Susie O’Keeffe

We Are Not Separate

Recorded: November 7, 2013

What are we missing? Susie O'Keeffe, a Research Associate and Adjunct at the College of the Atlantic, explains how our sense of separation from the natural world is a delusion that can be transcended through prolonged contact with the natural world. Susie shares her exploration of how human consciousness is broadened and transformed when we take the time to be outdoors, be quiet, and join the natural world as member rather than master. She discusses her conviction that the long-term protection of wilderness, and the creation of healthy individuals and sustainable cultures, depends on helping young people develop this deeper level of awareness.

Ms. O’Keeffe is a teacher, poet, gardener and photographer. She holds a Master of Science degree with distinction in Environmental Management from Oxford University, England. Susie works as an Adjunct Professor and Research Associate at the College of the Atlantic, where she is developing a project entitled the “Art of Reciprocity.” She grounds this project in the combination of three areas: consciousness development, contemplative inquiry and creative perception and expression. It is based on Ms. O’Keeffe’s conviction that the ecological crisis is ultimately a problem of limited human consciousness and an understanding that knowledge remains incomplete without the full development of our bodily and creative/aesthetic intelligences, as well as a deep on-going commitment to self-awareness.

Susie O’Keeffe:    I wanted to study conservation in general– local agriculture, wildlife in general– and I decided to study the community that I was living in, in the Alps.  But what happened in the meantime when I was doing my studies, is that the wolf returned. And so I ended up doing my thesis on the wolf and the return of the wolf to the French Alps.

Susie O’Keeffe:    I got very interested in people’s reaction.  I was interested in the biology, I was interested in the science, in the coexistence, but what came out of it was how crazy people are.  How much these animals evoke something, which later I learned was really psychology, you know, the – what we project onto the natural world, the sense of separation and demonization that we can have.  And the wolf– I think of all the animals, perhaps the wolf is the one we demonize the most, and that taught me a lot about what has now become my work.  The question that I really started to ask was where does this come from?  Why do we have this sense of separation from the natural world?  And is that really at the heart of our problem, that we have a consciousness that we have created, a way of being and seeing something that is based on something that’s a delusion, that we’re not separate, that these animals aren’t the things we make them into, they’re simply who and what they are.  There’s a way to enter into relationship with the natural world and that is transformative of our awareness.  It’s a larger… I think we’re in a larger consciousness than we actually realize and we’re in a culture that’s really narrowed, narrowed what we can perceive and understand.  And of course one of the sayings that’s the most pivotal I think in the environmental field for this is the quote from Aldo Leopold, when he says he says he sees that fierce green fire dying in the eyes of that wolf. And then he realizes that he’s seeing something that he’s never seen before, that’s known only to her and to the mountain.  To me, he’s talking about that kind of consciousness that kind of awareness that we just are not plugged into.  And I’m interested in what would happen if we created a culture and taught our children what they need to know to experience that consciousness.

Huey Johnson:    Your point is probably important from a mental health point of view for society if we get so hung up.  I worry about my grandchildren sitting at computers all the time.  Your reflections about wilderness and health?

Susie O’Keeffe:    I think it’s a complicated concept, because we’ve sort of created the concept of wilderness.  I think the trouble is in our culture, in westernized occidental culture, is that we have this divide, man and nature, God and nature, and that wilderness in a sense came, the concept of wilderness came from that divide. Right?  There’s a wonderful quote that I use in my presentation on this from Joanna Macy that I just love. It’s “The earth is not resource, not our sewer; the earth is our larger body.”  We are the land and the land is us.  The land is our larger body and the more we take away from the authenticity, the wildness, the self-willed land, I think the more we lose that within ourselves. And I think we know now that our health is not just something that’s mechanical.  It’s mental.  It’s physical.  It’s emotional.  It’s psychological as well as just the physical body.  And I think it’s intimately connected with the health of the land, from those perspectives like you were just saying, when you are in these places that are still authentic, that are still their own, they are their own beings in a way and they’re healthy, right?  They’re teaming with life.  We get penetrated by that, because we’re not separate from it. Just get out there.  Get out there, be out there, stay out there day and night, rain and snow, stay, sit, hold it, and it will.. it will speak and you will change.  There’s nothing more authentic.  There’s nothing more extraordinary.  I think we need that more than anything else.