Monday, June 23, 2008

Living River on a Beautiful Day

The Brahminy Kite flies in slowly and settles on a branch overlooking the river. Tiny birds such as Wrens and Flycatchers hop chirpily through the undergrowth. Ravens caw overhead. It's just another beautiful day on the river. As Bono sings in the evocative U2 song Beautiful Day.

It's a beautiful day
Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

Here, in Bono's song, incidentally performed at the Live 8 megaconcert, beauty meets concern and care for global devastation. And, in a plea for action, it calls for peace and social and environmental justice.

U2 use their music to raise political issues. They use their celebrity status and moving lyrics to call for an end to poverty, to stop overfishing, to halt rapid overdevelopment and to bring peace to the world in the song's image of the peace dove. Hope springs eternal - after the biblical flood, the world was born new again, colours burst forth and it was, and is, beautiful.

Beauty, poetry and any mention of the spiritual seem to be anathema to river management and are are largely missing from the more clinical discussions on natural resource approaches. Passion for place is absent. Feelings of love or attachment are buried as if projects to protect, save or restore a beautiful place like the river domain have little to do with these emotions. Individuals and groups involved in NRM community consultations are referred to as 'stakeholders' who are encouraged to bring arguments about the merits or otherwise of the stakes they hold. Emotions may flare but feelings of love, joy and passion rarely hold sway with decision makers.

Places may get protected not because people love them and express their feelings of love openly but perhaps because we/they realise that to be heard and taken seriously, we/they need to voice our concerns in NRM speak - resources, impacts, allocations, assessments, scientific research findings and management measures. But what needs to be managed - is it human or nature?

But some of these narrowly framed NRM practices are being countered in an unsual way - using art and music to raise community awareness about environmental and social concerns in more creative and innovative ways. In many places across the globe, creativity has become a cornerstone for community action and involvement.

One powerful example of creative ecology is what's known as River Dialogues. In different localities around the US, communities are taking part in discussions about their river systems. The aim is to find a balance between the needs of residents and the needs of the river. For example, in Spokane, the River Dialogues project sourced and involved local residents 'passionate' about the river. They told stories about their relationship with the river and along the way created relationship and community capital.

One of the local residents, Mary Kunkel, started a small activist group called River Sisters, made of up of women who cared passionately about their region and were worried about the river. The river area was destined to become a 'condo' development but their concerted effort and committed action led to the creation of an open access river park instead.

This now very well-used and loved park began with passion and sharing stories about what the river meant to them.

Another Spokane group Friends of the Falls also encouraged locals to think about, and connect with the river. Says Steve Faust, the group's Executive Director:

'My relationship with the river was like a lot of people in this town. They sort of know it's there, but they don't really pay much attention to it. One of things we try to do as an organization is to change the way that people relate to this river. To really get them to engage with it in a positive way, with the expectation that if they engage with it, we will, as a city, have a higher degree of concern about what we do with the river.' (Spokesman Review, 2006).

Telling and re-telling stories of place is one way to keep the history and presence of a place alive and in people's hearts. It can also help raise awareness about how to improve and/or restore water quality and riverbank eco-aesthetics by sharing experiences of involvement in rivercare and recreation as well as knowledge of the river's ecology. Emerging out of this process of sharing stories, suggests Linda Burnham (2001), founder and director of the Community Arts Network, come innovative ways of managing and improving the water environment.

Another River Dialogues project, this time in Pennsylvania, set out to engage local residents in 'issues of water quality, riverbank diversity, stream restoration, and river advocacy'. Using a multi-disciplinary team of artists and scientists known as 3 Rivers, 2nd Nature, the project assessed water quality and the state of urban riverbanks and questioned the 'blue and green infrastructure of a recovering landscape' by asking the following questions:

'1. Can artists working as cultural agents affect the public policies and private economic programs, which mark and define urban places and ecosystems?
2. Given the issues of scale, the power of private interests and the state both invested in the development/growth model, can the artist develop a public realm advocacy that expands the creative act beyond the authorship of the artist?
3. Finally, can (and should) artists create verifiable social change?'

Blending ecology with art, the research team arranged river tours and gathered residents, artists and ecologists together to tell stories and brainstorm ideas in groups referred to as charrettes. Through these active and engaged focus groups the research team devised a set of Living River Principles.

Living River Principles is a set of guidelines for caring for local waterways and also designed as a 'challenge' to communities, governments and residents about the urgent need to ensure healthy water quality for rivers and streams, and to do something about it, especially at the local level.

The Living River principles state:
'1. Each community should monitor and care for water quality in rivers and streams
2. Upstream community water problems should not impact downstream communities
3. Water problems should be solved at the source, addressing cause, not effect
4. Public rights to waterways and wetlands should not be compromised by private interests
5. Wetlands and streams should be treated as economic and ecological assets
6. Wetlands and streams should not be lost, and should be restored where possible
7. Public access to and from the water, and along the water's edge, should be restored
8. Riverbanks should be preserved or restored to their natural form wherever possible
9. Pre-industrial connections between water and communities should be restored
10. Redevelopment should accommodate public access to water and riverbanks
11. Redevelopment should restore community, culture, ecology and economy.'

These principles are part of a wider program to encourage action towards protecting riverine ecosystems at all levels. They are based on the presumption that water needs to be a common access resource. But in many regions, water is also a privatized resource, and thus the cost of what is a basic right can become, and has become, way too expensive for individuals who simply can't afford it.

The rationale of the Living Principles states that:'All citizens should be able to have a direct relationship to water; All rivers and streams should meet the water quality standard for swimming; and Rivers and streams should support an increasing diversity of plant and wildlife.' These recommendations are not dissimilar to the water quality reports from SE Queensland, and more widely, rivers throughout Australia.

But in a field of rapid development and lack of action on Living River Principles, coupled with the severe drought, creating healthy river systems and restoring environmental damage seems a long way off...but still possible. It requires passion, certainly, and commitment, and perhaps a shift in resource management practices to hold consultations as conversations where stories can be shared and in the process, both the environment and the local community can be regenerated.

Burnham LF, 2001, Telling and Listening in Public: Factors for Success, Reading Room, Community Arts Network,
Spokeman Review, 2006, Spokane River Dialogues,

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solstice Light

Intense solstice light spreads across the river valley. It’s a sleepy kind of day in what Brisbane residents call mid-winter. Coming from southern climes, this seems like a warm spring day. There is a hint of coolness in the delicate breeze; but the heat is pervasive, especially out of the shade. In Brisbane there is very little respite from the daunting summer sun. Happily that is still a few weeks away.

Last night a large orange not-quite-full-moon rose slowly above the hill. It looked magnificent as it heralded in the longest night. I watched as stars began to sprinkle the darkening canopy with bursts of lumino-esssence until the sky was sponged all over with lustrous clusters. What stood out were the two white pointers of the Southern Cross, alpha and beta Centauri, shining even more prominently than those of its emblematic cousin. While high in the sky flowed the dazzling river of stars, the Milky Way.

American poet and global justice activist Drew Dellinger writes in one of his magical poems the laws of earth and objects of feeling the 'strange music' of the heart of this dazzling skyway.

'at the core of the Milky Way there's a black hole with a ring of blue
stars around it
at the core of the Milky Way there's a black hole with a ring of blue
stars around it

does anyone else feel this strange music?'
(Drew Dellinger)

Dellinger's poetry talks about the ineffable, the spiritual quest and the necessity of merging environmental activism with social justice. He believes that the terms cosmos and justice are synonymous with beauty and uses his beautiful words and his commitment to action to move the hearts of those who feel the 'strange music', where his voice intermingles with the voice of the cosmos.

