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The dance of the unseen

This blog was first published on the Explorer X website .

Under the giant ceiba tree. Photo by Jacob Wise

We are deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, staying with the Cofan people in their village by the river.

Before we go out to the jungle camp where we are going to stay for three nights, I ask Randy, the Cofan chief, for his advice on listening to trees. His first piece of advice is: “Appreciate the immensity of the forest. Feel the number of trees. Like you feel the amount of earth in a mountain.” The second is: “Feel what is unseen in the forest, whether it is spiritual or microscopic.” He told of how when the Cofan people were able to look through a microscope at plants from a forest, they were not at all surprised by what was previously unseen. They know that there is so much that we don’t see.

“It’s a great dance”, Randy says. “We can only see part of it”.

I am on this journey as part of my travel to research a book on trees, listening to trees in different ways to understand what they can tell us about climate change and our relationship with nature. I had come across Gordon Hempton’s work in listening to nature a number of years ago, and jumped at an opportunity to learn to listen to trees with him in this place.

The advice that Gordon gave us on the first day was to listen to the sound of the place, not individual sounds. The task is to expand our listening outwards, beyond what is normally heard, what is normally seen, what is normally felt. If, as Randy said, it’s a great dance that we can only see part of, we can only hear part of it as well.

Sloth by the Zabalo river.

The journey, for me, is a trip into seeing the unseen in different ways. My eyes and ears become better accustomed to spotting the animals and birds in the trees. One day, three of us are floating down the dark waters of the Zabalo river in a canoe. I see and hear water dripping from a palm tree. I am curious as to why. We draw closer. It turns out that the water is dripping from a sloth. We watch as he continues to climb slowly, slowly, up the tree and then to cross the river by a branch bridge, until he is lost to sight. We were lucky to see this sloth, but he could so easily have remained unseen if his dripping hadn’t given him away.

I heard the unseen of the water rising from the ground through the roots of the trees, being drawn upwards, skywards, to nourish these great trees. I listened with Gordon through special microphones he had rigged up, and through a microphone placed on the surface of the tree, to the mystery of these trees, the sound pulsing like a heartbeat. We heard the unseen of the many birds and the rumbling of the howler monkeys as we listened to an amplifed dawn chorus in the jungle.

And on the first night in the jungle camp, I wake from a dream. I see in front of me a white shape, spreading, knobbly and gnarly. It has eyes and is smoking a pipe. Somehow I know that this is the spirit of a tree.

In the morning, I recount the experience to Josh, Randy’s son and our guide. “It sounds like you were visited by the forest people”, he says. In the night, I had scrabbled for my notebook to record the experience, but I was in no danger of forgetting, it was firmly imprinted in my brain – and my heart.

At the same time as having such beyond the ordinary experiences, I was challenged in different ways on the trip. Challenged by physical discomfort when I was freezing cold and uncomfortable in hotel rooms as we travelled to and from the jungle. By my monkey brain as it wondered why I had come on this trip at all. By a case of diarrhoea and having to deal with that in the dark and the mud as the rain poured when I spent the night in the jungle alone on a solo.

But who knows what is going on in the unseen, even as I judge particular experiences as unpleasant or unwanted? And the journey doesn’t finish with the last group photograph and farewell hugs. Those seeds that have been sown continue to sprout, those root networks to strengthen, if we pay attention.

I look back to some of the responses that I wrote to the pre-trip questions, a planting of seeds before the trip had begun. “I would like to experience a connection with the trees and to be open to whatever they have to share with me… I want to call forth the spirits of the trees if they wish to communicate with me”. And I wrote that I was looking for an an answer to the question “How can I be of service?”. I am grateful to the tree guides for sharing their communication and their wisdom with me, as well as to the people guides. The experiences that I had deepened my desire to connect and co-create with nature through the imagination – and to want to be able to share with other people the magic that can arise through that connection. The book that I am writing is one way that I am looking to share these experiences. The journey also prompted me to sign up to a training course with the Animas Valley Institute later this year to become a guide to help people to experience this connection with imagination and nature.

In a further deepening of the web of connection, I mentioned this training to Jake, on the check-in call that we had a few weeks after the trip. He generously floated the possibility that perhaps I could work with Explorer X to offer precisely that opportunity, of guiding people on this journey of nature and imagination connection.

“There are different layers of the world, that co-exist, thinly layered, and which we can move between”, said Randy. That’s the dance that we are learning to be part of, to move between these worlds, with our senses, and remaining open to this mystery.

Reflections on the Zabalo river

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Olivia Sprinkel
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