rewilding, and self-healing through nature based experiences, has inspired and been very permission giving to me to explore and use metaphors and examples from nature to make sense of and explain myself and my work.  I came across the word ‘caldera’ recently, it’s the bowl created after a volcano partially collapses after eruption. That’s where I want to be. I want it to hold me too, so I can rest, and feel held myself.  

From that place I can hold the frame and shape of the new way. It makes me useful to others, including in the mainstream, because such a solid grounding enables folk to trust in what is a precarious process. It’s stable. And that’s what people need when they are stepping through this – some kind of sense of anchoring in an intangible process of power transformation and reconceptualization of so much that is believed to be true. It makes me useful to mainstream leaders and folk, and those building outside. I hope it makes me a touchstone, that can feed oxygen to so much change.

I also know that no one sits in the process alone. The change is ecosystemic, and my ability to have an impact is massively supported and enabled by relationship, collaboration and community with folk inhabiting their own space in the process. I hope I can be a strong heartbeat, alongside other beats and commitments to build the new.

How about you? I love collaborating with you.

Max: I love collaborating with you too.

You are right that achieving the type of change we are striving for needs to be ecosystem. It won’t be achieved through just one person or one group of people. We need to simultaneously put pressure on the dominant system across multiple fronts. This means we need to share our visions and practices, to be willing to collaborate, to build a sense of solidarity and unity, and to keep communicating.

As for me, what will I be doing? Where will I position myself? How will I use my one wild and precious life?

Right now, I am playing with the idea of being a rebel academic alongside being a practitioner and an activist. A prac-ademic. A pr-activist. Playing with the words. Mucking about. I don’t know what words to use really. What I mean is that I want to integrate all that I know and all that I am and bring it all together. I don’t want to save one set of skills for one context and keep them separate from another. I want to feel whole.

My decade as an academic was super useful for what I do now. My time as a youth worker shapes my perspective every day. My experience as part of our home educating family adds such a lot of depth to the things that I already knew and believed, and also challenges me to think and think and think again. Life is rich and learning is lifelong. You know this. Life is about reflecting and changing and pushing and challenging. Always trying. Always fighting.

I don’t know whether I will choose to return to the mainstream. I suspect not. I am not saying that I won’t work with folk in the mainstream, or even that I won’t do shorter-term pieces of work for mainstream institutions. But full-time? I can’t imagine making a decision that would put me back into that energy. I will gladly work alongside folk in the mainstream but I don’t want to be there myself.

The place I stand right now feels good, and healthy, and sustainable. Being freelance, running my own projects, working with people like you, co-leading The Lodge. This is a good life, a wild life, a precious life. I’ll take it.

Writing Alone, Writing Together: reflections on a process

Author: Max Hope

I usually write alone. By this, I mean that I am used to being the sole author of academic papers, blog posts, book chapters etc. I like writing alone. It means I have total control over what is said and how it is said. I take ownership of the argument and I get to make whatever case I feel I can convincingly make. I use the tone, the language and the structure that feels right for me. It’s my work and only mine. I might have to convince a publisher that it’s good enough to publish but I don’t have to convince another author. It stands or falls on its own merit. It’s my work, my words. If it’s written well, then it’s my way of being seen, of making a case, of having an impact.

So, why bother co-authoring anything? Why write with someone else?

I’ve looked back at my list of academic publications and am surprised to see that a dozen of them have been written with other people, some with as many as six people at a time. I remember back to how these were done, and there was no formula. Each one was different, depending on the people I was writing with, the motivation for writing, the case we were trying to make, and sometimes, the practicalities of having to meet a looming publication deadline.

Some of this co-writing was inspiring and motivating.

Most of it was not.

