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Robin Bowman:
we only love what we are in relationship with

Robin believes that our blueprint as human beings is to be born in deep connection to nature, at ease with being a keystone species. The question he asks is not only how we can rebuild this connection, but how we lost it in the first place. He traces UK history to times during which our earth and land based cultures were destroyed, and asks what it would take to rediscover and learn from these deep roots in our soil. Robin is co-founder of The Old Way, which we featured in a previous encounter.

Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


I think the question could be, how did you lose your… to someone else, like how did you lose your love of being outdoors? I think our blueprint as human beings is to be born in deep connection with nature. And I think the question would be what factors or influences or forces in your life led to a disconnection and a dislocation and a separation from being in nature. I suppose those rifts just didn’t develop in my childhood.

I wanted to be a lepidopterist, someone who studies butterflies when I was about five, cause I was obsessed with butterflies and then something happened with birds and I just became completely obsessed with ’em. I always thought my mom inspired me, but recently I’ve talked to her about it. She said, no, no, we got into it the same time, you were just as into it as I was.

I couldn’t speak English when I was young. I wasn’t really intelligible til I was five or six. You know, I grew up in England because I’ve got a kind of audial dyslexia. There was a complicated word for it, but I can’t remember how to say it. And so I think I was a bit of an odd kid in some ways and, my way of connecting with people, you know, was maybe being outdoors. I think nature was always a safe place for me in that way. And I think birds just, I don’t actually know. I just love it. I do remember my walls were just plastered with birds and at any opportunity I’d go bird watching. In those days, there was, you know, like the young ornithologist club, things like that.

I once had a massage, a full body massage. They put on some new age, spiritual tape, and it was all beautiful birdsong. And I’m lying there having a massage and suddenly there’s alarm calls in the tape, in the room. It’s quite, you know, and I could feel the tension in my body and my baseline was disturbed. I just couldn’t relax having this massage, cause I knew there was a predator in the room in that sound recording. So I am always, always aware I can be doing anything and I hear an alarm sequence or a new call or something. So it’s a way of always being connected to what’s going on. So right now, you know, I can hear a Chiffchaff behind me. I can hear a Song Thrush. I just heard a wren alarm call. There’s a wood pigeon behind me. There’s a lovely Robin singing from the top of the tree. But like right now, Radio Four, Radio Five, whatever is flying over our heads, but we can’t, we’re not listening to it because we haven’t turned the radio on. But if we turned the radio on to that frequency, we would pick up that radio station. So right now, flying over our heads is all this information and my radio station is birds. But I can walk around with a geologist and now suddenly they say to me, oh, look we’ve moved from an acid to an alkaline soil, there must be an alluvial deposit, because they’re noticing the change in the plants. You know, I haven’t got my radio tuned to that. So it is a magical world where you are constantly, my way of reading information. And don’t forget bird language is the universal language of nature, that’s how I describe it. Not all the animals speak hedgehogs or shrew, because it wouldn’t be very useful, but everything speaks bird. If I wanna find out what’s going on in the natural world. Yeah, I listen to the birds, cause they’ll tell me because there’s so many of them, they’re very high up, they’re in every kind of habitat and they have a very distinct language that will tell you about what the weather’s doing, what the health of an ecosystem is, the presence of predators, the time of day, the time of year, and they’ll also reflect to you how you are in yourself. So that’s a very sacred question is how the birds react to you.

I was once at a meditation retreat centre called Gaia House near Newton Abbott. It’s maybe a one or two acre garden and everyone looks like zombies, cause they do this weird walking meditation thing where you walk very slowly through the grounds. I find it quite boring, but anyway, that’s what you’re meant to do when you’re on retreat there. And I was doing that once and a Kestrel flew at my feet. I swear it was six inches from my foot. It landed on the ground and picked up a worm, at my feet, a Kestrel. And then flew up into the tree. Now that would not happen anywhere else, in Devon, other than in that retreat centre garden. So that Kestrel knew that these human beings were in, they weren’t even in baseline, they were in more of a kind of Alpha or Delta brainwave patterning. So they could feel the vibration of the people. I’m getting a bit cosmic, but those people are in complete baseline. They’re no threat. And so the Kestrel felt comfortable to land six inches from my foot. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else, you know, their life and death survives on reading body language. And so they know exactly what state we’re in. So yeah, the challenge is to walk under a singing bird. That means you are, you know, in a good internal space and that you are no threat. Not under a Chiffchaff because it’s easy to walk under them, but to walk under a ground feeding bird singing, like a Robin, yeah.

When I grew up, you went to India to find yourself and friends came back and they changed their name from Neil to you know some Indian Hindi-sounding name. Then in my twenties you would go to an Inipi, a Native American sweat lodge and some Native American Elder gave me the name, Running Horse. And now everyone goes to South America and does Ayahuasca or they do Ayahuasca ceremonies in England with the Daime and they sing songs in Brazilian. And all these things are well and good you know, they all connect you to the source in different ways, but where is our Indigenous culture? I don’t want, you know, nothing against other cultures, but it’s like our own Indigenous culture is being so systematically dismantled and is being so, is so lost to us in time, that we have to kind of do this cultural appropriation to even find our way back to source, because we don’t know our own route there.

At the time of, you know, Christ, Britain was what Tibet was known as 50 years ago, you know, the heartbeat of an ancient, deeply mystical, spiritual way of life. Stuck out on an island off the west of the biggest land mass on Earth, you know, that stretches from Eastern Russia and China all the way to France.

I mean and then we’re these islands off the west of that, and yeah it was a crazy place and a mystical place. And when they had, you know, the pyramids were being built and you know, huge civilizations all over the world, it was not like that in Britain. And the Romans came in and they did systematically dismantle our Indigenous land-based earth spirituality culture. Now that wasn’t a perfect culture. I’m not saying it was completely egalitarian and there wasn’t already a patriarchy in some places, but I think at least between the genders, it was much more balanced. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had historical figures like Boudica you know?

