The Rewilding Academy

A week from now, Uncivilisation 2013 will be under way! In the last of our series of previews of this year’s Dark Mountain festival, Steve Wheeler – who “rewilds captive humans” – introduces the Rewilding Academy that he’ll be running throughout the weekend…

When animals have been raised in captivity, there is a necessary process of re-training they must undergo before they can be released back into the wild, one that enables them to recover their natural instincts to hunt or flee, that relieves them of their learnt dependency on the human institution, and that returns them to the kind of physical condition they would have naturally maintained through a life of continual movement and stimulation. This process is known as ‘rewilding’.

The term has since been extended to encompass entire ecosystems, describing attempts to return complex ecological networks to the kind of natural functioning that existed prior to large-scale human intervention. Anarcho-primitivists have also appropriated the word, meaning by it a programme of training in ‘primitive skills’ – bushcraft, tracking, hide-tanning and flint-knapping being regular favourites.

Many people are drawn to Dark Mountain, and to the Uncivilisation Festival – which takes place in Hampshire in only a week’s time, and for which tickets are still available! – because they too recognise within themselves a desire to cast off the constraints and conditioning of civilised life, and to reconnect to the deep nature of nature.

For some, this might mean simply having a chance to live under canvas for a few days, or to gather round a real fire with like-minded people. For others, poetry and art provide a bridge from our civilised consciousness back to the rhythmic swell of unquiet emotion. Ecopsychological exploration or the simple act of sharing fears, loves and truths together yet provide other ways of reconnecting. But, for many, there remains a sense of mediation, an unresolvable distance between their own being and the natural world that calls to them that no will, words or walks can erase.

For the last two Uncivilisation festivals, I have run sessions that sought to provide a different kind of rewilding: one that acknowledges that is not enough to turn domesticated humans out into the wild and expect them to immediately recover their buried instincts and feelings; one that recognises that we have all been conditioned by civilisation into certain persistent patterns of thought, behaviour and physical restraint; one that makes use of our remaining capacity for play, curiosity and learning to open a small crack in the armour, to give a brief glimpse of the path that can slowly lead us back to experiencing the fullness of our human nature.

This year, we have not one session of this kind of tomfoolery, but an entire strand of activities. We’re calling it “The Rewilding Academy”, the word ‘Academy’ being partly ironic – to remind ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously, and not to fall into believing that Rewilding can ultimately be anything other than self-taught – and partly as a distant echo of the original academy, Akademos’ grove, where truths were sought in the heart of nature, apart from the scrolls and stones of the city.

Our bodies are much abused, ignored and neglected in our civilised lives – and when we do remember them, we often apply the same harsh logic of control, ‘going for the burn’, ‘pumping iron’, toning, sweating and finally collapsing in a ragged-breathed heap of exhaustion. The first step in rewilding, then, is to reconnect to our bodies with gentleness, attention and good humour.

Each morning of the festival will start with a choice of Qi Gong – a traditional set of Chinese exercises that combine mindful breathing with gentle stretches and movement, led by myself and Tom Hirons – or Slow Yoga, Bryony Henderson‘s unique combination of gentle yoga postures and creative intent. For those who want to go further, Bryony will also lead an atmospheric candlelit session late on Saturday night.

We are also blessed with the presence of artist Anne-Marie Culhane, who will be guiding us in the subtle art of Fieldsensing; slow, mindful movement that allows the walker to absorb the full power of the natural environment around them. For those who would like to move through nature in a more dynamic flow, Vivo-certified barefoot running coach Naeem Akram will be on hand to teach the basics of barefoot movement, helping us to discover life beyond running shoes – if you’ve never felt the forest floor spin away beneath your feet, as your toes come alive and your natural reflexes reassert themselves, you’ve never really experienced running!

Rewilding is not just about techniques and attentiveness, of course; sometimes spontaneity and play are the royal road to rediscovering our wild selves. Mystery man Charlie Davies will be revealing the arcane secrets of ‘Kung Fool!’ to dedicated seekers on Saturday afternoon, about which I can only say: expect the unexpected. And leave the nunchucks at home. Meanwhile, in ‘Being Human,’ voice and movement facilitator Eliza Kenyon will be leading us in a very different kind of play, as she takes us off to a safe and private space to “explore what it is to be alive in sound and movement, to listen deeply for the wisdom of your own heart, body and mind, and to feel supported in taking the next step in your journey as a human being.”

Perhaps we learn the most about our wild selves when we combine together all of these elements: movement, mindfulness, play, and conversation. Dark Mountaineer, improviser and Doctor of Psychology Alex Fradera will be rounding off Sunday with a session called ‘The Honesty of Children’, exploring the connections between our playfulness and spontaneity, and the honesty and sincerity of our beliefs. And we are immensely excited that we will be joined on Saturday by Jorge Goia for ‘Games You Can’t Play Alone’. A capoeira teacher and direct student of Roberto Freire, Goia brings a wealth of experience and wisdom to this session, in which we will be exploring the connections between play, the body, and our relation to one another.

Oh, and apparently I’ve scheduled myself to do something called Full Circle on Sunday, where we turn the whole Academy on its head and discover everyone’s capacity to be their own (and my) best therapist…

Rewilding is not about returning to a pre-rational state. It’s not about daubing ourselves in woad and roaring at the moon (although if anyone else is up for that, I’ve got nothing scheduled for Sunday night). You may have noticed George Monbiot on the prowl recently, promoting his new book Feral and its vision of rewilding the British countryside. In it, he writes: “The rewilding of natural ecosystems that fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume.”

In the same way, our little human rewilding project is not an attempt to return ourselves to a pristine primordial state, or to deny the experiences we have had and the people we have become under the influence of civilisation. But our inner lives can often seem as barren and lifeless, as controlled and constrained as the deforested, monocultural fields of Britain. And perhaps, by joining together in gentleness, playfulness and honesty, we might risk letting the natural processes of our own inner ecology begin to resume. The forests will not grow back overnight, but the seeds can be planted. I hope you can join us in Hampshire.

The last ever Uncivilisation Festival takes place at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire, 15-19 August 2013. Tickets are available through Eventbrite.

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