Saturday, October 20, 2007

Experience of the Spirit

In his book ReEnchantment (2000), David Tacey writes that: 'We are witnessing the rebirth of an ancient experience of the spirit.' He views this spiritual enflowerment as 'holistic, embodied, mystical and immanental rather than transcendental' (2000:100). It is inspired by indigenous eco-religious cosmologies. In the western quest for the sacred and the outpouring of individualised spiritualities, Tacey argues that we need to create a web of connections from the centre outward (rather than an upward heavenly focus) and seek the 'divine presence' in everyday subjective experiences.

What is useful about Tacey's overview is his potent observation of the shift within a postmodern spirituality from the transcendent to the immanent and self-transcendent, from heaven to the heavens and the earth, from power over to reconciliation, from a disembodied a-sexuality to an acceptance (indeed celebration) of our erotic and embodied lives, and from the masculinity embedded in hierarchy and dogma to the recovery of 'the feminine face of the divine' (102). Tacey hopes this will bring about an earth-centred spiritual revival, whether within mainline religions or the syncretism of new age spiritualities.

These shifts are apparent in the expressions of nature religion as well as the greening of mainstream religious practice. The influence of concepts such as lived experience and lived religion have overflowed into everyday life such that the daily connection with the river valley offers a space to experience the sacred in everyday ecological processes and actively participate in the sacredness of river spirituality.

The theme of sacred water and river spirit is also the focus of a radio performance honouring the Chesapeake Watershed in Maryland (US). Entitled 'In Living Community: A Spirituality of Water', producer and writer Sara Leeland (2006) pays homage to the flow of the river noting the deleterious impact of upstream action on downstream river and enbayment health. She laments that the waters of the once nourishing fish-filled Chesapeake Bay 'are on the edge of dying' (2).

One reason for the state of these troubled waters, she believes, is that politics and a desire for healthy waterways don't mix, so she concludes that politics is not the answer. Instead she questions whether a 'spiritual re-awakening' could change our response-ability about 'the role of water in our lives'. Then she asks: 'Could such an awakening lead to unprecendented support for action to heal our human impacts on the waters of this planet?' (2).

Leeland raises similar questions to Tacey. Both outline that an eco-spiritual revival is linked to the understanding of the planet as 'a revelation of divine wisdom'. This, Leeland hopes, can be manifested in a practical engagement in water-care, saying, 'The more we become sensitive and reponsive to water, the further it leads us into a vital recognition of our larger community' (Leeland, 2006:9).

Water holds a spiritual power that spirals through the peaks of waves and rides on the interflow of the salt-laden tides.

Leeland SE, 2006, In Living Community: A Spirituality of Water, Radio performance piece, Chesapeake County, WYRY 97.5 LP FM,
Tacey D, 2000, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, Sydney, HarperCollins.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wild Water, Urban River

There are wonderful water-based programs taking place right under our noses and we might not even be aware of them. The Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program of local waterways and the Healthy Waterways project for SE Queensland are looking after the environment and working together across community, industry and science to create purposeful strategies for waterwise development and water sustainabiltiy.

What happens upstream is reflected in what's going on downstream, especially the upstream events along the Brisbane River and the end point of the flow into Moreton Bay and then further afield. How the land and water are treated along the river's trajectory reflect not only the health of Moreton Bay but also the health of the creatures that live there - Dugongs, Turtles, Fish and Seagrass.

The EPA explains that seagrass is central to the marine web of life, and dead or alive, seagrasses are protected under the Queensland Fisheries Act, 1994. Many animals from big mammals like the Dugong and Green Turtle forage the seagrass, while these leafy meadows are home to an ecology of fish, prawns, seaweeds and other marine species.

The EPA comments that 'Seagrasses are very sensitive to changes in water quality and are used to measure ecosystem health.' So practices like land clearing, use of fertilisers and pesticides, sewerage and septic overflow and dredging have changed the river's water quality and turbidity and also affected the health of Moreton Bay.

Early accounts of river quality talk of clear water and easy fishing. But landclearing leaves arenas of denuded soil which, when it rains, flows in a muddy plume down to the river, eventually running into the sea, smothering the seagass meadows and the food for the sea mammals. In an information session on the future for Moreton Bay held during the week, renowned Dugong researcher Dr Janet Lanyon from the University of Queensland mentioned that after very heavy rains and flooded rivers a few years ago, the Dugong were found to weigh less and did not appear to be as healthy.

She indicated the likely cause was the reduction in seagrass meadows (See Lanyon, 2003). In her talk she pointed out that an increase in the human population over the next few years intent on finding home along the waterways of SE Queensland will bring increased pressure on the Moreton Bay environment, particularly the mammals, some of whom like the various turtle species, are already threatened.

