Saturday, November 24, 2007

River Spirit and Religion

Contemplat-ive practices such as prayer and meditation can encourage greater care for others, including the natural world. Projects such as Faith in Action link deep theological reflection with awareness and knowledge practices embedded within a mainstream religious framework. Such projects hearten thoughts on oneness, impress 'seeing in a sacred manner' and enliven spiritual effervescence with what is holy (Samz, 2007).

The Faith in Action project lays out a four step process from awareness to action to become immersed in projects to protect the other. First become aware of the issues. Then analyse what's happening, who is affected, who is involved? Reflection comes next, for example, around projects such as Earth Charter or interfaith alliances. These three steps then lead to action, involvement, solidarity and regeration. So, Faith in Action implores: 'Follow where your heart leads.' 'Walk gently on the earth.' 'Be in touch with creation.'

Getting in touch with the river is a contemplative practice deepened by falling in step with the patterns and changes of the water, the tidal flow, the movement of birds, the slithering of lizards and, with recent rain, the regeneration of habitat (inlcuding problematic plants galore). These intricate shifts in the ecosystem become sacred signifiers for co-creative encounters. This is an additional step in the from awarenss to action process but is overlooked in the Faith in Action four step program - frequent and meaningful communion with the riverscape.

Sometimes it seems as if the river is alerting me to the damage along the banks and, with the 'green' drought, the sparsity of the tree canopy, the decline in small birds and the disappearance of small mammals and carpet snakes. Through connecting to this sacred waterway, the river itself offers the opportunity for deep reflection about the health of the ecosystem and the sorts of actions needed to create healthy waterways - like getting involved in replanting, weeding and water monitoring rivercare projects.

There is a link here between the religious and spiritual practice of contemplative reflection, nature engagement and holding an action orientation towards environmental and social justice. Yet there is limited Australian research into the dimensions of this relationship between nature connection, awareness and environmental responsibility. There is little information on the meanings people attribute to natural environments (e.g. the sanctification of nature) or how this stimulates their interest in taking responsbility over water resource issues.

What research exists about these links from a religion point of view comes from the US where studies reveal low levels of environmental concern related to Christian ‘biblical literalism’ (Greely, 1993) and church attendance (Guth et al, 1993), although Boyd (1999) found that pro-environment behaviour amongst Christians, Jews and even those expressing no religion increased with the increasing frequency of prayer.

Being involved in a religion and attending church were also found to be indicators of ecological awareness. For example, research on Presbyterian church adherents in the US operationalised participants’ views on the sanctification of nature inquiring whether nature is sacred because it was created by God, whether it is sacred in its own right, or whether there was any sense of the sacred or spiritual at all in nature (Tarakeshwar et al, 2001). Responses were then linked to environmental concern and behaviour.

Sanctification of nature, considered by participants as a significant dimension of religious life, plus their level of religious involvement, were positively associated with pro-environment beliefs, attitude and behaviours. However, none of these American studies, as well as more recent research on the interplay of religion and environment, has considered nature connectedness as a variable in their research (e.g. Biels and Nilsson, 2005: Skerkat and Ellinson, 2007).

What emerges from this brief interdisciplinary exploration of research is that engagement with nature, in this case with the Brisbane River system, is located within a complex, multi-faceted relationship with water resources and nature generally, in which physical, sensory, cognitive and spiritual experiences interact with cultural meanings and values as an engaging and effervescent ‘lived experience’ of the river environment.

