When dreamwork is usually discussed, the assumption is that the dream reflects back my issues, my concerns, and my life. After all, it is my dream! But of course dreams reflect so much more. Not only do they reveal our family dynamics, but they also expose socio-economic class, regional affiliations, and the frameworks of our culture-at-large.

Finally, dreams reflect our humanity, and how we are embedded in the natural world, or what eco-philosopher David Abram calls the “more-than-human-world.” The reason this perspective is not often talked about is because one of the frameworks of our culture-at-large is that we are each individual cogs in an unthinking machine called Earth.

So it takes a little work to do eco-dreaming – which I loosely define as dreaming as if the earth is alive and trying to communicate with us. I am convinced that part of dreams’ evolutionary advantage is how they not only reflect our embeddedness in nature, but also provide warnings of probable dangers and opportunities for our community.

Humans Manage EcoSystems

Let me make a small anthropological diversion here. We humans are smart and adaptive creatures with a defined environmental role of optimizing the ecosystem we live in. That’s what we do, and we have been doing this successfully for millennia. (The last six thousand years are a trickier matter – the self-serving needs of civilization have largely co-opted this role, leading to widespread environmental degradation around the globe.)

In prehistoric times, before the population explosion and the widespread domestication of grain, the earth’s peoples (hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, marine farmers, and pastoralists) left the land better than they found it most of the time. Yeah, they screwed up too: Easter Island being a good example of prehistoric deforestation. However, cultivating food forests, sculpting estuaries and reefs, fertilizing soil, preventing wildfires, and keeping herd populations in check is how our ancestors spend most of their time: improving on nature’s design.

Speaking anthropologically, land management is probably the closest thing to a collective purpose for human society. This is our deep nature, and it is reflected in our dreams.

Contemporary Ecodreaming Societies

Not everyone has forgotten the connections between dreams and nature, of course. Many indigenous peoples today view dreams as a voice of the earth, too many to list here. Here are some recently published anecdotes:

The Orang Asli tribes of Malaysia. Indigenous healers/dreamers transform into animals in their vision and dream states to gather information about the forest they live in. According to anthropologist Diana Riboli, these dreams result in the discovery of new healing plants, as well as information about the best time to move the seasonal villages before the rain seasons begin.

The Beaver Indians of British Columbia, Canada. According to Hugh Brody in his book Maps and Dreams (2002), hunters, until very recently, incubated dreams before the hunt, made a kill in the dream, and soonafter would find the “dream trail” and the animal, collecting the kill in waking life.

The mountain villages of Peru. In the 1990s, during the genocide of mestizo villagers by the Maoist Shining Path (who are making a comeback, by the way), dreamers were consulted about the best time for entire families to leave camp and hide in the forests. More recently, according to anthropologist Arianna Ciconni, villagers claim that dreams led them to the locations of their relatives’ mass graves.

For more information on the anthropology of dreams, I heartily recommend Barbara Tedlock’s edited volume.

Are ecological dreams psychic?

Our Western worldview is continously tested by native and anthropological accounts of their dreams. Personally, I’ve found that the more I study my dreams, the more opportunities to say “that’s impossible” emerge. Not that the anthropologists I referenced are not saying that ecological dreams are psychic.

Perhaps these accounts are artifacts of what we may already know, but have actively repressed or not consciously noticed. These dreams could bring to the surface of consciousness all kinds of “submerged observations,” such as complex bodily intuitions about weather patterns and the location of game (or mass graves), or auditory threat factors that literally “ride on the wind” through the myriad of animal signs in the forest.

Or maybe they’re psychic. Again, just like the mystery of dreams that predict illness, I think the most important thing is that we just get the message.

How to Invite the World back into your Dreams

1. Pay attention to animal dreams. In your dream journal, tag dreams that have animals with an icon or image. According to dream researcher Bitsy Broughton, simply noticing when animals are present will actually increase their participation in our dreams. It’s a feedback loop, like any natural system.

2. Listen to what animals have to say. In dreams, our job is to listen, and to facilitate their needs. Sick animals need attention, and hungry animals need food. Angry and violent animals need to be calmed… remember that the ability to establish order is humanity’s gift to the natural world.

3. Map your dreams! Many of the locales we go to in our dreams are relatively constant (depending on your dreaming style). We take this “psychogeography” with us in waking life too, adding levels of depth to our home environment — and sometimes muddying the waters with our personal past. Noticing this can clarify how we react to new situations and ease tension when out of our element. Innovative dreamworker Jennifer Dumpert, a scholar at Pacifica Graduate Institute, teaches a method for directing our natural ability to “dream map” where we live.

4. Share your apocalyptic dreams. This is a rich area of discussion, because so many of us have apocalyptic dreams but do not share them publicly. Sometimes sharing a dream can alleviate its “big-ness” – because sometimes our apocalyptic dreams are reflective of our personal changes in life. But other times they contain information for our community. We can only act once we find out that others in our community have had similar dreams that brings a potential danger to our attention. Especially helpful if you live under an active volcano.

5. Honor the dream with ritual. If you dream of a local place that needs some love, stop by and make contact. Or read the paper to see if the land is currently under threat of development. Give thanks to the eagle, and bow to the ocean. I live in California, so of course I have to extol the virtues of hugging a tree. Seriously, go hug a tree.

I recommend complementing this dream practice with a regular nature practice too.

So what have I forgotten? How do dreams and nature connect in your life?