Vision quests are ceremonial periods of deep, solitary communion with nature common to various Indigenous cultures. John P. Milton, a revered elder of the environmental movement, thinks they could anchor a new relationship with nature in societies more broadly - especially those disconnected from nature.
John P. Milton grew up on a farm surrounded by New Hampshire wilderness, without a phone or electricity until he was sixteen. His family was “part Protestant, part Catholic and with a strong Native American influence,” he says, but his “real church” was nature.
In 1945, when he was seven, John’s elders agreed to let him spend four or five days and nights alone in nature. Today it is difficult to imagine many seven year olds - or parents, or elders generally - viewing the experience, like John did, as a profoundly positive moment of transformation.
“One of the things I remember the most,” he recalls, “was how all the living things around me - groundhogs, woodchucks, squirrels, deer, insects like butterflies - would come around me and act very intimately.” This communion deepened the more he repeated the experience. “The longer and deeper I stayed in solitude in nature, the more familiar they became. Finally it was like having a big family reunion.”
'The longer and deeper I stayed in solitude in nature, the more familiar [the wildlife] became. Finally it was like having a big family reunion.'
This outing was John’s first experience akin to a vision quest: a period of ceremonial, solitary immersion in nature traditionally serving as a rite of passage into adulthood in many Indigenous cultures across the Americas. Vision quest practices vary, but typically last for a few days and feature fasting, exposure to the elements and restriction to a small perimeter to avoid distraction through movement. Some prohibit sleep and clothing, others involve hallucinogens. Whatever the specifics, vision quests are designed to provide guidance, through communion with nature, at crucial life moments.
Similar practices have been important to cultures around the world, including in Europe. “It was very useful for the Romans to bring in Christianity as a tool to wipe out the indigenous nature-connective practices among many European cultures,” says John - practices which find vestiges among Celtic, Basque and Sámi traditions today.
Although the Native American vision quest has most directly informed John’s nature immersions, it isn’t the term he uses to describe his practice. Although he hasn’t experienced pushback himself, some Native Americans oppose self-described ‘vision quest’ groups, he says, “because of the appropriation of a term that was extremely sacred and special in Native American culture.” John supports that perspective. “We use terms that represent the contemporary, modern embrace of the same kind of common-ground practices,” he explains - terms like ‘contemporary vision quest’ and ‘nature solo’.
John’s formative New Hampshire experiences were the first in a lifetime of contemporary vision questing. Initially in landscapes across New Jersey, and then, when he could drive, during pilgrimages down into the dense swamps of the Everglades, he began immersing himself multiple times per year. Today he has undertaken hundreds of quests in environments around the world.
These experiences have intertwined with a pioneering, discipline-spanning career. After training as an ecologist, John helped catalyse the contemporary environmental movement in the early 1960s. He was a founder of Friends of the Earth, and has directed and shaped a host of environmental policy and academic programmes, both in universities and as the first ecologist on White House staff as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. Today he is a revered elder of the environmental movement.
But his work as an ecologist and environmentalist convinced John of the need for deeper cultural change. “If you depend on just temporary public policies, political actions, legislation and so on, those are very temporal,” he says, “and can change easily with a new administration, as we saw recently with Donald Trump in the U.S.” How, then, can we foster a more permanent cultural relationship with nature capable of underpinning solutions to the environmental crises we face? In recent decades this has been the question guiding John’s work.
John’s search for answers has led him to cultures that have realised more harmonious relationships with nature than so-called developed, late-capitalist societies. Since the 1950s, just as he was beginning to take friends from the emerging environmental movement on contemporary vision quests, he has been learning about the beliefs and practices in Native American culture, South American shamanism, Zen and Dzogchen Bhuddism, Doaism and Tantric and Vedantic thought. The new relationship we need is also old.
“We need a much deeper foundation for coming back into harmony with the rest of life,” John says. “Classically, the native peoples did that through vision quests.” The intentional reconnection that occurs during vision-quest-like experiences, he argues, is “one of the reasons native peoples are so connected ecologically. They all do this. So they have the experience of being profoundly connected to nature. It provides a really deep ecological foundation for anything from species-extinction issues to climate change - all the environmental issues of our time.”
This is why he founded Way of Nature, an organisation named after a process, synthesised from common principles found in a range of cultures, for “connecting to outer nature and the incredible diversity of life, rejoining the family of all life.” Though originally founded in the US, Way of Nature now has local chapters, including in the UK.