Biels A. and A. Nilsson, 2005, ‘Religious Values and Environmental Concern: Harmony and Detachment,’ Social Science Quarterly, 86, 1, 178-191.
Bouma G.D., 2006, Australian Soul. Religion and Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Boyd H.H., 1999, ‘Christianity and the Environment in the American Public,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 38, 36 - 44.
Department of Environment and Conservation, 2007, Who Cares about the Environment in 2006? A Survey of NSW People’s Environmental Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours, Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation.
Greely A., 1993, ‘Religion and Attitudes toward the Environment,’ Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 1, 19-28.
Guth J.A., L.A. Kellstedt, C.E. Smidt, and J.C. Green, 1993, ‘Theological Perspectives and Environmentalism Among Religious Activists,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 4, 373-382.
Kearns L., 2004, ‘The Context of Eco-theology,’ in G. Jones, Ed., Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Sherkat D.E. and C.G. Ellison, 2007, ‘Structuring the Religion-Environment Connection: Identifying Religious Influences on Environmental Concern and Action,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46, 1, 71-85.
Samz, M., 2007, Visioning the Circle of Life: Our Oneness,
Tacey D., 2000, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, Sydney, HarperCollins.
Tarakeshwar N., A.B. Swank, K.I Pargament, and A Mahoney, 2001, ‘The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism,’ Review of Religious Research, 42, 4, 387-404.
Taylor B., 2004, ‘A Green Future for Religion?’ Futures, 36, 991-1008.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Potent Spirit

The Brisbane River has a potent spirit that winds from wild places to tamed urban spaces spreading its story through flow and tide, fish and frog, bird and snake, wind and rain. Listening to the river, being enticed by its spirit and attuned to its changing moods and colours, promotes a heightened sense of wellbeing and delight.

Studies into the effects of engagement with natural places, particularly beautiful and aesthetic places like the river, herald positive impacts in human health and wellbeing and quality of life. This has both short and long term physical, emotional and psychological benefits such as a reduction in stress and mental fatigue (Maller et al, 2005), an increase in relaxation and restoration (Hartig et al, 2003), an opportunity for exercise and weight reduction (Pretty et al, 2005), and a lessening of stressors related to poverty and housing density in inner-city environments (Kuo, 2001).

But green spaces are fast disappearing in Brisbane and Australian cities generally. Right across the country there has been a significant decline in green spaces (forests, bushland, riverbanks, parkland, urban trees and household gardens) and a consequent decrease in residents’ everyday nature connections, plus the ecological benefits that green spaces offer - shade, quiet places, tree houses for possums, birds and bats and fresh air, as well as enhanced psycho-spiritual effects spurting from intimacy with the natural environnment.

Despite growing research into beneficial physical and psychological health outcomes of nature encounters, few studies have been undertaken into the spiritual effects of either natural urban or river environments. For example, Dutcher et al (2007:409) suggest from their study on the relationship between environmental values and nature connectivity that ‘connectivity may be an essentially spiritual phenomenon’, yet most studies into the links between spirituality and nature have focused on wilderness rather than urban environments as a source of personal transformation, insight and experiences of the mystical and numinous (Heintzman, 2003; Stringer and McAvoy, 1992).

In another study of wilderness immersion, Kellert (1998) found that spending time in wild places gives rise to an enhanced physical, emotional, intellectual and moral-spiritual outlook, while Schroeder (1996) reported that encounters with wild river systems produced feelings of awe and wonder, an appreciation of the beauty of nature, an experience of serenity, and a deepening concern about encroaching development and its impact on the river and its surrounds. Thus, according to Schroeder's research, the sense of the spiritual and the sacred is bound up in nature connecting.

This study is one of the few that focuses on rivers. One UK study on public attitudes to local rivers showed that restored rivers were well used and highly valued by the local public (Tunstall et al, 2000). Similarly, in the US in Providence, Rhode Island, river reclamation and restoration projects have led to a revitalization of the city’s business district, heightened neighbourhood links through infrastructure and scenic walkways, created public access-inspired art programs and initiated a Waterfire Festival similar to Brisbane’s River Festival (McWilliams, 2003).

But there is no indication about whether these changes in natural and social capital have stimulated environmentally responsible behaviours although they have generated positive changes in community wellbeing, increased opportunities for exercise and improved physical fitness, and the outflowing of reciprocal and mindful relationship between river restoration and restoration of self and community.

