Expedition Jokkmokk

by Stephanie Heckman

This journey had been a long time coming for me. I had met Laila Spik, Sami wise woman, a year ago in Millemont, Paris. The Sami are the last unbroken indigenous tradition of Europe, spread across the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They are a nomadic people, herding reindeer across the Arctic mountains since time immemorial. She had invited me to visit her there, in the winter town of Jokkmokk, just above the Polar Circle. I didn’t know what to expect, but the calling to the north was unambiguously strong. Since moving to Sweden in the summer, I had been mentally preparing for it.

And so while most of our classmates went home over the holidays to take a break from things, me and my close friends and (adoptive) housemates Brendan, Benni, and Hanne traveled in the other direction, digging yet deeper into our transformational MSLS year. Before going, we had shared our personal significance and intentions for the journey. And so, clad in our many thermal and woolen layers, we also got to bring our inner layers on the trip. Our four-headed expedition crew was one of loving openness and resilience.

Brendan and I arrived a day early. After traveling through the night, we stepped off the real-life Polar Express into the deserted darkness, light snow coming down in complete silence. In an instant, we felt the slowing down of time. It wouldn’t speed up again until back in the south. Without a second thought, we stepped into the Arctic rhythm, where the days felt like forever, because they were being carved so deep into us. Getting up when we woke up, napping when tired, eating when hungry. Day and nighttime had lost their conventional meaning anyway. The four hours of daylight were just enough for a walk in the hills of the pine forest, playing and ploughing through the deep powder snow, before being enveloped again by darkness and spending the rest of our waking hours, often till 4 in the morning, talking over unending cups of tea at the kitchen table.

That kitchen table was the beating heart of our journey. With unbelievable hospitality and generosity, Laila welcomed us into her life without any reservations. During the many many hours we spent with her, from breakfast until deep into the night, not once did I discern even a hint of impatience with us. That sentiment was not even in her book of options. She set the tone for how we lived together that week, in her tiny little house filled with treasures. During naptime in the 2PM dusk on our first day, I had kept the bedside light on just to take it all in. The pictures and paintings on the walls. The sculptures and ancient tools and stacks of books covering every surface. We barely had space to roll out our sleeping bags, and knocked things over left and right, but the household the five of us created together was characterized by love and joy and care for each other. So far away from our homes during Christmas and New Year’s, we became family. Our affection for Laila was like for a grandmother, and we were home with her.

She spoke to us nonstop for a week. For hours and hours on end we listened, eagerly drinking in the nourishment of wisdom and knowledge. And if we weren’t listening, we were all journaling ferociously, capturing her lessons. Laila was fully present every waking minute she spent with us, sharing her stories and answering our questions. She spoke in the name of her family, and we met her father and mother, their spirit still so wholly present and alive through her. She told extensively of the history of her people, and we traversed the mountains with the reindeer in the Arctic summer, through her. And through her, we learnt also about the more recent history of the Sami, reminiscent of that of any oppressed indigenous people. Forced Christianization, boarding schools, hospitals and parking lots constructed on top of ancient burial sites. Family names changed, Sami music – the joik – forbidden. Ridiculed for their clothing, their food, their language. The tragic end of the Sami shaman tradition in the 17th century. And the Sami’s sustained pride in their surviving culture, despite it all. She showed us the artifacts that filled her house: heirlooms from every century, dating back a 1000 years. Old smoking pipes and wedding garments, smooth birch knot bowls and Sami knives with delicately carved reindeer antler sheaths. And she knew the stories that accompanied each of these objects, safeguarding the soul in them. She shared her wisdom of how to live one’s life, her extensive knowledge of plant medicine, and how to prepare the most incredible meals from the forest.

Every night was a feast, with cheese courses and rich veggie dishes from us, complemented by her with everything from salted reindeer meat to smoked grouse, wild pig and horse hair lichen soup, fish eggs from the mountains, bark flour flat breads and grilled cheese, powdered nettle, birch sugar and angelica syrup, cloudberries and roasted lingonberry leaf and pine needle tea. Have you ever eaten something that lived to be 500 years? We ate her moss soup, and it was one of the most delicious soups I ever tasted. The king of Sweden thought so too. She served it to him three times.

