Ian Player Perspectives – Wilderness, Dreams and the Bible

Text from Ian’s February 2011 address to the Game Rangers Association of Africa.

Please let me begin by thanking everyone for coming this evening. I am grateful to Harold Thornhill and Drummond Densham and other members of the Committee who have done the organising for tonight. I am also delighted to see Paul Dutton here and to know that he has rejoined our Association. It is also very good to see Sheila Berry who has played a prominent part in organising our Dream Centre events at our farm, Phuzamoya.

The Game Ranging fraternity are a unique group of men and women who play an extraordinary important role in the protection of wildlife and wilderness in our country. It is important too that we men acknowledge the help that we receive from our wives, without whom we would never really be able to function properly. The wives have always been the unsung heroes of our fraternity.

Two of my great friends in life were Laurens van der Post and Magqubu Ntombela. Laurens always used to say that when you are going to talk always do so basing it on your own experience and Magqubu said ‘when you are going to talk, leave nothing out.’ The former I will endeavour to do but Magqubu’s injunction is not possible because to do full justice to the subject of my talk would take at least a week of eight hours a day! So please forgive me for being so ambitious as to think that I could cover it in an evening’s talk.

When I joined the Natal Parks Board in April 1952 and was sent to Zululand where, at that time, there were only three rangers; one at Ndumu, one at Richards Bay and one at Mtunzini. I had very few possessions and only three books – a Volume of Shakespeare’s plays, T. E. Lawrence’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and a small Bible that had been issued to me during the war. It took me over a year to read the Bible and I did it as an atonement. I did so because I was at St. John’s College in Johannesburg where we had to attend many Church services as well as concentrating Divinity lessons. When I left school at the age of sixteen I said I had seen enough of the Church and needed time to contemplate the Christian religion.

In 1944 I joined the South African Army and prior to being sent to Italy to join the 6th South African Armoured Division, I had six weeks of training in Potchefstroom. On the very first Sunday of our training there was a Church parade and we were all told to join our particular denominations. I decided to join the non-believers group so that I could have a day sitting in the sun, but it was not to be because a large sergeant gathered us non-believers together and we spent the whole day picking up stompies (cigarette butts) around the bungalows. On the next Sunday I was very quick to join the Anglican group and as I strode towards them the Adjutant grabbed my arm and said “Player, we know of the revelation that Paul received on the road to Damascus, what is the revelation that has changed your mind from last Sunday on the road to Potchefstroom?” I replied: “Picking up stompies (cigarette butts)”.

There’s hardly a page in the Christian Bible where the influence of the wilderness is not apparent. The Prophets were wilderness people.

Reading the Bible and working in the then very wild areas of Zululand was my initial initiation into Wilderness, but it was only when my colleague Jim Feely, in 1955, handed me Tripensee’s 11 Fundamental Principles of the Wilderness Concept, that I knew that this was a course I had to pledge my life to. It was a revelation the likes of which I had never before experienced.

Wherever one looks all over the world and particularly in our own country, one thing becomes starkly evident and that is the environment is now by far the most important item on the national agenda. I am well aware of how individuals and NGOs are fighting for it, but our political leaders must address it more vigourously because it supercedes all other politics. Soil erosion, pollution of rivers, sewage disposal are all a constant threat. There is now too the danger of mining shale for methane gas in the Karoo. This requires deep drilling and the use of the most toxic poisons. The population explosion threatens the entire world. In wildlife conservation the current slaughter of rhino is horrendous. 333 rhino killed last year and 59 this year so far.

One of my duties is being chief judge of the SA Breweries Journalist of the Year Award. Every year we are presented with the writings and television documentaries to select a winner. It is only when it is all put together that one realizes how serious the situation is in our country. The toxic waste, pollution of rivers and sewage problems make alarming reading and viewing.

