Emmanuel Vaughan-LeeDavid, I want to start our conversation today by asking you to read a poem. It’s a poem that underpins much of what you explore in your new book Wild Mind, Wild Earth—an ancient Chinese poem that you suggest holds within it an ethics that we so desperately need at this time of great ecological crisis. Could you read that poem for us?
David HintonSure. It’s called Egrets.
Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then startling away into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.
EVSo tell me about this poem.
DHIt’s a pretty typical classical Chinese poem that’s short—four lines, five words per line—written in the ninth century. And what’s interesting about it is that it’s all images. There’s sort of no abstract, isolated self looking out on the world thinking about it; it’s all the immediacy of crystalline images. The interesting thing about this is that after we see the egrets leave, suddenly in the last line there’s something completely different that has nothing to do with the egrets. There’s this big leap from the egrets leaving emerald mountains to suddenly pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind. There’s no kind of logical connection between those. There’s a kind of imagistic connection, because the egrets are small, fluttering white things going up; and pear blossoms are small, white things fluttering down. But why did we go from one to the other? That’s part of the magic. Because images have no kind of abstract intellectual content. And then that leap between the two has no content. They’re empty.
Part One of the book is called “How a Little Poem from Ancient China Could Save the Planet,” which is meant to be in part serious and in part facetious. At bottom, what’s driving the ecological crisis is our sense of being centers of identity—in the West we call it the soul or the spirit—that are radically separate from, distant from, detached from, what we call nature. And you notice the word “nature,” and also the word “wild”—by definition it incorporates these assumptions about identity in the world. And those assumptions are that nature is everything other than us—that is, we’re not part of nature and the wild is everything other than us. We’re not part of the wild—we’re something else. And that I think is what’s driving the ecological crisis at its deepest level, because that distance, that separation, enables a kind of instrumental and exploitative relation to “nature.” In the moment of pure perception, like this poem is presenting, that self, that detached self, disappears. There’s just you. If you can have an empty mind and you’re looking at the world, you’re mirroring the world—that is, there’s no identity. There’s no sort of spirit center separating you from the world. In that moment there’s just the world mirrored. It’s the content of consciousness. I mean we all experience this—you don’t have to be a Zen monk to do this. Anytime you see something that surprises you—you come around the corner and see, you know, whatever, a firetruck racing down the street—there’s a moment, there’s the first moment of surprise when you’re just all eyes and you just see the firetruck. Then you step back and start thinking about it, “I wonder what’s going on,” et cetera, et cetera. But in that first moment—that’s that mirroring moment. So that’s part of the argument, just like the skimpiest little outline of the argument of the first part of the book.
EVIn the book you use the term “wild mind, wild earth,” the title of the book, repeatedly. You return to it again and again. And although it may be self-explanatory, and it’s a simple term, it also holds a great deal. And I wonder if you could unpack the term for us and what it means and how you’re using it and how you’re expanding and exploring it.
DHWell, there’s what I mentioned just a moment ago—the idea that we normally think of the wild as everything other than human. So this is the idea of wild mind—consciousness as wild, just like Earth is wild. We think of Earth as nature or wild, but the idea is incorporating consciousness into that. It’s easy for us to say, well, we’re animals, we’re bodies like any other animal, any other body. To that extent, it’s easy to think of us as part of the Earth. It’s much more difficult to see, to experience, mind or self or identity as wild; as no different from everything else. And that’s what the book is trying to work through: how do we rewild mind, I guess you could say.
EVYou describe how foundational stories of our Western, Christian paradigm are based on this idea of “a self-enclosed human realm separate from everything else,” and that this paradigm is a wound—one “so complete we can’t see it anymore, for it defines the very nature of what we assume ourselves to be.” And yet at the same time, “however deeply we have forgotten it, we must still be wild in our original Paleolithic nature—wild and kindred to wild earth,” you say. And that our “kinship is itself a truly primordial ethics, an ethics before question and argument.” Can you explain that?
