Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wild, Rivers and Reciprocal Flow

Sylvie Shaw

The wild is a place, a way to be, a process (i.e. to go wild) and a perception about what happens when wild land and wild waters are paved over, smothered or pulverised. This blog touches on some of the integral viewpoints of the effects of wild and wilderness.

Drastic changes along the river, and to the river's ecosystem, have been largely directed by developers responding to government strategies for the need to house the growing population in, and migration to, S.E. Queensland. In this action drama, the Brisbane River and its environs take centre stage as the target for transformation. Bushland, mangroves, water quality and water flow are affected, while river creatures, fish, snakes, birds, bats and insects, are forced to make way for a human population, many of whom are increasingly seeking river views, or even 'river glimpses' (quote from recent real estate advertisements).

The actors in this river drama are the residents, water users and water policy makers for whom the river seems not to have rights outside of human use, not even the right to its own water. These actors define water in anthropocentric terms, as a resource and development magnet that bypasses intrinsic value and extends storey after concrete storey high into the sky and along the river edge. As a result, the river, its tidal flow and its wild heart are covered with an economically-driven canopy.

Thus, in this era of rapid growth, there is little room for salvation of beauty, redemption of aesthetics, preservation of natural capital or for holding onto biodiversity outside of human use. Sustainable development seems a forgotten concept.

To explore these notions a little further, I have recently re-visited the work of wonderful Native Canadian novelist Jeanette Armstrong. In her article in Roszak, Gomes and Kanner (1995) titled 'Keepers of the Earth', Armstrong describes the image of non-indigenous people portrayed by her grandparents. They saw white settlers as being out of place, wild and insane, similar concepts to the way that early settlers regarded indigenous people.

For example in Australia, colonialists referred to Aborigines as ‘indolent in the extreme, squalid and filthy in their surroundings’, as well as ‘disgustingly impure amongst themselves’ (in Reynolds, 1987:108). Overtones of this attitude still exist today. Aboriginal people continue to be shown in the media as either drunk and violent (wild), sitting in the dirt surrounded by mangy dogs (dirty), or painted up and dancing for tourists (marginal objects). They remain in this picture, a people without agency compelled to live in a static past.

To illustrate the impact of these changes place and person, the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1988) cites an Aboriginal elder and one of her Yarralin informants, Daly Pulkara, as saying that once white settlers arrived and began to irrevocably alter the land, it became 'wilderness', i.e. man-made, cattle-grazed, mined, desacralised. It became a place, in Aboriginal eyes, where 'life is absent'.

These examples highlight the difference between the way indigenous cultures perceive wild land and wild people and the way non-indigenous western cultures construct notions of the wild and wilderness. For an indigenous culture which has lost sacred land, or has been removed from country, there is a parallel between the dismemberment and despiriting of the land and the despiriting of identity.

Aboriginal people are born into an obligatory relationship with the land where caring for country is part of their reciprocal responsibility to place and community. In light of this sacred relationship, Rose (in another article) comments:‘To be in connection is to take care and to be cared for’ (Rose, 2006). Re-memorializing and resacralizing the land through ritual and other community-spiritual processes might create a re-memorying of sacred connection between people and place.

Taking care and being cared for are also qualities which have emerged from research into non-indigenous wilderness experiences. Although there are a number of studies into the significance and spirituality of wilderness experiences, particularly on the role of wilderness in therapy, self-development and revitalisation of youth 'at risk' (e.g. the TV series Brat Camp), there is little research on the emotional and spiritual effects of nature engagement in urban areas, such as along the Brisbane River, and limited studies on how people connect with nature in their daily lives, whether in urban or rural areas.

This research is crucial as without it planners, officials and developers can cover over green spaces and lop down suburban trees leaving less opportunity in the cityscape for nourishing the human spirit (physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual).

In comparison with a generation ago, urban dwellers have less everyday contact with the natural world. This is driven by an increasing involvement in the virtual world, widespread consumerism, intensification of the built environment, and a decline of public open spaces. Accompanying this external change, there may be a corresponding shift in consciousness and attitudes about the environment.

