Working towards progressive re-belonging

I have been challenged by fellow researchers and other co-inquirers on why I choose to make Camp Moria in Namibia and why I choose to do my work around belonging in nature there (specifically).

I understand the complexity of getting to the farm that is located in the lovely Khomas Hochland of Namibia. To be more specific still, it is in the Kuiseb ephemeral river basin on the border of the Windhoek and Karibib regions.

To get to Namibia you’d either have to fly or drive (far!) and to get to that magical address you need to drive – preferably with a larger type vehicle that can handle the rough dirt roads – a couple of hours more. I am aware that all of that driving and flying adds up in terms of carbon emissions and that challenges my intent to create a sustainability camp in that specific area.

Why Namibia and why in that desolate landscape?

I’d like to start closer to home. I want to challenge myself by actually starting at home! To cover some 38 years of hinterland in two paragraphs my memories start as a boy growing up on a farm in the South African Highveld. I remember spending as much time as possible outside trying to interact with every rock and tree on the farm.

I was heartbroken when my dad sold the farm and when we moved to town. “Town” was – and still is – a very small place where everybody knows everybody and gets involved in everybody else’s business; I hated living in town and escaped to the edges of town as regularly as possible. And now my family and I live on a plot just outside of the city where it is obvious that our two-year-old loves being outside as much as my wife and I do.

And as I sit here on this very blustery and cold winters morning looking out of the living room window on occasion, while starting to read “Edgelands” by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, the questions of “Why Namibia” and “Why that desolate landscape” are very front of mind for me.

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The view from my window

I am surrounded by nature and I only have to walk to the back of the house to be met with wild rabbits, a great many species of birds and the tell-tale sign that the porcupine crawled under the fence again leaving some of his quills where the fit was a little tighter than what he likes. At night I can take a headlamp and pass through the gate at the side of the garden and with a little bit of luck I’ll come across a Duiker or Steenbok (two species of small antelope). There is a family of Genet living in our roof and there are Bushbabies (also known as Galago) in the trees that surround our house. Everyone who has spoken to me on the phone or over Zoom while I was at home during the day knows that the Hadeda or Grey Loerie calls will cut across conversations. I am surrounded by nature and still I can feel the impact of home-making and human interference on what I am seeing; my appreciation of the nature that surrounds me is somehow diluted by the obvious bending of landscape to fit residential needs. In the daytime I can hear the regular flow of small aircraft flying overhead and from 5am – if the wind is just right – I can hear the cars and busses flowing into Pretoria.

During a group supervision call, my doctoral supervisor was also a voice that invited me to unpack this deeply embodied gravitational pull towards the ‘Wilderness’ (a term that we decided to use until I can wrap my head around what language I want to use to describe the particular setting) of Namibia. My answer positioned the description of ‘the nature that surrounds my home’ above and my epiphanic experience when a part of Epping Forest “kept on spitting me out when I was going too fast and I ended up on the sidewalk only to turn around a couple of times” (from my previous writing) and I became painfully aware of the human influence in and around the forest itself and how that influenced my sense of belonging.

Camp Moria also carries the scars of humanity in terms of roads, fences, livestock, and built structures… and yet there are vast areas of the terrain that show no signs of human existence. Unlike my home where bits of nature surround all the human-ness present, on Moria the bits of human-ness are swallowed by the vastness of mostly unsullied wildness. There are hyena, leopard, Oryx, Kudu, a couple of species of Jackal, Zebra, and many more fascinating creatures that naturally occur around the bits of human influence… and these are hunted to make way for livestock.

Why establish a camp of belonging and practice in Namibia? My immediate answer is more, although not completely, refined as before:

  • It lends an interface with relatively unspoilt nature that I think is needed to completely learn about deep belonging.
  • The camp can – hopefully – be shaped to represent a ‘centre of experience’ where practitioners in the ecological and leadership development spaces can come and engage in their practice.
  • The vision is to join with educational institutions to send their students to the camp for research and development purposes. The range of research may include, as an immediate example, ‘finding sustainable ways to cultivate vegetables in the Khomas Hochland in order to supply fresh vegetables to the local community’ or even ‘how to transition from cattle farming to conservation’.
  • Once the camp starts generating a profit, the camp’s footprint will expand to a point where we can completely remove the cattle meaning that we can actively remove all the internal fences. The ideology is to then buy up surrounding farms in order to create a conservational area and nature reserve.

Farley and Roberts (2011) explore “Edgelands” under a variety of objects (or “things” (p. 10) as they call it) like cars and woodlands. What really landed with me on my initial skimming through this book – I read the introduction and then couldn’t resist jumping to the chapter called “Woodland” as I hoped that it would speak to my experience in Epping Forest; I wasn’t disappointed. Although this Forest was once a flourishing Forest and then reduced to an edgeland, a barrier at the edge of town that separated town from wild – it is now surrounded by civilisation. And according to the authors, it is not strange at all that I wanted to get as deeply in amongst the trees as possible because this is deep within our true nature.

Farley and Roberts (2011) speak about how the development of our specific human genome over millennia is at the core of the “progressive detachment” (p.164) that we so readily display as a human characteristic. They then say: “[…] if the blessing of ‘progressive detachment’ is liberation from instinctive behaviour, and from that comes the birth of civilisation, then the curse is a sense of loss and longing” (2001, p.165). From the moment that I had that epiphanic moment in Epping Forest it feels like I am actually working towards ‘progressive re-belonging’. That deep, what I experience as harrowing, pull towards belonging in nature and belonging in general can be described by the almost untranslatable Welsh word introduced by the same authors: “Hiraeth”.

“Whole books are spent trying to explain this pull, this yearning, this sense of a lost but essential connection to the earth. The Welsh have a word that comes close, but with a different twist. Welsh poets use the word ‘hiraeth’, which describes an anguished sense of separation from home ground, from the land you know and love. It is much deeper than ‘homesickness’, but it is a kind of sickness. And the only cure, we’re told, is to go back. Back home, back to the forests and mountains, press your nose to the ground and know that this is where you came from” (Farley & Robert, 2011, p.165-166).

I know this feeling. It is this deeply embodied gravitational pull that I described during the supervision call mentioned above. In another supervision conversation my supervisor called this my ‘primeval sense of belonging’. And from that – excuse the rather big leap – I am pulled from an embodied place to both the wilderness and the edgeland. And somehow have glimpses that I feel more at home where I don’t bump up against humanity.

I share Farley & Robert’s question: “Is there a misanthropic edge to […] wilderness travel?” (2011, p.166) [note that I deleted the part where the authors position this as a question pertaining to the British nation]. I trip over this question because I don’t think that I am making a camp in the wilderness because I dislike people.

What shimmers in, and then escapes from, the edges of my self-understanding is that I am choosing to bring people to the wilderness to learn how to belong in aspects of their life and practice with the help of first belonging in wild-ish nature… perhaps I have a deep sense of how the influence of things like pavements and highways impact on my own inner and outer work around belonging and connecting (fully?).

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