Before we get into the more interesting personal issues you lecture about, what is the basic plight of aspens in the West?
Sudden Aspen Decline [SAD] is generally attributed to any number of systemic variables including global warming and the extended drought we’ve been through. Those kinds of stressors create an environment in which fungus and insects, and other kinds of diseases and predators, can take advantage of the aspens. Interestingly, because an aspen grove is an individual, when a grove dies it is literally the death of an individual organism.
Can you explain how a grove is one organism?
It’s not that an aspen grove just shares a root system; they literally are the same organism. They are cloning, or sprouting, new trees off of that root system; what we think of as individual aspen trees, botanists call ramets. In biology and in life, there really is no independent individual self, which is part of the misconception Western philosophy is under the spell of. Everything is interdependent and interrelated, and exists through relationships. Aspens teach us that the language of life is relationship.
One of your talking points is the economy. What can aspens teach us about running a business?
If you want to help a forest or ecosystem return to health, you reconnect it to the wholeness of itself. So that’s why we reintroduce fire into the forests. It’s reintroducing what you’d call a keystone process. Through that then, the health returns to the forest system. The way that applies in business is that you must help it reconnect to the wholeness of itself. That might be through helping it listen to the full range of voices—of stakeholders, for example. As we let those voices have equal access to the floor, we can begin to access the collective wisdom.
Listening to each other—that’s certainly a novel concept.
The Western story that we’ve inherited is of the rugged individual self. I’m a classic example of that. I’ve been a great lone wolf in my life—but it no longer works. We’re at a time where it’s time to remember the wholeness of who we are and to reconnect ourselves to the family of life. It is to that story that we belong; we’re not separate. And an aspen can teach us what a self is. I can look at an aspen grove and I could see all those ramets as individual trees; I had might as well be under as much illusion as to look at a single leaf and say, ‘This is the organism. This is the self.’ But in truth, it’s bigger than all of that.
So what is the basis of your beliefs and the Wild Resiliency Institute?
I’m a generalist. I’m an omnivore. I draw liberally and with great curiosity from a wide number of fields with a keen focus around human thriveability and resiliency. I’m a resiliency expert, you could say. We’re each born with what I would call our ‘wild resiliency.’ That’s how we learn to walk. But over time, we become domesticated. This domesticity requires a loyalty to the way things are done and seeing things the way that the crowd would have us see them. But life right now is inviting us to ask, ‘Who are we, really?’ Wild resiliency is a radical affirmation of life. It’s the love of life. It’s a loyalty to that love that is greater than the loyalty to comfort and familiarity and staying the same. In that sense, too, it’s the willingness to transform.
Where did this love of the outdoors come from?
When I was 23, after a rough time in life, I actually walked into the woods to either die or become a different man. And, near as I can tell, I walked out. It is the world of nature that saved my life; it was the river and the trees and the rocks, the birds and the wild animals I encountered. I owe a debt of gratitude to the wild world. It’s that gifting that I’m trying to honor with my own life.
What is it about aspens that makes them so special?
To walk through an aspen grove is to be inside an organism, and we’re inside the organism’s wholeness. At a vibratory level, we’re talking field theory—it’s like a field of gravity. We each have a vibrational, magnetic field. When we allow ourselves to exchange those electronic atoms and molecules, it settles the system. Interestingly enough, in some herbal traditions, such as the Bach flower tradition, aspens are a remedy for fear. In Greek mythology, Hercules was charged with 12 tasks, one of which was to go down into Hades. To get out of Hades and to survive the fires, he wore a crown of aspen leaves. The crown of aspens became a symbol for safe passage through the gates of hell. As the world’s largest organism, aspens have developed a very successful strategy for not only surviving but thriving through challenging times. For example, aspens are the first tree to come back after fires in the West.
All this talk makes me feel like aspens are people.
You can look at the scar on the bark of an aspen that’s been eaten by grazers in winter and you imagine that tree going, ‘Oh, I’m hurt. I’m wounded. That elk just ate me.’ And then if you step back and look at all of those trees, you’ll see that they all have the same wound. So one of the things aspens can teach us is about our wounding and about our healing—that we all, on one level, share the same wound. That wounding would be the separation from life, the separation from ourselves, separation from our own purpose, separation from nature and the wholeness of life’s tapestry.