They had a deep connection to the earth. They had, you know, the whole Druidic tradition and Mona was their centre of learning and people would come from all over Europe to learn our ancient ways there. And the Romans were clever. They knew exactly how to do that divide and conquer thing. And you kill the elders and you kill the language, and then you can kill the culture because the elders carry the story. You’d think you kill the children. If you kill the children, there’ll be more children born, you kill the elders and they’re the story holders.

So when the white people got to North America, they called it the Garden of Eden, the white settlers. They were obviously referring to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, but they got the word garden right. Because they actually thought it was a great wilderness stretching across the land, but it really, it was a garden stretching from the east coast to the west coast, both the land and the sea was being gardened and the wild was being tended.

It’s just an idea, but I surmise that they would’ve found a more impoverished landscape if the First Nations people had never been there, because they were leaving an abundance behind them. Now that could be Oak and Hickory in valley bottoms where it wasn’t growing, cause they’re spreading that seed. That could be the fire management of the prairies and the huge herds of tens of millions of Buffalo. That could be the oyster beds out to sea, that they were pushing rocks out to sea to make the coastline more shallow so the oysters, it could be them spreading the kelp up the Western coast for the herring to lay their roe, which was the basis of that, of the abundance of that ecosystem. I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly you could say because there are a lot of species that humans also wiped out.

And I think now in terms of our role as humans, we have a responsibility now to take up our mantle and become that Keystone species. We have a responsibility to, we haven’t got the ball, we’ve gotta be the ball. You know, we have to be the bison. We have to be the oryx. We have to be the beaver. We have to be all these animals because if we’ve taken them out, we have to mimic the role of those animals or try and create some kind of dynamic system in our landscapes where those animals are mimicked. Otherwise you end up with the monjack stripping the nectar layer in the Southeast of England, cuz there’s no walls. So we need a lot more deerstalkers to mimic the wolf and shoot those monjack or we just have no nectar layer in the Woodlands and you’ve got no nectar layer. You’ve got no flowers. There’s no pollinators. There’s no butterflies. There’s no bees. You just need to go to Horton forest round Exeter and look up the fallow deer do up there and you can see 300 yards through a Woodland.

If you were to have an aerial view of a newborn child, they’re almost naked in the world, they haven’t got any ropes of connection with anything. And as you introduce, let’s say I’ve brought some people here this week who have never eaten an oyster. They couldn’t identify an oyster. They have no idea what an oyster is.

First day, we went to the sandbar. We showed them the oysters. They’re picking this live creature in that moment, this very thin thread of connection forms between them and that oyster. And then we take it back and they scrub that oyster and that thread grows within them and becomes the thickness of a lead of a pencil. Then they have to bless that oyster and put it in boiling water and kill it. And it’s like the thickness of their finger, that thread of connection. Then they get to eat that oyster, you know, fried in wild garlic. And it’s absolutely delicious and they feel utterly nourished from it. And someone else shares that it’s raising their white blood cells and they feel the euphoria of the oyster, which is, you know, it’s an incredibly, healthy nutrient dense food.

And so that thread of connection has formed. Really really big between them and that oyster. Then they go back day after day and they learn much more about that oyster, that it’s this kind of oyster and it lives in this kind of habitat. And this is its impact on the ecosystem. That’s positive. This is its impact that’s negative. Then they go home and a few months later they bring their family back to harvest this oyster and it actually becomes part of their, by the end of this process in two years, they have this huge thick fibre optic 4G rope of connection between them and this oyster, them and oyster. And that is a two-way energy system where they’re feeding the oyster and the oyster is feeding them energetically.

So if you were to have an aerial view of any indigenous people living in tune with the planet in an intact culture who are having to by necessity, participate in nature and gatherthe Willow for their baskets and gather bird’s eggs and, you know, whatever fish the rivers.

But how the Sam Bushman describe it is they will have a huge thread of connection between them. And every single plant and every single bird and every single insect and track that they can identify and all the stars and the sun and the wind and the moon, and a hundred generations going back behind them, that would be an aerial view. So if you could have that aerial view of that child or adult as they’re growing, you know, by the time they’re an adult, they just have this huge thread of connection with everything around.

I think we need to inform ourselves. I think knowledge is a lot, knowledge and awareness and connection. This is the old ways approach to it. But once you become a participant of nature, then I think your ropes are connection to it. Change and it impacts you more.

So to give you an example, there is this proliferation of Pacific oysters. I was on a sandbar yesterday. I go there every year to harvest some Pacific oysters a couple of days a year. And I’ve watched the Pacific oysters on that sandbar in the middle of the dark that’s exposed just at a spring, low tide. I wonder how many people know that, like how many people even know that they’re oysters they’re covered in mud?

Is anyone aware of them? So who’s going to kind of protect that. Who’s gonna know about it. David Attenberg talks about we only wanna protect what we love and, we only love what we’re in relationship to or what we understand. So I think it’s about really informing ourselves and understanding, you know, the natural world better, and that can take so many different forms.

So I think it’s really important to not let cynicism get in the way of hope and not to get too downbeat about it. There’s so many things we can do and to enjoy the process and to find good people and to enjoy the process and to find good people to find our particular, I think to take up the mantle of the human is a keystone species and can be a good influence on the world,

To really accept that as your role and that’s hard when you look at what we’ve done to the planet. And I think when you really accept and take up that mantle, you then have to find what is your individual part of that jigsaw of the great turning. And if you don’t know, then take that question to the land, just go out on the land for a few days, take it to the land.

And when you come back, you know, don’t come back until you find out what your gift is and then just like bloody do it.