By this I mean that if city dwellers are removed from nature, if they don't know the intricacies of seasonal changes, if they have not fallen for the tidal movements, the glittering water, the delicate bird song, or tuned into the nuances along the river for instance, how and why would we expect them to want to protect this place?

Without solid Australian research on spiritual and psychological effects of nature connectedness and nature disconnection there is only limited evidence from which to argue for the preservation and expansion of wild city spaces. And without regular and direct sensual engagement with the natural world, people may not make the link between the lack of nature in their lives and their own wellbbeing and the wellbeing of the environment.

Nature in city environments is so familiar we may take it for granted. But it is being whittled away little by little, so we may not notice the change until it is too way late. Get out into nature and help save the earth.

Armstrong J, 1995, 'Keepers of the Earth,' in T. Roszak, ME Gomes, & AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Bird DB, 1988, 'Aboriginal Land Ethic,' Meanjin, 47, 3, 378-387
Bird DB, 2006, 'What if the Angel of History were a Dog?', Cultural Studies Review: Environments and Ecologies. 12, 1, 67-78.
Reynolds H 1987, Frontier: Aboriginal Settlers and Land. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth Temple

Sylvie Shaw

Earth, The Forgotten Temple (2004) is the title of a book which addresses the deep religious connection that nature brings. Author Niki Collins-Queen was a counsellor but put her career on hold to explore her deepening relationship to nature and God. Her church is the outdoors, the mountain top and the backyard.

In an article called 'Author finds God and spirituality in nature', Collins-Queen talks about how she unravelled her life on a spiritual quest going hiking, sailing, canoeing, often on lone adventures in wilderness settings. Her quest was answered on a solo trip to the mountains when she called for God to reveal Himself. She says: 'There was no doubt in my mind. ...I had experienced the presence of God, ... a loving energy permeating everything.' Following that experience, she saw God in all aspects of nature, in rivers, trees, plants, and animals (Judd, 1999).

In much of the research on people's wilderness experiences an event such as a spiritual awakening, an epiphany, or a feeling of oneness with the universe and with all things, is a frequent observation (e.g. Frederickson and Anderson, 1999; John Davis, 2006). People report a heightened sense of awareness and insight, a sense of mystery about the world, awe and wonderment in the face of the earth's power or nature's breathtaking beauty, a profound feeling of transcendence (within and without), a belief in a power greater than oneself, and a deep humility.

Nature spirituality, or 'awesome' experiences in wild nature sparkle with feelings of joy, empowerment, inner peace and hope. They promote physical and emotional well-being and encourage changes in attitude and behaviour (R. Fox, 1999; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Importantly, as the marvellous Native American author Linda Hogan (1995:3) reminds us, meaningful encounters in the wild can lead to ‘a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in [the] way of being and living in the world’.

Wilderness is not the only place for such transformative events, in fact, epiphanies or deep spiritual transitions can occur almost anywhere and in everyday life. For transpersonal thinker Abraham Maslow researching in the 1960s, they were 'peak' experiences; Rudolph Otto in the early 20th century might have reflected they were 'ideas of the holy', while for psychology pioneer William James, they were, to use the title of his book, 'varieties of religious experience'.

James argues that the heart of all religious experiences is grounded in subjective, individual experiences of Divinity or God. This definition marked a distinction between religion, often defined in terms of doctrine, dogma, hierarchy, institution, and spirituality, a more personal expression of relationship with the sacred. It is from this individualised connection with the Divine that the myths, rituals, teachings, texts and religious organisation emerge.

South Australian academic and author of The Earth Bible project, Norm Habel has considered the import of spiritual and religious experiences suggesting they can be divided into two streams - the numinous and the mystical (Habel et al, 1993). Numinous experiences are bound up with awe-full feelings of 'the otherness and power' of the sacred deity, while within the mystical, perceptions of ‘otherness’ disappears leaving a sensation of oneness and interconnection.