'So they have the experience of being profoundly connected to nature. It provides a really deep ecological foundation for anything from species-extinction issues to climate change - all the environmental issues of our time.'
The contemporary vision quest sits at the heart of Way of Nature’s programmes. Ceremonial communion with nature is intended to help participants develop more profound relationships with nature and greater clarity in their life journeys. Depending on the programme, quests can last from a few hours to 44 days, and unfold within circles from 108 feet to eight feet in diameter (usually with sacred boundaries established through the Eleven Direction Ceremony). Most, but not all, allow sleep and a basic shelter. All involve some element of fasting and complete isolation from other people.
John has experienced the powerful impact contemporary vision quests can have, both within himself and in others. “The big challenge,” he says, is that they can result in “a pretty radical shift in your understanding of yourself, of what nature is and of what you came into this lifetime for. It often provides a major reset.” Careful preparation and reintegration practices on either side of the experience are critical, facilitated by skilled Way of Nature guides. This includes a ‘tempering’ process which allows participants to integrate insights by moving between their camp and quest sites.
'The big challenge is that it can result in a pretty radical shift in your understanding of yourself, of what nature is and of what you came into this lifetime for. It often provides a major reset.'
Scientifically, we know we are part of nature. But culturally, in the West, we have worked hard to separate ourselves. Despite our knowing, our feeling is one of removal, superiority. Some of the most interesting attempts to reinstate a feeling of nature connection are being led by spiritual seekers - people far away, in many ways, from the culture of conquering adventurism fostered by the outdoor industry.
Despite the scepticism of a society that often disparages spirituality as woo woo, John has witnessed growing openness to spiritual ideas around nature connection. In the early 1960s, he recalls, even regarding nature as an interconnected system felt radical. Today, as the full scale of environmental crises looms ever larger, we are generally more knowledgeable and sympathetic to belief systems that help us think about these crises differently.
Cultural openness to contemporary vision questing, however, feels more distant - “partly,” John says, due to “a certain fear of being alone with yourself in nature, because a lot of people are disconnected from it.” This fear is surely double-edged: of nature, but also of ourselves. Vision questing, in both its traditional and contemporary forms, asks us to stop, to be silent, to reflect on deep, often suppressed questions about who we are and where we are going. It asks us to relinquish ourselves to unknown physical and psychic spaces. In place of the rules and social conventions of more mainstream outdoor pursuits, contemporary visions quests offer a less familiar framework that is part physical exposure, part therapeutic exchange, part spiritual quest.
This unfamiliarity breeds fear and scepticism. Are contemporary vision quests not just a niche, kooky practice, helpful only for those accustomed to the thinking behind them and with the resources to undertake them? It’s a fair question, and the answer is surely yes. But it also seems fair to ask, in response, what might be different and valuable in a culture that encouraged receptivity to contemporary vision quests, and provided the necessary support for more people to engage with them. The gradual re-emergence of research into therapeutic psychedelic usage - until recently suppressed and stigmatised for largely political reasons, despite its clear potential - springs to mind.
'Partly because of a certain fear of being alone with yourself in nature, because a lot of people are disconnected from it.'
Way of Nature has done a lot of work with people in leadership positions, and is slowly but surely working with more students - the two audiences that John realised, during a quest, he should prioritise. It has also inspired emerging organisations, like The Visionaries, with more radical perspectives on the potential of nature-based education. But the cultural infrastructure to support widespread adoption of ceremonial, vision-quest-like experiences is emerging slowly, at the margins.
Can the outdoor community play a role in building this infrastructure? What might happen if we engaged seriously with contemporary vision quests, as well as climbing rocks and riding waves? How might our relationship with nature change? Would we make different decisions?
We should look to answer these questions by applying the principles behind vision quests to our own individual and collective lives. If this means experiencing a contemporary vision quest at an important life juncture, fantastic. But it could also, John says, simply mean spending a few ceremonial hours in a natural space that feels special. This time could involve the Eleven Direction Ceremony, a short meditation or asking the spirits of that place for permission to be there. Or, indeed, another ritual. At least during our first steps along the way, specific rituals are less important than the intention to seek a deeper connection with nature, and to use this to inform our thinking. The most important thing, John says, is spending time in nature “with the feeling of giving from your heart back to nature in that area, and from that area to the broader planet.”
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