To witness Laila’s deep connection to her family, her people, and her land, made a profound impression on us. Through her, we all felt the presence of our own lineage stirring in us, and the desire to connect with our own ancestry and legacies, wanting to be known. Stories of our grandparents, great aunts, and parents drifted to the surface. At the heart of my experience of our time there was how much Laila brought my own grandmother back to me. The parallels were uncanny. A hundred similarities followed each other day after day. One of Laila’s jumpers, the brass duck head on her kitchen table, her trouble with the DVD player, all reminded me of my grandmother. Her scent was similar to my grandmother’s. I smelled my grandmother’s breakfast by her dishwasher on our first morning there. The life lessons and the worldview Laila was given by her father, are exactly how my mother and grandmother raised me. She lives with the forest the same way that my grandmother taught me to live with her garden. Utterly, I am my grandmother’s and my mother’s continuation. And through them I connect back into the human family. Being there with Laila, I was remembering who I am.

So rich and full were those days. I long back to the sensory richness: the flavor of pine needle tea and smoked reindeer meat. The scent of the morning frost and our woolen jumpers. The sight of the snow covered pine branches, the night sky over the frozen lake that we visited on our nightly ‘aurora checks’, snow magically sparkling in the dark. The touch of my feet sinking into the crunchy snow and the softness of reindeer fur. Like from a dream I can recall the graceful silent dances of the Northern Lights, emerging suddenly as a thin band of color above the city rim, or as a sharp, vertical blade of a green flare, quivering on one edge before swaying into pink, lilac, white swells, with animal and human figures galloping in the coursing waves of light. The deep nourishment of Laila’s stories, the example of her life, and the delicious food every night. I miss the slow pace, the simple, unplanned days, and the companionship of our expedition crew. I haven’t felt homesick all this time for the Netherlands, but now I feel homesick for Jokkmokk.

The words an elder gave us in Millemont have echoed in me for days: “Walk slowly the first four days after ceremony,” she said, “or else your feelings may get all mixed up.” I’m feeling the consequences of the involuntarily rushed transition back into the MSLS grind. Submitting an assignment within 20 hours after getting off a 22 hour train ride. Straight back to classes every day. All our projects starting up again, our days booked full by meetings. With stubbornness I’m managing to keep some space free for stepping back into the Jokkmokk energy and savoring it some more while it settles in my soul. But there’s no time to walk slowly. I’ve felt flushed by anger, frustration, and sadness. The band of travelers is dispersing into our school lives again, where we have to share each other with our other housemates, friends, and classmates.

In the true fractal nature of my year here, coming back from Jokkmokk into MSLS is a precursor of what I can expect when emerging from MSLS into the wider world again. As much as I love and learn profoundly from my MSLS life, I feel disconnected from it now, wanting to hold on to the deeper and more condensed magic of Jokkmokk. I will treasure this week in the Arctic Circle like a nugget of gold, embedded within the broader MSLS journey. And I will need much more than the four days of walking slowly to process all that I have gained from our stay with Laila. It resounds throughout my depths and has stirred things into motion. For months and years to come I will be feeding off this journey. And the ripples it has cast in my water, who knows what they may give rise to down the line.




A breakthrough in science, knowledge and consciousness is beginning to unfold for all human beings. As we pay attention, we begin to experience life through new perceptions of a delicately woven interdependence, cluing us in to larger patterns and expanding our knowledge and awareness of continuous flow and change. As an ABC community these larger patterns are helping us to better grow nutritious and delicious food for the world. Simultaneously this awareness directs us to allow the natural world, our ecosystems to do what they do best: protect and regulate the biosphere.

The case I’m making here is that there is a profound essence in the world’s smallholder farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, forest dwellers. They are not just food producers, they are frontline custodians of biodiverse landscapes, with them lies the true regenerative power of our societies.

In this, the Agricultural Biodiversity Community is playing an important role.


Gardening back the biosphere

We are entering Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. In forty years of research and understanding, rescuing thousands and thousands of plant species, living with them, taught by them, they understand better than almost anywhere on the planet what these patterns are, and how we can put them to use. They say:

‘We are not saving the planet. We couldn’t. What we are doing is to show humanity that people are capable of restoring, regenerating our natural habitat. We are conveying this idea, this awareness!

And they know much more and we are learning from them.

Late Saturday night, December 17, a small group arrived at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Western Ghat mountains an hour’s drive from Mananthavadi, in the district of Wayanad, Kerala, India.

Lali tending on a tree-dwelling fern at the Sanctuary

This is the place where they ‘garden back the biosphere’ one of us whispered as we stepped into the tropical night of the rainforest under an immense star-bright sky.

