Monday, July 2, 2007

River Conversion

Today, as I walked with my friend Kumi, chatting to people and dogs along the trail, communing with the water and watching the treetops twittering with birds, it seemed to me that the river was working its magic. With the full moon still shining, the day's golden light flowed through the branches; the river glowed; the sky was radiant.

In this place the twin concepts of communitas and liminality interact in the connections between people, and between people and place, through the lanquid tidal movement of the river, the touch of the breeze and the solidity of the track's earth. An emotion - a tangible feeling - arises that sets the riverspace apart from the regularity of daily life. There's a sense of exhileration at watching the Brahminy kites take off and fly across the valley, a sense of exitement to see the sparkling jewelled tail of the tiny exquisite pardalote, a sense of joy as hearing the Grey teal high in the branches above. Its insistent call called me and made me aware that ducks can live on high. And so each day, I learn more about the valley and its inhabitants.

Getting to know place, feeling the land underfoot, smelling the dewed earth, hearing the birds and the voices of rowers in the distance, being touched by this place. Embedded in this emotionally-charged connection is an awakening of kinship, where the heart is immersed deeply in this watery place. Can this heartfelt encounter be likened to a spiritual or religious conversion?

In discourse on religious conversion, it was surmised in the early 1900s that conversion events tended to have a mystical quality. It was suggested the converted underwent a sudden intense subjective experience which lead to an immediate understanding of the divine, a feeling of elation, a sense of the presence of an other, and a change within the self (Christensen, 1963 cited in Loffland and Skonovd, 1981).

Connecting with the river, with the ebb and flow of the tides, the creatures who dwell here, there is, perhaps, more of a subtle change, a subtle awakening and opening as the relationship develops. Perhaps this is the 'river effect'. Robert Greenway (1995) talks about the shift in consciousness and attitude in wild places naming it the 'wilderness effect' - an awareness or perception that occurs in wild places as we recapture our wild selves which have become smothered in teh busy city-driven lives. Wild land, wild rivers and wild oceans work their magic - they shift into our understanding, get under our skin and transform our lives. We begin to fall in love with new terrains. We miss them when we leave.

Being attracted by, and feeling an affinity with special places encourages an ethic of care. Places gradually etch their way into consciousness and conscience. Today when Kumi and I heard the Grey teal ducks chattering from their tall tree vantage point, and when we observed the Brahminy kites carefully examining the waterspace then taking off and flying directly overhead, the river effect was enacted. Magical.

The evocative writer Barry Lopez (1999), in an article in the wondrous magazine Resurgence, outlines that intimacy with place breeds relationship, love, trust, and care.

'To know a place you must become intimate with it. You must open yourself to its textures, its colours in varying day and night lights, its sonic dimensions. You must in some way become vulnerable to it. In the end, there’s little difference between growing into the love of a place and growing into the love of a person. Love matures through intimacy and vulnerability, and it grows most vigorously in an atmosphere of trust. You learn, with regard to the land, the ways in which it is dependable. Where it has no strength to offer you, you do not insist on its support. When you yourself do not understand something, you trust the land might, and you defer.'

Love and trust are indeed part of the conversion process. Trust in the ecosystem, in the movement of the tides and the pull of the moon that activates the rise and fall of the Brisbane River. Caring for the river, trusting the flow, learning from the ecosytem and the river species, this becomes a moral, even a spiritual or religious obligation. Acting with the earth, and its watery consorts the river and the sea, deep in the heart. This is what can be defined as an ecological conversion.

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Greenway R, 1995, 'The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology', in T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes & A. D. Kanner (eds.) Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Lofland J and N Skonovd, 1981, 'Conversion Motifs', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 20,4, 373-85.
Lopez B, 1999, The Language of Animals, Resurgence, 192,