DHTo start that answer, I’ll read the first paragraph of the book:
Before intention and choice, before ideas and understanding and everything we think we know about ourselves—we love this world around us. How can that be? How can we love all this when our cultural assumptions tell us in so many ways that we “humans” are fundamentally other than “nature,” and that “nature’s” only real value is how it supports our wellbeing. There’s no love in that. Doesn’t love require kindred natures. And what is kinship with wild earth but wild mind?
EVWell that does a really wonderful job of simply explaining wild earth and wild mind, as well and linking it to kinship.
DHAnd that kinship—to sort of circle back to your question—that kinship I think was there in the Paleolithic. For Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, like the Paleo-Indians in North America, there was no sense that they were radically different from anything else. All the animals had the same status as humans. It was assumed that they all had sort of rich interior lives, that they had social lives. I mean, in the West there is this broad assumption that the world is really here for us; humans are what it’s all about. And that’s that radical separation. In the Christian myth we’re spirits here on Earth sort of working out our divine fate. And so we’re kind of here as aliens from somewhere else, and it’s a proving ground where we’re tested and then we go back to our real home, which is this spirit realm called Heaven where God lives. Well, that kind of idea was completely absent for the Paleolithic. There was this consciousness. Identity was completely woven into the ecosystem—the word we would use now. And I think that changed; the sense we have now began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherers started settling into Neolithic agricultural villages. And then at that point, there was a separate human space—it’s the village and the cultivated fields around it. Hunter-gatherers didn’t have that, they’re just wandering through “the wild,” “wilderness.” Of course, that idea would make no sense to them, because there’s no separation. So they would, if they could understand that, just say, “It’s all wilderness. I’m wilderness. Everything is wilderness.”
In the Neolithic, people settled into villages. So suddenly there’s a separate human space, and they started sort of manipulating or exploiting nature in the form of domestic animals and plants. So, as opposed to just moving through the ecosystem, they’re setting up these separate human realms within the ecosystem. And then next, I think, was writing. Because for preliterate peoples, the mind worked like anything else. Like weather or like a stream flowing. It was just this constant flowing of, you know, thinking. Going through it and thinking, appearing and disappearing. But once you can write things down, then that mental realm suddenly starts looking timeless and radically different from the world around us. And I think that’s what really created this sense of an interior, what became, with the Greeks and the Christians, a kind of soul; this thing that’s actually made of different stuff. It’s made of spirit stuff instead of matter, different stuff from the earth. That came, I think, from writing.
These giant transformations in the structure of consciousness, and the structure of what it is to be human, happen not because of ideas changing and developing, but because of material changes: that is, the change from hunter-gatherer to agrarian; the change from wandering to a village; the change from oral tradition to written—that’s a technological change, a material change. And that’s what transformed consciousness. The Greeks took that material change and they mythologized it into the soul. And then, of course, Genesis—the creation of the world in Christianity—says, the world is here for humans. It was created for humans to use, to dominate, to exploit, you know, in their trial here to see if they’re righteous or not. So at the end of that, you’ve got the formula—the sixth extinction is already built into that structure thousands of years ago. It just took thousands of years to build up the capabilities through which that instrumental exploitative relation to landscape and Earth and the ten thousand things became so catastrophically powerful.
EVIn the book you write about how over the last few centuries here in the West there’s been a simmering revolution of sorts unfolding. A revolution that has been challenging this dominant human-centric paradigm that emerged from that Christian model out of Genesis and that has been seeking to return to a more ancient paradigm of kinship in connection with the Earth, which was so central to so many ancient and Indigenous cultures, as well as, you described, our original Paleolithic nature. And that this revolution—one that’s grown dramatically in the last few decades as the impacts of climate change, colonialism, and capitalism push people to examine the root causes of these crises—is not the first such revolution to take place. It has a precedent in ancient China that we can look to. Can you talk about this?