I’ve had experiences of writing first drafts of papers and sending them to co-authors who deleted huge sections and replaced them with, well, something incomprehensive, jargonistic and unclear. I’ve seen my writing watered down and washed out. I’ve seen my words being changed to make an entirely different argument. Worst of all, I’ve seen quotations from children and young people – which, for me, were the most powerful part – being cut because they didn’t count as ‘evidence.’ I’ve worked with co-authors who found it impossible to stick to a deadline and others who never produced anything at all. I’ve written alongside people whose writing needed so much editing that it took more work than if I had written it myself.

It has been exhausting and demoralising, and at times, incredibly frustrating.

But when it’s good, it can be great.

The most interesting co-writing process that I have been involved with is a recent one. I have been writing with Sophie Christophy, using a form of letter or email exchanges. We agree on a general topic area and some possible overarching questions, but we do not make a plan about what either of us will say or what the outcome of the dialogue will be. One of us writes a section and ends on a question. It then passes to the other person. Neither of us change a single word of what the other has written. Sophie’s writing style is different from mine, but this doesn’t seem to matter as the whole purpose of the writing is to be authentic and clear in our own voices. There is no editing. It ends when it ends.

There is no exact science to this way of writing, but this is what I think helps the process:

  • Choose a topic or question which has several equally valid positions so as to create a genuine dialogue
  • Support your writing partner by letting them know if the points they are making are not clear so that they can explain something in a different way
  • Ask the other person a real question which opens up discussion and gives them a chance to explore something from a different angle
  • Write from the heart
  • Be prepared to surprise yourself with what you might write
  • Keep each letter/email relatively short so that it helps with the dynamism of the final piece
  • Try to write your reply fairly quickly so as to prevent over-thinking and to maintain momentum
  • Be open to the multiple directions that the piece might take and do not try to predetermine the outcome in advance
  • Use this as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your writing partner
  • Publish the dialogue if you both feel comfortable to do so

I am curious about how many people could engage in this type of co-writing whilst maintaining a strong sense of flow and coherence. Could it be four, six, ten, sixteen, more? How easy would it be to write something which was interesting to the reader whilst staying true to the voices of each author?

In March, I am running a writing retreat with Sophie and we have set ourselves the challenge of co-writing something as a group and having it ready for publication by the time we finish. What will emerge from this process? What will we learn? What will we write?

I can’t wait to find out!

This blog post first appeared in February 2022 on https://maxhope.co.uk/blog/

What if?

Author: Alex O’Neill

What if the work we were here to do was greater than we have ever imagined?

Our bodies are a vessel for finding our way to others on the earth who will celebrate us, connect with us, and help us create something great. We may at any point only have a tiny inkling, like a whisper, of what that greatness might be, which we easily dismiss and brush away as nonsense. Or we might have a burning desire and passion, a solid knowing that you are destined to create something, but you don’t know how to create it or where to start, it seems too big and too crazy. We must listen to both of these, the quiet whispers and the burning desires. They are both true, and they are messages we must take heed of to live our truest potential.

So how to turn this whisper into a shout? How to unblock the barriers that halt our flood of energy that we want to throw into something we desire so much? It’s all in the brain.

As tiny babies, our brains develop at an amazing rate as we learn to navigate the world both physically and mentally. We have desires to move, to communicate, and to learn. And we are encouraged at every step to do that in the way that fits our cultures and our families. If we are brought up in a loving and connected home, we will develop these skills quickly and in a positive way. But no matter how wonderful our upbringing is, there will be neural paths created in our brains as we grow that are not supportive of where we want and need to go in our lives – neural pathways that tell us that we oughtn’t go in a particular direction, that we should keep quiet when we want to shout, or we should behave in a way that suits others rather than ourselves. This is a natural, human desire to create order and control and, as adults, try to teach our own understanding of what has kept us alive and “safe” for so long to our young children so that they can stay alive and safe too.