We had just completed a four-day Working Conference of the Agricultural Biodiversity Community (ABC community) in Wyanad. The ABC community is a world wide network of supporters, promoters and practitioners of agricultural biodiversity, founded to share knowledge and experience, learn, co-create, collaborate and inspire.

This year’s gathering had its focus on sharing, exploring and really discussing the state of the Earth, the effects that Climate Change has on the practice of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fishermen and forest dwellers – men and women. What we are currently doing to adapt, mitigate and seek climate resiliency.

Climate resilience

Passionate discussions about the practices in the field, the shifting of the weather systems, droughts or floods in times and ways we have never experienced before. How delayed blossoming has a domino effect on many other factors and dimensions. From markets to production and of course the grave ecological consequences. Solutions? Yes, in some cases, but foremost learning by doing and discovering through innovation and collaboration. And we find that traditional knowledge often carries a tried and proven adaptation potential.

Many indigenous practices are beginning to make more sense then ever. As one indigenous farmer said on the land where his ancestors had been for a thousand years: ‘Cross-breed? No! Leave the seeds alone, Mother Earth will take care of the breeding.’

He opened his hand to show us seeds with a 500-year history.

Suma, one of the senior-gardeners, who has these rare orchids and other plant families under her care
Living Earth

Most importantly, a larger picture started to emerge from the conversations. ‘We are not only producing food in a climate response–able way, we may in fact be a substantial part of the solution to climate change. With our core values around biodiversity, the community based approach to food production and the effect that more than two million smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and forest farmers can have on our living Earth.

Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary played an important role for the ABC community to run its annual meeting in Wayanad. Their clear ideas on biodiversity, ecosystems, plant life and the biosphere totally matched with this year’s focus on Climate Resilience and Agricultural Biodiversity. They hosted a field trip of a group from the ABC community on the first conference day.

A Longhorn beetle on the forest floor at the Sanctuary
In the Garden

The early morning air is impregnated with fine mist and cool damp. On the ground, dewdrops glisten on blades of grass, many other greens. Three of us, – Vasimalai, Karthikeyan and I are taking a six o’clock walk in the Sanctuary with Suprabha Seshan.

‘This is really a refugee camp for plants’,

she tells us. We painfully realize once more that humans are driving species into extinction with a speed as never seen before. “If we can arrange their temporary habitat here, then, if we can keep them for 10 years, who knows what can happen next! These plant refugees live on borrowed time.

All beings are sacred

The increase of the population, migration from other areas, cultivation of tea, coffee, rice and other crops shifted the balance of the eco-system in this part of the Western Ghats. The impact on the natural habitat of these rainforests started to accelerate during the eighties of the last century. It was Wolfgang Theuerkauf [1948 – 2014], a young German from Berlin living as caretaker of a small piece of land in this wilderness – nearly forty years ago, who noticed the changes in the environment. And he started to take action. His ‘search and rescue’ operation of the ‘last species’ became his ‘calling’. He created the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in 1981, with the help of a small group of very dedicated women, local, some indigenous, and sometime later with the commitment of Suprabha Seshan. Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary sees itself as a community of people, animals and plants, in which all living beings are sacred. The focus, however, are the plants. They say: ‘Plants work harder than the mightiest governments on Earth. They give us free food and water.’

One of the many species of delightful frogs that inhabit the diverse habitats at the Sanctuary
Zooming in and out

Zooming in on the facts, this is what the Gurukula team is really saying: 245 million people depend on the rivers that come from these mountains. And the rivers depend on these forests. And the forests need their plants. Without plants – trees clothed in epiphytes and grasslands at high elevations – monsoon clouds will not release their moisture. Without plants, water will not sink into the land to feed the rivers, sources and aquifers, nor will the local thundershowers form. And so on.

Zooming out. The entire planet, the whole Earth works this way, just as in the Western Ghat mountains. Living beings, plants, trees, animals, rivers, the skies above and much more are deeply connected, fine tuned, self-regulated through continuous communication, balancing and protecting all life on Earth.

Dynamic global network

Songs, tweets and twitter from the many feathered friends, in all sizes, whose songs are often new to me. Crickets take their part in the rain forest orchestra, chirping in unison. The lush growth of ferns, flowers and mosses and many other kinds of vegetation cover the grounds, stones, stairs and walls. ‘Plants manage to grow almost anywhere’, Suprabha tells us: ‘Look at this tiny fern on this flat rock surface, managing to grow.’