She also mentioned that researchers in Florida monitoring the health of the Manatee have suggested that global warming might not be such a bad thing for these large sea mammals. Warmer water might lead to a greater spread of sea meadows and thus more Manatee and Dugong-friendly pastures for undersea grazing. But she stressed the need for urgent action now to protect the delicate and interconnected marine, coastal and riverine ecologies.

Lanyon JM, 2003, 'Distribution and Abundance of Dugongs in Moreton Bay, Queensland, Australia,' Wildlife Research, 30, 397-409.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Waste Water

Sparkling water doesn't just come in a bottle.

This week as Al Gore receives accolades for being inconvenient and telling a truth about global warming, and the British Court system decides that schools can show An Inconvient Truth as long as the other side of the story is also told, another potential eco-problem is piling up as this city warms up - plastic water bottles. In Australia 65 percent of these bottles end up in landfill. Many lie washed up under the mangroves along the riverbank brought in on the tide.

The number of bottles sold in Australia is growing at 10 percent a year. According to the Australian Beverages Council, Australians consumed 40 litres of bottled water per person in 2003, while the Australian Bottled Water Institute says that, last year, we spent a collosal $385 million on 250 million litres of bottled water. But only 35 percent of the bottles get recycled, say the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In a study Environnental Issues: People's Views and Practices (ABS, 2004), the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 21 percent of households use bottled water compared to 16 percent in 2001 (and 3% in 1994). But paradoxically, while households bought bottled water, most people surveyed (70%) said they were satisfied with the quality of tap water (which they also pay for). So what makes bottled water such an attractive commodity - is it the advertisements?

Advertisements for bottled water depict scenes of pristine mountains, sparkling rivers, rushing waterfalls and glowing tropical islands. These images are meant to imply that the water is actually being bottled from these pristine places; this ensures its purity and quality. But there is no labelling to link what is advertised with what is bottled.

Perhaps one reason is that carrying bottled water is somehow 'cool'. Perhaps there is a hint that the individual is just as pure and pristine as the advertised product. Perhaps it shows a notion of being healthy compared to a carbonated drink, filled with sugar, colour and preservatives (something that children have). Perhaps it's the brand name.

Or perhaps it's about convenience. Carrying a metal Sigg or other re-usable even plastic water bottle may be more cumbersome, not as convenient, not as funky. But there is a whole range of great colours and patterns on such water bottles, so they could be better marketed.

Research on environmental problems associated with plastic water bottles on several websites discusses the issue of the chemical make-up of the plastic bottles and consumer safety, as well as raising concerns about the amount of energy and fuel that goes into the making of the bottles, especially the amount of extra water used in their production (Thompson, 2007). Other sites talk about their place of origin and wonder at the ecological footprint implications involved with importing water from Europe or elsewhere. For instance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki recommends drinking tap water and comments: 'It's nuts to be shipping water all the way across the planet, and us — because we're so bloody wealthy — we're willing to pay for that water because it comes from France.'

And churches in Canada are taking the lead to disparage bottled water use. In February Canadian news reported that: 'Last August, delegates to the United Church of Canada's general council voted to discourage the purchase of bottled water within its churches. The motion called on church members to advocate against the "privatization of water" and to support healthy local supplies of water.' (CBC News, 2007).

Earlier this year on Clean Up Australia day, the local bushcare group collected piles of rubbish along the river much of it plastic water bottles. We gathered a great number of bags of discarded bottles. Maybe people would recycle them if there were enough recycling bins about, but better still, bring your own.

ABS, 2004, Environmental Issues: People's Views and Practices, Cat. 4602.0, Canberra, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
CBC News, 2007, 'Buying bottled water is wrong, says Suzuki. Environmentalist launches national tour on green issues,' Feb 1, 2007.
Thompson K, 2007, Un-bottling our Water Supply, Aug 23,

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Enfaithed in RiverSpirit

Swathed within the river valley I watch as high in the sky the Brahminy Kites circle on the eddies, coming lower and lower over their old nesting site. My heart bleeds with the memory of the day I saw Currawongs and Ravens continually dive-bombing the kites' perfect home site, a messy twiggy nest overlooking the water. As one Kite sat on the nest guarding either eggs or tiny offspring, the other Kite was in the air, trying to chase the birds away. Not long after this occurred, the Kites abandoned their nest.

Being part of the ecosystem, part of the changing patterns of bird fight and flight, and being witness to these events in the wild are sacred acts. As I get to know more about this place I begin to feel not only 'enswathed' within the valley's ecological processes but also 'enfaithed' within the lived and living river-spirit.

