Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sacred Elemental Ecology

The river is flowing, flowing and growing down to the sea,
The river is flowing, flowing and growing down to the sea,
Mother carry me, your child I will always be.
Mother carry me, your child I will always be.

I learnt this chant many years ago. The flow of the song, the flow of the words when sung with others, over and over, is a powerful symbol or metaphor for the flow of life, the flow of knowledge, the flow of ecological and ecospiritual wisdom.

There is a wisdom inherent in the elements, water, fire, earth, air, that guides the spirit of the planet. This lush spirit flows in the movement of the ecosystem, the planetary turns and the tidal exchange of fresh and salt water. At the moment and globally, these spiritual and elemental dimensions seem out of balance: there's terrible floods in UK, widespread forest fires in the Mediterranean, while in Australia there were huge floods a couple of weeks ago in Victoria which broke the drought, but the drought is still raging in the heart of Brisbane's river city.

Humanity also seems out of balance. Australia has become a more stratified and snobbish society says social observer Hugh Mackay. And it's also a less nature-engaged population in part due to the techno-managerial imperative and a faster paced life which has resulted in a community somewhat disconnected from their place in the natural order of things. But we're also dis-located/dis-placed through the unthinking destruction of habitat.

In New South Wales a positive human-ecological note. A recent survey of environmental attitudes (2007) showed that most people are concerned about, and value the natural environment, with 90 percent citing water as an issue of great concern, with global warming not far behind. But this leads to a paradox - whose needs are paramount: human's or nature's? There is a dialectic at work here, between the reciprocal relationship with the natural world where nature is viewed as having intrinsic value (an end in itself), and the anthropocentric viewpoint with nature being seen in utilitarian (human use) terms.

Anthropocentism focuses on environmental quality as far as human needs are concerned. In contrast, biocentrism or ecocentrism takes account of the quality of the ecosystem and ecosystem 'services'. But generally in this society, there is a desperate lack of awareness about the needs of nature, about the ecological patterning within the land (earth), air, water and fire.

For many industrial-directed folk, the earth is valued for its economic usefulness to humans despite the talk on sustainabiity and the triple bottom line. And as global warming rears up like a firey dragon, the earth is becoming increasingly valued for its ecological utility - as a source of carbon credits which can be traded in the global marketplace. But such a view leaves the spiritual and religious values of nature out in the cold.

But not out of the hearts of nature carers. The wonderful nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore (2006) takes up this issue of the significance of religious and spiritual nature connections in an article about the values of old growth forests. She writes that these magnificient groves of ancient trees 'speak with an uncommon power of the imagining and feeling part of the human mind. They have the power to make a person fall silent with wonder and gratitude, to deepen a person's connections to the wellsprings of life and death and mystery' (2006:1120).

Wonder. Gratitude. Existence. Mystery.

A similarly evocative idea was raised earlier by Neils Elers Koch (1997) from the Danish Forest and Landscape Research Institute, who says that:

'The forest has always - and probably in all cultures - been a source of many intangible values such as religious feelings, spiritual values, peace, etc. In many cultures the forest is a symbol of the mother, or the forest is considered as an archetype. The forest as an archetype means that symbolically it reflects the basic structure of the unconscious, the undefinable, essence of life and existence ... If foresters do not respect these values they may reduce the quality of life and create large conflicts with local society.'

Like forests, the Brisbane River, as well as other riverine systems, can be seen in such instrumental terms as providing peace, tranqulity, beauty and joy. There is a gentle beauty about the flow of the local river, with its rise and fall in tune with the ocean. It's beautiful now but along the trail you can see the memory of the once magnificent old growth forest that stood here - huge tree stumps of rainforest that shaded the river and provided habitat for myriad creatures. An image taken in 1866 held in the State Library of Queensland shows a gigantic spreading fig tree along the river. An ant-like sized person stands beside the flying butresses and is dwarfed by the tree's mammoth size.

Kathleen Dean Moore says that forests of such cathedral-like trees invite 'a sense of wonder - radical amazement at life on this majestic scale' (2006:1121). That sense of amazement and majesty still lingers even if the trees have long disappeared. Could they come back? Well yes, if we replant them and nurture their growth, habitat and beauty.

Connecting to the ancient forests, the river valley, the urban wilderness, brings benefits in terms of human health and wellbeing. Being in the outdoors, on land or with water, can positively affect physical health in terms of exercise. It can also lead to spiritual renewal, a reduction in stress, a gaining of insight as well as personal transformation. These aspects are well documented in research. Of particular interest is the work of Frances Kuo and others from the University of Illiinois on the reduction of some illhealth symptoms such as ADD and ADHD in children (Kuo & Taylor, 2004) and obesity in children and adults.

In terms of social health, the provision of natural spaces in inner city environments can also have a positive effect on the reduction of crime and enhancement of community safety. This work from Kathy Wolf from the University of Washington is worth investigating by local councils and NGOs here. Greening the city would be more quickly enhanced if the social as well as the economic benefits of tree planting in urban areas, shopping centres and car parks were publicised.

The therapeutic benefits of being in nature, connecting to the delicate and often subtle rhythms of the natural world are at the heart of ecopsychology and earth-based therapies like hortitherapy, pet therapy, and environmental psychology. There is a documented link between the health and wellbeing of the human community, and the health and wellbeing of ecological systems. It's only natural.

Going riverwalking and working with the local Bushcare group both help to repair the human soul and the earth's.

Department of Environment and Climate Change, NSW, 2007, Who Cares about the Environment in 2006,
Koch NE, 1997, Forest, Quality of Life and Livelihoods, 5, 25, XI World Forestry Congress, Antalya, Turkey, October 1997.
Kuo FE and AF Taylor, 2004, A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study, American Journal of Public Health, 94, 9, 1580-1586.
Moore KD, 2006, In the Shadow of the Cedars: the Spiritual Values of Old Growth Forests, Conservation Biology, 21, 4, 1120-1123.