‘A crack and a bit of moisture.’

Plants are the primary life support system of the planet, not in the intellectual, categorical or ‘plant as object’ sense. Not in the scientific paradigm, but more holistic, as a huge sanctuary, a community of many plant families that continuously exchange energy and communicate. Sharing intelligence about numerous things such as temperature, moisture levels, mineral counts, nitrogen, density of the population, threats, life and death. The plant world is a world-wide community, very much alive, whose role on the planet is not destined to please man, but to balance, manage and protect the biosphere, to create a homeostasis in the dynamics of a the ever changing environment.

Even during the dry-season epiphytic species of plants and mosses hang from the trees
Human intervention

Disrupting and destroying the plant universe was a grave mistake. Of course humans need to feed to themselves. And yes, the world population has increased tremendously in only two generations. So intrusion and taking what’s needed from our natural habitat is self-explanatory. Our ancestors knew, as being part of this large eco-system, how to proceed in collaboration, outweighing the pro’s and con’s, restraining when needed. We can’t go back to the ‘good old times’, but new technologies, innovative thinking and traditional ways can open up a new world.

When people moved away from this inclusive awareness of their habitats and began to dominate, domesticate and design large-scale food production systems, the Plant Life on the planet suffered.

The Industry and Agroindustry inflicted great wounds and cuts in the global plant network frustrating communication, obstructing recovery of the soils, degrading land into deserts, amputating plants innate ability to regulate and protect the biosphere and with it, good living for all beings.

Small is beautiful

I strongly believe that Rex Weyler, co-founder of Green Peace made no mistake when he said at a gathering with Earth Keepers – and Organic Farmer(s) – from all around the globe: ‘We are at the eve of a planetary breaking point, a point of no return. When such a shift occurs, systems shut down with catastrophic consequences and there is nothing humans can do to reverse it.’

What we understand of the natural world now, how ecosystems self-regulate, there is a limit to size. The amount of land we can take out of, extract from nature. Too large disrupts the ecosystem, regardless of practice. Ernst F. Schumacher – Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered – just like Wolfgang Theuerkauf had a deep understanding of the principle of size and scale. Small allows, doesn’t break up, natural systems to do their work. For the ABC community it says: ‘Small scale farming, at best agricultural biodiverse, organic or eco-agricultural is the name of the game.’ It allows the natural world, specifically the plants on the planet to stay attuned and connected to protect and safeguard the biosphere.

It is good to emphasize here that Indigenous Peoples are a vital part of the solution to restore our sacred relationship with our rapidly changing ecology. Eighty per cent of our last pristine nature here on Earth has been cared for and protected by generations of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, experience and wisdom. Many times, until this day, under severe attack from extraction policies from nation states and corporations. Always with a strong spiritual connection to the Mother Earth, they take their stance and protect her.

A spectacular caterpillar on a small twig
Deep listening and a two-fold gaze

We are standing on an elevated area in the Sanctuary looking into the valley below. A whole spectrum of multiple shades of green. In the stillness we sense our feet on the ground, a gentle breeze stroking our face, the sweet smell of flowers. Then, one bird’s song resonates across the valley, filling up the entire space. In that very moment we all feel the overwhelming beauty and great mystery of this awesome place…

Suprabha pauses, then points to the hundreds of different species of orchids, hanging on moss covered bark sheets, stitched on with tender micro-surgical precision. ‘Rescued from somewhere in the Western Ghat mountains, the last specimen of its kind on Earth, she explains, ‘What we work on is not just the plant, but its entire local habitat – direction, altitude, level of moisture, ‘companion’ tree, soil, pollinators, neighbouring plants, trees, animals and more.’

It’s like a two-fold gaze, seeing a dewdrop on a blade of grass and the whole of Mount Anamudi, at the same time! By recreating that very specific habitat in the sanctuary that we are enabling these plants to live here. Makes sense! Easy? No, forty years of learning through trial and error, learning by doing. ‘We carefully document everything we see and observe.’

Orchids hanging on prepared bark sheets during the dryseason
Uniquely gifted

‘We often say we are a refuge camp for plants under attack, they kind of live on borrowed time.’ Is this the end game? Must be a frustrating experience. ‘No, not so!’ The amazing thing is that when plants grow back they are ultimately creative. They’ll find ways, as I showed you before, to root in many places, mosses do this with great ingenuity. In the surge plants are perfect team members and will climb on each other’s back to further growth. Plants have an enormous regenerative drive, are highly self-organized and –regulated.