But I wonder if this distinction between the numinous and the mystical is made a little too strongly. Rather than a division between them, there might be more of a continuum. Both can be religious, spiritual or peak experiences which can be seen and experienced as moments of supreme transcendence or powerful self-transcendence. Throughout my research on nature carers (e.g. see Shaw, 2004) and sea-carers (Shaw, forthcoming 2008), I have interviewed several environmental activists and other deeply nature-connected individuals who say they are atheist and yet describe the feeling of oneness from encounters in mountain and ocean wilderness. Some call these powerful experiences 'real epiphanies' as if, at least in this culture, we lack the poetic, lyrical, passionate or sensuous language to explain the sense of mystery or unity with all things.

Other authors, in explaining these feelings as self-transcendence or transcendent experiences in nature, also define the perceptual limitations of western cultural binary construction which splits human from nature. Instead they describe the permeability, movement and interconnectedness between people and the natural world as an expansion of body boundaries, or as a merging of body into body, the human body with the body of the earth.

This expansive sense of self or identity is termed a variety of expressions, for example, Joanna Macy (1995) and Arne Naess (1988) celebrate the ‘ecological self’, Roger Walsh refers to the ‘transpersonal’ self (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993); for Warwick Fox (1995) it's the ‘cosmological self’; deep ecologist Bill Devall (1988) suggests ‘Gaea consciousness’; Ted Roszak (1992) explores the ‘ecological unconscious'; Adrian Harris (1998) reveres the ‘Goddess consciousness’; Mathew Fox seeks the 'cosmic Christ', while Druid Priestess Emma Restall Orr (1998) simply links ‘spirit to spirit’.

All these terms emerge from varied discourses: deep ecology (Macy, Devall, Naess), transpersonal psychology (Walsh, W. Fox) ecopsychology (Roszak), Paganism (Harris, Orr), and Christianity (M. Fox). All share an understanding that we are part of nature not above or apart from it and all involve some notion of an expansive sense of self that comes about by connecting with nature. They might differ in emphasis but the underlying outlook is the same. If the earth is to be protected and healed, there has to be some recognition of the power of the natural world and our intimate connection with it.

Perhaps then, this blog's focus is to develop a river consciousness, river-self or river identity where the water's flow reflects the movement of our lives and the tidal shifts become a pattern for the changes we experience. An expanded sense of river-self brings a sense of kinship with the river, its creatures and surroundings. Being within the riverscape one finds insight and inspiration, personal renewal, and renewal of commitment to the earth. It is an embodied creative force that weaves and is woven through our imagination, through music, poetry, dance, dreams and experiences of the mystical, numinous and spiritual kind.

Collins-Queen N, 2000, Earth, The Forgotten Temple, Impala Press.
Davis J, 2008, Wilderness Rites of Passage: Initiation, Growth, and Healing,
Devall B. 1988, Simple in Means, Rich in Ends. Practicing Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith Books.
Fox, M. 1988, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of Global Renaissance. Melbourne: Collins Dove.
Fox R, 1999, Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs”, in JC Miles and S Priest (eds.) Adventure Programming. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Fox W, 1995, Towards A Transpersonal Psychology. Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Fredrickson LM and DH Anderson, 1999, A qualitative explorationof the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration.Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 21-39.
Habel N C, 1993, Religious Experience, in NC Habel et al, Eds. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred. Underdale, S.A: University of South Australia, & Texts in Humanities, University of South Australia.
Hogan L, 1995, [Interview with] ‘Linda Hogan’”, in D Jensen, Ed., Listening to the Land. Conversations about Nature, Culture and Eros. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Judd P, 1999, Author finds God and spirituality in nature,, Forsyth, Monroe County, GA, December 8, 1999
Kaplan R and S Kaplan, 1989, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
James W, 1997, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Touchstone Books.
Macy J. 1989, Awakening to Ecological Self, in J Plant, Ed., Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.
Maslow AH, 1994, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Penguin Books.
Orr ER, 1998, Spirits of the Sacred Grove. The World of a Druid Priestess. London: Thorsons.
Roszak T, 1992, The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Otto R, 1917, 1923, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press.
Shaw S, 2004, Wild Spirit, Active Love, in L de Angeles, ER Orr,T van Dooren, (eds), Pagan Visions For A Sustainable Future. St Paul, MI, Llewelyn.
Shaw S, 2008, forthcoming, Deep Blue Religion, in S Shaw and A Francis, Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London, Equinox.