However, these neural pathways don’t necessarily always work for us. As we grow older and find our own ways in the world, they may become outdated and not make sense anymore. They may lead us down paths that we don’t want to go, or may in fact bring us closer towards danger rather than safety. Our parents desire for us to stay in the tribe by behaving like everyone else may eventually end up in us trying to fit into a crowd where we don’t belong, and feeling the desperation and depression that comes with that. We may have learned that staying slim and having fresh-looking skin means being healthy and accepted, but this may become an obsession with weight or painting ourselves in ways that don’t represent who we are inside.

So as we grow older, we need to refine our pathways, adjust them and change them so they work for the new us who emerges. Our brains will do their very utmost to keep us safe in our old ways and habits, as they have kept us safe for so long, but now is the time to change up our behaviours and our thinking and use the neuroplasticity of our brain to create new ways for us to behave and think.

Let’s go back to that little whisper… How could you fan the flame of this desire? It needn’t be life-changing, just a little extra waft of something, a little different to what you normally do each day. An extra 10 minutes here, a new connection there, a brave little step. Take time to add fuel to that fire and grow it and see where it goes.

What about that burning ball of desire? How do we unleash that? Imagine there is a brick wall in front of your flood of passion, you need to start picking out one brick at a time. What are the biggest things that block you? Don’t have enough time? Give yourself an extra 10 minutes a day, or one hour a week. Feeling like you’re never going to be good enough? Write down one thing that you are great at, notice the change in how you feel when you remember that. As you pick bricks out that are blocking this path, the structural integrity of the wall will weaken, and eventually will crumble. Go slow, do it a bit at a time, the downfall will come.

Each small change we make in our lives is one tiny neural network change that will build you up to who you want to be, who you truly are. The more we strengthen these pathways, the easier they are to continue following and the sooner your tiny whisper or your burning desire will become reality.

For inspiration, ideas on how to turn your dreams into reality, and an understanding of how our brain underlies what we do in our lives, check out Alex’s Limitless podcast at http://limitlesscommunity.podbean.com/.

Desire Lines in Education

Author: Lorna Norton

Lorna Norton provides an insight into off-piste paths that veer away from mainstream education and their implications on future planning.

Recently I stumbled upon an article from 2018 about desire lines1, the paths people choose to walk instead of the prescribed pavements and pathways made by local governments. The more I began delving into this lovely phenomenon, the more I saw the similarities in choosing a holistic approach to education. More and more families are choosing to step away from mainstream education and follow different approaches to educating their families. It seems fitting to find the similarities in language used to describe this social curiosity and alternative education. 

As I continued reading the article, the wonderful Robert Macfarlane called desire lines “free-will ways” and, with that, my ideas were solidified. The freedom to make our own physical paths mirrored in the phrases you often hear when it comes to alternative education – “following the path less trodden” or “off the beaten path”. And that’s exactly what these desire lines are – pathways people choose with their feet, not chosen for them by others less invested in their journey. 

“If you’ve been walking the same route for years, an itchy-footed urge to go off-piste, even just a few metres, is probably something you’ll identify with …” The Guardian1 

With the numbers of families choosing to flexi-school and educate at home on the rise, listening to the struggles of mainstream education seems to be providing the shift into alternative ways of educating our children. We’re listening to reports and accounts of the difficulties the current education system is facing² ³, the place the majority of our society put their faith in educating our youngest. I’ve had countless conversations recently with families who just aren’t aware of their options and choices when it comes to schooling. It comes as such a surprise to them when we talk of concepts like flexi-schooling, the part-time arrangement between family and school where children are able to access both home education and school education. Doesn’t it seem like the perfect desire line to be able to carve out a path for your own family based on the needs of your children? It’s not a part-time option of shirking responsibility and cutting corners; rather the beautifully positive option of giving children the opportunity to access more. 

“… the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path …” A Furman⁴

There are still so many antiquated views on home education as a defiance or inability to follow societal norms. The community I reside in still regularly faces challenging questions from friends, family and even strangers in the street about their education choices. Desire lines are often referred to as “collective disobedience”, where people shun the prescribed paths and roads. Those responsible for town and rural planning I’m sure feel the frustrations of finding these paths emerging and yet, these are the paths made from the privilege of free will and personal choice. 

