The Wild vs. Civilization by ©TreeGirl
This is a guest blog which is part of a series entitled Women’s Passion for Trees written by writer and photographer Julianne Skai Arbor – a.k.a TreeGirl. Her work (www.treegirl.org) has inspired us for years and we are thrilled to share her journey with you. This is part of our on-going invitation for TreeSisters everywhere to share their magical tree stories.
For 37 out of 46 consecutive days I was naked in the wild.
I returned recently from an ecstatic expedition Down Under to the exotic lands (for us northerners) of Australia and New Zealand for an epic TreeGirl photo shoot. With the exception of a few days of exclusive travelling and visiting relatives, every day for 7 weeks I was either flying to a tree’s location or driving to a tree’s location, and then hiking to a tree’s location, to photograph myself naked with a tree. For the most part, I was adventuring solo, excluding a few days with a couple of generous, local arborists as my guides, and later, a spirited band of extremely gracious pro photographers during a spectacular workshop in New Zealand. It was the most consecutive days I’ve ever spent with focused, determined, disciplined, hard-working TreeGirl intention, deeply intertwined with camera and nature:it was an immersive, self-directed intensive of thrilling, and sometimes exhausting, earthiness.
The last and best of them all: a grand Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) – native to California, in Awhitu State Park, North Island, New Zealand.
Let me tell you what can happen to a person who engages intimately with the wild, day after day, for hours upon hours, returning to civilization and human culture at night (to a hotel, home, camper-van, or one unfortunate unprepared night in the back of my tiny rental car): it transforms you. You become completely comfortable in your body – anywhere, and quickly prefer being outside rather than in. And that’s not all. My nature expedition was not the same as a backpacking trip, a vision quest, or another form of isolation from other humans. Mine was an concentrated course in traveling back and forth between a kind of ecstatic contact with complex, untamed and unknown ecosystems crowded with life forms, that were new and different each day, to a predictable concrete world of walls with switches and thermostats, of hot showers and soft beds, of warm plates of mostly really good and well-earned dinners. Of course, every day I had to navigate city streets or airports and my very ambitious itinerary. I was virtually on the move at every moment if I wasn’t sleeping.
The cozy and magical Silver Beech Forest on the Kepler Track in Te Anu, Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand.
My spiritual quest was dependent entirely upon the technology of the civilized world: the data on my cell phone to help me map and locate each road, town, national park and hotel. Seven rental cars, fifteen airplane flights, buses, trains, signs, currencies, credit cards and all the modern miracles of a civilized world made my itinerary possible in a very concentrated amount of time. Without my laptop, adaptors, camera, batteries, chargers, microphone, remote control, tripod, compact flash cards, GoPro, and iPhone – all of which I prayed so hard not to loose – I would not have been able to document my journey or create my TreeGirl photos, videos and finish my book – the whole purpose of me travelling in the first place.
Setting up my shot with a giant Red River Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) in a forest of old growth gums, near Wilmington, South Australia, which I could have only found with the help from my eucalyptus expert and colleague. (photo credit: Dean Nicolle).
While my entire trip was planned out ahead, day-by-day, tree-by-tree, I had no concrete idea of what it would be like to travel to get to my destination, or who or what I’d encounter. I never knew if I would actually find the tree I was searching for. I spent hours hiking, listening to the stories playing out around me in the forest, usually, but not always, finding my treasure, and trying to be invisible to humans passing by on the trails. Once I entered the forest, I was not one of them anymore; I was the forest too (a visitor, a foreigner, yes, but a wild creature nonetheless).
Once the introduction with a tree is made, the intention set, the camera is set up and then clothes come off, my awareness falls even deeper into wild consciousness. Sometimes photographing was so blissful for me that hours would go by, dusk would come, and I wouldn’t want to, but had to, stop. Even when I was driving, I felt more connected to the land outside my window whizzing past me than the culture of the other occupied vehicles on the road.
Every day was a naturalist’s paradise.
Setting up a for a shot (only to be halted moments later by a sudden downpour) directly after my tick attack and right before my leech attack, in Border Ranges National Park, NSW.(photo credit: Robert Stavrou)
Some plants, trees, animals, and invertebrates became familiar to me day after day, while many others were always an exotic stranger to me: “hello plant, hello fungus, hello bird, hello crawling thing, hello mystery tree!” Including hybrids, there are approximately 1000 species of Eucalyptus in Australia (all looking different from each other, and different during different seasons), and dozens of more tree species. Each of the 30+ tree species I photographed became a new friend, lover, community, while some were simply strangers that, with regret or out of respect, I would not be able to get close to.
The common raven-like Black Currawong bird guarding the entrance to the Waldheim Forest, Cradle Mt. National Park, Tasmania.