The meaning manifested through river connecting in a spiritual sense is reflective of the concept of 'lived religion'. Religion theorist Robert Orsi (2003) questions whether the study of lived religion is relevant 'to the world we live in'. He suggests that oft made distinctions in mainline religion between the sacred and the profane are blurred within the practice of lived religion, where everyday experience is celebrated as religious experience.

To explore this notion further, and to question the dynamics of river spirituality as a lived and living religion, I turn to an article titled 'The Literature of Nature and the Quest for the Sacred' included in the lusciously edited volume 'The Sacred Place: Witnessing the Holy in the Physical World' (Olson and Cairns, 1996). Writer Douglas Burton-Christie teases apart notions of spirituality and religion as they relate to the natural world. Using a framework developed by Bernard McGinn (1993), Burton-Christie explains McGinn's three main approaches to spirituality - 'historical-contextual', 'theological' and 'anthropological', where the latter fits the concept of 'enfaithment' within riverspirit.

Burton-Christie (1996:169) says that the 'anthropological or hermeneutic approach ... seeks to understand spirituality as a fundamental element in human experience', while 'historical-contextual' refers to 'spirituality rooted in a particular community's experience rather than a dimension of human existence as such' (168).

For McGinn and Burton-Christie, the community being referred to is solely human, but here along the river the community means more than that. The Brahminy Kites wheeling through the treetops and swooping along the water-land interface display in 'awe-some' terms the more-than-human nature of this very special place. Proposing an alternative reading of McGinn's spirituality concepts, the river offers a spiritual experience rooted amongst the community of nature - human and other-than-human. It blends the historical-contextual with the anthropological and is intensely theological. RiverSpirit is a lived and living sacred place and practice.

Burton-Christie D, 1996, 'The Literature of Nature and the Quest for the Sacred,' in Olson WS and S Cairns, Eds, The Sacred Place: Witnessing the Holy in the Physical World, Salt Lake City, The University of Utah Press.
McGinn B, 1993, 'The Letter and the Spirit" Spirituality as an Academic Discipline,' Christian Spirituality Bulletiin, 1, 2, Fall, 6.
Orsi RA, 2003, 'Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World Today: Special Presidential Plenary Address, Society for the Scientific Study Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, Nov 2, 2002,' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42, 2, 169-174.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ferals along the River Bank

Feral plants can be beautiful despite causing damage to the local ecology. Along the riverbank the weeds are thriving between the tall eucalypts. An abundance of Lantana, Prickly Pear, Boganvillea, Mother-in-Laws Tongues, Asparagus Fern, grasses galore, Morning Glory, Camphor Laurel and many more flourishing even in the midst of drought. Some of these plants are escapees from suburban gardens; some may have been brought or planted by the people who used to live along the river in their small boats.

In his exciting book Feral Future (1999, 2001), the biologist Tim Low documents the litany of garden variety escapees along with many other feral species of plant, animal and insect which have decimated ecosystems in Australia and globally. While perfomer John Williamson sings 'The Cootamundra Wattle is my friend', Low writes that the Acacia baileyana 'has invaded woodlands to Africa, Europe, America, New Zealand and Australia' (2001:xx). He terms such feral plants 'invaders' - species that are out of place and once released, do great damage. The cause? 'Our collective ignorance' (2001:xxi).

The riverbank then is charged with a history of ignorance.

So which weeds grow where? And how can we find out what is, or is not a weed? The 2007 National Weeds Strategy defines weeds as: 'a plant that requires some form of action to reduce its harmful effects on the economy, the environment, human health and amenity.' Knowing this it is questionable why nurseries are still allowed to sell plants which may run rampant in the bush, like Agapanthus.

The document continues: 'Weeds are among the most significant and costly environmental threats in Australia. Of the 2700 species of introduced plants now established, 429 have been declared noxious or are under some form of legislative control in Australia. ... There are two types of invasion: introduction of exotic plants and movement by native species into new areas in response to changed land and water use and management practices.'

To combat the spread of exotic species, the government strategy recommends (among other actions): 'Prevention and early intervention are the most cost-effective techniques for managing weeds.'

In doing some internet research on Australian weeds, I discovered that just last week was the Australia-wide Weedbusters Week but there was no information about this important event that I saw in the local community, no advertisements on television, no broad community encouragement via posters in shopping centres, local organic stores or the small local nursery. Perhaps a group like Planet Ark should be given the responsibility for promoting such a national event, especially as the government's Weed Committee regards the problem as a such a significant issue.

The local bushcare group along the river is a small heroic group of weed baiters and tree planters intent on protecting this small patch of Brisbane riverbank from being completely overrun by weeds. This watchful group of river lovers is making a big difference.

Low T, 1999, 2001, Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia's Exotic Invaders, Camberwell, Vic., Penguin Books.