Dreaming with the Earth

The following is a transcript of a talk that Jo Roberts presented at the Burning Man Regional Summit in 2021, where the topic was ‘Sustainability is Fun(damental) for A Healthy Future’.

Dreaming with the Earth: Decolonisation, Rest and Sustainability

I’d first like to share a little bit of my my own journey and how I came to understand rest as an act of decolonisation which can transform our Burns and  create a sustainable future, and to then speak a little bit about a framework that I’m exploring called ‘The Work That Reconnects.’ I’m beginning to learn how to facilitate this process and bring it back into my communities as the way forward for dealing with the grief of climate change that we’re all facing.

I’m going to start with a quote by Thomas Berry.

“We see quite clearly that what happens to the non-human happens to the human, what happens to the outer world happens to the inner world.
If the outer world is diminished in its grander than the emotional imaginative intellectual and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished.
Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars by night we become impoverished in all that makes us human.”

Red Earth Ecology itself began as a response to what I recognised as a need for education in the Burning Seed community.

Burning Seed occurs on a piece of land that’s roughly equidistant between two the two major capital cities in Australia, so most of the people who come to Burning Seed are not connected in any way to the land that they’re coming to make their temporary home.

I am a local person with a history in ecology and you can’t believe how excited I was that ‘Burning Man’ was rocking up in the middle of nowhere, an hour from where I lived. I embraced burning, but I saw that people were essentially causing damage to the forest out of ignorance, not out of ill will.

I began a year round education program, which was to familiarise people with the specific, unique qualities of the forest that they were going to be engaging with. That largely happened by engaging in onsite Bushwalks during the actual festival.

Walking people around telling stories, helping them to feel some sense of the power that comes with knowledge and the ability to then pass that on to other participants when they encounter these features in the landscape as well. 

From there Red Earth Ecology moved into outreach in the local community. That is, we started working with local farmers who had been to the Burn and had some understanding of burning, that was designed to encourage other locals to come and experience what the Principles were like in action and to interact with Burners without having to go to the festival, which can be very confronting.

The local town here has less than 100 people that live there. So for the forest to suddenly have 5000 people in it it’s pretty overwhelming when you’re a rural person to try and engage with that, so we’re trying to develop these smaller scale events for people.

We also undertook weed management activities to maintain the site between Burns. An Indigenous traditional cold-burns on site, as part of our weed management to regenerate the land.  Also to recognize that part of the way we leave a trace is by spreading weeds much further into the forest and they would ever penetrate like little birds because of our need to Camp with our vehicles.

If you want to know more about the history of Red Earth Ecology and about the actual ecology of the site,then please check out  our Facebook page. There are heaps of photos and also videos about the local ecology.

I would like to talk a little bit about what happened to me in 2015. I was about to do the pep talk for a biodiversity planting, but instead broke down in tears. I felt that I was a fraud. What business did I have asking people to engage in small-scale  biodiversity plantings in the face of climate change driven ecological collapse, which is what we were beginning to see in our district. 

I entered essentially a healing crisis, which at that point  coincided with not just an existential crisis but a physical crisis developing. My immune system collapsed. I developed shingles in the tissue in my eyes, literally risking my vision. Couldn’t get more symbolic than that really.

And this healing crisis culminated with me almost bleeding to death during Temple Burn in 2018 and being taken off the paddock in an ambulance. Not being able to slow down, not being able to rest, overworking.  Obsessed with wanting to be in service to the Earth, and in crisis about not knowing how to respond to what I was seeing around me after years of being able to fairly reliably predict that certain actions would lead to certain outcomes in the case of ecological work.

I began to understand that I was burnt out and that the way that I was dealing with my ecology work was actually based in a deep saviour complex,and a need to to fix the world, and that I needed to change my practice. For me that involved letting go of hope as the driving force for my practice. Recognising that, for me, anyway, my hope was actually connected to despair, and warding off despair and armoring a false positivity about the future.