DHSo to start, I sort of trace out these parallel developments. The development in China was like three thousand years before the one in the West, which began with the Enlightenment but really took hold at the end of the eighteenth century. So here’s Europe, they’re largely in the thrall of that whole Christian worldview and—this is just an amazing thing to me—what happened was people in North America were talking with Native American elders and writing books about traveling among Native people in North America. Well, these books and these accounts became very popular in Europe, especially among intellectuals. And one of the things that they took from these accounts was this whole different idea of the relation of humans and nature: that is, prior to this, nature was considered sort of evil, something that had to be tamed and brought into God’s order; and this Native American view was a view of kinship, of belonging to the landscape and the ecosystem. So this had a huge impact on a lot of major thinkers like the German Romantics and Alexander von Humboldt, who was a gigantic superstar / naturalist / scientist whose books were on the desk of Thoreau, Whitman, and Rousseau. But I talk more about the impact on the British Romantic poets, because their poems are sort of articulating this newly found kinship and wonder at the natural world as a kind of antidote to the industrial age alienation of urban life, with all of its commercialism and sort of the whole industrial realm—so this is Wordsworth and Shelly and Coleridge. But they start discovering this wonder at nature. What we take for granted now—this sense that nature is this wonderful, sustaining place—was really not known in the West until the British Romantics and the German Romantics of the late eighteenth century. So then that idea, again, which came largely from Native Americans, went to Europe, transformed Wordsworth, for instance, and then it came back to America through those writers when Thoreau and Emerson read them. So it comes back to Thoreau, and it influences the intellectual history of the nineteenth century in the US: Whitman and John Muir, who helped found the Sierra Club, and on to the modern environmental movement. And this thing we take for granted, this sense of love for the natural world, kinship with the natural world—that’s where it came from. It was this transformation that was catalyzed, generated, by Native American “philosophy.”
Now, in ancient China the same kind of thing happened: there was a monotheistic system, very similar in its basic outlines to Christianity, that fell apart, and then the philosophers we know of as the seminal Chinese philosophers were trying to rebuild a philosophical system out of the ashes of that monotheism. And they were very empirically minded like we are. And so what they built was—what’s relevant for us is—Taoism. The Tao Te Ching is the earliest book in Taoism—and that dates from around 600 BCE. But it’s mostly made out of fragments of ancient—maybe even Paleolithic or descended from Paleolithic—wisdom traditions; that is, it sort of was compiled by gathering fragments from this wisdom tradition—an oral wisdom tradition—and editing them, translating them into classical Chinese, and building them into a book. And then Taoism becomes Ch’an Buddhism, which in America you’ll know as Zen Buddhism. So Taoism and Zen Buddhism are sort of China’s ecocentric philosophical system—that is, in the Tao Te Ching, in the early Taoist tradition, they speak always of the “Tao,” which is this sort of generative tissue of reality, of the Earth—that’s what Tao is. It’s a very empirical idea. And that’s referred to over and over as female, as a mother. So it goes back to a time when cultures were built around this sense that the sacred is a generative force of the Earth, of transformation. So that’s the connection.
And then the book in the end says, well, the Paleolithic model isn’t that useful for us now, even though everything came from it—that is, the Chinese transformation and the Western transformation really grew out of the Paleolithic way of seeing the world. In both cases, that Paleolithic [nature] went underground for a century or two or three, and then reemerged as the Tao Te Ching, Taoism; or as Romanticism, and then on into sort of the modern environmental movement. But the Paleolithic is a little less useful for us because that’s a material culture that’s just completely gone, you know. We’re not ever gonna be hunter-gatherers again; we’re not gonna wander the wilderness. However, ancient China—that system is useful because ancient Chinese culture is virtually the same structurally as us. It was a diversified market economy. They had money. They were bureaucrats working in offices. They were intensely textual—highly, highly educated, et cetera, et cetera. So I think that’s why in Wild Mind, Wild Earth, I spend time trying to build out and explain how the Chinese system works so that we can see how it might be useful for us here in the West today.
EVAnd how do you feel it’s different? I mean this ethics that emerged out of the Paleolithic era that influenced the ancient Chinese cultures and led to the Tao Te Ching and to Ch’an Buddhism and Zen Buddhism—how does it need to be different now, if we’re going to take these valuable ancient ways of being in relationship and kinship with the Earth as we’re dealing with the complex issues of a modern society, dealing with the sixth extinction?
