Just Listen

Someone recently asked me how to we change our relationship with the more-than-human world? How to we reconnect? Or, if you prefer, how do we experience the connection that is already there?

My answer isn’t sexy. Connecting with a place or the other-than-human being who inhabit a place happens the same way as connecting to another human being …

Spend time together.


Perform acts of service.

Perform acts of devotion.

This isn’t complicated. But it can be hard. Hard because it doesn’t come natural to us anymore. Paul Kingsnorth* talks about this in his essay, “The Myth of Progress”:

“… what if there’s something we have forgotten? What if we’ve forgotten how to speak to and to listen to other things that live? I think it’s a question of shutting our mouths for a while and being a bit humble and going outside and listening and learning again.

“I think that one of the things we are really good at as a society is identifying a problem and proposing a solution to the problem, then going off and putting that [solution] into place. That’s been our kind of special genius as modern humans, which is why we’ve got so much technology and so much power.

“But we’re very, very bad at listening to what everything else has to say. We don’t really believe any of it is alive. I think that learning from old stories, listening to them, listening to storytellers, paying attention to indigenous ways of seeing, and just going out and listening and paying attention to things does start to subtly change your worldview. It certainly happened to me; and I couldn’t point to any enormous instantaneous change that has happened to me, but certainly over the last ten years, this notion—that I don’t really know everything and that I’ve got a lot to learn, rather than a lot to teach, and that there is a conversation I don’t know how to have, that I’d like to learn how to have—has been a constant for me, and it’s changed me subtly.

“There’s still a lot I’d like to do and a lot I’d like to learn, a lot I’d like to know. I think that’s increasingly such an important task: just to learn how to listen, to relearn what we’ve forgotten. I don’t think there is any easy sort of ABC curriculum for it. There’s a lot of work you can do.”

— Paul Kingsnorth, “The Myth of Progress”

It takes practice. Trial and error. I’m not any good at it. I need to practice more.

I’m reminded of the advice given to Neo-Pagan elder, Joseph “Bearwalker” Wilson by Ernie “Longwalker” Peters, a Lakota medicine man:

“You know, Joe, if you or other white folks are really serious about our spirituality, you won’t go asking me, or us, or anyone else about what we believe, our ceremonies, our regalia, and stuff. Instead you will go out into the woods and talk to the sky, the earth, the rocks, the rivers, and the streams. And listen to the answers, and listen to your ancestors. Only then will you start the long path to healing.”

— Ernie “Longwalker” Peters

Listening to nature can begin with finding a place outdoors to sit or lie down comfortably. If you are still long enough, the wild­life will begin to treat you like you are a part of the landscape rather than an interloper.

I find it helpful to begin by addressing a question to my surroundings, like “What do you have to say?” or “What would you like to tell me?” This puts me in a receptive frame of mind.

Then just listen. Don’t listen for anything, just relax and listen to everything. The ecologist, Gordon Hempton, explains that listening to nature requires a kind of relaxed focus. When we focus our attention on one thing, we end up filtering out sounds based on our biases.

“We’ve taught ourselves not to bother paying attention to the sound that’s constantly coming at us because it’s pretty meaningless. In nature, you don’t want to do that. The way our brain operates is exactly the opposite. …

“Don’t listen for sound or sounds, just listen to the place. That place is not supposed to be a certain way for your enjoyment, that place just is. The question is, can you just be, with what is?”

— Gordon Hempton

*I cannot unequivocally endorse Paul Kingsnorth’s writing after the spring of 2020. After that time, following his conversion to Orthodox Christianity, Kingsnorth’s slide from Green anarchism to proto-fascism became undeniable. All the quotes by Kingsnorth here come from before that shift.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

5 thoughts on “Just Listen

      1. Without a felt sense of connection to our natural world, humans will never be willing to make the changes necessary to stop murdering the planet. An intellectual knowledge is insufficient. We need to feel it. Which is what this post is about.


      2. As Luis Marques notes in his now easily-purchased masterwork Capitalism and Environmental Collapse, global CO2 emissions have RISEN over 50% since the IPCC Rio Summit in 1990 called for an immediate reduction of 5%.
        Sociology does not contain any promising data.


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