Explorer Bruce Parry’s most interesting journey
This feature was published in the Spring 2022 edition of the New Humanist
Television explorer Bruce Parry has trekked the Arctic and lived with Amazonian tribes. But can he build a community in rural Wales?
I’m sitting with Bruce Parry outside his new home in the Cambrian Mountains of Wales. Parry is an explorer in every sense of the word. Famous for his travels to far-flung places, it’s his latest, more personal journey that most interests and intrigues me. Why, several years ago, did he abandon his life of global adventure, disappear from our screens and leave his home in Ibiza to attempt the founding of an egalitarian community in the UK?
I’ve travelled through the winding roads of mid-Wales, down a long track to his secluded stone house, in order to find out. As we look out over hundreds of trees and listen to the gushing of a waterfall, he reflects on the life-changing events, beginning many years ago, that led him here.
Over the last two decades as a television presenter, Parry lived with indigenous groups for the BBC series Tribe and journeyed to the Amazon and Arctic to document the impacts of globalisation and climate change. He tells me that every tribal group he met was struggling due to “global events – mostly globalisation and trade”. Loggers, miners and the meat industry were encroaching on formerly pristine habitat and ancestral homes. For Parry it was obvious that “the problem is us”. The impact of our lifestyles on places that are normally out of sight are “not abstract” to him, but a lived reality. When he fills his car with petrol, he says, the images of the tar sands are in his heart.
Having seen how our consumption is ravaging the natural world and the lives of people who still live in some harmony with it, Parry’s experiences also offered him some valuable insights into alternative ways of being. Whilst filming the first series of Tribe (broadcast in 2005) and living with the Babongo in Gabon, on the western coast of Africa, Parry took Iboga – used by the tribe as a medicine – and had extraordinary visions, “which were all about connecting to nature and being at one with the universe”. Afterwards, he sought out his friend, the doctor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken, to explain the experience. “He said, ‘Bruce, you were just taking a drug. Stop being an idiot’… And so sure enough, I stuck that experience into the box called ‘Just taken a drug; doesn’t mean anything’, to get on with my life. Because that’s what we do.”
Years later Parry came across a TED talk by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor called “My Stroke of Insight”. She describes how having a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, the side that many believe is highly proficient at logic and language, made her experience the most incredible revelations from the right side, which is more to do with the experience of the present moment, what Taylor describes as the “right here, right now”. She felt at one with the universe, connected to everything. Parry remembers listening to the talk and thinking “Fuck, that’s me . . . I’ve had that experience. Here’s a scientist and she’s got an explanation for it.”
While the exact nature of the left-right brain distinction is subject to debate, Parry believes that we’d feel more connected to our surroundings and each other if we spent more time using the right side of our brains. He thinks psychedelic substances, like Iboga, can help with this, as can other tools and practices: meditation, for example, or foraging, which calls for you to be totally present in the moment and responsive to surroundings.
The Penan people of Borneo, the final group Parry met while filming Tribe, made a huge impression on him. The moment he encountered them, he felt that, of the 15 he had lived with over the course of four years, there was something completely different about this tribe. After further research, he realised that the Penan are one of the last surviving groups that still live as nomadic hunter-gatherers, within egalitarian structures. “For 95 per cent of our time on this planet we were in egalitarian communities,” he said. “It’s our most resilient state. I genuinely think there’s something for us to learn from that”.
Parry was so taken by the Penan that he made an independent documentary about them, called Tawai (released 2017). The title is the Penan’s word for their relationship with the forest. One Penan member explains, “It’s like when I’m with my mother, every day I know I can rely on her to breastfeed me. That’s why I feel tawai about the forest. It’s a guarantee of life.” Another mentions planes and cars but says if they don’t last for ever then he doesn’t want them, because they’re “not the same as the forest that we can have until the end of time”.
Tragically, the Penan’s forest is being decimated. Parry is currently seeking funds for a new documentary, which he hopes will express his thinking on these issues more explicitly than in the past. But he’s also trying to put the Penan’s lessons into practice on a personal level.
Having spent much of his adult life travelling, Parry, now 52, doesn’t feel that he belongs to any particular place. However, this hasn’t stopped him from wanting to settle down. “I have a belief that finding a place is where our deeper contentment can lie. I know that the sooner I can put my roots in the better.” He sees value in “knowing that you’ll be buried somewhere, that you’ll be remembered as the ancestor of that place, that you’ll be nourishing the trees that feed the next generations”.
Parry spent 10 blissful years living in a farmhouse in Ibiza. But, he tells me, he always knew it was a bubble. He yearned to live a life more aligned with his values: low-impact, low-consumption, more local, more connected to nature and other people. He felt a moral responsibility to speak out about these views, and realised they would have more legitimacy if he was speaking from his home country. “As a public voice, I have more sway in the UK.”
But why build a community in this particular spot? Mid-Wales has long been a Mecca for people interested in green living, with alternative communities clustering near the town of Machynlleth, and Parry was initially drawn into its orbit by a foraging course. The course involved having tea in a remote stone house surrounded by woodland. Later, when he saw it was up for sale, he told the seller about his desire to use it as a base for some kind of egalitarian community. He didn’t have the funds to buy it at the time, but the owner said that if he wanted it, she would wait for him.
In 2018, he moved in. But this only opened up more questions. Initially, Parry was hoping to start a community with three women who were skilled foragers and crafts-people with deep ecological knowledge. “These amazing women will go for three months into the woods in Sweden with nothing other than the clothing that they’ve made, and nets they’ve made.”
Unfortunately, their life together hit a stumbling block as soon as the women went to see the house. “They hated it. They said there were too many conifers and that there was lead in the river.” The water runs through a mine upstream. “But I also think it wasn’t so much the place, it was more that I’d jumped the gun ahead of the group and made the decision to buy it without them. Maybe it all fell apart because I made a power move.”
It’s been a painful first lesson. “I was talking about an egalitarian, co-owned, shared space and then I went and decided where it is going to be – that clearly killed it right from the start.” He’s currently talking to 15 people in nearby shared-living communities to produce a joint vision statement, with the ultimate goal of living together in the stone house. He wonders, however, if it might be better to sell and buy somewhere collectively, so the project isn’t influenced by his “founder energy” from the start.
Whilst living alone, he often has visitors to stay, and enjoys feeding them with food harvested from his polytunnel. He’s part of a nearby community garden project, and loves the house being full of friends, pickling and fermenting. But he admits looking out the window some days, seeing it “pissing it down”, and asking “Why did I choose here?” It appears that he hasn’t completely ruled out heading further afield.
Our explorer seems a little lost, yet his personal struggle resonates with the crossroads faced by our society. We know things can’t carry on as they are, in the face of mounting climate and ecological crises, but we don’t know how to transition into a different mode of living. Parry is famous for his bravery – he’s run naked over a line of cattle, taken countless mind-altering drugs and survived perilous expeditions in the Arctic and the deep jungle – but his current venture may be his most daring yet.
He still believes it’s right for him “to retreat from all the madness going on outside” and to try out a different “fun, cool, interesting way of living that may be enticing to others”. It’s a journey that demands moral courage. And while he might not have the map yet, his compass is set on the way ahead.