C. G. Jung the great Swiss psychiatrist whose work is only now being appreciated was once asked by a desperate patient, “Professor, how do I save the world?” Jung answered, “Save yourself, you are then making a massive contribution.” Marie von Franz, a colleague of Jung, remarked that: “The Western World is in an inner-state of crisis, it is so crushed by the mass-mindedness of our civilisation, due largely to the over-population, that many people feel superfluous.” This is evident in the modern neglect of the environment.

Sometimes it is only in poetry that we can express our horror. Listen to W. H. Auden;

“The stars are not wanted now, put out every one
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good”

I have no wish to depress you with a litany of the destruction of species, let alone habitat. We see and experience it daily. I remember my early youth in the Transvaal where we lived only seven miles from the centre of Johannesburg, we were still surrounded with wildness. There were dams with wild geese and ducks and the reeds drooping with the nests of those glorious red and yellow bishop birds. To see them flitting over the tawny red grass on a dark skied Highveld afternoon full of thunder and lightning was like a glimpse into another world. When the rain died down a frog chorus welled up into a great symphony and ones sternum vibrated with the sound. On moonlight nights crowned plovers called and there were migrant waders. One became transfixed by the numinosity and aware that there was a dimension that can only be described as transcending.

I went back a little while ago to listen on a summers night – the frog chorus had gone, so had the dams. A tide of concrete had swept over the land with roads and buildings. We are pushing nature to the brink. In Genesis 9:16, we read of Gods “everlasting covenant with Noah and every living creature of all flesh.” This is now being plundered. All cities are beginning to look alike: same streets, same McDonalds, same Wimpys, same sky-scrapers. If this is considered progress then God save the world and it is no wonder that many are plagued with a sickness of soul.

Albert Schweitzer said: ‘Humanity is being guided by a will to progress that has now become merely external and lost its bearings.” Modern man has overlooked a fundamental truth that we do to the Earth we do to ourselves.

Neuman, a Jungian scholar put it all in context, he said: “We have lost a world that once pulsed with our blood and breathed with our breath. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise.”

An ecologist, Richard Nelson, said: “The abandonment of an ethical and spiritually based relationship to nature by our Western ancestors was one of the greatest and most perilous transformations of the Western mind”. Herman Hess’s poem describes what it used to be like:

Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or when the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far off farm
I hold still and listen a long time.

My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.

What is the antidote to our dilemma? Henry David Thoreau said “In wildness lies the preservation of the world”.

The transformational value of the wilderness cannot be over-estimated. A man called Fridjof Masen once said: “I tell you, deliverance will not come from the rushing noise centres of civilization, it will come from the lonely places. The great reformers in history have come from the wilderness. The first thing in life is to find yourself, for this you need solitude and silence.”

For those of us who have been into wilderness and slept on the red earth of Africa in wilderness areas like iMfolozi and Lake St Lucia and Kruger Park with the blazing southern skies above us; we have felt the power of the Earth pulsing through us. Being in big game country with the rhino, the lion, the elephant, brings an added dimension to the experience.

In 1955 after reading the 11 Fundamental Principles of the Wilderness Concept, I began a bureaucratic struggle to have wilderness areas introduced at iMfolozi Game Reserve and Lake St. Lucia. Colonel Vincent, who was the Director at the time, was supportive but to head office as a whole the idea was an anathema and I was accused of locking up land and preventing the development of camps and lodges. My reply was that wilderness experience would help to unlock the human mind. When I spoke about the spiritual values of wilderness it was greeted with much mirth as I was asked what kind of spirit I was talking about Cane, Vodka or Whiskey. But those who went out on trail appreciated the spiritual aspect and in the book of the Wilderness Leadership School “South African Passage” one of the most common comments is that the experience “changed my life” In 1958 by regulation only, two wilderness areas were established, iMfolozi and Lake St. Lucia. But, let us look for a moment as to what has come out of those postage stamp sized wilderness areas. Three international wilderness foundations, one in the United States, one in the United Kingdom and one in South Africa and the Wilderness Leadership school. Combined number of people who have been through the wilderness areas with the old Natal Parks Board and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Wilderness Leadership School and on trails in the Kruger National Park probably in the region of 300 000 people. Then there is the World Wilderness Congress, first one held at Johannesburg in 1977 and the most recent one, the ninth, in Mexico. It is acknowledged as the longest running environmental congress in the world today and is attended by scientists, poets, writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, politicians and government departments.

