What fasting and solitude can teach us about food and society

It’s around an hour after dawn on a still morning in June, and four of us are standing in silence on a hillside in mid Wales. The sun is yet to emerge from behind the mountain that rises up in front of us, while at its feet a jumble of trees, streams and meadows is already touched with the colours of day. In a moment we will walk half a mile or so to places that we have already chosen – the edge of a meadow in my case, near a stream concealed by oak, ash and hazel – and stay there for four days and nights. Our packs contain warm clothing, waterproofs, tents and tarpaulins, but no food. We will drink only water, and we will see nobody else. It will be just us, the earth beneath us, the sky above, wildlife and weather.

It feels like a strange thing to do. But fasting, sometimes out in nature, is an ancient tradition. Jesus fasted in the wilderness before he began his teaching mission, the Buddha fasted under a tree until he attained Enlightenment and it is an established practice in many religions. Going without food intentionally is also a powerful way to exert political pressure, as Gandhi and the Suffragettes demonstrated with their hunger strikes, and ‘intermittent fasting’ is now a health phenomenon supposed to help with weight loss and mental function. Now I am about to try it for myself, as part of an organized event.

Vision fast

The modern movement of nature-based fasting, or the ‘solo quest’, draws on many traditions and began some 50 years ago in California with Steven Foster and Meredith Little of the School of Lost Borders. They started by taking teenagers, many of whom were in trouble with the law, out into the desert for a few days of solitary fasting. This turned out to be the rite of passage that many of them had been unconsciously  looking for, and the idea caught on.

Now Fern Smith and Phil Ralph of the arts collective Emergence run regular vision fasts and other nature-based rites of passage from their home near Machynlleth. Following protocols developed by the School of Lost Borders they prime participants with individual exercises ahead of the 9-day event, which begins with three days of group preparation. There they cover the practical aspects and help us hone a personal intention. What life transition are we marking, what question are we holding? After this, we transfer to the land and select our solo spots, using a combination of random discovery and intuition. A few final preparations, and we are severed from our old lives and enter the threshold period of the ceremony.

Threshold

tarpaulin hung from trees by stream

The UK has little true wilderness, but the uncultivated corners of a Welsh hill farm feel remote enough to me. I am only a ten-minute walk away from basecamp, where Fern and Phil keep watch with supplies of dry clothing and emergency food, but I barely consider it. Cut off from technology – I have even handed my watch in – I am content to stay in a small area which nevertheless contains a world of interest. I watch insects on the ground and cloud formations in the sky, walk barefoot beneath mighty oaks, listen to birds, fight off midges and feel the sun’s heat come and go.

As the fast takes hold and I become weaker, the distinction between the ever-changing outer world and the equally fluid inner life I have brought with me starts to break down. In the land rising up ahead of me I see my courage and ambition, while the stream deep in the ravine behind me is the mysterious current of my unconscious. I can spend an hour on knees and elbows watching the grass stalks I trampled earlier ease back to a half-upright position, and see in that the way my life constantly renews itself. Like a sort of all-encompassing three-dimensional television, the land and sky show me who I am.

Out of a series of small incidents and insights, a story emerges. It is a tale of soft civilized me and wild impersonal nature, and how we turned out to be related all along, and where we might go next. It is a tender thing, half-formed and ambiguous. When the fourth night is over, and we have been welcomed back with food – the much-anticipated breakfast, meeting a shrunken stomach – we share our stories with each other. Our guides mirror back to us the mythic depths of our journeys, skillfully pointing out wisdom and strength where we might have seen weakness or failure, and affirming the discoveries we have made. We have been through an initiation ceremony in which we died to what we were and have been reborn.

Return

The next day, we return home to our usual lives, changed. The fast reverberates powerfully inside me and I am grateful for the instruction to keep the inner story of it to myself for a year, when we are invited to revisit our spots for a further 24 hours of fasting. But the outer story can be told, and already I have a few answers to the question I began with. What, indeed, can a nature fast tell us about food and society?

For one thing, it has shown me our kinship with nature. I already knew that the health of our food system depends on the fertility of our soils, the cleanness of our air and water, and the well-being of all the other species of life that we share the planet with, but now I feel it, too. Fern, who has a background in theatre before turning towards environmental leadership, sees this as central to her work: “The land needs us, just as we need the land. We need to be better custodians of the land, and a nature fast gives people that motivation.”

Another finding, which was no surprise, was the delight of sharing a meal. Food never tasted so good, and human connection was never so vital as it was after that nature fast. Taken as a whole, the ceremony was paradoxically a celebration of food and community, and nothing to do with deprivation. But it took a period of abstinence for me really to appreciate food for the precious gift that it is, as a source of pleasure, health and connection. It is also humbling to reflect that hunger for many people, even in this country, is a damaging reality.

Rites of passage

The fast also had me reflect on the course of a human life, and how rites of passage draw us into that mystery. Pushed out of my comfort zone by quite some way, I found strengths I had not known I had, and a deeper sense of what my life is about. Adolescents in traditional societies will undergo an initiation in which they face an ordeal and are welcomed back as adults, but our society has largely lost that. As a result we seem sometimes to be stuck in childhood, the consumer society gratifying our every whim and shielding us from the realities of where our food, water and clean air come from. We need to wake up to our adult responsibilities.

We also neglect another transition in the life cycle, that from conventional adulthood to the wisdom of the elders. We have more senior citizens than ever, but we see old age as a problem to be managed. We talk about the pensions crisis, and the social care crisis, and we fear the physical and mental incapacity that come with ageing. We do not look at later life in all its fullness, with its gifts and responsibilities, maybe for fear of seeing the death that it implies.

But death is essential to the rebirth that renews human society, and without it nothing else makes sense. This renewal is the deeper purpose of the vision fast. It grew out of the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1950s and 1960s with Foster’s insight that political action was not enough:

“True revolution would never come about until the children remembered the way to get to adulthood – and the adults to true elderhood – and the elders to honorable death.”

We need this insight now more than ever. Environmental campaigning and political action can only take us so far, when our underlying consciousness is stuck in an old way of being. It is time for a new relationship between the generations, and with the natural world. As Fern says, “We are initiating elders so that they can be in service to their communities and to the natural world.” It is as simple and as powerful as that.

Emergence will run their next vision fast in June 2022: see their calendar of events. For nature fasts in north Wales, see www.ancienthealingways.co.uk.

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