Saturday, June 2, 2007

'This is my church'

It's early Sunday morning and I head for the river where the bushland group is working on removing noxious and invasive weeds and bushes from the riverbank. These plants are out of place along the waterway but are beautiful in their own right and their own place. As we chop and spray, the woman I am working with today says how much she enjoys taking care the river. Here she connects with the spirit of the river and says, 'This is my church'.

I define spirituality as the process of creating relationship with what we hold to be sacred, in this case, the river and its surroundings. It is perceived as safeguarding something precious, that needs to be protected, loved and enjoyed. The American River Network says that people care for the river as it 'presents an opportunity to live out our values' (2000:1). In their publication 'River Voices', they say people get involved in river and watershed care: 'To connect with nature. To make a lasting difference in the world. To meet other, like-minded people. To get out of the house. ... the simple opportunity to get together with neighbors and work towards the common good provides a rare feeling of community.'

Similar findings emerged in a study conducted in Queensland's catchment areas by Margaret Gooch (2003). She found that the issues of belonging and identity are bound up in a person's decision to volunteer and become responsible for special places. Gooch found that people develop a strong affinity with land and waterway in part because they already have a strong connection to the area, and also, because their involvement in land and rivercare brings and reinforces a sense of attachment to the places they look after.

Other research from the field of ecopsychology shows that while people are out taking care of nature, they are also enhancing their sense of health and wellbeing. Habitat restoration worker and ecopsychologist Elan Shapiro (1995) outlines that when individuals are involved in land restoration work, they not only feel a sense of wellbeing through connecting with like-minded others, they also feel restored by their connection with nature. She says that being involved in 'environmental restoration work can spontaneously engender deep and lasting changes in people, including a sense of dignity and belonging, a tolerance for diversity, and a sustainable ecological sensibility' (225). So while they are taking care of nature, nature is taking care of them. It is a reciprocal and sacred process, and according to Shapiro, volunteers 'often fall in love' with the places they care for (226).

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American River Network, 2000, Volunteers, River Voices, 11, 1,
Gooch Margaret, 2003, Voices of the Volunteers: An Exploration of the Influences that Volunteer Experiences have on the Resilience and Sustainability of Catchment Groups In Central Queensland, online PhD thesis, Griffith University, Qld.
Shapiro Elan, 1995, Restoring Habitats, Communities and Souls, in Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes & Allen D. Kanner, Eds, Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.