“An individual can really write their own story. It’s something really powerful if you do have that agency to move.” A Furman⁴

The forefront of the Department for Education’s planning is the wellbeing of children and their education; guiding people onto the mainstream paths proves the most efficient way of ensuring that for them. Desire lines beyond urban centres are often made by animals – grazing herds of cattle followed then by hikers off their course – but over time it seems that even these paths, made out of a natural ability to read the land, become etched in. When planning legal rights of way for maps, these new paths often become the permanent mapped line. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the education paths people are choosing to become part of the framework for a new mainstream map of education? I love to think there could be a consideration of both. A mutual understanding of both sides of the planning, for the bigger picture. No one knows a child as well as their family – surely there should be a respect that those wanting to educate their children will have the child’s best interest at heart. In my utopian belief of education, individuals are able to access the realms of education they deem to be most appropriate for their family, situated within their individual community, culture and circumstance. Whether that’s mainstream, flexi-schooling or home education or a beautiful mixture. 

“… desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others. They also fascinate scholars, inspire artists, and enchant poets.” New Yorker⁵

Of course, it goes without saying that there are always anomalies to the norm – when desire lines start to have an impact on the environment via erosion and are of detriment to the safety of individuals. This too is the same for people choosing home education, when the safety or wellbeing of the child may be in question. The new talk of more strict monitoring of home educators in my mind isn’t to tighten the reins and control; I see it only as a necessity to protect those who need it. This is where a mutual understanding and consideration of the desire to step off the beaten path really is essential. A little effort to assess adequate learning opportunities on a case-by-case basis could be a more enlightened way of addressing the desire lines of home education but only by those who have the credentials, experience, understanding and respect. Sadly, I fear that, because of the distinct lack of funding in this vitally important education pot, it’s not a realistic dream. If we’re able to retrain neural pathways to help reprogramme our thought processes, is it too much to ask that education policymakers follow suit? To ask that they see education not as a fixed entity but a constantly evolving flow, just as natural learning is?

Fuelled by the current turbulence in education post COVID lockdowns, perhaps this new wave of home educators – those choosing to create desire lines who have previously been on the mainstream paths – will be heard on a more equal footing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take the democratic approach to seeing where the people choose to lay their paths, re-turf the proverbial playing field and see what emerges? 

References

  1. Bramley EV (2018), Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy the urban planners, The Guardian, www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/oct/05/desire-paths-the-illicit-trails-that-defy-the-urban-planners
  2. NAHT (2021), A failure to invest – the state of school funding 2021, https://www.naht.org.uk/News/Latest-comments/News/ArtMID/556/ArticleID/1223/A-failure-to-invest-the-state-of-school-funding-2021
  3. Cox D (2021), The government’s mystifying failure to ‘level up’ schools, https://www.ft.com/content/97ef1a30-3bc4-46dd-9fdb-908440e9db13
  4. Furman A (2012), Desire Lines: determining pathways through the city, https://www.witpress.com/Secure/elibrary/papers/SC12/SC12003FU1.pdf
  5. Moor R (2017), Tracing (and Erasing) New York’s Lines of Desire, New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/tracing-and-erasing-new-yorks-lines-of-desire 

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* This post was originally published in December 2021 at: https://www.kithhomestead.com/blog/desire-lines-in-education


Lorna Norton is the founder of Kith Homestead, a holistic education space for families and individuals in Yorkshire. A wife and mother, she’s an advocate for natural learning, community-based education and child development. With 15 years of experience working with children and a degree in psychology and education, Lorna is providing families with opportunities to learn. www.kithhomestead.com

Rewilding and Deschooling: a dialogue between Max Hope and Sophie Christophy

Authors: Max Hope & Sophie Christophy

Max Hope, Director of Rewilding Education and advocate of freedom is passionate about rewilding and is excited about how concepts of rewilding can be used to ignite radical educational change. Sophie Christophy, Co-Founder of The Cabin and unschooling parent, is a feminist and children’s rights activist and originator of the concept of consent-based education. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they discuss whether rewilding, deschooling and unschooling are simply different names for the same thing, and debate whether these look and feel the same in practice.