DHYeah, I don’t think it needs to be very different. There are a lot of Zen Buddhists around—it seems to work here and now. No, it doesn’t have to be much different. This book is arguing that the real driver of the sixth extinction is a bundle of philosophical assumptions—unthought, unquestioned assumptions. And those assumptions [are] all operating in the mental realm. And the sort of Taoists, Ch’an Buddhists—I use “ch’an,” the Chinese word for “Zen”—they’re all about self-cultivation. And that’s where these assumptions operate: they operate in consciousness, in our minds. And that’s where you have to examine them, or a culture has to examine them, and start thinking about changing them—like ancient China did. And like I said, a lot of this work has been done over the last two hundred years in the West. So no, I don’t think it has to be different. I think it has to be a decision that we’re going to cultivate this other different way of seeing the world—and it is a kind of self-cultivation in the end.
Most environmental books now are about practical technological innovation or social changes that have to happen. My argument is that’s not going to work. That’s not going to happen. It requires a transformation in our assumptions about the nature of what we are and what the world is. Otherwise, that instrumental and exploitative relation will remain. Even if some people want to preserve a piece of land—that’s how they want to sort of use it—other people want to frack natural gas out of it—that’s how they want to use it. Because you’re sharing the assumption that the piece of land is something to use, then it’s just a disagreement. But if there were an assumption that that land, the animals on it—their self-realization is equally important to ours, then the whole conversation changes dramatically.
EVYeah, one of the things I found very interesting is that you talk about how, despite the widespread ecological advocacy that can be attributed to the modern environmental movement, the Western philosophical tradition it’s based on is ungrounded; and that the current environmental movement’s sense of kinship lacks the depths of a Taoist/Ch’an cosmology or a Paleolithic nature at its heart. And yes, it may be on the verge of integrating that, and there’s a lot of efforts to support that, but it still lacks that grounded sense that Ch’an and Taoist philosophies offered.
DHYeah, and that might be the whole reason for this book, to say, “oh, here’s where you ground it.” It’s not that hard and it’s not that foreign—it’s not foreign, really. This transformation in the West has already gotten us almost there. You know, a lot of people are there. But, you know, government leaders aren’t there. Industry leaders aren’t there. They’re still operating in the old mode. So yeah, it’s there, you know, we just need to ground it, right?
EVYou say you don’t offer solutions to tackling the sixth extinction and the environmental crisis, but you did put a lot of emphasis on the practices that emerged from Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism and how they can help heal wounds—the “wound of consciousness that was torn from wild earth,” you say. And today we might call these practices that emerged in the Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist schools a deep ecological practice.
DHYeah. I mean, just for instance, meditation—which you don’t have to go to a Zen monastery to do. If you just sit quietly and watch what’s going on in your head—that’s how Ch’an meditation starts—you realize very quickly that, oh, I am watching the thoughts go through my head; I am not those thoughts—which is what we assume we are. We assume the soul spirit, whatever you call identity center, is the center of rational thought, of thinking. That’s Descartes’ bedrock—after he strips everything you can’t know for absolute certain, he comes down to, “I think therefore I am.” I think. So thinking is his bedrock. But here you are after five seconds of Ch’an meditation and you see, oh, not so. I am this kind of quiet awareness watching thoughts come and go, come and go, come and go. So already we have taken a big step toward integrating consciousness with Earth. Because it’s that thought process, it’s that whole sort of interior realm of thinking and feeling and memory that we assume is us—that’s what separates us out from the rest of the world, right? So you sit for five or ten seconds and you see that you’re not that. You are just this awareness. Then you sit for a little bit longer, and maybe your thoughts slow down a little and you can sort of watch how they’re working. And you see that what’s happening in your head is that thoughts appear out of nowhere. They evolve through their transformations and then they disappear and new thoughts appear. So there’s this like appearance, evolution, disappearance. That’s what goes on in the natural world—things appear, they go through their lives and they disappear. You can think of it like the seasons. Winter is a kind of pregnant emptiness. Spring emerges out of that—it flourishes. And life flourishes in summer and then dies back into that emptiness of winter and the autumn. And you realize, oh, my thoughts are doing the same thing that the ten thousand things do—the ten thousand things in empirical reality. And then you realize, oh, well they’re part of the same tissue. Things emerge out of emptiness, live their lives and disappear into emptiness. That happens in the head. And so that’s another radical reweaving of consciousness and wildness. There you’re starting to see what I mean by “wild mind.”
