Rewilding the Soul

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Have you ever had an encounter in nature that felt numinous; a direct communication to you from the mystery? Have you ever walked into the physical reality of a night dream? What signs and symbols have you noticed recently in your inner and outer landscapes? 

This is how soul speaks to us, in a language older than words, a language few these days are literate in.

Soulcraft - the book that has arguably been the most influential in my life, gave voice to this language I was coming to know, particularly how it speaks to us in wild places and during the times in our life when we are pulled unwittingly into a darker, fertile underworld.

Bill Plotkin, the author of this book and founder of the Animas Valley Institute is coming to Australia in November this year to offer this important work of soul rewilding, and cultural transformation. I will be there. Will you? 

But back to the story...

It was sitting in my letterbox, sender anonymous, on a bright spring morning. With goosepimples I turned the pages of Soulcraft feeling like every word had been written for me. Rather than there being something wrong with the yearning I had to walk away from life as I had constructed it by my late twenties, Plotkin explained, the calling I felt to embark on a solo journey in nature was in fact a sign of healthy human development.

The call comes, he says, at a time when “the familiar goals, attitudes and patterns of relationship no longer fit your developing sense of who you truly are. The time has arrived to step over a threshold into a whole new way of being.” In traditional times this call would usually come towards the end of adolescence, and would signal to the elders that it was time to mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood through certain initiation rites, such as vision quests, walkabouts and healing ceremonies.

The sometimes fierce crucible created by these rites would force the initiate to wriggle out of their adolescent identities, and see with clarity for the first time the unique stripes and spots of their adult skin, the gifts and talents that only they were born to bring forth in the world.

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In our soul-suppressing Western world the stirrings of this call to adventure go largely unrecognised and misunderstood. An uninvited guest, the coooo-eeee that arises from the depths is construed as a serious threat to what Bill calls the ‘Standard Game of Security Building’. We try to snuff it out, tell our misbehaving part to stop being so annoying and inconsiderate, and lock it away in the cupboard. We tend to stick in the earplugs of rampant consumerism, workaholism, excessive TV watching or eating disorders in order to drown out its insistent voice, and yet it persists, bubbling up like a lid lifted by boiling water in sorrows and neuroses, depression and mid-life crises. It finds distorted expression in risk-taking with alcohol and drugs and speeding; in rebellious attempts to be different – poor substitutes for real soul initiation.

Be warned, says Bill, for the call will take you on a descent to the underworld that is neither comfortable nor predictable, a journey to the “nightworld of mysteries, the womb of true character,” where there is no guarantee how long or rough the river is and where you'll wash up at the end (or how many feathers will get ruffled along the way). Although the price to pay for descent may be large, asking us to leave behind everything familiar for a journey of unspecified duration or direction, the price of not heeding the call is greater – a life without soul purpose, a life empty of true purpose and vision. I turned the page to Mary Oliver's poem' Striding Deeper into the World' and realised my choice had already been made.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

Without realising it, my plans of a year living simply in the forest matched exactly the conditions necessary for the entrypoint into the stage Bill calls the 'wanderer in the cocoon'. During this phase, the aspirant knows that the seeds of her destiny will not be found in the 'familiar arenas of human culture', but in the more diverse, wild and mysterious world of nature'. She knows she must leave the familiar behind and enter a borderless and timeless place, wandering her inner and outer landscape using inner vision and the impulses of her heart as her compass guide to find clues to her soul purpose hidden under rocks and mossy crevices.

She eschews the intellectual mind for a time, and opens instead to the wisdom of her imagination, and looks to signs, dreams and omens. She cultivates a relationship with the invisible realms as much as the invisible, knowing she needs to enter the dark depths of her inner wildness in order to uncover the pearls of her own pure essence underneath. The task is both daunting and unavoidable. Without guides or elders it seemed I was unwittingly fumbling my way towards a self-designed initiation.

Ten years on, and I am still integrating the ripples and ruptures catalyzed by this time in the forest, and the intimate conversations between nature and psyche that ensued. I have come to know my task in the world as holding space for others’ descent into the mysteries. And to continue to tend the Rewilding of my soul.


Founder of Animas Valley Institute Bill Plotkin will be making his first Australian tour in November this year alongside Geneen Marie Haugen, his fellow guide and partner.

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Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and agent of cultural evolution. As founder of western Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute in 1981, he has guided thousands of women and men through nature-based initiatory passages, including a contemporary, Western adaptation of the pan-cultural vision quest. Previously, he has been a research psychologist (studying non-ordinary states of consciousness), professor of psychology, psychotherapist, rock musician, and whitewater river guide.

In 1979, on a solo winter ascent of an Adirondack peak, Bill experienced a call to adventure, leading him to abandon academia in search of his true calling. Bill is the author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (an experiential guidebook), Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (a nature- based stage model of human development through the entire lifespan), and Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche (an ecocentric map of the psyche — for healing, growing whole, and cultural transformation). He has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

For enquiries and registration see Soulcraft Australia.