Max: I want to radically change education. For me, the formal education system in this country – by which I mean schools, colleges, and universities – is completely dysfunctional. It is rigid and constraining and it treats all children and young people as a homogeneous group. It distorts our experiences of our own selves. It shapes children’s self-esteem by valuing and prioritizing some types of learning over others (academic over creative, emotional, sensual, practical etc.). It sets children up against one another. It is obsessed by measuring and assessing. It totally separates us, as human beings, from the natural world. Do I need to go on?

I am increasingly drawn to the idea of rewilding education. By this, I mean bringing in the wild, connecting to self-will, trusting our inner selves, tuning into authenticity. I want us all, as human beings, to feel deeply connected to the natural world, to feel a part of an ecosystem. I want education to be offered in a way that enables freedom, space, spaciousness, trust, playfulness and spontaneity. I want to connect to the wild. I want to honour each individual and our place in the world. I want us all to belong, to feel connected, and to strive to make the world a better place.

You use the language of unschooling and deschooling. You invite me to use this language alongside – or instead of – the language of rewilding. Can you tell me more about what these terms mean to you? 

Sophie: There isn’t a big gap for me between what I understand unschooling to be and what you mention above in your description of rewilding education – deschooling is for me the process by which someone who has been schooled goes through in order to unlearn and decondition themself from schooled ways, beliefs and biases, in order to unschool and hold unschooling space and relationship for others. Unschooling is a movement and a way, a practical and actionable response to the problems that you identify with the education system. Unschooling acknowledges those problems, identifies them as being unacceptable, and then decides to do differently. For each of the issues (and more not yet mentioned), there is a response. Where the system is rigid, unschooling is dynamic, fluid and ever evolving. Where the system homogenizes young people as a group, unschooling recognizes that young people – like people of all ages – are unique people, with different needs, wants, interests, ways of doing things, paths, priorities, identities and more. 

Crucial to unschooling, and deschooling process, is recognising, valuing, and seeking to protect a person’s connection to themself. This connection is easily disrupted and damaged – especially in our culture that has little regard or care for a babies/toddlers/children sense of self. In childhood especially, when our need for relational attachment and security is really peaked and dominant for survival reasons due to our dependency on our caregivers, our connection to self and our own authenticity is especially vulnerable. We will surrender our selves before we risk rejection from those we are dependent on.  Part of deschooling is the healing work to reconnect to ourselves again, in order to then unschool. The language is confusing but there is an important difference between the work of deschooling ourselves, and the experience of unschooling.

Unless people in care giving roles make a special effort to recognise and honour the sense of self of babies and children, a ‘normal’ childhood experience in our culture leads to all kinds of damage, disorientation and separation. But perhaps I’ve strayed from your original question here. I’d like to know though, where do you think getting ‘unwilded’ starts? I am proposing it is as soon as we are born, and start to engage with the relationships and childhood culture in our society that discreetly starts to sever us from ourselves by 1000 cuts…

Max: I like the phrase ‘sever us from ourselves’, that’s a powerful image. If we define wild as ‘self-will’, then I can see that there is a clear overlap between rewilding, deschooling and unschooling. They are concerned with self-will, with authenticity, with deeply tuning into ourselves. They are trying to avoid the severance of human beings from themselves, or in the case of rewilding and deschooling, to enable people to heal from the severance and to re-connect with themselves. I can see that. Our underpinning agendas are similar here.

