The Boundary Layer

How a solo experience in nature helped me come to terms with the prospect of death—and this moment of mass extinction.

Natalie Holmes
5 min readAug 11, 2021
Arnaud Mesureur via Unsplash

I lay on my back among the burial mound, the wind in the trees shushing my terrified mind. At first, and for a long time, opening my eyes was too much. I kept them closed and my body still, listening to the birds sing their comforting song. The air touched my skin and breath filled my body, and slowly, without intention, I sank into sleep.

I’d spent weeks preparing for this experience, a solo day in nature — no phone, no books, no distractions. That morning, I’d woken before sunrise and hiked up to the natural burial ground, a small patch of trees in a valley leading down to the sea, which shimmered with the illusion of heat despite the sharp April chill. And there I settled, sheltering from the wind in the boundary layer, the place where the Earth meets the atmosphere and friction slows the airflow, creating an invisible sanctuary of stillness.

I went there for two reasons: to repair my relationship with myself, which had frayed after months of isolation; and to become a little more comfortable with death — not just my own inevitable demise, but this moment of mass extinction.

I have to shake off the half-romantic notion that those of us alive today are experiencing something unique, that this crisis is a first. But no — Indigenous peoples have been living through an apocalypse for hundreds of years. Enslaved people, people subjected to colonialism knew — still know — this hopelessness.

Ever since I understood how the world works, I grasped on some level that a system founded on the exploitation of people and our planet would always end this way. In Western culture, the myth of the individual is strong: this idea that there is a firm boundary between “you” and “me”, between people and nature, between action and consequence. Yet right now I sit here and formulate these words and write them on a page to be read by you, through a process called consciousness that no one on Earth can explain. Where is that line? Where do “I” end, and “you” begin? Interconnection is a rule of nature, and it applies to humans too, because (spoiler alert) humans are nature.

Whether this feeling was new or simply more insistent, I realised it was time to face the darkness, the grief, and whatever else was lurking there. I knew, in a way that’s impossible to explain, that facing it involved embracing, once and for all, the mystery of interconnection. I wanted to dispel the illusion of being on the outside, looking in, and instead try to see the reality of belonging and interconnection, of ‘withinness’. And so I went to nature.

Words fail me now. We have, through language, constructed a world where humans and nature are separate. I didn’t go to nature. You can’t go to something that you already are. How else can I say it? How can I refer to and examine something of which I am a part — when the very act of examination is itself both subject and object?

The view from my spot in the burial ground

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” In Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy, Hamlet agonises over whether a life of suffering is worse than taking his own life: If death is like sleep, who knows what nightmares await? Socrates, on the other hand, believed that death is a dreamless sleep that renders us unconscious and thus blissfully indifferent to our fate. He also saw philosophy as ‘the practice of death’. According to philosophy teacher and blogger Dwight Goodyear, “In the dialogue, this practice is presented as one in which the philosopher tries to remove herself from the seductions of the sensible world in order to pursue knowledge of the eternal, unchanging, and invisible Forms.”

I went to a natural burial ground because I wanted to reconceive death as transformation. After all, at a purely physical level, bodies are broken down and reconfigured. I believed — or at least I wanted to — that something similar can be said of consciousness. Why not? Despite huge advances in our understanding of the physical world, scientists remain stumped by the question of consciousness. An approach called panpsychism, however, provides some answers. It posits that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, pervading all elements of it. According to philosopher and panpsychism proponent Phillip Goff: “The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality — perhaps electrons and quarks — have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts.” He continues:

Human beings have a very rich and complex experience; horses less so; mice less so again. As we move to simpler and simpler forms of life, we find simpler and simpler forms of experience. Perhaps, at some point, the light switches off, and consciousness disappears. But it’s at least coherent to suppose that this continuum of consciousness fading while never quite turning off carries on into inorganic matter, with fundamental particles having almost unimaginably simple forms of experience to reflect their incredibly simple nature.

Dismissed for most of the 20th century, panpsychism is currently having a moment, providing a framework for a mathematical model of consciousness called Integrated Information Theory and generally receiving more acceptance among scientists. The beautiful thing about panpsychism is that it allows us to transcend the limits of physical science, which can only ever tell us about the behaviour of the physical world, and nothing about its intrinsic nature. In other words, while we can describe and predict how an electron might behave, that tells us nothing about what an electron actually is. “In fact, the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it — the stuff in brains — involves experience,” writes Nigel Warburton. “We now face a theoretical choice. We either suppose that the intrinsic nature of fundamental particles involves experience or we suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature.” Which seems more likely?

Panpsychism insists on interconnection. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard for many to accept. Still supine in the boundary layer, eyes wide open by now, I not only accepted that the universe is somehow conscious — I knew it. Just as our bodies become compost, so too do our minds. The elements of consciousness that once made a human mind are now diffused through the xylem of a soaring oak, the feather of a tiny wing, the flicker of a flame in an oily sea. At this level, consciousness does not have self-awareness. When I die and decompose, the ability to contemplate my own existence will disappear. ‘I’ will never know what it’s like to be a tree.

And yet I already do. I already am.



Natalie Holmes

Humanitarian, writer, yoga teacher, budding urban farmer. Managing editor @