This is a piece about songlines, and about maps, and about one thing you can do to improve your mental health.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking through a valley on the edge of the Forest of Bowland. I crossed over the river Roeburn at the bottom of the valley, and the woodland opened out into a meadow. There were a few fruit trees here, and some wildflowers scattered through the grasses. Later in the woodland I was struck by the elm flowers on young elm trees, by the bluebells and by the ferns. Birdsong filled my ears, along with the buzzing sounds of bees, wasps and hoverflies.
I was following a human trail. It was crisscrossed with the trails of other animals — deer, I guess and maybe foxes and badgers.
Humans see in one range of colours, birds and animals in another, insects in another. My view of the forest is from nearly six feet above the ground, a badger’s view is just a few inches from the ground, and the smells are much more significant. All of our experiences of the forest are very different.
A badger’s map of the forest is very different to mine. I want to know where the fences and gates are, and which way the paths go. A badger’s map is about food, and sniffing out the territory of other animals.
Naturalist Charles Foster experimented with a badger’s map of the woods. He slept on the ground, wore a blindfold and learnt to recognise the different smells on the forest floor. Even then his map of the woods would have been subtly different, I’m sure.
And what of a tree’s map of the woods? What does a tree notice? They respond to the seasons, to chemicals that other trees emit, to stress…
Songlines are the songs handed down through Australian aboriginal communities that mark the journeys of the creator gods. The songs are maps, very different to our own, and vast tracts of Australia can be navigated using them. We all have different ways of seeing the world.
What has this got to do with mental health?
The more able we are able to appreciate that others have different experiences, and ways of seeing the world to our own, the more likely we are to have good mental health.
The more we can see that we are not at the centre of the world, the more likely we are to have good mental health.
Good mental health is about landing in reality, and reality is complex. The more we can appreciate that there are many (human and other than human) ways of experiencing the world, the more likely we are to have good mental health, and the more likely we are to behave in ways which are better for the whole plant. And behaving in ways which are good for the whole planet tends to support good mental health.
So that one thing you can do? Begin to appreciate the many different ways of seeing the world.