Archive for July, 2009

nature-absract1There is so much talk about the “environment” these days it would be easy to think that we are all turning green. But despite all the talk, we remain at a great distance from the more-than-human world; we are terribly alienated from “nature”, (as well as from our own natures).

Freya Mathews in her book Reinhabiting Reality says that for most environmental organizations “the environment lies elsewhere; it is not the great rolling, rippling back of the world-serpent, on which one stands, right here and now. The environment is all ideality; it is a scenario in the minds of environmentalists, a hope-for end point or a lost beginning, but not reality”.

I suggest that the modern environmental movement is partly to blame for our alienation from nature. With its dispassionate and often mechanistic language (natural resource management, environmental services, conservation auctions etc), and its voice being largely from a human, urban, economic and political perspective, it has created the “environment” as an abstraction, as a technical problem to be solved.

It seems to me to be a marked difference between the implications of being in or with “nature” and being in the “environment”. Most people have little direct experience of “nature”, of wild places, of non-domesticated animals. We watch our nature programs, read books, (and dare I say, read and write on computers), get green publications, but rarely do we actively participate with nature. Professionals now mediate most of our knowledge of nature.

Rather that using reason and objectivity to understand the world around us (as if we could ever understand the world), we need to establish relationships of care, connection and compassion for non-human others.

To really understand nature, (or if you like the “environment”), we must be in the place we find ourselves, whether in our busy cities or in “pristine” nature. I suggest if you want to understand nature, sit quietly under a tree for ½ an hour.

In spite of the deterioration of the global ecological context, in spite of the worsening social conditions under which most humanity live, in spite of the global financial crisis, we seem appallingly immobilised. We just don’t seem to get this simple fact: our lives are intertwined, deeply embedded and jointly at stake with “nature”.

We need to love the places in which we live. We need to participate in the rich, unfathomable mystery called nature.

Terry Tempest Williams, naturalist and author, realised that she has lost her own sense of poetry, that her rhetoric had become as brittle and hollow as her opponents. She was desperate to retrieve what she had lost. What did she do?

In an interview on New Dimensions, she tells her story: “I went down to those beautiful blue waters, call it a prayer or a plea, and I faced the sea and said: Give me one wild word and I promise I will follow. And the word the sea said back to me, and the word that I heard in my own heart, was mosaic.”

There are two unusual aspects to this story. Firstly, Terry ventures into nature, in this case the seashore, and simply asks for this one wild word. She trusts she will receive the word she needs.

The second unusual aspect is that Terry actually allows the word she received, mosaic, to guide her on a seven-year journey, firstly to Italy to study mosaic, then to a research study on prairie dogs who are treated as a critical part of the desert mosaic, then to Rwanda, where community healing occurs through the building of a memorial building using mosaic.

In our modern world, we wouldn’t normally go outside and seek answers. Perhaps our usual response to a personal crisis would be to use “google” or to see a therapist! Perhaps we need fewer therapists, and more elders? Perhaps the elders are like the old knotted gum trees in the forest, who have weathered the storms of life.

How would we gain wisdom and answers from nature? We would need to let go of our concepts of nature. We would need to shift into a participatory mode of interaction, and treat nature as an intelligent “other”, worthy of respect.

We would need to let nature reveal itself to us in its own way. Perhaps to heal our broken relationship with nature the word mosaic can help guide us. As Terry Tempest Williams says: Mosaic is not simply an art form but a form of integration, a way of not only seeing the world but a way of responding to it.

Perhaps the next time you are facing a life dilemma you could try going to your favourite place in nature, sit quietly, ask a question, and listen.

Perhaps you will sense a response, not necessarily in words, but in a place deep inside.

Give it a go: I think I will.