EVYou explain in the book, it’s peppered throughout, that this Taoist, this Zen/Ch’an meditation practice, which leads to empty mind, leads to a deep mirroring of the cosmos and in turn a celebration of the cosmos. And so there’s a “deep seeing,” as you describe it, or an experience that can come from this space that you could also say is a practice that can heal the wounds of consciousness.
DHIf you keep meditating beyond where I was describing, pretty soon your thoughts will start falling silent. And then you are just inhabiting that pregnant emptiness. And that’s sort of the end place for Ch’an Buddhism. I mean, not that that’s all it’s about—getting there—it’s not. But that’s what the Zen people call empty mind. In that empty mind, if at that moment you open your eyes and your mind is emptied of thought, empty of content, whatever you look at is mirrored directly and immediately inside of you—that’s what’s going on. It’s just this mirroring. And at that point, whatever you are looking at, whether it’s a subway car or a wild peak someplace—that is the content of consciousness. That is identity. And that’s another radical reweaving of consciousness and landscape and the world. And that’s why that poem is so important, because that’s what it is—it’s a poem of that mirrored seeing that comes at the end of a certain amount of Ch’an practice and that reweaves consciousness with the world around it. And that was the fundamental pursuit for the Taoists and for the Ch’an/Zen Buddhists—reweaving consciousness with landscape, with the Tao, with the generative tissue of things—exactly what I’m saying is necessary to really deal with the sixth extinction that’s going on now. It’s not going to happen until we are rewoven with the Earth and its creatures.
So maybe I’ll read the poem again, and then you can just maybe hear it differently, because now you’re hearing it as this mirroring. Is that okay?
EVYeah, please read it.
Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then startling away into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.
So you see, that’s why that leap from the egrets to the pear blossoms is so interesting or profound, because there is no thought process going on. There is no thought process driving this poem. It’s just the whole egret/mountain thing and then suddenly the next image, which is completely different—no real relation to what had come before. It’s just perception, perception, perception. No logic. No reason. No thought process. Hence, it’s a kind of meditative practice.
EVHmm. One of the things that you explore also is how in this space of deep seeing, there is an emergence of love that comes forth—that kinship, that connection. When what you are seeing is a mirror of what is unfolding inside of you, that creates a certain bond—this weaving, as you describe it. And that is one of love, which seems to be so central if we are going to find a path forward individually or collectively that is different than the philosophical framework of the West’s modern experiment, which was not grounded on love for the Earth. Do you feel that it’s possible to move beyond an individual experience of love into something that is more societal as we grapple with these challenges?
DHYeah, well, it really is societal only if it’s all the individuals. But yeah, that love is there if you’re not separate from something, if it’s total kinship. Or even like those egrets—in that moment of seeing the egrets and the pear blossoms—that’s the content of consciousness, that’s the content of identity. So the ethics becomes kind of radical: whatever you do to one of those egrets—if you take your shotgun out and you shoot it—you’re doing it to yourself, because there’s no real difference between you and the egret. Mencius, one of the old Chinese philosophers, even says that whatever you do to the world, you do to yourself, you know, in a very real way. And maybe that’s part of that wound that you’ve mentioned a couple of times—we’re constantly tearing ourselves apart, but we don’t quite realize it.
EVHmm. So what is this wild ethics? You know, obviously we’ve been speaking about it maybe more indirectly, but if you had to distill it down as we really try to reexamine, what is the ethical framework that we can live our lives with?