I realised that my saviour complex was another way of staying busy and avoiding forbidden feelings like despair, rage, emptiness and grief.

My hope was a mask that covered fear. Hope is oriented towards the future, but the future is unknown.  When I lost hope I had nothing to replace it with. I didn’t know how to navigate interior or exterior landscapes when they contained uncertainty and ambiguity.  I got sick and I was forced to rest.

When I stopped my compulsive busyness, it was no longer available as a buffer, nor as an armour that numbed and protected me from feeling despair and the pain of the degradation of the Earth. 

I began to face the enslavement and colonisation of the human spirit and potential by the values of Capitalism and the tacit remnants of religious indoctrination which are foundational belief systems from which our cultural values are formed.

They contain the archetypes from which we form our collective dream, we call that dream society. In the face of a global expansion of the industrial growth society we call this collective dream the world. What began as a dream has transformed into a nightmare for the Earth, the global majority and for the colonising minority.

The most profound shift in my consciousness is encapsulated in the following expression, 
“I cannot change the world, I can only change myself, when I change myself I changed the world.” 

I didn’t know where to start.

But I knew that it involved a return to rest and intuition to dreaming, imagining and integrating, and a shift away from constant doing. So just to give you an example of what this decolonisation actually looks like, for my own practice in greater ecology it involves some of the following things:

  • Shifting from primarily doing to being, accepting that I belong to the Earth, and rejecting the idea that the Earth belongs to me.
  • Embracing the interconnected nature of all living things, acknowledging the sentience and wisdom of all living things.
  • Moving away from the idea that ecosystems have to be useful to humans in order to have a right to exist
  • Embracing the beginner’s mind. What used to work, no longer works. Practice saying “I don’t know.”
  • Acknowledging that I’ll die, my life is short. Unless I’m connected to deeper cycles of time, I have no way of observing meaningful patterns within larger cycles.
  • Rejecting the superiority of the Western scientific model to Indigenous ways of seeing and knowing.
  • Seeking out collaboration with the First Nations mob where  I’m on Wiradjuri Nation on Nurrungdera lands.
  • Listening rather than talking.
  • Where known, using Wiradjuri names, rather than colonising names for places, plants, animals and birds.
  • Shifting the focus of the way I communicate ecological knowledge from information and facts to verbal transmission, and story or metaphor.
  • Valuing oral transmission, which is flexible and changes to accommodate the new over the written word which is static and implies permanence.
  • Recognising that the right action requires the right timing.
  • Moving away from the Gregorian calendar and using the sun and moon and seasons as markers for activity.
  • Moving away from hand planting to direct drilling and seed bombs which germinate when conditions are optimal so I don’t need to pretend I know how the system works.
  • Moving away from naming discrete objects in ecosystems to learning about the signs of interconnectedness within and between ecosystems.
  • In the face of rapid climate change, accepting the futility of the old restoration mentality and moving towards regenerative and eco-psychological positions.

On the paddock it meant aligning Red Earth Ecology physically with our First Camp, which is our indigenous camp, placing it within the bounds of that camp and next to the edge of Yindyamarra circle, which is a fire that burns for the whole time Burning Seed is happening. It’s a place for people to come and engage with First Nations burners and speak and learn  together. That word Yindyamarra infers concepts such as respect, listening and going-slow about things.

The incorporation of Red Earth Ecology is what we’re working on at the moment, We’re actually incorporating as a separate entity from Burning Seed and that’s to increase our capacity to bring transformative experience out of the Burn and into the default world and collaborate more with Non-burners, other Ecologists and Earth Keepers.

I’m learning to facilitate The Work That Reconnects, which I’ll talk about in a little while, and thinking of bringing water ceremony to the burn to balance the fire and Yang energies, shifting from Western ecological mindset to a Deep Ecology mindset. I imagine it will be a process that emcompasses the rest of my life.

Deep Ecology is an environmental philosophy which promotes the inherent worth of all living beings, regardless of their utility to human needs, plus the restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. It’s quite radical.

