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Lessons begin

Three years ago a couple of things happened. Firstly, Amber-Rose and I moved into a new London flat and secondly, we welcomed Neil Pascal, a super colourful panther chameleon, into our little family. Over the last three years we have had to learn the art of wild-recreation whilst we modified areas of our flat to mimic the natural environment that Neil would expect to find in Madagascar.

This journey has touched upon many of the Seven Practices and triggered a number of changes to our own personal life. The art of wild-recreation for Neil challenged us to think differently about the art of wild-creation in our own lives. So, what lessons did we learn?

Baby Neil

Learning the art of wild-recreation

One of the first hurdles to overcome when owning a pet reptile is the food. Neil does not eat frozen mice like a snake would, so we have to keep a selection of live locusts, cockroaches and wax worms to feed him on. However, it is not just enough to keep the food alive, we also have to keep the food healthy and nourished. To provide Neil with the quality of food he would expect in the wild we had to not only think about the food that he is eating, but what that food is eating as well.

The name given to feeding-up his live food is gut-loading and it is an extremely important part of providing Neil with a wide variety of nutrients. This all sounds extremely sensible, but, how often do you worry about the food your food has eaten? Through wanting to do the right thing for Neil we realised that we had been neglecting ourselves. We learned that we are a product of not just the food we eat, but the processes that grow that food as well.

Secondly, as an arboreal reptile Neil is a professional climber and relies on a series of ropes and pothos vines to navigate around our flat. You are encouraged to use a number of horizontal branches around any area a chameleon roams to make it easier for them to climb around and be comfortable. Anyone who is familiar with chameleons will know that 95% of the time they are relaxed and the key is to give them enough space for that 5% of the time that they want to climb around.

Neil with his colourful pyjamas on

That left me thinking about the physical space we recreate for ourselves as adults. We are not as arboreal as a chameleon, but we still have the ability to climb and brachiate like other tree dwelling primates. Brachiating is a lost art among the modern human and when considered can support everything from a healthy spine to a natural walking, sitting and standing posture. Through building the appropriate physical environment for Neil we learned the importance of building an environment that encourages humans to move too.

Finally, our last wild re-creation to overcome was the lighting. Without going into detail, replicating the living environment of a chameleon (whose normal habitat is in Madagascar) within the four walls of a London flat is no small feat and it is only in the last 15 years or so that reptile experts have worked out how to create an adequate environment. For Neil, we use a combination of three different lights on timers so that we can best simulate the nutrients that would typically be provided by the natural sunshine in Madagascar.

Failure to provide adequate lighting is one of the biggest concerns in reptile husbandry and leads to a number of issues. However, as a society of humans we are also facing a sunlight epidemic. We need to reconsider our relationship to sunlight off the back of our movement indoors away from natural spaces. Natural sunlight is vital for all number of health reasons including good eyesight and a healthy gut. We had put all this effort into making sure Neil had the right lighting, but what about us? Were we getting enough natural light?

These are only three examples of where we have learned from our cold-blooded scaly friend. At some point in the last 12,000 years of societal development we lost touch with the natural life support systems that looked after us for millions of years before. For me, it took looking at the world through the eyes of another animal to understand what it takes to not just survive in a place, but to thrive.

Wild-recreation for humans

What did we do about food? We began to think about the food our food had eaten. When we think of the agricultural livestock kept by humans we are stuck in a discussion about death, when instead the conversation needs to be about life. Personally, I want to eat food that has experienced the most wild and natural life possible and this includes thinking about what that food has eaten. What worked for us may not work for you, but I know that whether it is meat, plants or fungi that you are eating you must avoid the foods grown on a diet of antibiotics and pesticides.

What about movement? Movement should be an integral part of our lives. Neil taught us the importance of creating a dynamic physical space that encourages both a healthy mind and body. We reduced the number of chairs in our home, replacing them with areas for ground sitting. We also created a hanging area where we could brachiate; encouraging gravity to strengthen our bodies.

Neil relaxing in his free-range

Finally, we reconnected with sunlight. It is hard to not fall in love with sunlight again when you spend time with any basking reptile. Watching them charge their batteries under sunlight is one of the clearest examples of the energy the sun can provide. We have evolved synonymously with natural sunlight and our bodies are designed to benefit from exposure to nutrients in different rays. We now try to spend time under natural sunlight every single day, especially during midday when the sun is at its peak. Time under sun is not just good for health but encourages a good night’s sleep as well. What time do you spend under natural light?

The experience of living with a chameleon is one I will never forget. However, from Neil’s perspective it is not one that I would rush to try again. What we realised more than anything is just how difficult it is to recreate the wild space of an animal used to living nearer to the equator. And at this point in our journey with technology we still do not know enough about natural spaces that we can adequately engineer the resilience of the wilderness into our domesticated world either. In England, we have to rely on bulbs, fake vines and mass-produced insects to create a suitable living space for a chameleon, but is that any replacement for the wild environment he would be exposed to in Madagascar?

Humans have moved so far away from our own natural spaces that we have little memory of what our own lives looked like before industry. What was our relationship like with our food, water, air, sunlight, movement, mindfulness and sleep? How did those relationships foster health and wellbeing over thousands of years? How can you think about your own relationship with the Seven Practices?

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