Surprisingly for me, the animals I unexpectedly encountered along the way filled me with elation just as much as the trees I was searching for did: kookaburra, galah, pademelon, koala, python, goanna, echidna, wallaby mum and and joey, possum mum and baby, butterfly, blue lobster, green frog, platypus, spotted quoll, the Wombat King of the enchanted Waldheim forest, and the many, many more critters who I encountered and who were hidden, but watching me. All those exotic beings, seen and unseen, along with the light, the dark, the sounds, the smells, the movement, the moisture, the dryness, the mystery of the forests – was thick with life force energy.
Wallaby mum and joey in Bunya Mountains National Park peacefully co-inhabiting the campground, but not without curiosity and suspicion.
Home is ‘almost’ everywhere in nature to a TreeGirl.
I was clearly far away from the familiarity of my home, which made my journey more exciting than frightening. Still, I felt almost at home everywhere I went, in the same way that a friend welcomes you as a guest into their home: it's their home, not yours. The ‘almost everywhere’ comes from a learned knowing that there are some wild places that are off limits, even to a good-intentioned TreeGirl approaching a sacred forest in humility with love and an offering. While I found most forests, trees and ecosystems on this journey welcoming me with open limbs and branches, there were a few tree spirits that simply tolerated me climbing on them. One massive strangler fig tree had a designated side that humans frequently visited and photographed, while spirits chose to inhabit the other for privacy. I respectfully did my work in collaboration with the trees that welcomed me and avoided those few who did not. It was increasingly clear to me that one ‘creepy’ forest, as I ventured deeper into it, was home to female aboriginal ancestor spirits who told me loud and clear that as a white woman, I was not welcome to visit this sacred tribal land. I left hastily and humbly, grateful that I and my van made it out in one piece before dark.
An unusual, but welcoming, Blackbutt tree (Eucalyptus pilularis) in the remote Middle Brothers National Park in New South Wales, which I intuited as sacred aboriginal land that should be off limits to white visitors, is home to many champion Blackbutts, and sneaky leeches.
Intimacy with the Wildmeans respect.
Of course, nearly every inhabited place on the Earth has been sacred land to its native people, as well as home to thousands of living creatures. When we visit any place, we are outsiders to a community, and we step back in time to a home of spirits and ancestors that still live there in non-linear reality. The land (and water) forever retains memory of everyone (human and more-than-human) who has ever been there. The intuitive sense – psychic, shamanic, sometimes inter-species communication – whatever you want to call it – is a key component of my work. It helps me find trails, warns me when people are coming, and tells me of safety and danger. It is something that I have developed over the years that is accessible to anyone who is open to: something all human organisms possessed before we became civilized. Tuning into this sense makes one’s experience richer, deeper and safer when engaging with the wild.
This wind-blown hedge of Monterey Cypresses (Macrocarpa cupressus) is the shelter for hundreds of sheep at South Point, South Island, New Zealand. They all had wool coats on to protect them from the chilly 45 degree F. temperature, whereas, I just had my intuition that kept telling me to stop and put my clothes back on.
Engaging intimately with the Wild also means knowing what and who is dangerous and respecting that for both your own safety and the honoring of others privacy. In Australia, the five types of tropical rainforests have the most concentration of dangerous organisms on the planet! I was extremely ‘lucky’ on my adventures because I had done my naturalist research, and had called in some shamanic protection help. However, I did have a few encounters with parasites that left me feeling less likely to spontaneously step off the trail to lay down in a forest floor or climb onto a random tree – each of which may be home or route for thousands of hazardous organisms such as snakes, ticks, spiders, leeches, and biting ants, to name a few. Most critters are more scared of you, and will protect themselves. However, others are looking for an easy target: hence ‘parasite.’
Don’t try this at home! A Blue Quondong (Elaeocarpus angustifolius) tree is habitat for nests of baby ticks, in Border Ranges National Park, where I learned a hard lesson on intimacy in the tropics.
Yes, I was attacked by a few leeches, even though I was very careful. Leeches don’t just live around water, they even live hidden in dry deciduous forests under leaf litter as well as on soft mossy trees, as well. With the ability to sense the temperature of others passing by them, they reach for a victim, in my TreeGirl case, my big toe, and… ahem, other private parts not normally exposed by forest hikers. Leech attacks are harmless, but messy, unless you get them on sensitive body parts (‘Ewe’ Is right!). Ticks, however (and there are 75 species of them in Australia!), are pretty nasty, with some carrying some life-altering diseases. I did have an unfortunate encounter with about a hundred tiny tick nymphs on my face when I unassumingly laid my head and my eyeglasses down into a tick nest between the buttressed roots of a Blue Quondong tree: my very own horror movie scene and hard lesson learned! Sure, being a TreeGirl has its dangers, but so does simply being alive on a planet. Still, even with the leeches and ticks, I much prefer the Wild to the civilized world!