Dutcher, D.D., J.C. Finley, A.E. Luloff, and J.B. Johnson, 2007, ‘Connectivity with Nature as a Measure of Environmental Values,’ Environment and Behavior, 39, 474-493.
Fox R., 1999, ‘Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs,’ in J. C. Miles and S. Priest, Eds., Adventure Programming, State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Hartig T., G.W. Evans, L.D. Jamner, D.S. Davis, and T. Gärling, 2003, ‘Tracking Restoration in Natural and Urban Field Settings,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.
Heintzman P., 2003, ‘The Wilderness Experience and Spirituality: What Recent Research Tells Us,’ The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 74.
Kals E., D. Schumacher and L. Montada, 1999, ‘Emotional Affinity toward Nature as a Motivational Basis to Protect Nature,’ Environment and Behavior, 31, 2, 178-202.
Kellert S.R, 1998, A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, Sept. 1998.
Kuo F.E., 2001, ‘Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the Inner City,’ Environment and Behavior, 33, 1, 5-34.
McWilliams B., 2003, ‘Providence Reclaims Rivers,’ Architecture Week, July 16,
Maller C., M. Townsend, A. Pryor, P. Brown, and L. St Leger, 2005, ‘Healthy Nature Healthy People: ‘Contact with Nature’ as an Upstream Health Promotion Intervention for Populations,’ Health Promotion International, 21, 1, 45-54.
Pretty J., M. Griffin, J. Peacock, R. Hine, M. Sellens, and N. South, 2005, A Countryside for Health and Wellbeing: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Green Exercise, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Countryside Recreation Network.
Schroeder H.W., 1996, ‘Ecology of the Heart: Understanding How People Experience Natural Environments’, in A.W. Ewart, Ed., Natural Resources Management: The Human Dimension, Boulder, CO, Westview Press.
Stringer L.A. and L.H. McAvoy, 1992, ‘The Need for Something Different: Spirituality and Wilderness Adventure,’ Journal of Experiential Education, 15, 1, 13-20.
Tunstall, S.M., Penning-Rowsell, E.C., Tapsell, S.M. and Eden , S.E., 2000, 'River Restoration: Public attitudes and Expectations, Water & Environmental Management, 14, 5, 363-370.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bark Falling

The bark is falling in sheathes from the eucalypt trunks releasing a fresh new covering. Like the snake sheds its skin, so too the gum trees lose their bark, sloughing it off in the renewal that is spring. With the coming of new rain over the past few days, there's not only the sight of new skin emerging from the old bark, there's also massive new growth spurting forth in all directions. But along with the beauty of the native vegetation comes the plethora of unwanteds, myriad noxious weeds thickening in the undergrowth.

At the 25th birthday celebrations of Greening Australia last weekend there was a great display of these noxious plant varieties and even a 2008 Calender of Weeds. Most of the weeds on display also thrive along the river bank. Weed seeds can be spread by birds, wind and water and the moving tidal river can be a carrier for these destructive invaders. The spread of such huge numbers of weeds seems insurmountable for the small group of Bushcare volunteers to deal with.

But there was a wonderful sign of hope at the Greening Australia (GA) event. All through GA's grounds there were signs of change and dedication from the committed band of volunteer weed eradicators to the art and craft workshop run by the inspirational basketmaker Kris Martin from Weaving Wizardry who crafts huge basketry sculptures out of one of the most prolific and dangerous plants - Cat's Claw.

There is an endless supply of this noxious weed infiltrating Australia's eastcoast bushland. Kris collects mountains of this climbing yellow flowering weed in an attempt to stop its destructive movement through local forests where the weight of the fast climbing vine can crush and strangle whole swathes of standing trees. When large tree colonies are destroyed, more light enters the forestscape and this allows even more noxious weeds to take hold.

Weeds are considered plants out of place. The weaving wizard Kris Martin gives them central place in his artwork and at the same time raises awareness about the damage noxious weeds can cause. What I love about his work is not only its imaginative use of these nasty weeds but also it's the wonderful forms he constructs. As well as shopping baskets and woven bowls and plates, Kris Martin also weaves gigantic tube-nosed bats to bring attention to the plight of these vulnerable small creatures. It's a lovely process of transformation and renewal.