Entries tagged with “nature and culture”.


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.

feet-in-water-bw1“But out here, he discovered, everything was just itself. That was what seemed new. In being just itself, neither more or less, each thing appeared to him in a form he barely recognised …” from the novel Ransom.

Over the Easter weekend I read the new novel Ransom by David Malouf, a well known Australian writer. The book follows the journey by Priam, King of Troy, to reclaim the body of his son, Hector, who was killed and then dishonoured by Achilles. Priam was escorted on his journey by a common man with a cart and his two much loved mules.

I loved the book. While it is a great story, and told in a lyrical but flowing way, one particular aspect of the book really resonated with me. This was the discovery by Priam, for so long removed from reality by his role as King, of the joy in simple things, like the trickling stream around his feet, or his companion’s ordinary but particular descriptions of his daughter-in-law skilfully cooking pikelets.

We often resort to a universal perspective, and describe the world in abstract, conceptual and quantitative terms. We forget the real joy in being with the common but elegant nature of the particular, actual and immediate. Freya Mathews, in her book Reinhabiting Reality says this: Resort to a universal perspective – which is to say, retreat from the particularity of things, betrays desensitisation to subjectivity and a refusal of dialogue. This is because the subjectivity of others is communicated to us via particulars. Communicative cues reside deep with the particularity of things.

If our general mode of perception fails to be with particulars, we may also fail to be with others (people or places) in their particulars: their mystery, their energy, their embodiment, and their very ordinariness. We may see others descriptively, or as falling into a category. We may fail to be with this person, this tree, this river, or this place.

We may even think of particular people and places as homogeneous or interchangeable, and sometimes replaceable (see for example the poorly conceived NSW green offsets scheme).

Our propensity to name (or label) things can also hide particulars. As Susan Murphy, Zen Roshi, asks: “Who is the one you enclose with your name?” Does our name (or label) contain barriers to knowing?

Are we like Priam, King of Troy, so removed from reality and so cocooned from the messiness of life, that we miss the all important cues residing in the particularity of things and fail to allow a real dialogue to take place between us and other people and places? Can we recreate joy by being with the ordinariness of everyday life?

So much so-called spiritual writing is about transcendence. But what are the writers trying to get us to transcend? Listen to this piece from well known “new-age” writer, Eckhart Tolle from his book New Earth: “Space consciousness represents not only freedom from ego, but also from dependency on the things of this world, from materialism and materiality.” Well, guess what Mr Tolle, this material world gave birth to us, dreamt us into existence if you like, supports us through our lives, and when we finally die, takes us back into the earth (when we become energy and food for other creatures). Why is there so much distaste for the lovely messiness of this world, and a desire for the abstract purity of “space consciousness”?

Now, I for one, don’t want to escape from this materiality, even if I could! In fact, I want to embrace if fully, and give thanks to it, and honour the material dimension of our lives. As I said in my last post, we need to see the denial of our own embodiment, animality and inclusion in the natural order as a major reason why we distance ourselves from nature.

Don’t confuse materialism and materiality. Materialism, is often the word used, perhaps incorrectly, for consumerism, our insatiable appetite for things. Materiality is the dimension in which we live, now (and this really is the Power of Now). We don’t live in space! We live on, or perhaps more appropriately, in the earth. We are not disembodied beings. And our “sensible” material bodies are brought into relation to the world around us through our eyes, ears, noses, skin, and tongues, as it has done for much of human history.

Listen to another view of earth and materiality, this time from David Abram who is a cultural ecologist, philosopher, and performance artist, the creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics and the author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. David says: “If humankind seems to have forgotten its thorough dependence upon the earthly community of beings, it can only be because we’ve forgotten (or dismissed as irrelevant) the sensory dimension of our lives”. And also this: “Sensory experience … is the way our body binds its life to the other lives that surround it, the way the earth couples itself to our thoughts and our dreams.”

So, we need to acknowledge the aliveness of the world around us, and not see it as a trap for our spiritual journey. We are part of the body of the earth, not a spiritual being trapped inside a base material body. We do not need to aspire to a transcendent, abstract god (or spirit), living above us in an ethereal realm. What we really need, especially in this time of change, is to attune to the (multi-voiced and multi-faceted) spirits of the place where we are currently living – the earth, our locale, our place. We need, as David Abram says: “Practices that draw human groups into ever deeper accord with the exuberant nature that surrounds them, enabling community to thrive in reciprocity with a flourishing terrain.”

So stop, and listen: the earth is calling you. Can you hear the whispers on the wind? Can you feel the energy of the sun? Can you (will you) connect with the gaze of another animal, knowing that his or her eyes function just like yours?

Environmentalism has become very shallow in these “end-of-the-world” days when the garments of nature and culture are unravelling, and wearing thin. (In earlier times, these garments used to support us on our journey into, through, and out of life.)

These days we are bombarded with behavioural requests: turn off your lights, turn off the standby! These simple minded and crude attempts at being green hardly assist us to work towards healing the chasm that exists between nature and humanity.

Rarely are feelings of intimacy with nature evoked or explored. The imaginative space of wonder in nature seem to have been lost in favour of small behavioural changes, resulting in a loss of the rich history of nature as mysterious, numinous and as a guide to personal revelation. How can we heal nature when we no longer have nature in our hearts? How can we dream our lives and souls into their full existence when the dream of the earth is denied?

We are living through an impoverished story of our place in the world, mainly through the stories of reductionist scientific rationalism, and technocratic dreams of control and mastery. We have become entranced with wires, wheels and widgets. We have removed the heart and aliveness of matter and nature, and reduced it to a backdrop and resource for the everyday world of business and busy-ness. In this reduced story, humanity seems to have no idea of its how to find a grander purpose and meaning beyond the artificially constructed consumerist drive, and its narcissistic tendencies.

What we need more than anything else are stories that situate humanity as part of nature, as caretakers for a planet under siege. We need stories of being in relationship with an alive and purposeful nature. Stories that tap the roots of our deep imagination so we can re-imagine ourselves ecologically, where nature is revered for its role in supporting our very existence.

Where are these stories? Have they been lost forever? Will you share your story with us?