My question to you, though, is whether unschoolers are also concerned with our severance from the natural world? For you, is there a problem here, and what do unschoolers do about it? I watched a TED Talk by Logan LaPlante (aged 13) who defined his approach to education as ‘hack-schooling’ (which I took as being similar to unschooling) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY ). He chose to spend one day per week in nature, and he talked about gaining a deep and spiritual connection to nature, as well as making spears and fires and shelters and having fun. This was his choice. He self-directed this experience. He wanted it to happen. Is he unusual in this, or is this a common thread for many unschoolers?

In direct response to your question, yes, I think ‘unwilding’ starts at birth. Or even before birth, if you have any interest in pre- and perinatal psychology. As a culture and as a society, we have in-built processes which disconnect us from ourselves and from the natural world. It is hard to imagine that any child, young people or adult has managed to avoid this.

Sophie: There are people who, in pregnancy, birth and the time that follows, have an awareness of the threats of ‘unwilding’, though they would use other language to describe this. People proactive in trying to reduce those risks, and push back, or rather, protect what could be called a ‘wilder process’. There are also birth workers active in this effort too. I’m saying this because it’s important to me that this effort not be erased. There is a history to this and an ongoing movement.  

In regards to your question, it is very common amongst unschoolers that I know (I live in a rural context, but am connected to broader unschooling community online) to be nature connected and environmentally aware. I also think that the power dynamic of unschooling – power with and not power over – doesn’t normalise dominator culture as school does, is potentially enabling to unschoolers in seeing that they are of nature themselves, not separate from or above it. 

What if we flip this question on its head, and ask why people become nature separated in the first place? I would argue that school and schooling separates us from and confuses us about our role in natural world and the land we live on. It also robs us of time to be in it. The film In My Blood it Runs tells a story of how this happens from an Aboriginal perspective of modern day (colonial) schooling in Australia.  Our system isn’t different, we just don’t have Aboriginal folk like Dujuan to point out its problems to us (although I think children here do to try to tell us in their own ways). 

I’m not saying that all unschoolers have a strong desire to spend a lot of time out and about in the woods (some might be more cave folk than tree folk 😉 for example), and family interests and priorities no doubt play a part, but unschooling creates a lot more time and space to follow your instincts, think about what is important, and to connect with nature at your own pace and your own way. My observations from the self-directed education setting that I co-run is that there is an innate drive in children to go out and be in nature. 

As a child did you ever, as I did, gaze longingly out the window and the blue sky and sun, whilst being stuck in a classroom for the fifth day in a row (and seeing that as normal)? Unschoolers can accept nature’s invitation. I think that humans are likely predisposed to seek nature connection, just like human connection, as a basic human need, but most are obstructed from doing so in a way that unschoolers are not.  What do you think?

Max: Did I ever gaze longingly out of the window? Yes, I am sure I did. I loved to go outdoors, jump over the stream, get covered in mud, play football, fly kites. I also loved to stay inside, watching TV, reading books, playing board games, watching more TV and chatting to friends.  As a child of my time, we did not have computer games, endless channels on TV, YouTube, Facebook or any of the other technologies that children and young people have easy access to today, and I cannot be sure what impact these options might have had on me. I think they might have enticed me to stay inside more often.

It is not just school culture that is responsible for separating children from themselves, from each other and from the natural world. There is a plethora of other influences too.

I understand your point about unschooling offering more opportunities for nature connection, for being outdoors, for following instincts. I can see that unschooled children and young people have more time for this, and they might be in a family culture which values these types of activities.

My question though, is whether developing a deeper connection with the natural world is necessarily an outcome of unschooling? If children and young people are genuinely and authentically able to self-direct their own experiences, I am yet to be convinced of the inevitability of them choosing to stay connected, or reconnect, with the natural world. They might utilise their freedom and self-will to pursue entirely different endeavours. Is this a fair conclusion to reach?