A performance poet, as well as a reflective activist, Dellinger features on several online sites. In one titled The Poetry of Gratefulness 08, I find his breathtaking and passionate Love Letter to the Milky Way and these words explode off the screen: 'I inherit the voice of the Milky Way in dreams.' It touches me deeply.

So I search among other sites and find a copy of this most powerful poem whose lines ripple with the flow of the Brisbane River as I walk along its edge on this shortest day. It is indeed a homage to the starlight, to the cosmos, to the intimate confluence of human and nature, and to his passion for the planet.

Love Letter the the Milky Way

'I want to tell you about love
There are approximately 1 trillion galaxies
I want to tell you about
In the Milky Way there are about 100 billion stars
I want to tell you
Love is the breath of the cosmos
I want to write a love letter to the Milky Way
Everything is an expression of the galaxy
My 30 trillion cells
The four noble truths
The eight - fold path
The five precepts
The seven energy centers of the body
Everything is the Milky Way
Including my lover,
and every kiss
of every lover that’s ever

Your skin
the texture of the cosmos
the religion beyond religion
I want to know you like the wind knows the canyon
or the rain knows the rivulets
Lightening is continuously striking in 100 places every moment
The universe spills through our dreams
The future belongs to the most compelling story
Even the word "love"
is not adequate to define
the force that wove
the fabric of
If we could sense everything at once
like Krishna entering with all the memory of his past
then I could tell you about love.'
(Drew Dellinger)

Friday, June 20, 2008

River Health Auditing

Just this week the federal government released its River Health Audit. Out of the 23 river valleys listed, only one is gets a positive tick. The quality of other major rivers in Australia is deemed 'poor' and 'very poor' - 13 river systems are described as 'very poor'.

The government's first solution is to blame the previous government while allocating $3.1 billion to buy back water towards restoring the health of the waterways. Buy back water?

The bigger issue of combatting climate change is also part of the restoration program - but there was no discussion of how this is to be achieved. With less rain, reduced water flow, lowered water quality, and a demand for irrigation, what is the future for these wild rivers?

River water is valuable - so valuable in fact that it is sold off. This means that for the river itself, and the ecosystem services that depend on a health water flow, are under threat from severe degradation.

River revival projects are underway all over the country. What is crucial about these projects is support from local residents and water users. Ecological and scientific experts are working with the community, first gauging knowledges the community holds about the riverine ecosystem, their attitudes towards the stakeholder engagement process, and the values held about the river and river environment quality.

Important in this process is an understanding of community values on issues such as aesthetics, water quality, recreational amenity, pollution, riverbank health, native vegetation and wildlife. For example, a study of river attitudes about restoration on the Cooks River in NSW by Andrews and Smith (2006) found that the community was generally aware of the link between the presence of vegetation and river health and most understood the connection between dense vegetation and river quality when compared to more open space river surroundings.

The study also showed that residents thought that native vegetation along the river added to the river's beauty in comparison to their attitudes about 'enhancing the ecology of the place'. And of interest to Brisbane River environs, the study found that while most residents held a positive attitude towards the recolonisation of mangroves along the river, others were 'displeased' about loss of view and river access due to the dense growth.

Andrews V and L Smith, 2006, A community-based survey: the knowledge and attitudes towards urban biodiversity
of the residents and users of the Cooks River Corridor, Final report for an Urban Ecology Project at the University of Technology Sydney, October 2006

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Field of Blue

Along the trail I meet Susan walking her black and white sheep dog. The first thing she remarks on is the quality of the sky, its clarity, its intensity and its depth of colour. The seasons are changing. Mornings are cooler and the cloying humidity has dropped.

In the summer months Brisbane is bathed in a sweltering humidity which covers the city in a sheer film of water vapour that seems to dull or blur the colours of nature.

As the Kookaburras call in the background, Susan remarks on the refreshing cooling breeze. It's been quite a while since tufts of wind have murmured across the trees and rippled the usually smooth smooth river. 'But,' she says, 'it's so dry.' I agree. I'd been lying on the tough yellowing grass taking pictures of the sky and saw how sparse the grass was becoming. It was as if the drought had not really gone away but had just been hiding during the few wet weeks. Now it was back and the plants had begun to suffer. And Susan had noticed.

So I began to wonder - what makes someone aware and observant about the river's ecoclimate? And could this awareness be translated in any way to river care?

To help me answer these questions I turn to Helen Dunn's article 'Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers' (2004). She recommends that the first step towards protecting a river is 'to define the particular values and attributes that describe [its] conservation significance' (413). Dunn surveyed river scientists and found, perhaps not surprisingly, that what they valued about rivers was their naturalness, rarity and diversity of ecosystems and endemic species.

Rivers valued for their naturalness such as wild rivers or rivers in remote areas are considered a high priority for conservation although Dunn's respondents did mention the significance of pockets of the wild as ecological value in already 'disturbed rivers'. They also noted 'the role of rivers in providing corridors for dispersal and migration, and refuges in times of drought'. Dunn mentions that in the past rivers have been protected because of their high scenic value and their wildness but her survey pointed to current emphasis on the importance of ecological and conservation values of river systems.

Other studies outline that the vital values influencing river conservation are recreational, cultural, economic, social and environmental. According to the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment (2002), rivers are valued for their 'assets' including 'environmental assets' such as rare species, sites of significance, naturalness, health; 'economic assets' which relate water supply and industry's reliance on river health; and 'social assets' such as sites for recreation and those of special significance for indigenous and European (only?) cultures.

So what does the Brisbane River offer by way of values, especially in the urban area? A paper by Lauren Schroeder (2002) about the values arising from the restoration of the Mahoning River Watershed in the US sheds a different light on definitions of conservation values. Schroeder defines river values in more socially engaged terms. These relate to the benefits that future generations will enjoy from a fully restored river, to residents' increased quality of life, and to the pride residents will feel by living near 'a restored, beautiful river'.

She surmises that these values are likely to engender a sense of social wellbeing manifest in a greater sense of 'social cohesion, social conscience and self-esteem'. She suspects that these outcomes could lead to a reduction in crime and a rise in work performance and productivity. She agrees it's hard to assess these values in monetary terms but says this shouldn't be a reason not to seriously consider social impacts and beneficial outcomes. In fact she comments that the process of restoring the Mahoning River system 'invites' local citizens 'to speak with pride of the river as a symbol of beauty, and of how we care for our environment, how we value and care for our heritage may prove to be the most valuable asset that we have...'.

Studies on local rivers tend to focus on water quality, allocation and flow and not on the social impacts of these issues. But the Brisbane River is more than its scientific value; it is an interdependent network of people, places and natural amenity. Thus, to incorporate this concept of interconnectedness, studies on the ecological and economic value of the river system need to be expanded to embrace social and spiritual values.

Dunn H, 2004, Defining the ecological values of rivers: the views of Australian river scientists and managers, Aquatic Conservation, Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 14, 4, 413–433.
Schroeder L, 2002, The Value of a River: How the Mahoning River’s Restoration Will Impact Our Quality of Life & Economic Vitality,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Open Spacious Vivid

The natural world has the power to move us, inspire us, transform us. This can be sudden or gradual event initiated via scientific exploration, religious understanding, spiritual experience and/or immersion in beautiful and sacred places in the wild and in wilded urban places.

