Exploration and re-enchantment of the world
Close your eyes, and picture for a moment all those expedition flags on the moon, mountain tops, the North Pole. The silly pieces of silk express: We were here first. We conquered this giant mountain or that huge ice covered piece of land. There for we own it. Next, those places, mountains, rivers are given a name, often ignoring the fact that they already had a name. One that might be difficult to pronounce for a western tongue, but a name nonetheless.
Exploration is not a neutral activity. We, explorers, represent a culture in which nature is defined in terms of economical and social use. I never thought much of it until I came to know people in the Altai-Sayan mountains in South West Siberia. It took a while to understand that their worldview is totally different from ours. For the Altaians Nature is a living being, to be honored and worshiped for Itself, and not for the practical purposes It has for us, humans.
Even after I understood this intellectually, the concept didn’t really sink in. As an ecologist I always thought that I deeply cared for the natural world, not untrue, but still, in my view nature is there for us to enjoy. That’s why it is our job to save the planet for future generations. A human centered point of view. And that’s okay. But the beautiful thing about learning from other cultures is that you come to realize that Reality as we perceive it is just one possibility out of many. The world we live in does not exist in some absolute sense. We each experience ‘reality’ through our own cultural lens. Funny! We inhabit the same planet, but when it comes to worldviews, cultures might as well live light years apart. .
Anyway, I am not writing this to preach or teach, but to share my excitement about the creativity of the human mind. As a biologist I thought that biosphere mattered most to the well being of our planet. In the Altai I discovered the importance of ethnosphere, a term coined by Wade Davis (ethno-botanist, researcher National Geographic). Ethnosphere is the spiritual web of life, it is the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.
I must confess I had big problems with the Altaian worldview when I first traveled in the region. People who believe in spirits and shamans who claim they can travel through time and space…. Come on! The understanding came slowly, it took me years of struggling with and reading about this issue before it hit me: The point is not who is right and who is wrong. That is not interesting at all! What matters is to celebrate diversity and human potential. And to welcome different ways of thinking. Those of us who travel with an open mind, can learn first hand how other people view the world – and that’s how we can rediscover the enchantment of the world.
My next expedition – Searching for Paradise – will just do that. This summer, together with Wayne Poulsen I will circumnavigate the AltaiMountain range in the heart of Central Asia. Some 1500 km on horseback, meandering in and out of an imaginary circle. The journey takes us through Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia.
My personal aim: Reach a better understanding of the meaning of (sacred) landscapes. And I have found a beautiful way to do just that. En route I will create a map on a big piece of animal skin, the map will connect the physical geography and the geography of the spirit
In the end, when the circle (and the map) is completed, the map will point out where Paradise is.
Arita Baaijens is an explorer, a biologist, author, photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and The Explorers Club. Twenty years ago she gave up her job as an environmentalist, bought camels and made a solo crossing across the Western Desert of Egypt. Today she has made over 25 expeditions (3-6 months at a time) with her own caravan of camels all over Egypt and the Sudan. She is now preparing he biggest Expedition, read more here at http://www.aritabaaijens.nl/index_en.php