Sophie: Unschooling requires a deep connection to our core nature/self. I am using these terms interchangeably because that is how I understand them to be. What is rewilding if it isn’t about creating optimal conditions for ‘nature’ to be able to express itself?  Being ‘self-directed’ is being directed by our own nature – being ‘nature-directed’ – directed by our own nature. 

When it comes to being connected to or reconnected to the natural world, then that is an interesting question isn’t it. And deserves some exploration and considering as to what we actually mean by the ‘natural world’ and what we mean by being ‘nature connected’. I would particularly like to interrogate if we have a shared belief about what ‘nature connectedness’ actually looks like in practice, and what might inform the ideas about that. 

I think there are many, many different ways to experience nature connection, many different behaviours that can be demonstrative of nature connectedness. I also think that it isn’t a black and white situation – of either someone being nature connected or not. I would like us to bust open some assumptions and stereotypes here as well – like for example that being a gamer or utilising screen-based technology means by definition that you are not also nature connected. 

So, my question to you is, What do you mean by the ‘natural world’, and what does being ‘nature connected’ look like and mean to you?

Max: Being nature connected. Hum. The phrase ‘nature connection’ is used so frequently in the circles that I move in, and yet it is rarely defined. Now you have pushed me to explain it, I am finding it quite difficult. The obvious response is to talk about feeling a connection to the natural world, to plants and trees and birds and animals. ‘Nature connection’ activities often include fire lighting and sit spots and sleeping out under the stars. 

And yet, in this moment, I am feeling that this response is inadequate, because human beings are a part of nature, and not bystanders to nature. As your own 7-year old said a few weeks ago, ‘We are Nature’. And so, what does this mean for nature connection? Is it also about connecting to the nature within ourselves, to the wild inside? Is ‘nature connection’ about tuning into our own internal nature, and deeply connecting to this? Do we start with ourselves or with the wider, living world? Does connecting with one impact on our ability to connect with the other? As I said, hum.

I totally agree that this is not a clear-cut issue. Nature connected: yes or no? Deschooled: yes or no? Rewilded: yes or no? There are so many shades of grey, so many nuances. It is far more helpful to see these as spectrums where we can be further along, in different ways, and at different moments in time. I know that this is certainly true for me. My personal journey to rewild myself is long and complex and, at times, feels like one-step-forward-two-steps-back. I wonder if this is the same for your own personal deschooling and unschooling journey?

Back to education. In your view, if the process of deschooling and rewilding are the same thing, what are the implications for my aspiration to rewild education, or in your terms, make it more like unschooling? Can you imagine that it is possible for mainstream schools (or colleges or universities) to become any wilder? 

Sophie: Is it the same in my deschooling journey? With one step forwards and two steps back, as you say? I think that it is a journey for sure, with winding paths, experiences along the way and aspects that can challenge our progress. I think that as with journeys generally, there are different ways to approach them, different factors influencing them, and different experiences and outcomes as a result. I am very keen and dedicated to getting as far along as I can, as consciously as I can, and ideally, with as many other people as I can, and that dedication does affect my journey and state of deschooling I think. I would rather ‘rest’ than take backward steps if I can help it. I am aware of the things that can cause backwards steps and where possible, I really do try to be boundaried regarding those things because I don’t like to feel dragged back into more schooled way of being. I try instead to put myself in places that are encouraging me and inviting me on. 

On to your other question – is it possible for mainstream schools to become any wilder? Not without massive consciousness raising and shifting of those who hold power and influence. People in the mainstream have to break open like I have had to do, like you have had to do, in order to accept how dysfunctional the current system is, how badly it separates us from ourselves, and really understand the impact of that. How it currently does the opposite of what is wild, by dominating and colonising our bodies, hearts and minds, disorientating and distancing us from our selves. You can’t solve the problem if you aren’t willing to look at the problem, right to its edges, to its core and to the deepest parts of its roots. And we both know how painful and hard that experience can be, how debilitating even at times.

