It has become a cliché to say of books that they are ‘important’ or ‘beautifully written’. Yet this book is truly both. It is one that touches on our deepest bonds with animals, with Life and the Universe. Having had what I call a ‘transcendent moment’ myself with a lyrebird when I was 18 in the Colo wilderness, where we swapped identity for a moment – I do indeed understand why it is so essential to have ‘eyes of the wild’. And Eleanor O’Hanlon communicates this so beautifully. Whether it is grey whales, wolves, brown and polar bears, or horses, O’Hanlon writes deeply of how humans interact with wild, self-willed, life. And it is not a journey of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ but one of passionate discovery. I found this book rekindled and inspired my own connection with the wild.
In the first chapter, there is a breath-taking description of her encounter with a grey whale, how it came up to her and let it touch her. She tells of how they had suddenly started to come up to fisherman and let them touch them also, even though they never had previously done so and had been called ‘devil fish’. It was almost as if they knew that now was the time when we might listen, when we might see them in their wondrous beauty. It was a time when they also reached out in forgiveness for our past slaughter. O’Hanlon does not preach or bury the reader under scientific fact, rather she draws the reader into the labyrinth of these wild and beautiful beings. The way she expresses her connection to both place and animals, reminds me of Thoreau. She writes of the ‘expansion of open spaces’ and how ‘In that great spaciousness of nature, we find our own expansiveness again’. She notes ‘As the mind falls still, space opens within. And that space is not separate from Eternal Presence, holding all life as one and allowing it to be – growing, blossoming, dying and reemerging in all its manifold diversity and grace.’
Her discussion of shamanism is fascinating, where a shaman is literally ‘One Who Knows’. As she notes ‘Shamanic practice is not a religion. It has no sacred texts, no dogmas and no formal structure. “Shamanism” is simply the collective experience of men and women who live in spiritual relationship with the Earth and the cosmos.’ She is told that ‘all that exists lives’ and ‘everything has a voice’. This resonated deeply with me, given my own life experiences of the wild have meant my favourite phrase is ‘if you listen you will learn’. O’Hanlon tackles the sacredness of the universe as seen by native peoples through engaging stories that bring their myths to life. They let us get in touch again with our own mythic roots.
The book in some ways is also about O’Hanlon’s own journey. One beautiful quote says ‘I have always believed that we would save only what we love; it has taken me a long time to understand that we ourselves are saved by what we love’. In other words, by loving life we ourselves become fully human, become whole. She concludes that ‘Diversity is holy. The dazzling play of relationship within the diversity of form is the expression of the inherent sacredness of life’. And by using the eyes of the wild, we can love that diversity and find our harmony with the Universe.
This book does not preach or lecture one about the environmental crisis. It is full of wonder, of the living stories of native cultures, of the new and surprising stories of her own life experiences, where these animals have offered her the gift of insight into their lives – both physical and spiritual. However, she does draw a conclusion about humanity’s predicament:
I do not believe that the way out of this tragedy can be found through new technologies alone, or by giving wild ecosystems some arbitrary financial value. The transformation that is needed can only come from the depths of our being, in the creative unfolding of new relationship as each person awakens to the light of love and beauty in the heart.
Thus we need to rediscover our sense of wonder in the world. From a life devoted to seeing with eyes of the wild, O’Hanlon sums up why it is so essential for us to reconnect with the wildness we still share this Earth with, even if society’s actions are leading to its drastic decline. She concludes:
If we ourselves are to make the next, and most critical step in our own evolution, we must, I think, begin by turning inwards, and listening, from the pure stillness and silence of our own deepest reality, to all these other voices of the Earth.
Dr Haydn Washington, author of ‘Human Dependence on Nature’ from Earthscan
In this lovely and impossible-to-categorise book, Eleanor O’Hanlon shares with us what her publisher describes as: “… an epic, personal journey to meet whales and wolves, bears and wild horses, guided by outstanding biologists and other observers who are renewing an ancient way of connection with the wild.” It also, through its deeper exploration of our own species’ historic connections with—and attitudes to—these creatures, brings up many questions about our human relationships with other life forms.
