Nathalie Kelley On Changing The Way We Travel, Being An Aspiring Regenerative Human, And The Brilliance Of Fungi

Written bySiani Abrahams
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“Sustainability implies maintaining the status quo and the status quo is: we’re facing mass species extinction, glaciers are melting. But at this point we’re so far gone that that’s not enough,” urges Nathalie Kelley, Peruvian-born and Australian-raised actress turned climate activist.

After reaching Hollywood heights from roles in the movie Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift to television series Dynasty, Kelley saw that the fires engulfing 2019 from California to the Amazon were proving to be more of a burning spotlight. “It really kind of woke me up to the hypocrisy of how I’ve been living. I love going to magical places and taking beautiful photos and putting them on my Instagram and telling people how much I love Mother Earth. In reality, I was hurting her by flying to a lot of these places.”

One key area Kelley sought to confront was the way she traveled. “As a member of an elite group of people in the world that get to travel like we do, we also have a responsibility by making sure that travel is not doing harm to the earth, which in most cases it is.” This shift in perspective was profound, an emerging value to “actually make the earth a better place than when I found it.” Part of recognizing this impact for Kelley meant understanding how to transform it, both as an individual traveler and as an industry, wondering, “How we can redesign our hospitality and tourism industries, so that we’re leaving transformed and we’re leaving the place that we’re visiting transformed for the better?”

Photo credit: @natkelley

To settle and spend time with the locals is Kelley’s preferred way of experiencing travel, choosing immersion in the local community’s lives and culture. “What’s so important about travel is that when we choose places that bring us that sense of wonder and awe, and that bring us closer to our connection, to the source, and make us realize that we and nature are one – there’s no separation. Those moments of pure love and reverence for the beauty of this natural world.”

With social media manning the frontlines of our communication, especially over the past year, the habit of curating our online persona bleeds into the authenticity of the experience we capture with the camera. “We’ve come really far from our innate human desire for exploration and adventure. And now it’s become purely performative and it’s become so accessible that we take these trips for granted.” Kelley notes that the philosophy of regenerative travel “goes against the current model – which is just, you get on a plane on the cheapest flight possible. You go to a resort, the local indigenous communities wait on you hand and foot while you drink margaritas in the pool, you take your pictures for Instagram and you go home.” Yet Kelley realized that lifestyles of casual travel, desert festivals, and uncurbed consumerism had dire costs that nobody seemed to be talking about.

“If you’re getting on a plane and burning fossil fuels to go somewhere, sure, you’re satisfying your wanderlust and taking something off your bucket list, but you’re taking away from a future on this planet and for future generations to be able to experience its wonder and beauty, because every mile we spend in the air, we’re burning these fossil fuels.” A narrow focus on aspiring to or maintaining a certain lifestyle has collateral damage beyond the world we can see or touch in day-to-day lives, creating blind spots that mean we only consider the effects on ourselves.

“I know now the impact of what that’s doing in places like the Amazon, which is an ancestral homeland of mine, oil spills there and the devastation it’s having on the indigenous communities . . . even though we might not feel it on our dream vacation, somebody else, somewhere in the world is paying for us to be able to live that life.”

Reflecting on what it means to be a regenerative human, Kelley admits, “The answer is, I am far from a regenerative human, I have not tipped the scales yet. I successfully grew my own collard greens for the first time this year, but I’m just a baby on this journey. And that’s why the aspiring part is very important. I’m not seeking perfection and I’m not demanding perfection of anybody else.”

Photo credit: @natkelley

She continues on to illustrate that the essence of a regenerative mindset begins by “just taking a step back and becoming an observer in your own life and observing all your choices and weighing each of these choices up. What are you eating? How are you moving around in the world? What’s your consumption of fossil fuels? What are you buying? What are your consumption habits? Does this involve some kind of extraction?” Whilst appearing a simple place to start, it’s crucial to unpacking a colonial inheritance of viewing the earth as a resource to endlessly extract from. Kelley insists on the value of asking ourselves tough questions, evaluating, and questioning, “Is the way that I live truly in alignment with my values?” 