In his article titled 'On Being Moved by Nature', Noel Carroll (2008:170) speaks of being 'emotionally aroused' by nature through a panoply of cultural and personal value systems including the aesthetic, the scientific and the religious. Emotional arousal, he suggests, 'may be a function of our human nature in response to a natural expanse' which can engage all the senses and give rise to a 'sense of mystery' (174), 'majesty' (177), and even a 'displaced religious sentiment' (183 citing Diffey, 1993).

In concluding, Carroll surmises that emotional arousal in nature might be 'instinctually grounded' (185). That is, having deep feelings for nature is natural. This seems similar to Wilson and Kellert's biophilia hypothesis but their concept is also grounded in notions of care and sensitivity based on a human's innate affinity with nature.

Carroll's article is part of a new volume of ecophilosophical highlights on environmental aesthetics, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (2008). The chapters explore the relationship between art, aesthetics and action, but many of the ecophilosophers seem to debate the aesthetics of nature as if we humans are somehow removed from our own naturalness. Along the way they question whether everything in nature is positively aesthetic (and arty) or whether aspects of nature can also be deemed negatively aesthetic or unscenic (Saito, 2008), and if so, how would this viewpoint affect environmental care?

Saito takes umbrage at the view that all natural phenomena is 'aesthetic appreciable' (249). He claims that environmental dangers and natural disasters which deleteriously and seriously affect human life cannot, and should not, be regarded in a positively aesthetically context. This would be morally inappropriate.

Another chapter takes the theme 'From Beauty to Duty' written by the highly regarded Holmes Rolston III who asks: if we humans value the beauty of nature will we be motivated enough to care for beautiful places too? But there are other questions to ask as well. Would all cultures regard these places in the same way and therefore join together to save them? And if a beautiful place was seen to be in the way of an economically valuable development (mining, logging, freeway, housing), would its beauty be enough to save it? There are plenty of examples to say no.

Rolston (2008:326) slightly alters the common saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder to beauty being in the 'mind of the beholder' but I would suggest that such a mind-full view of beauty ignores the significance of a deeply embodied experiential immersion in the natural environment. Despite this oversight, Rolston warns that approaching conservation via aesthetics may be too limiting. He says: 'Starting off with an aesthetically oriented approach may disorient us and leave us with too weak a locus of value to protect all the values in jeopardy'.

In other words, aesthetics might 'give rise to duty' but it might not be enough to preserve a special place or ecosystem (327). Other values need to be taken into account particularly what Stephen Kellert (2004) calls 'biophilic values' which, he states,'constitute threads of relationship between people and nature that foster an ethic of care for the natural world' - beauty or no beauty.

Along the wilded trail the Brisbane River and its environs are beautiful, its colours vivid, the sky above, spacious, intensely blue. Not far away, among the concreted highrise repressed and depressing cityscape the river is still beautiful although its natural surroundings have been decimated without thought to aesthetics.

Rolston calls for a recognition and valuing of an aesthetic vitality in nature or an 'ecological aesthetics'. This, he says, brings us face to face with the wild and wild places where 'we are not at home and must take some care' (336), and where, referring to the concept of ecological self, 'our sense of identity enlarges into local, regional, [and] global biotic communities'.

Inspired by his call for an expansive and expanded self, a river-centred ecological self may come about through a deep connection with, and understanding of the river's beauty, bounty and ecosystem services. It can emerge gradually through building relationship, through experience and growing sensitivity; it can arise instantaneously, such as being awestruck by its flow, its rainforested banks, its dolphins dancing, its scenic quality or its recent rain-drenched overflow. Pehaps if we argued more about its aesthetic scenic quality in addition to its potentially poor water quality or endangered environmental flow, the river would be a central and beautiful red (or should it be blue/green) carpet of this river city.

Rolston concludes his chapter passionately by asking whether an environmental ethic needs to have an aesthetic quality. He emphatically answers 'yes' and in this way stresses the intimate and exquisite link between beauty and duty.

Carroll N, 2008, On being moved by nature: Between religion and natural history, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Diffy TJ, 1993, Appreciating art and appreciating nature, in S Kemal and I Gaskell, Eds, Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Rolston H III, 2008, From beauty to duty: Aesthetics of nature and environmental ethics, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Saito Y, 2008, Appreciating nature on its own terms, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Sustainable Ways, 2004, The Sustainable Ways Interview, Social Ecologist and Author Stephen R. Kellert Shares His Views of Sustainable Design, Sustainable Ways, 2, 1, Autumn,

Monday, April 14, 2008

River, Reflecting the Sky

As the seasons change in Brisbane the sky along the river valley becomes clearer, a more intense blue which is reflected in the river's brown muddy flow. Different birds appear. This week a lone Straw-Necked Ibis patrols near the trail, searching the hardened earth with its scythe-like bill for food. Honeyeaters chirp piercingly as they hop among the drooping leaflets of the Allocasuarinas along river's edge. Mudlarks, Butcher Birds, Magpies, Currawongs, Brush Turkeys are the usual fare but watching quietly there's always a constant movement of small birds in the bushes and branches overhead.

I've seen the lone Ibis for several days now. It wanders the grassland searching for food. Straw-Necked Ibis are the most common Ibis species in Australia and normally live in huge colonies sometimes numbering up to 200,000 birds. Frith's bird book describes the cacophony when such large numbers get together as 'deafening in volume' (1976:89) as well as flattening the bushes all around with their bulk.

With the story of their communal living arrangements, a lone Ibis seems out of the ordinary. But the Frith says that young can wander from the nest at three weeks so perhaps this is simply a juvenile bird who's wandered off.

Just a short distance away the Straw-Neck's cousin, the White Ibis is flourishing. Normally White Ibis feed in waterways but the drought has brought flocks into the cityscape where they ferret in rubbish dumps and along nature strips. As they become urbanised, their stunning white plumage turns a dull grey. People say, 'look at those dirty birds, aren't they horrible' and shoo away what were and are still wondrous feathered beauties.

The ABC site Scribbly Gum calls these city dwellers 'bold' as the birds have learnt that humans are repositories of tasty snacks and so they may rob humans of their lunch as they patrol city parks and cafe areas on the lookout for someone with food. This inquisitiveness has led local residents to call them 'pests'. The media reports an Ibis 'invasion'. And this negative stereotype is just part of their problem.

According to Sydney-based Ibis researcher, Ursula Munro, city flocks of Ibis can grow so large that the pressure on local food, nesting sites including the build up of faeces becomes so great, they eventually overdo it. Then along comes local Councils with eradication programs.

The researchers say that programs which destroy the nesting sites or prevent eggs from hatching might actually have a more serious long-term effect. If the drought continues and more and more Ibis make their home in the city, and if more and more residents call for the birds' removal, then these once abundant regal birds who ruled the inland waterways will be under severe threat.

The Brisbane City Council maintains that White Ibis are harmful environmentally, socially and economically. Environmentally large numbers put added pressure on native animals and local vegetation. Socially they 'may reduce the recreational value of parks and public areas. The main issues of concern are smell, noise, unsightliness and defecation'. But of course, this definition of 'socially' is human-centred. The Ibis's view might be completely different. Ibis are known to be very gregarious, so perhaps they are simply hungry and nosey at the same time. Economically they are seen to be problematic as cleaning up after these supposed messy creatures can be costly.

Seen as a problem in contemporary society, it was not always so. In fact they were regarded as sacred.

