The poet Mary Oliver died just over a week ago. The first poem of hers I ever read was “In Blackwater Woods”, which is about as perfect an expression of the relationship between grief, love and being fully alive as you could hope to find (you can read it here). But the poem I refer to most often, and which has become a kind of anthem and manifesto for life and work with the herd, is “Wild Geese” – which, from the frequency with which it was shared in the days after her death, seems to be a favourite for lots of people. Here it is in full:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Why this poem? Because for me, being with the horses in this way – present, in my body, allowing sensation and emotion to move through me like the sun and the rain through the landscape of the poem – is coming home. It’s the experience, the felt sense, of belonging and welcome, and it’s extraordinary how healing that is in itself, without any particular processing of wounds or recounting of stories being needed.
The sharing of despair is welcome too, of course. We all have our wounds and longings, often unspoken for many years, and these were never meant to be carried in solitude. But it’s the experience of welcome and belonging that makes it possible to share them, and that experience has to be felt in the body, not just exist as an idea in the mind.
So, our work here is about transforming our relationship with our bodies – about learning to love that “soft animal”, and to “love what it loves”, as the poem says. This goes further than “body positivity” (which often seems to me to be about learning to feel positive about your body as something that is still somewhat separate to your self) to a fundamental recognition that our physical sensations, and the emotions that these often express, are the surest guide to what we truly need and value, and thus to a life of authenticity, purpose and fulfilment. Learning to be alive in our bodies – to be with and listen to our body and to welcome greater aliveness – is also fundamental to healing from trauma.
What I really love about “Wild Geese”, though, is that it knows that coming home to our bodies also, inevitably, heals our false sense separation from the world, and counters (or perhaps just dissolves) the belief that love and belonging are not our birthright but something we have to earn by being “good” and by repenting our sins. As far as the horses – and the geese, and the mountains and the rivers – are concerned, our place in the family of things has never been in question. Only we have forgotten it.
Which brings me to a question that someone asked me a month or so ago and that I’ve had to sit with in order to understand my intuitive response to it. The question was whether equine-facilitated learning and therapy work is inevitably exploitative of the horses, because they have no real choice about what they are doing, and in any case, as domestic horses, are almost inevitably in a state of learned helplessness/dissociation – cut off from their authentic responses and instincts. It’s an important ethical question, but also a practical one: “we must not,” as Angela Dunning has so precisely put it, “heal one species at the expense of another”, but in fact we cannot, because if all healing happens in and through good relationships, those relationships have to be genuinely chosen and mutual in order for the necessary processes of limbic resonance, regulation and revision to occur. This means that, in order to enter into a healing partnership with horses, we have to really learn to be relational with them – which might mean transforming our models of horsemanship, the living conditions of our horses, and how we set up interactions with clients.
But even if we do the very best we can to establish a genuine, equal partnership with the horses we work with, can domestic horses really help us heal, or is 100% “rewilding” – for them and us – the only authentic solution? The problem I have with that idea (appealing as it might be at those times when I just want to head for the hills with a horse!) lies in the assumption that “domestic” and “wild” are binaries, opposites, and that the “domestic” state – for horses or humans – is a bad, fallen and inauthentic one. Because if we believe that, we end up having to reject ourselves and atone for our badness, our wrongness – perhaps by “walk[ing] on [our] knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting” – in order to earn the right to belong.
No one ever healed by beating themselves up some more, and we’re not going to heal the dangerous perceived separation between “humanity” and “nature” by seeing our humanness as evil. So maybe it’s the very idea that we are separate from the “wild”, or that the right to belong and be welcomed on this earth has to be earned, that we need to question, to dissolve. We’re not separate from the world, from nature, or from each other, and we never were. Everything is sacred, including our domestic horses, and ourselves, and the relationships in which we can both heal. The soft animal of my body, of your body, has always been wild, and we have always belonged.
Mary Oliver knew this, and wrote about it over and over, and the horses know it too. Welcome home.