How Alan McSmith creates nature and wilderness space
Happyplaces story (video)
‘The wisdom of natural leadership’ defines what Alan McSmith is all about. He believes that you can develop a compass that helps you make choices that really matter by being in touch with your wisdom and intuition. This requires that you consciously pay attention to what touches and inspires you, make space for what is within you, and see nature not just as a place but as a way of life.
Kees Klomp was kind enough to connect us, so I was able to pick up Alan in the wilderness of Staphorst. Alan’s deep understanding of the wild and his readiness to share it with all who are interested make him a much sought after wildlife and wilderness guide and speaker. After we introduced ourselves while driving, we continued the conversation about mammoths, the land, and the history, which inspired me to head towards Schokland, a former island in the polder where there is a small museum with an exhibition of natural history legacies from a distant past. Including locally found remains of mammoths and hippos.
In my presentations, I sometimes say: if you want to know all there is to know about lions, go to the jungle, not to the zoo.’ (I know, lions don’t live in the jungle, even though they are considered to be the king of the jungle.) Point is, if you really want to know what’s going on, what’s true, and how something works, what people feel and think, you must go out and ask or experience it. Or, in this case, you can also meet with Alan. Then you learn all about lions, nature, the wilderness, the wisdom of the Bushmen who pass it on from generation to generation. Fortunately, we also recorded a piece of that wisdom.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Maybe it is a good thing to start at the beginning and understand more about space. I think it is; when we ask ten people sitting around this table today: ‘What is space to you?’ you get ten different answers or definitions. I guess the core of my work is always ‘coming back to yourself’. That is where natural leadership differs from conventional or organisational leadership. The space within yourself is my reference point in how I would choose to define space. For example, consider this: if you imagine that most people in modern society are either living in the future, worrying about what will happen tomorrow or in the next five minutes, or living in the past. In other words: they are replaying, refocussing on all the information, the data, and experiences they have undergone in their lives. And they’re trying to connect the two. In other words, they learn from their experiences to project or navigate into the future. And there is very little time to spend in the present moment. For me, what the wilderness experience does, and why nature is incredibly important in modern society, is that there is a little space between the past and the future, between our imagination and memory. You can literally come home to yourself and make an appointment with life in that space. It is there where this original creative inspiration emerges. Then you are not influenced by your memory or by your future. Both worldviews of landscapes will define; the inspiration will emerge because of them, but not due to them. Spending some empty times or empty moments in nature creates this sacred space, which for me is crucial in understanding the direction of modern leadership — that is, coming back home to yourself first.
For me, what the wilderness experience does, and why nature is incredibly important in modern society, is that there is a little space between the past and the future, between our imagination and memory. You can literally come home to yourself and make an appointment with life in that space. It is there where this original creative inspiration emerges.
Our relationship with nature is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing or stillness in the modern world. We’re sitting here at Schokland, in the Netherlands, a remarkable place. It is one of the areas in the Netherlands where I feel the most connected. I just walked through the museum and touched the tusk of a woolly mammoth that died here some eleven thousand years ago. That immediately rolls the clock back; it reconnects me with the sense of nature and timelessness here in the Netherlands. I refer to a reconnection, not a connection, because I believe it is already there. This is the landscape in which modern man developed. Since things have recently changed in our development, the urban man has little time or opportunity to connect with nature. We don’t even come to places like this and spend a few hours in this sacred space. So for me, it is crucial to check in with myself, slow the pace down, learn from the past, and understand the implications of what has been happening in the world to get to this present moment. It is about going back in time and possibly, or hopefully, breaking the cycle of not learning from the past and not discovering how to live with more peace and more sense of wellbeing with our natural world.
Finding that moment, having a cup of tea with yourself in that space, treasuring that moment of a sunrise or a bird landing on your washing line, or spending some time listening to your friend, partner, or wife — and then really listening, is a wilderness moment.
Whether you live in a high-rise building in Amsterdam or in the middle of the Kalahari desert, the concept of nature is universal. My office is in the Kalahari. I’m blessed to have the lions, the leopards and the elephants all around all the time. In Amsterdam, it is a little different. But finding that moment, having a cup of tea with yourself in that space, treasuring that moment of a sunrise or a bird landing on your washing line, or spending some time listening to your friend, partner, or wife — and then really listening, is a wilderness moment. So many of us have a conversation and prepare what we’re doing to reply or respond. Try this, for example: spend a day saying 50% less than you normally would. Try that. You would be amazed. You would be empowered by what you say and don’t say and how much you will discover and learn about the people around you. Silence, for me, is a keystone of nature. I can say nothing in 150 different languages. So spending time and making yourself available to the information and what people are saying and doing around you is a wilderness experience. Those experiences are all around us, all the time.
The morning spent with Marcel here at Schokland was my first experience in the Netherlands to visit an archaeological museum and find these old stone tools, bones and artefacts from a time gone past. I come from South Africa, which is still a rather young nation in Europe. I stayed in a house that was 300 years old. I saw an old church that was almost a thousand years old. For me, that was different because we don’t have that feeling of medieval history. In Africa, there is recent history, or we have prehistory. For example, in the Kalahari in Botswana, there are a lot of stone tools that are picked up. The item I show here is one such artefact. It is a stone shard, possibly coming from the late stone age; it is possibly 20,000 years old. It is an artefact, possibly dropped by an ancestor of mine.