There is no doubt too that the wilderness movement worldwide made huge contributions to the establishment of the isiMangaliso Park and it being recognised as a world heritage site and here I would like to pay tribute to Andrew Zaloumis who has managed this park since its inception; he has done a splendid job against heavy odds. He was wise enough to enlist the aid of Vali Moosa when he was Minister of the Environment and also walked with Thabo Mbeki down the beach at Cape Vidal when he was President.

As the world population continues to increase the need for wilderness will grow and already there is inadequate wilderness to cope with the demand. Its importance as a place to escape from the ever increasing demands of our so-called civilisation cannot be over estimated. Every person in their own way is on two journeys in their life – the exterior journey and the interior journey. The wilderness journey can enhance both and give time for contemplation. Many politicians have been taken out into the wilderness by the Wilderness Leadership School and their experience has been a revelation for them. As indeed it has been for men of Northern Ireland, Eire and the British army, who have been out on trail together and found it to be a healing experience.

Many people in the world unable to get into wilderness turn to drugs as an escape from the pressures of living. Robert Johnson, the Jungian psychologist, says that these people become “too wounded to live and unable to die”. A terrible description of psychological hell.

Books have played a very important part in my life and Laurens van der Post once said to me, “You do not find the book, the book finds you”. This has certainly been the case in my life. His book, C. G. Jung and the Story of our Time, completely changed my life and led me into the world of dreams. The books of Grey Owl and Aldo Leopold fueled my interest in the world of wilderness as did T. E. Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

T. E. Lawrence, who came to be called Lawrence of Arabia, wrote his story about the Arab revolt against the Turks in the First World War. The book was called Seven Pillars of Wisdom. If ever there was a Caucasian who experienced the wilderness of the desert it was T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence looked deep into his own soul and wrote with the most brilliant command of the English language. Everywhere in the book one gets a sense of the wilderness of the desert and can appreciate how this inspired the founders of the two great religions, Jesus Christ and Mohammed.

T.E.L. says, “This faith of the desert was impossible in the towns. It was at once too strange, too simple, too impalpable for export and common use. The Prophets who returned from the desert with their glimpse of God and through their stained medium showed something of the majesty and brilliance, whose full vision would blind, deafen and silence us.”

Those of us who have been into wilderness can resonate with this. I remember on one occasion sitting on Nqabaneni Hill while the last light of the day splayed over the landscape. There was a scream of a bataleur eagle to jolt me out of my reverie and the words of psalm 46 came into my mind, “Be still and know that I am God”.

Dreams have always played an important part in all cultures. In Ancient Greece people who were disturbed and were seeking healing went on pilgrimages to the temples of Asclepius; they were led by a priest and a dog in front. Why the dog? Because it can see things we can’t see. On arrival at the temple the pilgrims would lie down to sleep and the priest would release harmless snakes and in the morning each pilgrim would go and tell the priest of their dream and this would be the beginning of the healing process. The symbol of the modern medical doctor is the caduceus, which is the staff, two snakes entwined – life and death. All cultures recognise the importance of dreams, but the modern world has neglected them.

Those of us who follow the Christian religion should know that had it not been for the dream there would be no Christianity. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (Chapter 2, Verse 13): “ And when they were departed, behold the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be though there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” In another dream the wife of Pontius Pilot was told to tell her husband not to crucify Christ. Imagine if Christ had lived for another thirty years what a different world we would be living in. The story of Joseph in the Old Testament was how his life was saved because he was able to interpret dreams.

My own experience with dreams began at Helwan in the desert while waiting to be sent to Italy to join the 6th division. I had a dream which was extraordinarily vivid, it was of my Mother coming to me and saying that she was going to die, but I must not worry about it. The dream left a long lasting impression and when we arrived in Italy I was told that she had died.