The commitment to move in a regenerative direction also helps pave the way for future generations. Kelly reflects upon the legacy she imparts on descendants ahead of her: “Am I being the kind of ancestor I want to be to future generations, or will future generations question my actions as an ancestor? Will they ask, ‘Why did she travel around the world to go sit front row at a fashion show for two days? Why was that so important to her? Why was that more important to her than preserving our old-growth forests and keeping our oceans pure and clean? Why was eating tuna at Nobu so important to her . . . now we don’t have tuna.’ All these things are having impact.” Kelley suggests the antidote to harmful individualism is collectivity, saying, “We can’t silo ourselves as individuals and people. I’m just one person. . . . But collectively, we all start taking individual responsibility. Then I really believe we can see some large-scale change.”

While social media may obsess about the finer things in life, Kelley’s taste for sophistication has left behind the realms of jewellery and cars in a cloud of fungi fascination. Going back to the beginning, Kelley tells the story of the Ötztal Alps iceman whose thousands-year-old body was discovered in a fully preserved state. The most illuminating detail of his discovery was that “when they found him, he had a little pouch on him and in his pouch were two types of fungi. One was a medicinal fungi and the other one was a kindling used to make fires. This is knowledge that we don’t have today, but our so-called primitive ancestors were so wise and intelligent in their understanding of the natural world and how to use those resources for our own benefit, without this harmful extraction we’re addicted to now.”

Something our ancestors innately understood was the boundless intelligence and wonder of the natural world. At its heart is the humble yet magnificent fungi kingdom, one that Kelley passionately recalls her introduction to. “That movie, Fantastic Fungi, changed my life forever and led me to contact Giuliana Furci, who’s the CEO of the Fungi Foundation, the only nonprofit in the world dedicated solely to the preservation of and research around fungi. They invited me to be on the board, which is a huge honor.”

Furci continues to lead the way in bringing fungi to their rightful place as an integral pillar of the environmental conversation. Kelley proudly highlights, “What Giuliana has done is lobbied for Chile to be the first country to recognize fungi in legislation and environmental legislation. So now we go to build a bridge or building and they do the environmental impact report and fungi is included. This could be a major precedent-setting move for countries around the world and could really help us go in and protect some of the lost habitats of fungi – which is our old-growth forests from logging and other extractive industries – by saying ‘Sorry, this place is off-limits’.”

It may seem as though humans innovate groundbreaking technologies outpacing anything we could find naturally, but in reality the fungi kingdom mapped blueprints for the most essential systems in modern civilization first. “Mycorrhizal fungi is what causes soil to be healthy and helps plants and trees communicate with each other through the worldwide web, underneath the ground, and the mycelium network. You know, the internet is a replica of the mycelium network. It also looks like neurons in our brain.”

To really grasp the magnitude of untapped fungal power, Kelley points out that currently just “five to ten percent of the fungal diversity” on earth has been cataloged – a wealth of ancestral knowledge “sadly lost in favor of more ‘high-tech’ technologies.” Not to nullify the positive advancements of technological growth, Kelley instead reframes the way we view intelligence. “I’m saying that we cannot elevate it above nature’s own sophisticated technology that outdates anything, any iPhone, by billions of [years]. There’s no more sophisticated technology than the natural world. Fungi really represent that, they are the embodiment of symbiosis. This is two organisms coming together to help one another out. They are, by nature, the definition of interconnectedness.”

Kelley believes we disconnected from an awareness of this web of life because more high-tech technology meant “us humans . . . really siloed ourselves and made ourselves separate from one another and from the natural world.” She deeply believes and trusts in the potential of fungi for our society today. “What I’m really hoping the fungi can do is help us understand our rightful place in the ecosystem, which [is] a place of reciprocity and symbiosis.”

If the depth of our interconnectedness is yet to be fathomed, it’s no wonder, then, that Kelley adds, “Once you start working with the fungi, that fungal intelligence permeates you, and you start thinking differently and problem-solving differently. Because at their essence, fungi are problem-solvers. . . . That’s why I’m really championing to come back to our indigenous understanding of the natural world and how to work with her instead of work against her. And that’s why I believe fungi, especially psilocybin, I will say, as a medicine, will help us to come back to an understanding of source energy and again, realize our interconnectedness with everything.”

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