I think a question those of us wanting to see this change need to ask ourselves is: what part can we play in this? I believe that those of us that can see this problem are here and can see it for a reason, and have a profound, incredibly important role to play. I think we each have something miraculous and personal to contribute to the process, unique to who we are and as an offering from our own path. 

Max: What part can we play in this? What a great question. No simple answer though. The issue, for me, is that we live in a world in which mainstream schooling is the overriding culture, and where attending these schools is the predominant experience for most children and young people. Alternatives – elective home education, self-directed settings, private schools – are still only available to a tiny percentage of children. And so, if we want to affect change, which I know that you and I both do, we have to decide where to put our energies. 

When people live in built-up, over-populated urban areas, they might be tempted to conclude that they can’t do any rewilding of the land, that this is some sort of fad or trend that is only available to rich folk in rural areas. Not so. There are loads of fantastic stories of people who are rewilding urban spaces. People can make significant impacts in small corners of the world, within the space that is available to them.

I hope that this is also the case within mainstream education.

I absolutely agree that mainstream schooling culture needs to be radically transformed. The ecosystems within mainstream schooling cultures need to become freer, fairer, healthier, and wilder. Is the challenge too big? Is there any point in trying? I work from the position of optimism, of believing that individuals can make a tangible difference. I believe that we can work to rewild small spaces in education, whether this be within the heart of one teacher, or one classroom, or the culture within one bunch of teachers.

I want more, and I feel an urgency around this. But to some extent, this is a strategic decision. I wonder whether the language of rewilding might be more palatable than the language of unschooling? Do you think that inviting mainstream educators to ‘deschool’ themselves might be more confronting than asking them to ‘rewild’ themselves, even if you and I believe that these are actually a similar thing?

Sophie: I don’t want to get stuck in the problem – and trying to answer all of the questions that you raised risks doing that to me. We could try to answer them all, but how much time would have passed between now and then? Time when we could be taking actions in our lives to make a difference, rather than thinking about what actions we might want to take. I’ve felt this time pressure keenly because I had to make choices to do with my own children’s education and those choices couldn’t wait because they were forced by their age. I do really believe in being strategic and holding sight of the bigger picture. But I also think that what matters maybe more is getting on, from where we are, in our own lives, and not worrying too much as to whether it’s the best most fool-proof action that will change everything for the better, but trust that doing something will take things on in the process in a positive way. 

Everything takes energy – engaging with the nuances of the problem takes energy, and experimenting with creative solutions takes energy too. I think it’s really important that the balance of that is kept in check. And I think it’s important that in answering this question we make it as personal as possible, rather than hypothetical and generalised. What part can I play in this change, what can I do? I take this issue so seriously I’ve been willing to put myself on the line for it. I’ve made decisions that have been perceived by others as risky, things that have resulted in a lot of isolation and have othered me. I’ve taken what would be considered by others as ‘risks’ in regards to my own children. And I’ve held that line. Creating the new in whatever way we can is what manifests the future and change that we want to see. 

That’s been my belief – make the future now by creating spaces and behaving in ways that are in keeping with what we are working towards. Making a commitment to this is crucial, and for me in my life, this commitment has had a very practical and life changing connotation. Commitment and action are two things that I think are needed for those of us working on this. Accept that things are fucked so you don’t keep asking questions about it or have to keep on convincing yourself over and over again in the problem phase or by convincing others or seeing others agree. Then decide what for you the answer is to this – what is it that the different way and future needs to look like, so things aren’t fucked. Commit to that vision so you don’t need to keep questioning it. And then act like you are making that vision come true now. As many decisions as possible made in the image and honour of that vision. And that is now new futures are manifest in reality. So, let’s try again and get personal AF – when I say, ‘what part do we have to play in that?’, what I mean is what part do you, Max Hope, in all your gloriousness, experience and passion, have to play in this, in real, actionable terms?

To be continued …