In Australia only 6% of the rainforests are left; in New Zealand only an estimated 1 – 15% of the land is left covered in native vegetation.
To my joy, I believe I might have stumbled upon the home of The Wombat King on early, misty morning. The Most Enchanted forest TreeGirl has ever visited: the tiny Waldheim Forest, an ancient forest containing the rare Billy Pines, and undoubtedly fairies, gnomes and friendly spirits, is protected in Cradle Mt. National Park, Tasmania. How much more of this biodiversity hotspot of an island was covered in magical places like this before colonization?
Everywhere I went, transitioning from the world of the wild to the civilized, I felt some sense of loss and confusion. The biodiversity, the life force, the source for my ecstatic interconnection was left behind in tiny pockets of refuge to be replaced by asphalt and industrial grit, speed and noise. I returned to my place of rest each night still deeply connected to the wild only to encounter an overpopulation of human organisms who seemed lost in their unfulfilled worlds, some serving fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, or trapped behind a counter in a hotel that had no windows, or selling sim cards inside an air-conditioned shopping mall… when outside there were colorful, noisy birds and shy, quiet beasts, remnants of ancient forests and patches of earth holding on to what was left of their home– all of which seemed way more interesting to me than the human world.
How many dead animals did I see on the road? Too many wombats looking like run over teddy bears, endangered spotted quolls, and brushtail possums who are native in Australia but invasive in New Zealand. Dead is dead. The majority of Tasmanian devils, endangered from a contagious facial cancer caused by loggers who leave out poisoned food to absolve themselves from destroying habitat, are exiled in sanctuaries and zoos until the disease hopefully dies out. New Zealand has a definitive lack forests and trees, and the majority of them that are there, are California species! In my trained assessment, The Middle World of Hollywood Hobbits has been completely trashed by agriculture and sheep. Ack! Too much of the wild of these two countries has been destroyed in the name of human progress. And yet, when I found myself immersed within a remnant of the wildness that is left, it felt like going back in time to a rich planet wealthy with life force energy.
My consciousness has forever shifted based on that immersive experience.
The Famous Prison Tree Boab, or baobab (Adansonia gregorii), naturally bulbous and hollow, scarred from graffiti, outside of Derby in the Kimberly region of Western Australia.
It has been now three weeks since my return to the US, and my consciousness is still altered. I am less anxious and overwhelmed, and less afraid in general. I am still living moment by moment as if I have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. each day, and don’t mind because I am on a once-in-a-lifetime mission to experience something fantastical. I feel more dense and expansive at the same time. I feel younger, healthier, stronger in my being and am noticeably physically stronger too. And, yes, I can also say I feel more peaceful and connected. I have returned feeling solid in my alliance with new tree friends, with all of nature everywhere, and with the stars in the sky that blankets the cosmos. I am more of The Wild than ever before; it is forever within me. It is always accessible. Part of me is still there, in the bush, in the many forest ecosystems, lying against the trunks of the trees, amidst the raucous and startling sounds of the hundreds of bird species, with a spectrum of greens and browns and earthy tones stimulating my vision. I can’t wait to return to the forests and its creatures, the friendly faces of my human friends who graciously assisted me, and many more trees that I didn’t have time to meet. I am anxious to go home.
Relaxing on my mossy bed, blissed out in the rain, after a long day of driving and hiking– one of four, on each side that was naturally carved out, like an ancient temple in deep the rainforest. I did not want to leave this Swamp Gum, or Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans), one of the tallest at 285 ft/87 m, in the remote the Styx River Valley, Tasmania.
While we human organisms live in a reality with value judgments and contrasts such as good/bad, wrong/right, where the propagation of human life at the cost of all other species is a taboo subject, where modern culture is praised for the unique gifts it has introduced to the world (art, music, architecture, science, technology…), while the more-than-human world all too frequently gets sacrificed for these gifts, I am choosing to make a bold, and obvious statement:
The Wild is Good, and really, really important, and should be protected above all else: the Civilized, eh…not so much.
If you spent 46 consecutive days with the intention of connection with the wild – walking, climbing and laying around naked with trees in the forest and Savannah, feet on top of earth, skin pressed up against bark, resting your back on a bed of moss with rain drops gently cascading onto your face and chest, with bits of earth tucked in your privates, crossing streams with waterfalls, surrounded by voices of unseen life, encountering magnificent beings like I did, you’d feel the same way; you’d want to return home too.
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