According to fossil records, Ibis are 60 million years old. Sacred Ibis, similar to White Ibis, were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as the god Thoth who wears the head of this sacred bird with a bill reminiscent of the crescent moon. It's said that Thoth invented hieroglyphics. Perhaps this development may have been in communion with the Sacred Ibis. As a result, this clever and adaptable bird was considered a symbol of wisdom because of an image of its quill-like shaped bill dipping into ink.

Ibis were also venerated for their power of protecting the land from plagues and serpents. Since then they have been very useful in agriculture for keeping crop-damaging pests at bay - although more recently, this role has brought the additional hazard of contact with damaging pesticides.

The NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change booklet on Ibis states that 'Australian White Ibis are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Their long-term presence in the landscape is reflected in Indigenous Culture and stories across Australia. For thousands of years ibis have been sacred to communities, and an indicator of environmental wellbeing.' (Legoe and Ross, 2007). But, the sustained drought has brought tremendous pressure on inland wetlands and over recent years numbers of birds have dropped substantially.

The booklet laments the decline stressing the importance of waterbirds as a significant indicator of healthy wetlands ecosystems, while the population health of nesting colonies' is indicative of the vitality of the wetlands they inhabit'. Thus the recent influx of Ibis into the city seems not to augur well for the future health of neither Ibis population nor wetland.

Once the Sacred Ibis was the indicator of the health of the land in its role as protector of crops from plague and serpent in ancient Egypt. But sadly the birds have not been able to protect themselves from human intervention, and Middle Eastern Sacred Ibis are now in danger.

Meeting birds along the trail lead me on all sorts of pathways. I thank the inspiration of the lone Straw-Necked Ibis who inspired this blog.

Frith HJ, Ed, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd., Surry Hills, NSW.
Legoe C and G Ross, 2007, NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, Wild About Ibis: Living with Urban Wildlife, Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW.

Friday, April 11, 2008

River and the Deities

The river valley sits shrouded in fog. Outside the valley the sun glows.

In other places, other cultures and other religions, the river is the Goddess. Likewise, the living spirits of rivers are depicted as deities, for instance, as snake, python, anaconda, dragon. Frequently, these deities are female perhaps because the element of water is regarded as a feminine essence embodying 'life, birth and rebirth, creation and creativity, but also with death and oblivion' (Parente-Čapková, 2006).

The question then arises, does the Brisbane River and the downstream embayment Moreton Bay, have a feminine or goddess quality? In a contemporary sense, and in relation to Goddess spirituality, practitioners might honour the River as a Goddess and through this honouring and ritualising, seek protection for the ecosystem and creatures who live along the watery terrain.

In India river Goddesses like the sacred Ganga and Yamuna are under severe threat. I have written previously in this blog about the insightful book with the difficult message by David Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution (2006), which stories the Goddess Yamuna who flows in the upper reaches of the Ganges. The river is both a river of death - and a river of love.

Both the Ganges and the Yamuna are believed to be spiritually pure but both are in appalling physical shape with raw sewerage, industrial and agricultural runoff, toxics and heavy metals flowing through these vital waterways. These rivers are the Goddess. Spiritually they are divine, reverential, beautiful. Devotees worship the Goddess by immersing themselves in Her sacred flow or conducting ritual washing in Her sacred waters. Yet sadly, while doing so, they are facing serious waterborne diseases and the risk of contact with toxic chemicals.

Sathya Gosselin (nd) in her paper Pollution and Ganga Ma writes of the Ganges or Ganga, as the great mother who 'mercifully provides for the people each year with her swelling monsoon ... Indians receive her with great blessings and appreciation; village farmers benefit greatly from the fertile silt and soil that the great Ganga leaves behind. Seasonal flooding leaves small pools and lakes (jhils) that are diverted to irrigate crops in an otherwise dry land ...[She] speaks life, renewal, and fertility...'. But, says Gosselin, she is being assaulted.

Gosselin's article talks about the problems in India of first, defining the term 'pollution', second, explaining what's happened to the vast amounts of funding directed to the Ganges' clean up campaign, and third, the frustration of local residents not consulted about the river's management plans.

She says that the very term pollution is problematic when the river Herself is spiritually pure but suffering from impurities. Gosselin cites the anthropologist Kelly Alley (1994) who grapples with this dichotomy - the spiritual versus the westernised resource management approach. For devotees, 'the Ganga can never be impure' (1994:130). She is a powerful force and can carry the impurities and pollution 'away into the ocean'. In this comment Alley recognises that the Goddess is believed to have the power to transform impurities and offer absolution whether spiritual and/or physical and this includes body wastes. It has thus been so.

This cultural difference in ways of seeing (and revering) sacred water brings me back to the Brisbane River and the contemplation of Goddess spirituality. There are a number of possible modes of thought and action worth reflecting on. For instance, in a (post/most)modern world there is a view that anything (or almost anything) goes. So in this perspective it may not really matter what the river is called as long as it is cared for. Indeed, regarding the river as a Goddess might very well engender an ethic of greater care and concern among residents and if so, acknowledging the sacredness of the water's tidal flow and its downstream embayment can be seen as a positive move.

On the other hand there is the spectra of cultural appropriation. Goddess spirituality as it is practised in Australia is one of a number of emergent religions connected to the spread of interest in earth-based spirituality, feminism, Paganism and the New Age movement. But indigenous cultures including Native Americans and Aboriginal people have rejected these individualised New Age spiritual movements not only because they tend to romanticise indigenous cultures, particularly the spiritual and ecological lifeways, but also due to practitioners borrowing, stealing or misappropriating sacred rituals and sacred beliefs.

Christina Welch (2002) criticises New Agers for buying and selling these precious practices saying that they are simply reaffirming capitalist consumer culture. She comments that they lack an active political engagement in, and understanding of, the plight of indigenous peoples, while at the same time, she maintains that indigenous people should not be defined solely as the 'victims' of cultural appropriation concluding that: 'The colonialist presentation is refuted by indigenous agency in the dynamic of cultural growth' (2002:35).

My view falls somewhere in between. Embrace the River Goddess on one end of the spectrum or condemn cultural appropriation at the other. While I would find it difficult to overlay an indigenously-venerated waterway with a Goddess-inspired spirituality from ancient and/or distant lands, I can see that others might revere the local river with a spiritual demeanour which reflects their own cultural heritage.

For example, Bryne et al (2006) in their article 'Enchanted Parklands' cite a wonderful story of a Vietnamese-Australian living around the Georges River in SW Sydney who regards the river as the embodiment of a sacred dragon and defines locations along the river in terms of the dragon's anatomy.

In this light, the Brisbane River could be re-inscribed as Goddess and worshipped by those whose spirituality is defined as Goddess spirituality.

Alley KD, 1994, 'Ganga and gandagi: interpretation of pollution and waste in Benaras,' Ethnology, Spring, 33, 2.
Byrne D, H Goodall, S Wearing and A Cadzow, 2006, Enchanted Parklands, Australian Geographer, 37, 1, 103-115.
Gosselin S, nd, Ganga Ma, paper prepared for the Goddess Traditions in India and Tibet seminar at Vassar College,
Haberman DL, 2006, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parente-Čapková V, 2006, Narcissuses, Medusas, Ophelias...Water Imagery And Femininity In The Texts By Two Decadent Women Writers, Wagadu, 3, Spring,
Welch C, 2002, Appropriating the Didjeridu and the Sweat Lodge: New Age Baddies and Indigenous Victims? Journal of Contemporary Religion, 17, 1, 21-36.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Downstream, it's a long way down

Sylvie Shaw

The mouth of the Brisbane River was carefully hidden from the early explorers. The entrance was narrow, sheltered by Fisherman's Island, tangled rain forest, a tightness of mangroves and the huge spreading Moreton Bay Fig. It was as if, states one historical account of the river, '[n]ature herself seemed to have made certain that the river would never be found' (ABC, 2008).

