Seeing with New Eyes

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and mystic

geoffpilgrimage240Perhaps it is only when we slow to the time-honoured pace of a walking pilgrim and totally immerse ourselves in the wonders of nature that we begin to see our world with new eyes, marvelling at the beauty that surrounds us. Or as Rumi suggests, we kneel in reverence and kiss the ground. Funnily enough it was while exploring inner and outer landscapes during a workshop at Findhorn in 2010, that a veil was finally lifted for me, revealing more than I'd seen in hundreds of trips to all seven continents as a tourist and journalist. How magnificent was that lightbulb moment of realisation that there is beauty everywhere, if only I looked.

In that flash of illumination I also remembered the wisdom of legendary South African conservationist Dr Ian Player who'd shaped my earliest ideas about the healing powers of wilderness. Decades earlier I'd been involved in a crocodile capture and rescue operation led by him and had hung on his every word, even though I didn't ultimately take up his generous offer of a career as a game ranger. In his book Zululand Wilderness, Shadow and Soul, he observes: "On frequent visits to Europe, the United States, and the Far East, I have noticed that among people there is a weariness caused by travel without purpose. Instead of pilgrimages there are escapes." How true is that? He talks of pilgrimage in the context of the wilderness of Africa and how it can "give a new dimension to travel linked to our new age of exploration, not only of outer space but also of the inner dimension of humanness."

geofpilgrimage243I guess that's what I've been attempting lately while walking the Trail to Salamanca, and with each step I've been dismantling prejudices and preconceptions while trying to be open to all possibilities. When Vance Martin, founder of the WILD Foundation, first suggested that I get involved in WILD10 and helping 'make the world a wilder place,' I couldn't see how that was possible within Europe where the human footprint is so heavy. Wildness and wilderness in Europe? The vision that Vance shares with many others across the globe is now also mine. It transpires that Vance too was inspired by Ian Player and his destiny also shaped as a resident of the Findhorn Community during the early pioneering days.

I started this walk having categorised the world into areas that were either wild and desirable or populated and tainted by humanity's presence. Now I know it isn't that simple. We humans are part of nature – interconnected and interdependent. I'd imagined that more forest was always desirable and viewed pasturelands as an unfortunate consequence of humanity's insatiable hunger for beef and other animal products. Cows, I've discovered, are not just methane gas factories that convert much-needed forests into degraded pasturelands to feed carnivorous humans. Their long-horned and long extinct ancestors, the free-roaming aurochs, played an important part in maintaining open grasslands and stimulating biodiversity with their grazing. Now, the idea of recreating herds of wild cattle to again fulfil that role is gaining momentum.

geoffpilgrimage242I'm learning so much and realising how little I know. Already it's been an astonishing kaleidoscope of experiences, with the beauty everywhere amazing and delighting me, while the passion and commitment of so many individuals is inspiring. I'm more optimistic about our future than ever after meeting them, although I'm also in danger of sensory overload, so intense, varied and emotive have my days been. While trying to view the world through the eyes of a wolf migrating the Great Mountain Corridor, I'm reminded of the inextricable links between human animals and others species, our paths constantly crossing. I'm looking for wolf spoor and find myself simultaneously treading the footsteps of human history and walking the 800-year-old Route of the Cathars and intersecting the even older Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela.

Jordi Nicolau and Alex Mata introduce me to the delights of Andorra's Comapedrosa Natural Park with an exciting horseback ride up the lower reaches of the highest peak. It is a glimpse of possibilities for a fledgling eco-tourism industry that doesn't rely so heavily on guzzling oil and polluting the landscape. I decide that Andorra's theme song is the music of tumbling waterfalls and gurgling streams that accompany my walking, one of my most memorable nights spent under the stars and a full moon alongside a river during my traverse of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley.

geoffpilgrimage241Meeting Jordi Garcia Petit, director of the Catalonian Cadi-Moixero Natural Park, rekindles my hopes of encountering wolves in the wild. He reports 14 sightings in the decade up to 2010 and presents me with a wolf notebook that is given to schoolchildren to help them understand the vital role of this iconic predator, with its almost eerie ability to escape human detection. Mountain guide Maria Fauro leads me on a magnificent hike to high places within the park, and part of the time we follow the Picasso Way, retracing a journey made by artist Pablo Picasso and his companion Fernande Olivier in 1906. This is the first time in several weeks that I've walked without both front and rear packs and I feel like I'm floating on air, making light work of steep ascents that have others huffing and puffing.

The following day I'm again able to lighten my load, this time in the company of Xavier Escute from the Catalunya-LaPedrera Foundation which is the driving force behind a variety of sustainable eco projects. The Foundation's Miquel Rafa is the visionary environmentalist geoffpilgrimage245who has planned much of my route and is my guide on Alinya Mountain, one of Europe's largest private protected areas. It is a good example of abandoned farmland that is opening up possibilities for the comeback of wildlife. There's a glint of excitement in his eyes as he imagines a mini-Serengeti in Catalonia. The dream is to introduce a strain of modern cattle bred with the characteristics of the extinct aurochs and it could start happening as soon as next year!

Standing on Alinya Mountain's highest point I'm touched by the peace and beauty of the scene. As I gaze out over panoramic views from the high plateau it's easy to believe that almost anything is possible if enough of us will it.

Geoff Dalglish

Geoff also writes for Odyssey Magazine as their Earth Pilgrim At Large.

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