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Men We Love: Boyd Varty

<p>Author Boyd Varty discusses his new memoir "Cathedral of the Wild" and his philosophy of restoration.</p>
Image: Boyd Varty
Boyd VartyElsa Young / Random House

Boyd Varty grew up on Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, and his memoir “Cathedral of the Wild” paints a vivid and captivating picture of a young life lived in proximity to both extraordinary beauty and incredible danger -- a toe-curling encounter with a black mamba is just one example. But when the family’s fortunes turned, Varty found himself tested in new ways, and what followed was a profound spiritual journey.

Today, Varty’s life at Londolozi continues, and he is working to restore an ancient elephant corridor and helping the Good Work Foundation create more learning centers in South Africa. Here, he talks about the sanity of the natural world, his experiences with Nelson Mandela, and his dream of creating a movement of restoration.

You dedicate your book to your mother. Can you describe her influence on you?

I think it’s been immense. She met my father when she was 15 and by 16 she was catching rides with prospective guests who were coming to the lodge out in the wild, eastern part of South Africa. She would ride down with them and then spend the weekend. It was a tough environment: no running water, mud huts. She got assigned every job that you could possibly imagine, from chamber maid to chef. And I think what I learned from her is a kind of unshakeable, get-on-with-it attitude...She’s been like that my whole life. She raised us in the bush surrounded by snakes and scorpions and spiders, in a house with no electricity. She used to phone the doctor and weigh us on a kitchen scale, and say, “Ok, they’re this big now, they weigh this much,” and it’s that attitude of resilience and that kind of get-on-with-it attitude that I really admire. But also she was able to balance that with a beautiful softness. I’m trying to balance those two things in myself. I think that men, in order to really understand the ability to be soft and go into vulnerable, available places, they have to have a real sense of their strength and resilience. A lot of that I learned from her.

Men can struggle to balance the gender stereotypes of strength and machismo with the human realities of vulnerability and anxiety. This story shows both sides of the experience. What do you hope men can take away from that?

I think that we need a new model. And I think that nature helps us find that. When you spend a lot of time in nature, an interesting thing develops. One, you do have to be hard and resilient. The second thing that happens is because you are on the land with creatures that could potentially be dangerous for you, a natural deep humility is born, and I think that men can explore different parts of themselves through that humility.

Men have been given two models: the sensitive guy or the macho man. And there’s a place in the middle that I believe is built on humility and resilience

The door can only be opened if you have a strong sense of your own abilities and that’s what being in nature has given me. I know that I can go out and track a lion and be in a close-quarter situation with a very dangerous animal, and I have what it takes to deal with that. But I also know that if I approach that situation with arrogance that I’m going to get myself hurt. So it pushes you into different places. Men have been given two models: the sensitive guy or the macho man. And there’s a place in the middle that I believe is built on humility and resilience, and out of that humility and resilience comes an ability to be fully present and available. And I think that women are leading the world into a new consciousness and I think that men need to find a place where they can support that, and they can be strong but very present and available.

In the book you talk about the bond fathers and sons forge in the face of danger and you worry that modern society removes that. You call it the danger of no danger. Can you expand on that?

My own experience is that I went out with my father and I was introduced to certain rites of passage, and those rites of passage created in me a sense of responsibility; they made me feel deeply accepted because I was presented with the challenge and then he would guide me through it. And then when we faced situations together that were dangerous, I saw him in different iterations of himself. I didn’t respect him because I was told: “I am your father and you should respect me.” I respected him because I watched the way he operated when we were in a tight spot. I admired the way that he handled it.

I think that sometimes in our society there’s a kind of domestication that goes on that doesn’t allow the men in the family to see each other fully

And I think that sometimes in our society there’s a kind of domestication that goes on that doesn’t allow the men in the family to see each other fully, and then what you get is people trying to play roles, so, “I’m your father, you’re the son; you respect me.” But they don’t take the time to build the respect, they try to enforce it without being in places where it can naturally be built. And so that’s what I mean by that. I think we need situations where men can experience their wildness and where they can build respect as opposed to trying to prescribe it to each other.

Image: Londolozi Game Reserve: Cathedral of the Wild
Londolozi Game Reserve: Cathedral of the WildBoyd Varty

You describe hearing an inner voice that provides powerful guidance at pivotal moments. How do you define that voice and does it guide you still?

Yes. A lot of what I want to do is bring the sanity of the natural world into our society and bring the support of that to people, because I see it as a kind of medicine almost. We live in an extremely striving environment, it’s high pressure; it’s full on. And what happens is that the mind becomes full of different voices of what you should do and what you have to do. And you lose touch with what I call inner tracks. Inner tracks are the essential nature, the true nature, and when you touch something that’s really true to you, and you have the space and clearness of mind to touch it, what you get is a feeling in your body, a feeling that arises of excitement, of genuine drive and passion. And it’s not saying to yourself, “Get up, you gotta do this,” it’s almost like a pull to do it. So I see right action arising when we create space and stillness.