It is said that the explorer John Oxley 'saw such beauty that it took his breath away.' Oxley was so staggered by the lushness and fecundity of flourishing colour that he wrote:

'From the giant trees hung vines and creepers of every description, staghorns by the thousands jostled for space with the wild passionflowers. And here and there extra dark green patches of palms and giant fern forests were sprinkled with the delicate colours of thousands of orchids. And on the river itself Oxley’s boat glided through millions of pink and white water lilies' (ABC, 2008).

The Fishing Monthly laments this spectacle of disappeared and disappearing beauty, saying: 'It's hard to believe that the Brisbane River, as recently as 170 years ago, was lined with rainforest, clear running creeks, and teemed with fish and wildlife beyond your imagination' (Lee, nd).

The results of such drastic environmental change can be seen in research on water quality. The SE Queensland Healthy Waterway study on ecosystem health of the Brisbane River estuary states that water quality is 'generally poor' due, in part, to the concentration of nutrients from sewage and stormwater runoff which flows straight into the precious mangrove-encased Moreton Bay.

Along with the damage to the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay ecosystems, many of Australia's rivers, estauries and embayments are in trouble, none more so than the Murray Darling Basin and the end of its long and seemingly arduous flow, the wondrous Coorong on Australia's southern shore.

In 2006 The Age newspaper declared the Coorong 'dead'. The article began:

'To witness the death of a beautiful, wild creature would be torture enough for most lovers of nature. To witness the decline of a beautiful, wild ecology along a fabled stretch of Australia's coast has been the excruciating duty of biologist David Paton for 20 years' (Chandler 2006).

It's hard to imagine that a river can stop flowing. That birds now stroll across the mud where once a sacred river ran. This situation was highlighted in a recent blog from Angry Pengiun (April 2008) who documented the sad plight of waterbirds as well as other deleterious effects along the Coorong.

'The swans were walking in the river. Yes, walking. In fact I walked in the river – quite a long way across dry mud to photograph a group of perplexed-looking ducks and pelicans sitting on an island that did not used to be there.'

In contrast, early settler accounts of the Coorong described 'vast flocks of waterfowl [that] once blackened the skies over this world-renowned South Australian wetland' (Chandler, 2007). But now water bird numbers have dwindled. Fish species are missing. Extinct perhaps.

Coorong researcher David Paton says that a major cause is the lack of environmental flows. 'Sure,' he says, 'you’ll have a Coorong with water in it, but it … isn’t going to go back to what it was.' (Chandler, 2007). Elsewhere he says: 'Wetland systems deteriorate without environmental flows... [The] Coorong had capacity to cope with drought – but not an extended period of no flow.'

The Brisbane River flows. Slowly. Windingly. Tidally. Breathe the tides flowing in the water, salt to fresh, ocean to river, moon to ocean to river to flow.

Angry Penguin, 2008, Coorong so wronged,, April 7, 2008.
Australia's Centenary of Federation, 2001, Oxley's Discovery Of The Brisbane River, ABC, April 19, 2001.
Chandler J, 2006, The Coorong is dead. What's taking its place? The Age, Jan 21, 2006.
Chandler J, 2007, The Great Coorong – A Biological Barometer, The Age, Jan 29, 2007. Found on:
Lee M, nd, The Brisbane River, Fishing Monthly,
Paton D, nd, Lessons Learned from the Coorong. Powerpoint presentation,

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wild, Rivers and Reciprocal Flow

Sylvie Shaw

The wild is a place, a way to be, a process (i.e. to go wild) and a perception about what happens when wild land and wild waters are paved over, smothered or pulverised. This blog touches on some of the integral viewpoints of the effects of wild and wilderness.

Drastic changes along the river, and to the river's ecosystem, have been largely directed by developers responding to government strategies for the need to house the growing population in, and migration to, S.E. Queensland. In this action drama, the Brisbane River and its environs take centre stage as the target for transformation. Bushland, mangroves, water quality and water flow are affected, while river creatures, fish, snakes, birds, bats and insects, are forced to make way for a human population, many of whom are increasingly seeking river views, or even 'river glimpses' (quote from recent real estate advertisements).

The actors in this river drama are the residents, water users and water policy makers for whom the river seems not to have rights outside of human use, not even the right to its own water. These actors define water in anthropocentric terms, as a resource and development magnet that bypasses intrinsic value and extends storey after concrete storey high into the sky and along the river edge. As a result, the river, its tidal flow and its wild heart are covered with an economically-driven canopy.

Thus, in this era of rapid growth, there is little room for salvation of beauty, redemption of aesthetics, preservation of natural capital or for holding onto biodiversity outside of human use. Sustainable development seems a forgotten concept.

To explore these notions a little further, I have recently re-visited the work of wonderful Native Canadian novelist Jeanette Armstrong. In her article in Roszak, Gomes and Kanner (1995) titled 'Keepers of the Earth', Armstrong describes the image of non-indigenous people portrayed by her grandparents. They saw white settlers as being out of place, wild and insane, similar concepts to the way that early settlers regarded indigenous people.

For example in Australia, colonialists referred to Aborigines as ‘indolent in the extreme, squalid and filthy in their surroundings’, as well as ‘disgustingly impure amongst themselves’ (in Reynolds, 1987:108). Overtones of this attitude still exist today. Aboriginal people continue to be shown in the media as either drunk and violent (wild), sitting in the dirt surrounded by mangy dogs (dirty), or painted up and dancing for tourists (marginal objects). They remain in this picture, a people without agency compelled to live in a static past.

To illustrate the impact of these changes place and person, the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1988) cites an Aboriginal elder and one of her Yarralin informants, Daly Pulkara, as saying that once white settlers arrived and began to irrevocably alter the land, it became 'wilderness', i.e. man-made, cattle-grazed, mined, desacralised. It became a place, in Aboriginal eyes, where 'life is absent'.

These examples highlight the difference between the way indigenous cultures perceive wild land and wild people and the way non-indigenous western cultures construct notions of the wild and wilderness. For an indigenous culture which has lost sacred land, or has been removed from country, there is a parallel between the dismemberment and despiriting of the land and the despiriting of identity.

Aboriginal people are born into an obligatory relationship with the land where caring for country is part of their reciprocal responsibility to place and community. In light of this sacred relationship, Rose (in another article) comments:‘To be in connection is to take care and to be cared for’ (Rose, 2006). Re-memorializing and resacralizing the land through ritual and other community-spiritual processes might create a re-memorying of sacred connection between people and place.

Taking care and being cared for are also qualities which have emerged from research into non-indigenous wilderness experiences. Although there are a number of studies into the significance and spirituality of wilderness experiences, particularly on the role of wilderness in therapy, self-development and revitalisation of youth 'at risk' (e.g. the TV series Brat Camp), there is little research on the emotional and spiritual effects of nature engagement in urban areas, such as along the Brisbane River, and limited studies on how people connect with nature in their daily lives, whether in urban or rural areas.

This research is crucial as without it planners, officials and developers can cover over green spaces and lop down suburban trees leaving less opportunity in the cityscape for nourishing the human spirit (physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual).

In comparison with a generation ago, urban dwellers have less everyday contact with the natural world. This is driven by an increasing involvement in the virtual world, widespread consumerism, intensification of the built environment, and a decline of public open spaces. Accompanying this external change, there may be a corresponding shift in consciousness and attitudes about the environment.