Rejecting the idea that being on Earth is a punishment for original sin, that there’s a better place waiting for us, that paradise is elsewhere. Recognising that I live on colonised lands and that I myself am colonised, the lands that I live on all have a recent history of sustainable interactions.

The land itself is the primary determinant of what is right action; it determines what is desirable or inappropriate. My primary relationship with myself needs to be moderated by and filtered through the consciousness of the land, as we are interdependent. I am an ecosystem within a larger ecosystem.

Now I am pleased to say that I am emerging on the other side of my healing crisis and I’m learning, thinking about ways that I want to use the energy that’s now available to me once more. 
Just as I emerged from my own healing crisis, I came to see that the collective is now in this place, the world is in this place at a healing crisis, and the structures and institutions of Capitalism are starting to unravel and we’re beginning to see the erosion of Patriarchy.

We’re also in this place in our Burns. Forced to rest  our events and downsizing. It’s an opportunity to dream and imagine, so we can know what right action in the now actually means and integrate the shadow of our burning practice.

Something that was really instrumental for me in keeping compassion, is to understand denial, particularly climate denial as a stage of grief, rather than a position of ignorance or choice.

Denial is the first stage of grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

If we don’t have the personal capacity or our culture does not have the capacity to transform grief through the stages into acceptance, then we stay in a safe existential space.

Anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Acceptance is the key to being able to face what is,
And facing what is the key to knowing what right action in the now might be. 

Burns are transformational primarily for the individual.

How do we translate these experiences into the default world?

As our society and ecosystems undergo rapid change there’ll be no us and them anymore, no more  of us and default world – only us! 

There will only be us, we will all be in this together facing the great unravelling.

I believe the Burning Man project can be profoundly involved in holding space for collective solutions to arise and remain relevant during this time between worlds, the old is crumbling and the new yet to fully emerge.

The principles combine with a desire to disrupt the habits of the default world, but new ways are difficult to maintain outside of the inversion of the Burn.

How can we disrupt the habits of the default world outside of the burn? 

Circling back to the idea of the inner and outer being synonymous, the way we treat ourselves is reflected in the way we treat one another and the way that we treat the Earth.

My observation is that the Burner world is deeply colonised by default world capitalist and religious values.  

Some examples:

We often talk about how Burning is a do-ocracy. It began as an idea around taking personal responsibility for your outcomes and as a way to empower volunteers. However, it risks becoming a distortion where those who do the most are rewarded in social capital, and encourages burnout  and saviour complexes.  It  also reinforces the development of hierarchies within our burns.

Most of the burns I’m involved with are pretty obsessed with growth and I see that as a value of the industrial growth society where we equate bigger with better and use growth as a measure of success.

Most volunteers I speak to feel that we can’t take a break, or else we risk losing social capital in our organisations. We feel guilty for not doing enough. We carry internalised religious ideas like, ‘There’s no rest for the wicked’,and that ‘Idle hands are the devil’s playground’. We have grown up with these kinds of ideas in our culture. We make things complicated by valuing what is hard and distrusting as these ideas are linked to ideas of suffering being synonymous with virtue and that we will be rewarded for our suffering

We hold out burns on rather than with the land and we do not include the land as the primary stakeholder. We use a utility mindset when we approach our burning.

Many burners have a saviour complex in that  they’re obsessed with fixing the default world, but we position ourselves as standing outside of the world we wish to change, which is a form of hubris, superiority and arrogance.

I propose that rest is the key, and it creates a profound opportunity for transforming our understanding of the current disruption we’re experiencing, as well as being a vital part of decolonising ourselves and changing the ways that we Burn.

We cannot demand this of others, we can only personally commit to the practice of rest as individuals.

I cannot change the world, I can only change myself, when I change myself I change the world.  

Rest is not just a wellness industry buzzword, it is vital for the future of the Earth and humanity’s capacity to respond to the great turning of the wheel, that is causing so much that is unsustainable to unravel.