What I want to do is bring the sanity of the natural world into our society...because I see it as a kind of medicine almost

And that is the inner voice and it’s a voice that speaks in feelings in the body...instead of being in the mind, just feel what is moving you, what is grabbing you, and at the same time, what is creating a repellant, shut-down feeling in the body. And as you start to be able to feel different aspects, what your body says is a big yes and what your body says is a big no. That starts to take you into the natural guidance system that exists in all of us and that all animals have actually.

During your gap year, you visited a spiritual master in New Delhi who told you to remember that the “whole spiritual journey is internal.” How does that insight resonate with you now?

I would say it is truer for me now than ever before....The internal journey is quite simply closing your eyes, pulling your senses in, and taking time to be inside yourself, and that is still the place where I believe we start to connect with deeper essence. We live in an incredibly external world and I still believe going within is the start of any spiritual journey. Otherwise there’s just too much coming at you for you to feel yourself and to hear your own guidance system.

People call you The Restorer; what does that title mean to you?

I’m passionate about that work and really that’s the story of the book is this journey of restoration. I see it in two parts; I see it in the restoration of the human spirit: learning to find our inner tracks and to follow our inner paths, and how that leads us to a greater harmony and wholeness. And I also see it as the restoration of wild places. The place that I grew up on was a bankrupt cattle farm where my family went to hunt. And then in 1969 when my grandfather died, my father and uncle said, “OK, we are going to do away with hunting, we’re going to partner with the land and we’re going to protect the animals.” And in the space of one generation they rebuilt this bankrupt cattle farm into a thriving wilderness. A place where before lions and leopards had been shot and would run away from you, now they trust us enough to view them, wild animals that we are in kinship with that allow us to be close to them.

Image: Boyd Varty: The Restorer
Boyd Varty: The RestorerBoyd Varty

I have seen a land restored and that has a profound consequence, because it means that in this world where everyone knows we have to do something, but we don’t know what, we can stop just trying to conserve what’s left, and we can actively go out and start to take back wild areas.

And then a beautiful thing happens, as you restore the land, somewhere in our society and DNA, our societies start to restore. Our natural connection with nature starts to restore our spirit, and then at the same time as you restore the human spirit, people become more inclined to reconnect with nature and protect it. So, they work together: as you restore the land, you restore the people, as you restore the people, they restore the land.

Restoration can be anything for different people; it may be beginning your own journey to harmony from where you are right now; it may be starting a food garden; it may be finding your way into the service of others. Anything that is restorative to the human spirit and to our natural state, I consider restoration. I don’t think of it as a heavy title, I think of it as a wonderful thing to commit my life to.

Nelson Mandela visited Londolozi after his release from Robben Island; how do you think of him now?

Image: Nelson Mandela at Londolozi.
Nelson Mandela at Londolozi.Boyd Varty

You know, I had an amazing experience. I was speaking at TED and I was speaking a little bit about my experiences with him...I was really incredibly nervous because there were all these amazing speakers...And just before I walked on stage, they came to me and said, “Look, we want to tell you that Nelson Mandela has passed.” And in that moment my nerves fell away and I became really calm because I felt like the message I was about to spread was a tribute to him, a message of a more united society. He was really the ultimate restorer.

I feel huge admiration for him...he used to say in prison he had a lot of time to think, and he told me that he was able to create in himself the things he most wanted in the country. He was able to create respect, reconciliation. He could have come out of prison and taken the country to war, but he came out and he reconciled what had been committed during apartheid, and that’s because he had reconciled it in himself. And so I carry that with me. I know that I can’t try and be a restorer if I don’t continuously look at myself and make sure that I’m creating harmony in myself first. Because the harmony flows: we create it in ourselves; it comes into the world. We create discomfort in ourselves, and that’s what we bring into the world.

I know that I can’t try and be a restorer if I don’t continuously look at myself and make sure that I’m creating harmony in myself first.

And I also see the legacy that he created in South Africa to this day. In his passing now the country had another big wake up call: Where are we actually going? Are we managing to hold on to, not the man, but the values he represented? And the country has been asking itself those questions very seriously...even in his passing, he caused us to ask questions of ourselves.

He saw what was going on at Londolozi, and he saw that Africa has a unique asset in its wild places, and so when he became President he was very supportive of making sure that wild areas were protected in South Africa.

What do you hope the next five years will bring you?

I hope that the next five years will bring more opportunities to create this movement: a movement of restorers. To have more places to unite people who are interested in their own restoration and the restoration of the planet. I hope that Londolozi will continue to be a platform for the consciousness of restoration, and that people will come and visit. For example, we had a cattle rancher from Pantanal recently come and stay, and he saw the model, he saw a bankrupt cattle farm that had been returned to a thriving wilderness, and he’s gone back to the Pantanal in South America, and he’s put aside 50,000 hectares of land as a jaguar sanctuary. That kind of advocacy work is incredible and I want to make sure that my home space continues to be a model that other people can replicate around the world.

Let’s hope that I can generate some momentum so that we can start to create a movement for the restoration of the planet, and I think that the age of restoration will be built on the back of the age of information. Never before have we been able to talk to each other like we can now. And people are open-hearted, people are longing to find something that takes them back to meaning and harmony.