By this I mean that if city dwellers are removed from nature, if they don't know the intricacies of seasonal changes, if they have not fallen for the tidal movements, the glittering water, the delicate bird song, or tuned into the nuances along the river for instance, how and why would we expect them to want to protect this place?

Without solid Australian research on spiritual and psychological effects of nature connectedness and nature disconnection there is only limited evidence from which to argue for the preservation and expansion of wild city spaces. And without regular and direct sensual engagement with the natural world, people may not make the link between the lack of nature in their lives and their own wellbbeing and the wellbeing of the environment.

Nature in city environments is so familiar we may take it for granted. But it is being whittled away little by little, so we may not notice the change until it is too way late. Get out into nature and help save the earth.

Armstrong J, 1995, 'Keepers of the Earth,' in T. Roszak, ME Gomes, & AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Bird DB, 1988, 'Aboriginal Land Ethic,' Meanjin, 47, 3, 378-387
Bird DB, 2006, 'What if the Angel of History were a Dog?', Cultural Studies Review: Environments and Ecologies. 12, 1, 67-78.
Reynolds H 1987, Frontier: Aboriginal Settlers and Land. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth Temple

Sylvie Shaw

Earth, The Forgotten Temple (2004) is the title of a book which addresses the deep religious connection that nature brings. Author Niki Collins-Queen was a counsellor but put her career on hold to explore her deepening relationship to nature and God. Her church is the outdoors, the mountain top and the backyard.

In an article called 'Author finds God and spirituality in nature', Collins-Queen talks about how she unravelled her life on a spiritual quest going hiking, sailing, canoeing, often on lone adventures in wilderness settings. Her quest was answered on a solo trip to the mountains when she called for God to reveal Himself. She says: 'There was no doubt in my mind. ...I had experienced the presence of God, ... a loving energy permeating everything.' Following that experience, she saw God in all aspects of nature, in rivers, trees, plants, and animals (Judd, 1999).

In much of the research on people's wilderness experiences an event such as a spiritual awakening, an epiphany, or a feeling of oneness with the universe and with all things, is a frequent observation (e.g. Frederickson and Anderson, 1999; John Davis, 2006). People report a heightened sense of awareness and insight, a sense of mystery about the world, awe and wonderment in the face of the earth's power or nature's breathtaking beauty, a profound feeling of transcendence (within and without), a belief in a power greater than oneself, and a deep humility.

Nature spirituality, or 'awesome' experiences in wild nature sparkle with feelings of joy, empowerment, inner peace and hope. They promote physical and emotional well-being and encourage changes in attitude and behaviour (R. Fox, 1999; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Importantly, as the marvellous Native American author Linda Hogan (1995:3) reminds us, meaningful encounters in the wild can lead to ‘a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in [the] way of being and living in the world’.

Wilderness is not the only place for such transformative events, in fact, epiphanies or deep spiritual transitions can occur almost anywhere and in everyday life. For transpersonal thinker Abraham Maslow researching in the 1960s, they were 'peak' experiences; Rudolph Otto in the early 20th century might have reflected they were 'ideas of the holy', while for psychology pioneer William James, they were, to use the title of his book, 'varieties of religious experience'.

James argues that the heart of all religious experiences is grounded in subjective, individual experiences of Divinity or God. This definition marked a distinction between religion, often defined in terms of doctrine, dogma, hierarchy, institution, and spirituality, a more personal expression of relationship with the sacred. It is from this individualised connection with the Divine that the myths, rituals, teachings, texts and religious organisation emerge.

South Australian academic and author of The Earth Bible project, Norm Habel has considered the import of spiritual and religious experiences suggesting they can be divided into two streams - the numinous and the mystical (Habel et al, 1993). Numinous experiences are bound up with awe-full feelings of 'the otherness and power' of the sacred deity, while within the mystical, perceptions of ‘otherness’ disappears leaving a sensation of oneness and interconnection.

But I wonder if this distinction between the numinous and the mystical is made a little too strongly. Rather than a division between them, there might be more of a continuum. Both can be religious, spiritual or peak experiences which can be seen and experienced as moments of supreme transcendence or powerful self-transcendence. Throughout my research on nature carers (e.g. see Shaw, 2004) and sea-carers (Shaw, forthcoming 2008), I have interviewed several environmental activists and other deeply nature-connected individuals who say they are atheist and yet describe the feeling of oneness from encounters in mountain and ocean wilderness. Some call these powerful experiences 'real epiphanies' as if, at least in this culture, we lack the poetic, lyrical, passionate or sensuous language to explain the sense of mystery or unity with all things.

Other authors, in explaining these feelings as self-transcendence or transcendent experiences in nature, also define the perceptual limitations of western cultural binary construction which splits human from nature. Instead they describe the permeability, movement and interconnectedness between people and the natural world as an expansion of body boundaries, or as a merging of body into body, the human body with the body of the earth.

This expansive sense of self or identity is termed a variety of expressions, for example, Joanna Macy (1995) and Arne Naess (1988) celebrate the ‘ecological self’, Roger Walsh refers to the ‘transpersonal’ self (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993); for Warwick Fox (1995) it's the ‘cosmological self’; deep ecologist Bill Devall (1988) suggests ‘Gaea consciousness’; Ted Roszak (1992) explores the ‘ecological unconscious'; Adrian Harris (1998) reveres the ‘Goddess consciousness’; Mathew Fox seeks the 'cosmic Christ', while Druid Priestess Emma Restall Orr (1998) simply links ‘spirit to spirit’.

All these terms emerge from varied discourses: deep ecology (Macy, Devall, Naess), transpersonal psychology (Walsh, W. Fox) ecopsychology (Roszak), Paganism (Harris, Orr), and Christianity (M. Fox). All share an understanding that we are part of nature not above or apart from it and all involve some notion of an expansive sense of self that comes about by connecting with nature. They might differ in emphasis but the underlying outlook is the same. If the earth is to be protected and healed, there has to be some recognition of the power of the natural world and our intimate connection with it.

Perhaps then, this blog's focus is to develop a river consciousness, river-self or river identity where the water's flow reflects the movement of our lives and the tidal shifts become a pattern for the changes we experience. An expanded sense of river-self brings a sense of kinship with the river, its creatures and surroundings. Being within the riverscape one finds insight and inspiration, personal renewal, and renewal of commitment to the earth. It is an embodied creative force that weaves and is woven through our imagination, through music, poetry, dance, dreams and experiences of the mystical, numinous and spiritual kind.