It was not until 1978 when I read Laurens van der Post’s book, C. J. Jung and the Story of our Time, that I realised what a critical part dreams play in one’s life. Jung said, “That which you do not deal with inwardly you are likely to experience outwardly as fate”. I underwent nearly twenty years of Jungian analysis and would rate it as a most important part of my life’s journey. But if I interpret one in fifty I think I am doing well and yet sometimes I go back a few years in my dreambooks, which now number sixty, and realise what the dreams were saying at that time. It was Laurens van der Post who told me to write the dreams down because that was the way to honour the dream.

Thanks to two remarkable American theologians, John Sanford, who wrote Dreams: Gods Forgotten Language and Morton Kelsey who wrote Dreams: A Way to Listen to God, there is now greater interest by Christians in dreams and it is growing. Yet I believe that it is inadequate and the Church needs to play a greater role in the recognition of the value of dreams.

However, it is one thing to have a dream, it is another to be able to interpret it. I am always reminded of Morton Kelsey who once had a dream and when he woke up he immediately knew what the dream was saying and he shouted out in exaltation, “God, why don’t you make all my dreams so easy to understand?” and then a few nights later a voice said to him in a dream, “If I made all your dreams so easy to understand, you would not work hard to come close to me.” The unconscious is totally autonomous; we cannot tell it what we want to dream and every night we are given dreams that tell us where we are in the world.

Dreams give symbolic images which are difficult to interpret. Dreams are not confined by time and space and many people have pre-cognitive dreams which foretell the future. Jung had a vision in 1913 of seeing Europe covered in blood, he thought he was going mad and then the war broke out. Jung gives another example of some Eskimo people and the leader had a dream that they must vacate the area where they were living because there was going to be a disaster. Half the people moved off, the other half stayed and there was a disaster and they were wiped out.

In the 1980’s I was having difficulty in a cataclysmic clash between my Christian beliefs and my believe in the power of the wilderness. I had reached a crisis point believing that wilderness was more important than Christianity, then, while out on trail, I had a dream.

The dream… I dreamt walking through a glade and at the end of it was a small Norman church and growing next to the church was a huge gum tree. I had recently been in Australia in the vast Arnhemland wilderness, of which the gum was the symbol. I stopped in the dream and looked at the tree and the church and said out aloud, “If the tree falls down the church will fall down. If the church falls down the tree will fall down.” This was the healing dream which told me quite clearly that wilderness and Christianity went together; they were indispensable.

The bible is full of dreams and all of them were meaningful and indicators of the importance of taking notice of them. Thanks to C. G. Jung the world is taking notice again of their importance. The difficulty for those of us who record our dreams is to work out what they are saying, but C. G. Jung has given us a method and if applied can be very enlightening. One of the first things we have to work on is our shadow, the darkside of ourselves which we project onto other people, but when we understand this the shadow becomes pure gold because we are enlightened. Unenlightened the Nazis projected their shadow onto the Jews and murdered 6 million; that was the collective shadow.

Robert Johnson’s book, Inner Work, is very helpful but make no mistake, its hard work.

Let me end by saying that the Game Rangers Association of Africa is an organization composed of men and women who play a critically important role in environmental affairs. They are the protectors of the sensitive habitats of our continent, the places where people from all over the world go for the renewal of their spirit. This is particularly the case for those that go into wilderness. We are reminded of Herman Hess’s Poem: “It is here that we can go back to the bird and the blowing wind who were my brothers”, and I add “Our sisters”.

Frank Fraser Darling, the great Scottish ecologist, once said: “That to deprive the world of wilderness would be to inflict a grievous wound on our own kind.”

1 Comment (Post Comment)
Brian High says:

True words spoken from one in touch with nature and the environment. Thank Dr. Ian Player for the time spent with you. Your passing on to me of you experiences and knowledge. Now I hope I have the opportunities to give back to our Wildlife.

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