Sustainability and Reclaiming the Wild Woman Spirit Within
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
I stared at the water. It was almost ten in the morning and the sun was finding it's way through the dense evergreen and fern forest over the lip of the ravine into the rocky steam bed. It was 38°. The water was 36°. Some would call it freezing...but it wasn't, not quite. A rotten log to my left became the towel holder, my bare feet wiggled nervously out of their leather boots. I had been breathing deep breaths the whole time, as though stockpiling oxygen for a Big Event. I felt a little nuts, excited, and scared, as though embarking upon a forbidden path to hidden secrets. As my toes dipped into the water, the air in my lungs tried to rush out on a reflex. Steadying my spirit, I inhaled deeply of the crisp air until my lungs could take no more. This deep breathing, a la Wim Hof, continued until my fuzzy, soft leopard print robe slipped off. I looked around hesitantly to ensure I was alone, and then I slid waist deep into the pool.
The water ran all around me like fluid ice, bubbling and babbling as it danced over the mossy rocks. Quartz stones glistened in narrow beams of sunlight and I steadied my gaze on one. My body began to shake, all the sensation in my toes gone. I kept breathing. Two minutes. My teeth began to chatter noisily. I willed myself to go another thirty seconds, counting each moment off slowly in my mind until a convulsion rattled my spine like an involuntary timer expiring. I stood up. Two minutes, twenty-six seconds. Next time, I would go longer.
Sitting in front of the heater afterward, thawing my toes had my cheeks and the corners of my lips tugging upwards. When was the last time I had quietly smiled to myself? I couldn't remember! My heart was calm, yet I felt like I was floating. It was a feeling of bliss, of energy coursing through my body, of being very much ALIVE. Not existing. ALIVE. Let's explore sustaining *that*!
I examined my smile for a moment, studying each wrinkle around my eyes. There were many. How many sun cycles had I deprived myself of these smiles? My left side had more lines than the right...a half hearted life, a half smile, only half in it. Suddenly, the tickle of resolve to even out the evidence of a-life-well-lived on my face tugged the right cheek up just a little bit more. A huff of a chuckle escaped my nose. Yes! That's it!
Embarking on the journey towards sustainability is more than researching the best composting toilet or solar battery bank to buy. It's more than finding land with wood, water, and stone. It's more than knowing how to garden and forage. Sustainability isn't knowledge or material things. It is rooted in something less tangible: our spirit, our wild soul, our mindset.
Scores of people dream about living off grid in a beautiful locale close to the land, escaping crowded, noisy, chaotic urban areas and judgy, lawn-ridden suburbs. They create the image in their mind of tiny homes and yurts on the edge of civilization. But how many really dig down and excavate WHY they crave these things?
The term "sustainability" comes from the Latin "sustinere" (which has its root in "tenere", meaning to hold; sub, under). In that sense, "to sustain" can mean to "maintain", "support", "uphold" or "endure". What can we maintain, support, and endure?
Too often, sustainability is considered in isolation, narrowly referring to climate change and how we, as humans, can support the planet while maintaining our population and our current standard of living. But have we dig any deeper into WHY? What's the motivation? Why do we want to maintain our standard of living? Ah, there it is... the hard questions have hard answers. When I asked myself these questions, the answers that rolled like icy water over rocks astounded me.
My standard of living was nice... big ranch home in the burbs with a yard, good 'nuff schools, a garden... but was I healthy? Was I happy? Was I living my best, most authentic life? No. I was not. Admitting this to myself brought an inward cringe: I had all this stuff, but I wasn't happy. Why?
Because it was a LOT to maintain and I didn't enjoy the maintenance process. I had a successful law practice, but the stress was intense. So much so that my health began to fail. I was staring down the decision of whether to follow Western Medicine protocols, including starting prescription drugs, or whether to further the lifestyle changes I had embarked upon and to deepen them. Drugs would only "paper over" the issue...it would not be cured, and would lurk in the shadows despite Western Medicine. It didn't feel like something I wanted to uphold or support or endure.
Ever a lover of efficiency, I began to wonder how I could align what was best for me with what was best for the planet. I wanted to embark upon this journey voluntarily instead of being forced by mandates, laws, and regulations.
What could I maintain? What could I uphold, endure, and support? It meant asking myself a question I had abandoned about 20 years ago: what did I love, and what brings me joy?
Clarissa Pinkola Estes covers this topic in her best selling book Women Who Run With The Wolves. The theory is that we discard our wild nature in favor of captivity and the " gilded carriage" - a life of exorbitant material comfort, but very little creativity, freedom, or joy.
Waking at 4:45 every morning and being at my desk by 6am brought me no joy; it alleviated anxiety by allowing me a few extra quiet hours to cross a few items off a never ending list of "to do's". The "to do" items had deadlines. The deadlines meant stress. I was good at my job, but it didn't bring me joy. Painting, writing, gardening, being in nature, baking cookies with my daughter, staring up at stars with my husband... those things brought joy. I looked around at my life only to come face-to-face with the depressing fact that my life was what was expected by my culture and society, and it was filled with stuff, activities, and circumstances that brought no joy and creativity... only conformity, material gains, and soul starvation, which in turn, led to a massive decline in health. And not just my health; the health of society, culture, and the planet.
Could I endure moving from a 2500 square foot house to a 300 square foot house? Could I trade in the burbs for a forest? Instead of asking what was expected from me by society and culture could I ask my spirit to guide me? Could I live off grid and embrace the dirt, branches, rain, and smoke? I wanted to find out. I had reached the point where, in order for me to reclaim my spirit and cease starving my soul, I needed to stand tall in the face of fear and leave my modern life behind, the life of the pretty shoes that hurt my feet to walk in, yet I smiled as though they fit. The life I lived for cultural approval didn't fit right, and over time, it crippled my feet. It was time to go barefoot, to let my toes spread and my heels to feel the ground beneath them. To connect my soles - and my soul - to the heartbeat of the planet.
There's a mountain stream on my burgeoning homestead. It began to whisper to me. I went down there, timidly at first, and dipped my fingers in. Before I knew it, I was down there almost daily, craving it's song, clearing away dead branches, leaves, and sticks to reveal it's clear water and sparkling stones. The stream became a metaphor for the process of sustainability: we gravitate towards what brings us joy and healing when we clear out the clutter and listen to the simple whispers within, letting us be guided by inner knowing. After we dip those fingers in, it's only a matter of time before we take the plunge and dive into those waters to discover what it is, deep within our wild core, that sustains us. It's where we meet our true selves, and it's where we reclaim our spirit so that we can integrate our individual path with our collective place in the cosmos, on this planet, and within our communities.
I recommend digging deep and taking the plunge, cultural norms be damned.