Collins-Queen N, 2000, Earth, The Forgotten Temple, Impala Press.
Davis J, 2008, Wilderness Rites of Passage: Initiation, Growth, and Healing,
Devall B. 1988, Simple in Means, Rich in Ends. Practicing Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith Books.
Fox, M. 1988, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of Global Renaissance. Melbourne: Collins Dove.
Fox R, 1999, Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs”, in JC Miles and S Priest (eds.) Adventure Programming. State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Fox W, 1995, Towards A Transpersonal Psychology. Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Fredrickson LM and DH Anderson, 1999, A qualitative explorationof the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration.Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 21-39.
Habel N C, 1993, Religious Experience, in NC Habel et al, Eds. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred. Underdale, S.A: University of South Australia, & Texts in Humanities, University of South Australia.
Hogan L, 1995, [Interview with] ‘Linda Hogan’”, in D Jensen, Ed., Listening to the Land. Conversations about Nature, Culture and Eros. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Judd P, 1999, Author finds God and spirituality in nature,, Forsyth, Monroe County, GA, December 8, 1999
Kaplan R and S Kaplan, 1989, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
James W, 1997, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Touchstone Books.
Macy J. 1989, Awakening to Ecological Self, in J Plant, Ed., Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.
Maslow AH, 1994, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, Penguin Books.
Orr ER, 1998, Spirits of the Sacred Grove. The World of a Druid Priestess. London: Thorsons.
Roszak T, 1992, The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Otto R, 1917, 1923, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press.
Shaw S, 2004, Wild Spirit, Active Love, in L de Angeles, ER Orr,T van Dooren, (eds), Pagan Visions For A Sustainable Future. St Paul, MI, Llewelyn.
Shaw S, 2008, forthcoming, Deep Blue Religion, in S Shaw and A Francis, Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London, Equinox.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Place: The Sense of Spiritual Home

Knowing place reflects an intimacy with the elements of that place, the trees, the animals, the human visitors and, in the case of this blog, the Brisbane River. American nature writer, novelist and preservationist Wallace Stegner (1992) says that: 'Your province is not the wilderness, where the individual makes contact with the universe, but the farm, the neighborhood, the community, the town, the memory of the past, and the hope of the future—everything that is subsumed for you under the word 'place'.

Along the river, away from the road and signs of the city, the tall trees shimmer with the song and dance of birds. Flashing past overhead, in colours of red and green, the King Parrots are being pursued by a small gang of Noisy Mynahs. Miniscule pardalotes parade daintily on narrow branches above the water, while the blue-winged Forest Kingfisher fossicks among the leafy bushes, purring and gurgling as it searches for tasty treats. And right in front of me, the jauntily-dressed black and white Willie Wagtail wiggles its tail feathers back and forth as it hops from branch to branch as if leading the way. Watch out! The Brush turkeys scatter as runners zip past. Dogs bark, straining on their leashes to follow them. The river is brimming with life and movement.

Getting to know place is a joyous adventure. It involves making friends with the locals, human and animal, observing the changes in the light, the colour of water, the shifting seasons, the cycle of flowers and seeds, and the changing tapestry of hues. All these events, sights and sounds effectively bring me home to place.

Steven Galliano and Gary Loeffler are landscape architects in the US who have studied the connection between sense of place and attitudes to the ecosystem. In their paper Place Assessment: How People Define Ecosystems (1999), they recognize the significance of place attachment, saying it acts as a link between human and ecosystem as well as between social experiences and geographical regions (bio-regions).

According to Galliano and Loeffler, the concept of sense of place is individualistic, a subjective yet shared experience at once emotional and symbolic, which can define an individual, a community or a culture. Sense of place brings meaning to the lives of visitors and residents alike, affecting them in various ways from the physical to the spiritual. Feelings of attachment, allurement and love emerge as people engage with local places, reflect on their memories of place, tell stories of their childhood connections - the cubbies they built, the fish they caught, the trees they climbed, and track their life changes through the changes to place.

Even if we've never visited a particular place we can still value it for its symbolic resonance, its wilderness quality and its spiritual attributes and join with others to fight for its protection and survival. Yet these values are often bypassed in resource management practices as such practices are geared to defining places as 'resources' rather than, or in addition to, places which have meaning and can make meaning.

Galliano and Loeffler call for a different way for resource managers to make decisions about place. Place management and place attachment seem poles apart when development, mining or logging intervene. Different groups of stakeholders value places from differing and often clashing worldviews but it's not worldviews that are weighed up in resource management decisions. Their focus is on the physical, the objective, the measurable. Thus concepts like affinity and attachment to place which embrace emotional, symbolic and spiritual dimensions are neglected, and in many cases, rejected as being unscientific, subjective and weak.

As a consequence, the social and spiritual impacts of decisions can result in a strengthening of social/community capital as whole communities may decide to join together to defend what they regard as their place, or our place. Shared meanings about place become shared meanings about attempts to despoil that place.

Meanings about place can be classified in four main ways: (i) scenic-aesthetic; (ii) activity-goals, based on conventional resource management practices (iii) cultural-symbolic, representing emotional and spiritual dimensions; and (iv) individual-expressive, reflecting personalised or individualised meanings about place. Galliano and Loeffler suggest these themes can be used to better qualify management decisions and the likely impacts of those decisions. Using holistic principles, resource managers can more effectively map 'the interactive unity of people and place' (Clark, 1971), taking into account the multiplicity of values about places, not only the economic and/or the ecological.

Resource management processes and environmental impact assessments as they are currently structured often fail to address the intangible non-empirical values and shared experiences of individuals and communities. Galliano and Loeffler mention that one of these unmeasurables is compassion for both natural and cultural qualities of the place.

The Brisbane River and its natural environs is a place of values in conflict where management practices are based on conventional rather than holistic methodologies. I call such approaches 'neo-conservationist' as they attempt to conserve with conservativism. Rather than applying the precautionary principle of first do no harm, the neo-conservationist stance conserves use values over their counterpart, the intrinsic, aesthetic, symbolic and spiritual values, even if these values are founded on scientific evidence, indigenous ecological knowledge or archeological research.

What matters most? Biodiversity or a river view? A place to fish or a place where fishers are repelled? A place to clear or a place to log sustainably and look after? Techno-managerial solution oriented approaches may overlook the nuances inherent to these questions. A sustainable community can have both biodiversity and aesthetics, fishing and rivercare, urban forests and sustainable development.

Knowledge and understanding are key characteristics of resource management but perhaps, following Galliano's and Loeffler's research into place attachment, qualities of wisdom, insight and compassion should be added, to forge a holistic method that embraces the interactive unity of people with place.

Galliano SJ and GM Loeffler, 1999, Place assessment: how people define ecosystems. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-462, Portland, OR, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. (Quigley, TM, Ed., Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project: Scientific assessment),
Stegner W, 1992, The sense of place, a letter to Wendell Berry. In: Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs: living and writing in the West. New York, Random House, Inc.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ecotherapy and City Living

Walking in nature is good for your health.

In 2007 the UK mental health charity known as Mind released the results of a study into the health effects of nature connecting. The study was conducted specifically on the impact of green exercise among people with mental health problems and involved a comparison between ecotherapy - a walk in the country and retail therapy - a walk in an indoor shopping centre.

There was a startling difference between the two environments, natural, outdoor and constructed, indoor. 71 percent of participants reported a decrease in depression after walking in the country; they felt less tense and had higher self-esteem. In contrast, walking in the shopping centre led to 22 percent reporting an increase in depression, 33 percent felt no change, and half said their levels of tension had increased. Paradoxically, an equal number of respondents, 44.5 percent, said their mood had improved at the shopping centre while the others' mood had worsened.

There is substantial evidence to show that exercise in outdoor environments enhances physical and mental health. In Mind's survey, 90 percent of respondents claimed it was the combination of nature and exercise that made the difference.

In an article titled Conserving Land; Preserving Human Health, Howard Frumkin and Richard Louv (2007) argue that there is an effective relationship between public health outcomes and the provision of green spaces. They outline that connecting with nature is a significant indicator of positive health and quality of life, while a lack of green spaces can lead to poorer outcomes in both health and life quality.s

Making a plea for an increase in public parks especially in urban areas, Frumkin and Louv state: 'We need to promote land conservation as a way to advance public health, both for people today and for future generations.' Theirs is a widespread all encompassing dream that embraces the future for earth and humanity.