So the good news is that humans are not only a destructive species. Among all animals they are uniquely gifted in tending their environment, the gardening species. Degraded areas on the planet can, when there is enough moisture and the right kind of care, restore themselves. The limitless diversity of the plant world is really the key to a balanced biosphere. It can under most circumstances adapt to keep planet Earth relatively stable and cool.

Unity in biodiversity

Biodiversity is key, but the real secret lies in the notion of unity. A pattern that connects, an organizing principle, an implicit design. But even more. As science is now telling us of the living plant world, the way trees relate and communicate. Through miles of fungi, connecting root systems among plants and trees, through organic matter carried by the winds, pollinators, animals. Through the flow of water, permeating all beings.

Plant world seems to be a working ‘holoversum’. A delicately woven interconnectedness, in which each part reflects the whole as in a hologram. With a collective intelligence, the whole organizes all the parts. Just think about what is often described as the butterfly effect; stirring things up in one place may cause a tempest on the other side of the planet. If any comparison at all, this plant web is far beyond and with much greater sophistication than what we call our ‘cyberspace’.

If we would extract, take out some of the major, key parts of our internet environment at this moment, our geo-political world will tumble into disastrous vortex before the end of the day!

Isn’t that what we are doing with our Earth, take out major, key parts of the interconnected natural system, debilitating its functioning?

Regrowing forest at the Sanctuary
How we conspire

‘It is a rare fish that knows it swims in the water’, as the saying goes. Not at all at odds with how we are operating in our ABC community and thus the villages, communities, families of farmers, fisher folks, pastoralists, forest dwellers around the globe where the hand meets the soil, the waters and the trees and animals. Our focus may very well be on ways to sow, grow, harvest, bring to market, supported in the best possible way, but at the same time if we zoom out we are all conspirators, that is, con-spirare. We breathe together. ‘Hard-wired’ to learn together in a social context that amazingly much resembles the primordial communities. An ample two hundred years of industrial revolution and a couple of decades of increasing individualism won’t change that.

Indeed, all the people, who are in the fields, forests or on the waters know about the changing climate. How would they not know. It’s their daily experience, for years already, but it’s getting more severe. Harvests shifting, wells drying up, seeds under-performing, overfished seas, weather systems changing, and more. And they are adapting, of course they are, they always have. Do they always have the right solutions? Or the right knowledge?

Custodians of Nature – Healers of the Earth

We can only see patterns when we zoom out and meet others looking for similar solutions. And to be prepared to share the knowledge and experience. The point here is that those who practice agricultural biodiversity, with their choice of smallholder farming, a community based approach, do more than producing healthy and cost effective food. They have always been, but more so driven by the challenges of climate change, working for the Earth. Taking care if the soil, variation of species, by living in harmony with their natural environments they are actively supporting the natural world to restore, protect and balance the biosphere. And there are many smallholder farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and forest farmers. Only in our ABC community we are related to more than two million people.

They are indeed the frontline Custodians of biodiverse landscapes, and in respect, Healers of the Earth!

The natural way, learning through attention

On a personal note. My encounters with Nature are often like a shift in awareness. By which I mean a certain state of attention. I live in a forest in the Netherlands with big tall trees, Spruce, Pine, Oak Tree and many more. When I take the thirty-minute walk through the forest to the small railway station I almost immediately feel the presence of the trees. I greet them as family members, naturally, and they greet me back through the wind rustling though the tops, the fragrance, all of that. My indigenous friends understand this, as they communicate similarly and call it the ‘natural way’. When I was in the Western Ghat mountains last summer I sat quietly in the ‘orchid nursery’ while Suma, one of the eldest on the Gurukula team, was tending after the plants.

And then I saw it. She was in that state of effortless concentration, relating to and learning from the plant, accessing knowledge, letting it guide her actions. It is this kind of ‘direct knowing’ that we often lack, but which is now more needed then ever. It is a capacity we humans all have and many of the people working on the land will recognize this. Musicians know this, artists know this. We just have to remember that we are all indigenous to this Earth. Through immersion, just by being with nature, this capacity to relate and learn is activated and through use, strengthened.


Last words

Maybe we should hear one more time what Wolfgang Theuerkauf and the Gurukula team say:

‘Plants work harder than the mightiest governments on Earth. They give us free food and water.’

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