What it, for me, immediately does is that it connects people to the land. I often say, living in the modern society, every generation of people that are born or perhaps every conversation that is had, every Whatsapp or email message that is sent that is not paying attention to the wellbeing of the planet is almost a step away from this ancient connection that we all have. The connection is through people and the understanding that people are a part of that landscape, as are the birds, the elephants, the lions and the woolly mammoths that once were. I think it is fundamentally important to find our way back to nature and to find our way home. The Bushmen in the Kalahari represent that, being living stone age people. They are living museums. They have lived an unchanged lifestyle for the past 40,000 to 50,000 years. When you’re spending time with traditional bushmen or elders, you feel you are going back in time and accessing this ancient wisdom and knowledge we once connected to. We are all trying to find our way home in many ways. For me, visiting the Bushmen and the ancient landscapes of Africa is ground zero, I guess, in that process.
Perhaps the first or most fundamental layer of space is the space we have within ourselves. The mental space we have is the space we have within ourselves. It is an area we can explore inwardly, a non-material understanding of what is going on. No one else knows that space; there is only one set of tracks.
To cover what this concept of space is and how it influences our energy and our connections with the people around us — not only people, animals too. I think it is important to understand that we are all connected. Separateness is an illusion. How I choose to conduct my days has an influence and consequences on what happens around me, on the energy that the day brings and on the actions with people. So for me, it is a vital part. Perhaps the first or most fundamental layer of space is the space we have within ourselves. The mental space we have is the space we have within ourselves. It is an area we can explore inwardly, a non-material understanding of what is going on. No one else knows that space; there is only one set of tracks. The concept of natural leadership is an inward journey; you are exploring that sacred space within yourself. And then you play it forward. You merge from there into the bigger world. The bushmen always say: ‘We live in two worlds. There is the little world, the inner world. It exists because we exist. And then there is the big world, the external one. That existed long before we were born and long after we die.’ So it is interfacing that space and traversing between these two areas that is perhaps the art of living. I believe the energy becomes positive if you move through them with ecological dignity. It becomes empowering and it becomes enlightening. But if you move between those two worlds with arrogance, then the opposite happens.
The bushmen always say: ‘We live in two worlds. There is the little world, the inner world. It exists because we exist. And then there is the big world, the external one. That existed long before we were born and long after we die.’ So it is interfacing that space and traversing between these two areas that is perhaps the art of living.
Space for quiet
What I had with the elephant encounter was an example of that. I could consciously blur the boundaries between my little world and my big world. I had no idea where my boundary ended and where the elephant’s boundary began. You can see it in the video that we recorded from it. One of us, myself or the elephant, becomes mindful of it. We manage to step outside that zone, and the elephant charges again. The tension rises. And then we both can find a frequency. If you are trying to understand the people around you and connect meaningfully with them, you must tiptoe through this space between these two worlds. And be alert, conscious, and aware of the information coming towards you.
I have always believed that if you move slower, say less, listen more and listen intently, you can pick up a lot of information about what people are expecting, what mood they may be in, or what has happened during the day to that person. Try being compassionate and empathetic towards that space before you barge in and maybe demand something or ask for something that might not be sustainable. All this can come from paying attention to nature and spending time on your own, in quiet places, listening to the birds, listening to the wind, and feeling the change in pressure before the rain comes in.
If you are trying to understand the people around you and connect meaningfully with them, you must tiptoe through this space between these two worlds. And be alert, conscious, and aware of the information coming towards you.
Looking at the trees around us here, you can see on the tree behind that the foliage is denser and thicker on the southern side of the tree. The tree is, in a sense leaning towards the south. What is happening there is if you imagine that each leaf of a tree is a solar panel, for the tree to create enough energy to sustain itself, it needs to have as many solar panels as possible in the right position. You need the scaffolding and support system in the right position to do that. So the tree grows bigger, taller, and often thicker on the sun-facing southern side. If you spend a quiet time walking in the fields, working on the farmlands and stop and notice these little things, you’d be pleasantly surprised how much other information and subtle sights you never noticed before come rushing in. A lot can happen from that.
Space for infinite wonder
Spending time with busmen and natural people, and I believe there is a Bushman or Bushwoman in all of us, many things come to you. One of them is this understanding that human intelligence and intellect are infinite. We will never stop wanting to discover things. We are curious by nature, by default. The information around us is constantly interesting and inspiring if we take the time to listen to it.
I have to pay tribute to many different people I’ve learned from, mentors or inspired me. One of them is Satguru. He does have his critics. But he once referred to this idea, that the human mind will never stop exploring by nature of the universe and how nature works, which is completely infinite. We will never be able to understand everything. If that is the case, then we are all in a state of confusion, which is probably apt for the modern world. He says that we have no choice, that we are perpetually confused. The only choice we have is whether we are happily or miserably confused. I choose the first. There is a sense of wonder around that nature exists. I don’t have a problem not knowing; I don’t have a problem with mystery. I can sit on this rock all day, listen to the wind, and watch the birds fly by. For me, it is not relevant what kind of bird it is or its biology. It is a sense of endless wonder that nature brings. Inspiring a meaningful and sustainable curiosity is essential now in our modern world and examining our relationship with the planet moving forward.
There is a lot of negativity and pessimism. We all understand the state of the world we’re in. Climate change, our social problems. The other side of the coin concerning nature is wars for territory and resources. I choose not to dwell on pessimism and consider a way forward. For me, the way forward might not be where you think it is. It could be 180° away from where you think it is. It could be internally, having a cup of tea with yourself to chart the way forward. That is what nature and natural leadership bring me.
Marcel, to conclude, what I would like to share with you is this patch. In it is a stone. It is a little gift that I picked up from our garden in Africa. There is a little stone in here. It is not a diamond; far more valuable than that. So whenever you need to check out or spend a little time with yourself, have some tea with yourself to make an appointment with life; this will help you find it. It is a sense of timelessness.