DHWell, I think the Paleolithic ethical framework is simply—I mean, the hunter-gatherers—having no separation between themselves, no radical distinction between human and nonhuman—thought everything else was kindred. Literally, they thought if you went out to hunt and you’re hunting a deer, the deer is your sister or your brother, or maybe your ancestor, or maybe, more precisely, past/future forms of yourself. Because I think the ethic was you hunted with sort of prayers and sacrifice and humility. You’re asking a deer—a brother or a sister or an ancestor—to give its life for you. But you know that the next time around, it’s going to be asking you to give your life for it. So it’s this beautiful web of life that they’re participating in, and it has an ethics. You’d never go out and kill your sister just for sport, just to prove you’re a man. So I think that’s a pretty radical ethics that that we come to once we start unraveling that very detached Western self with its instrumental and exploitative relation.
I mean, I’m here in Vermont, and in Vermont, Native Americans lived here—well, like everywhere in North America—they lived here in Vermont for over ten thousand years. The ecosystem was basically intact, and that’s because they had that ethical system built into their fundamental cultural assumptions—the assumptions that guided their lives. They didn’t think about them. They didn’t question them. They were simply the assumptions, the unthought assumptions. When the Europeans got here with their unthought assumptions, they clear-cut the whole state within, you know, a century. And those two outcomes—one, an intact ecosystem after ten thousand years, and the other, a completely devastated ecosystem after a century or less—those are philosophical differences. Those are differences in cultural assumptions—that’s what drove those two things. It’s not technology. Like now people, you know, we’re talking about how technology could save us or how we need to change our behavior to save humans to save us. That’s what all of the climate change discussion is about: avoiding disruptions to the human project. And that’s what I’m afraid of. As long as the human project is the center, the be-all and end-all of planet Earth, I don’t think we’re gonna get very far.
EVHmm. You spoke about how, as relevant as Chinese Taoist and Ch’an teachings are at this time and the practices that came from those traditions are gateways to rekindling that sense of kinship with the living Earth, that the greatest teacher at this time might be the sixth extinction that is unfolding around us, which you described also as a great vanishing—that this might be the teacher that helps rekindle this relationship that Taoism and Ch’an was trying to do.
DHLike I start the book—I read that little beginning—that we somehow love this world and we feel kinship with it, but how can that be because of our Western assumptions? And then I talk about how, well, actually there’s this cultural movement beginning with the Romantics that is changing our cultural assumptions and has done a fair amount to change them. But not enough. But then think about how the sixth extinction is really teaching us how much we do love this world, because a lot of us find it unthinkable; it’s so painful. And if we’re feeling all that grief—the destruction is so massive, and we feel it so deeply—that’s teaching us. That’s saying, look how kindred you are. Look how much you love this. You didn’t know this two hundred years ago. You don’t know it enough now. But every day more species are lost, more individuals are lost. So that’s where I start with the idea that the sixth extinction is now a great teacher. And I hope that’s thick with irony, I guess. You don’t really want to pay that kind of price for a teacher, but we don’t have a choice.
EVYou also talk about how this process of experiencing this grief and trying to learn what this experience is teaching us is also revealing to us our most profound and beautiful selves at the same time.
DHWe’re so much more than we think we are. We are so much more than just this little bundle of obsessions going on in our head. And that’s a beautiful thing to discover. And in a sense, yeah, the sixth extinction is helping teach us that, because it’s teaching us that we are profoundly kindred with the ecosystem, with the wild, with the ten thousand things. That’s the whole point of Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist practices—to discover that vast self that we are. One way I think of it is—and this is to put ancient Taoist and Ch’an and even Paleolithic insight into modern scientific terms—We think of ourselves as this little bubble of obsessions and memories going on in our head that’s detached from everything else. That’s the wound. That sounds pretty isolated and bleak to me. But the scientific account of the universe is that the cosmos evolved one generation after generation of suns, and in the third generation our sun and our planet. And on our planet, the cosmos evolved life forms—like us. And some of those life forms developed eyes—like us. And so when we look out at the world, we are quite literally the cosmos looking out at itself. That’s consciousness totally woven into the cosmos, into Earth, into landscape. And even when we think about the cosmos, when we think about the sixth extinction, we’re the cosmos thinking about itself. And when we feel it, when we feel love and grief—that’s the cosmos feeling itself. That’s our greatest, that’s our biggest self. And it’s kind of been hidden from us by Western intellectual history and the assumptions we’ve inherited.
EVDavid, thank you for your time today and for our conversation.