Eleanor’s writing has that indefinable, haunting lilt that one finds in so much Irish literature—and music also—and for me that makes it utterly delicious to read. But the beauty of the writing is only one of the many reasons I have mentally awarded this book five stars. I found the content captivating too. In each of the book’s four sections Eleanor describes some of the amazing wildlife encounters she has had while travelling the world in her work with Greenpeace, and the feelings these encounters have stirred in her. For as she explains, this was both outer and inner journeying: I found that the power of the landscape, the presence of the animals and the dynamic flow of living energy through the wild were working on me inwardly, she says. They were calling back aspects of my own being that I had long neglected or forgotten and driving me to explore the inner realities in ways I had not dared to do before. And this was drawing me into the deep current that has run through many human cultures for tens of thousands of years – the natural connection between the animals, the rhythms and cycles of the Earth and the waking of the soul within each person.
In each place she visits, Eleanor is hosted and taught by scientists and researchers who are living and working closely with the animals of the region and some of the wildlife encounters she describes are theirs, such as the extraordinary account of a researcher who is probably one of the only humans alive to have been fully accepted into a wild wolf pack. She also explores the totemic significance of whale, wolf, bear and wild horse to indigenous peoples and traces the symbolism of each animal through cultural myth and story.
Overall, Eyes of the Wild is a unique and fascinating blend of personal experience, science, shamanic wisdom and storytelling.
Most of all, what I love about the book is this author’s attitude towards the other beings who share our planet with us. Rarely have I come across such gentle, respectful sentiments towards what the Native Americans call ‘all our relations.’ Reaching out across the species barrier, striving not just to understand those relations but to meet them with love and with utter respect, she enables the reader to join with her in some of these special encounters in which each party meets and honours, face to face, the mystery of the other. She helps us to remember that not only do we see the whale, the wolf, the bear, the horse and all the other creatures of the wild but they see us also. Not only in the taiga, the jungle or the veldt but even in the quiet English hedgerow there are the watching eyes of many precious beings. And I believe that after reading this book we shall all become more conscious of their presence and more determined than ever to help ensure their safety and survival.
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain Greenspirit Magazine
This is a truly beautiful book that will touch your heart and your soul. Eleanor O’Hanlon has captured the inner spirit of the whale, the bear, the wolf and the horse. Her stories are so wonderfully descriptive that you believe you are right there with these amazing creatures whether it is on a boat beside a mother and baby whale or face to face with a polar bear.
Beautifully written, this book will give you insight into how these wonderful creatures live but also transport you across the globe to connect with their true spiritual inner energies.
On reading this book I defy you not to shed a tear or feel the spirit in your heart.
Rachel Patterson | http://kitchenwitchuk.blogspot.co.uk
“The beautiful writing perfectly captures the author’s sense of wonder as she gazed into the lives of the gray whales.
Without being religious I recognize that feeling of wonder and connectedness through immersion in the natural world where, at heart, we all belong. It has never mattered more that we should have empathy for the other living things with which we share the Earth. By showing us how she, and the other outstanding observers in this book, look at the animals who live alongside us, Eleanor has made us want to care.”
John Aitchison, wildlife filmmaker. BBC Frozen Planet, Life, Big Cat Diary and Spring Watch
“Eleanor O’Hanlon has written an exquisite insight into the majestic gray whale. San Ignacio Lagoon is the Sistine Chapel of Nature where humanity can experience the blessing and miracle of interspecies communication. In her evocative prose, Eleanor takes the reader into that magnificent wilderness, allowing us to experience a moment of awe, as human and whale connect.
Her book awakens our responsibility to honour the sacred by recognising the intelligence and wisdom of our animal kin. Eleanor is a voice for creation.”
Sue Arnold, CEO The California Gray Whale Coalition
“Eleanor goes to the ends of all the Earth – Siberia, the Bering Strait, the Caucasus, the dense Russian taiga forest, the Arctic pack ice. Her writing is full of kmowledge, insight and emotion, telling you things you things you didn’t know, showing you things you would never have noticed, even if you’d been there with her.”
Staffan Widstrand. Photographer and Director of Wild Wonders of Europe, the world’s largest photography initiative for conservation.