Friday, November 16, 2007

Downpour and Outpouring

The torrential rain plummets heavily spreading its lush thick water across the parched earth. Soaked and soaking, we slosh through the puddles and celebrate the elusive wetness. And the birds do too. Butcher birds, the Magpie family and two shy Ravens come to visit; they're drenched, their feathers damp and droopy. A gang of squwarking parrots jet past as the river valley fills with the sight and sound of grey soggy showers and irridescence. The ecosystem is overflowing with renewal.

Connecting with local and wild places underlines the sprouting of what Mitchell Thomashow (1995) called 'ecological identity', or what the deep ecology pioneer Arne Naess termed 'ecological self'. These aspects of our nature selves are embedded in the ever-turning ecosystem processes of which humans too are part.

Naess' deep ecological philosophy is based on the assumption that once we connect with our ecological self, once we discover we are part of the interconnecting web of life, we will be more inclined to protect the earth. This requires a shift from an image of the self as separate, individualized and self-contained to one that is relational and mutually interactive with the rest of nature.

Sometimes I fear we live in a world oblivious to the ongoing deterioration. Today the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made the startling revelation that climate change may bring 'abrupt and irreversible' impacts - including rapid glacier melting and species extinction (but here they mean species other than human). The Fourth Assessment Report from the Nobel Prize winning IPCC makes for difficult and serious reflection.

Scientific research needs to be coupled with broader psycho-social campaigns which question the economic imperative that charges across forests', oceans' and species' lives (where species also includes the human). According to the inspirational deep ecology practitioner and engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy (1991:13): ‘What is destroying our world is the persistent notion that we are independent of it, aloof from other species, and immune to what we do to them.'

Identifying with the earth in a very personal way means that what we do for the earth we do for ourselves. If the earth suffers people suffer. If people suffer, the earth suffers. I was made very aware of this point while attending a talk on saving seeds and organic gardening.

At a public meeting in Melbourne some time ago about the importance of saving heritage and heirloom seeds in light of the onslaught of genetic manipulation, we heard the disturbing story of people in North Africa who were at war for so long that their crops were not tended and the seeds that ensured the next generation of plantings could not be collected. This left the population wide-open, once the war was over, for the distribution of genetically-modified seeds.

One of the consequences of this agribusiness approach to small-scale farming is that the people can become locked into a costly farming system from which they cannot easily escape. In addition, it may also have the effect of distancing people from their religious obligations to the land, part of which involves harvesting and planting seeds and performing ritual to ensure the fertility of the land (Cross & Barker, 1992). This story brings the notion of ‘ecological self’ right into the heart of the politics of peace.

In the process of becoming grounded in place and expanding one’s self-identity, we become encased in an ecospiritual outpouring which is enhanced by direct engagement with nature and by taking part in environmental, social and peace-building actions. Or to put it another way, as Xavier Rudd so poignantly sings:

'Please stay in touch
Because I need you in my heart
Please stay in touch
I need your touch.'

Cross N and R Barker, eds. 1992, At the Desert’s Edge. London, Panos Publications.
Macy J, 1991, World as Lover. World as Self. Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press.
Naess A, 1995, 'Self-realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,' in G. Sessions, ed., Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Thomashow M 1995, Ecological Identity. Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Tuan, Yi-Fu, 1974, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, Englewood Cliffs & London, Prentice-Hall.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

River Religion

Connecting to the river is part of a daily pilgrimage, a spiritual and sacred practice of homage. Watching the Spoonbiil slurp through the mud along Sandy Creek is a measure of reverence for this place and its extended ecosystem from watershed to ocean. The water flowing on the tidal exchange between fresh and salt is the ritualistic dance of this river religion. The sound and sight of birds, lizards, skinks, dog wallkers and joggers, rowers and kayakers, all combine in an expression of what the early sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as 'collective effervescence' - a religious fervour that emerges in society during periods of social change or upheaval.

At a time of increasing awareness of global warming and the need for pro-environmental behaviours to transcend the rush towards devastation, the notion of collective effervescence is celebratory.

Present day theorists of religion such as Gary Bouma (Australian Soul, 2006) and Danièle Hervieu-Léger (Religion as a Chain of Memory, 2000) note the shift towards a more experiential embodied quest for the sacred in post-industrial society. Hervieu-Léger suggests that the hierarchy, dogma and social institutionalisation of mainline religions has dwindled in the spread of what was seen as secularisation but, as Bouma has observed, there is a lingering spiritual attraction that bubbles along in the hinterland of organised religion as well as through the diversity of emergent individualised expressions of self-styled spiritualities.

On one hand the upsurge in religion as experience has spawned an outflow of emotionally-based worship; on the other, it has given rise to a range of spiritual dimensions from ecclectic self-serve new age practices to a deep engagement in ritual magick, various dynamic forms of nature religion and an ecological revisioning of mainstream scriptures and religious services.

The river and the extended ecosystem offer a stage for the outpouring of collective effervescence. The overhead shriek of the cockatoos as they descend on the eucalypt branches and tree hollows, the high-pitched delicious call of the Butcher Bird, the purring whirr of the Black Faced Cuckoo Shreik, the clever sprouting Mangroves which line the riverbank - these encounters with the wilder parts of urbania can be seen as an upsurge of effervescent feeling through mutual interaction between human and nature.

Hervieu-Léger (2000:52) citing WIlliam James says that the essence of religion is found in inner experience, the wondrous emotional connection 'at once collective and individual'. What is important, she says, is the process of religious engagement - first comes the intensity of feeling which emerges from connection with the sacred and then, in terms of organised religion, the sacred is vesselised, contained and rationalised into beliefs, rituals and teachings.

Breaking down the steps in an ecological sense removes the distinction between feeling and teaching. Wild and sacred places have the power to excite, to stimulate feelings of intensity, insight and personal transformation. They teach not only about the ecosystem services, they create an opportunity for learning about ourselves. Borrowing from Hervieu-Léger (2000:60), there is a mutual involvement of the sacred and religion, an emotional renewal that surfaces on the wavelets of this precious stretch of the Brisbane River.

Bouma GD, 2006, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality for the 21st Century, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Hervieu-Léger D, 1993, 2000, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Cambridge, Polity Press.