If we want to reimagine our burns for these times and know what constitutes the right action, then we need to allow for the transformational potential of the liminal space of rest and dream to exist within us in much the same way that the burn creates a liminal space for transformation.  

It’s a space of deep imagination, and deep generative freedom for us. Many of us know what we see in the world at the moment, but we don’t yet have the words for it. The space of rest and sleep is a portal into the collective dream, out of linear time where we can access important information that connects the past and the future to the now.

Our dream space has been stolen by work and business and rush. It is a matter of whether or not we are going to stop, and listen, and slow down and reclaim our bodies ,and reclaim the Earth and honour ourselves and honour the Earth. We’re only going to be able to do that by slowing down.

I believe rest is a form of resistance, because it pushes back and disrupts Capitalism and colonialism. It’s an active way of disrupting these toxic systems by saying, ‘You can’t have me; you can’t have my time’. 
It’s a politics of refusal, it’s a politics of resistance, unravelling from the lies we’ve been told about ourselves about how much our worth is connected to what we do.

We need to rest to connect with who we are, to reflect, to integrate. If we can’t connect to ourselves and our inner world, then we can’t connect to the Earth. We’re not tapping into spirit, we’re not tapping into empathy, we’re not tapping into any kind of care for our bodies, we’re not integrating and we are not dreaming. We are cut off from the vast reservoir of knowing, and our ability to imagine a new world. To see something different to invent. A new world is possible, but it is not going to come from exhaustion and we cannot do it as individuals.

The foundational expression that sums up the Red Earth Ecololgy’s philosophy is a Wiradjuri expression – “Yindyamarra Winhanganha”. What it means is to have the wisdom to respectfully know how to live well in a world that is worth living in. 

We do possess collective wisdom and the ability to cooperate. We can restore with wisdom what we almost destroyed in ignorance. We have the capacity to undo damage and create extraordinary healing. Changing the way we can experience ourselves is the most important thing we can do to navigate ecological and cultural crises.

Once we stop denying the crisis of our times and allow ourselves to experience the depth of our own responses to the pain of the world, the grief or anger or fear we experience cannot be reduced concerns for ourselves as individuals. We are capable of suffering with the world, and that is the meaning of compassion. We cannot remain aloof to what we do to other beings.

A brief explanation around ‘the work that reconnects’. This is a process that’s been developed by the Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy and it’s outlined in two of her works, one is called “World as lover world as self”  and the other is called “Coming back to life”. Another name it’s also called is ‘Despair and Empowerment.’

I’m training in this process and I’m intending to offer this work to the Red Earth Ecology Community, first to other ecologists, and then start  bringing it to Burns in Australia as a process that people might want to undergo during the week that they’re burning.

Its purpose is to enable and empower us to reclaim connections that are our birthright and which, in our society, have been forgotten.

A connection to the Earth, to the web of life, to Community, to ourselves. The work is an attempt to address a crisis of perception, otherwise known as the “Delusion of a separate self”, that is believed to be at the core of the ecological, social and economic troubles we are facing.

It helps to facilitate the realisation that we are interbeings, we are interconnected to one another.

It consists of a series of workshops and during these workshops, people are encouraged to begin to uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and the systemic self healing power and intelligence held within the web of life.

The recognition of our interconnectedness invites the spontaneous healing of the psych and by extension of the systems that were born from the deep split within us. Through this process we also come to see the inseparability of personal, cultural and ecological healing.

As we flow through the spiral we generate gratitude, validate and express our grief for a world in trouble, shift into a wider and deeper sense of self and nourish the unique roles we each play in the collaborative actions necessary to facilitate the shift towards a regenerative and sustainable culture.

This process also helps to facilitate access to inner resources, builds resilience, ignites inspiration and strengthens our intention to act on behalf of our larger Earth body.

I’m still learning now. My next goal is to learn the difference between rest and relaxation.
But rest is a good starting point.

Thank you for your time today.