'More than anything, we need a vision of healthy, wholesome places, a vision that extends from densely settled cities to remote rural spreads, from the present to the future, from the most fortunate among us to the least fortunate, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. ... Such places will promote our health, enhance our well-being, nourish our spirits, and steward the beauty and resources of the natural world.'

In this picture spirituality and aesthetics go hand in hand with urban planning, resource management, public health policy and the provision of open natural places in urban areas. Its intention is to create healthy cities and healthy populations.

This issue is also at the forefront of a study by the CSIRO into the links between greening the city and a healthy population. Australia is 'one of the most urbanised countries in the world' with most people living in urban and suburban communities (Pyper, 2004) and the recent rush for development has placed 'enormous pressure' on present and future sustainability. The CSIRO study Greener Cities, Healthier People cites overseas studies which demonstrate that greenspaces provide 'environmental, economic and quality of life benefits for individuals and local communities'.

The World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be the second greatest cause of global ill health by 2020. The test is whether planners and politicians in Brisbane and elsewhere take heed of the research and implement the dream of Frumkin and Louv to protect environmental quality and as a result, to protect and promote public health.

Frumkin H and R Louv, 2007, Conserving Land, Conserving Health, Land Trust Alliance,
Mind, 2007, Ecotherapy – the green agenda for mental health, London, Mind,
Pyper W, 2004, Do greener cities mean healthier people?, National Year of the Built Environment - 2004, Ecos, Apr-June, 9-11,

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ecopsychological Spirit

The Brisbane River is undergoing tremendous changes along its banks. According to criticism from Associate Professor Peter Skinner of The University of Queensland, the state government has been ''suckered into' allowing developers ... to treat the Brisbane River as if it were a 'vacant lot'' (Robinson, 2008).

What I'm reminded of here are the lyrics of the poignant Joni Mitchell song, revived recently by Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi:

'Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'

These types of changes to the urban river environment not only alter ecosystem flows, reduce tree canopy, and destroy bird, insect and animal havens, they also create an inner disturbance which the practical and academic field of ecopsychology seeks to assist. Irrevocable changes to the natural environment, especially to places where we may have grown up, can cause psychological trauma, grief and deep deep concern (Bohm, 2003; Windle, 1995).

In recognition of the personal, emotional and even spiritual impacts of environmental devastation, and in contrast, to promote the role of nature in human health and wellbeing, the Australian Psychological Association has developed a position statement, Psychology and the Natural Environment.

Authored by Joseph Reser and others, the document recommends that in light of 'the urgency and magnitude of the environmental issues and problems' ... intervention by 'psychologists requires much greater attention, visibility, strategic cross-disciplinary collaborations, and concerted effort.'

There are a range of practical eco-psychological approaches towards combatting the depressing impacts of environmental despair as well as enhancing human health and wellbeing. The pioneer ecopsychologist Sarah Conn makes a strong connection between personal psychological issues and broader ecosocial concerns. She works with individuals to enhance mental health and wellbeing together with an awareness and action program towards sustainability (of earth and self). This involves an immersion in the natural world.

In David Suzuki's wondrous television program The Sacred Balance, Sarah Conn takes Suzuki into the forest and explains to him the process of connecting simultaneously with forest with self with forest. Conn says: 'The key to motivating environmentally sound behavior, from an ecopsychological standpoint, is to enhance the human experience of connection with the non-human world - creating opportunities for experiencing an expanded sense of identity.'

To unearth this expanded sense of identity, or eco-identity, linked within The Sacred Balance website is a practical exercise called Soul Tracking. First there's a very short questionnaire about place which then leads to some suggestions about how to connect with one's place in order to develop or deepen a relationship with that place.

Initially there is an awakening of the senses, the sounds, sights, smells of the area mixed with deep purposeful breathing. Authors of Soul Tracking, Walter Christie and Cynthia Krum, say that their process is simple. It 'involves paying attention and noticing where you are drawn. It is like following an animal's tracks in mud or snow.' What you follow is what they call a 'fascination', something in nature that you feel drawn to.

'A fascination may be a place of resonance, a feeling of familiarity. There may also be a sense of mystery, a feeling of importance of this encounter. ... Once you are drawn to an image of fascination, observe it carefully. ... While tracking, you may use questions such as: how does what I have been drawn to relate to something going on inside of me? How does my experience relate to a specific theme or issue in my life?'

Following a fascination, or in process-oriented earth-based psychology, following a flirt, and contemplating its significance lacks the notion of reciprocity which an integral dimension of ecopsychological theory and practice. What emerges in this interconnected process of reciprocity is what Sarah Conn terms 'ecological consciousness', which occurs through 'an approach to phenomena [which] is about opening to their manifestation and resonating with them, opening to the intuitive awareness that we share consciousness with plants, animals, and even rocks.'

Conn was speaking at the 2007 Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability conference where she asked the insightful question: 'As we head towards breakdown, what possibilities are emerging for breakthrough? How can each of us open to those possibilities and find our part in the breakthrough?' Part of her answer can be found in the practice of ecopsychology whose task ' is restore the experience of interconnectedness and interdependence among psychological, cultural and ecological systems.'

During her talk, Conn cited the experience of the deep ecology and Buddhist Pullitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder whose nature encounter with an Oak tree had a profound effect:

'After years of walking right past it on my way to chores in the meadow, I actually paid attention to a certain gnarly canyon live oak one day. Or maybe it was ready to show itself to me. I felt its oldness, suchness, inwardness, oakness, as if it were my own. Such intimacy makes you totally at home in life and in yourself.'

Opening to another, whether Tree, River, Flower or Bird, can affect us signficantly. Conn says that in the process we slow down, become silent and are more open to and aware of local surroundings. As a result there can be unexpected consequences. One of Conn's students remarked that: 'Presented with unseen complexity, a need for empathy, and the feeling of a greater energy at work, I felt a connection to the grass that encouraged me to give back.' Another commented: 'Being with the water allowed me to hear about movement, change, and constancy.'

The Brisbane River offers opportunities for soul tracking, an inner journey that can effect change in ourselves, and subsequently, in the environment.

Becoming aware of the intricacies of the river's aqua-system, the movement of the tides, the seasonal changes of water flow, the changing colours of plant and water, the sights and sounds of different creatures, and becoming attuned to the constancy of its flow, mesh together in a sense of curiosity and intent where responsiveness to nature leads to responsibility for nature.

Slow down, notice, feel the fascination, connect, reflect, give back. Conn comments that what emerges through an eco-connection with places in nature is an 'ecological identity, a consciousness of one's place in the ecological community' that leads to an active engagement of care.

Bohm G, 2003, Emotional reactions to environmental risks: Consequentialist versus ethical evaluation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 199 - 212.
Conn S, 2007, Psychology in a New Key: Ecopsychology and Ecological Consciousness, Paper presented to the Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, June 8, 2007.
Robinson G, 2008, Flood concerns over Brisbane River, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 24, 2008,
Windle P, 1995, The Ecology of Grief, in T Roszak, ME Gomes and AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Leisure or Essential Essence?

Shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth - a strange squwelchy, hoarsey, staccato call emerges from the tree canopy. I think it must be a fledgling Coucal rasping its call for food as I have not seen a bird like this along the river before. As I peer among the branches an adult Turkey is resting on one of the low branches overlooking the water, while young Turkeys fossick in the leaf litter below.

The early morning rain is lifting and the song of the river explodes in the sound of Kookaburras, Magpies and Noisy Mynahs. People run by with their dogs, both panting in the damp humidity. The personal trainer with a series of water bottles velroed into his belt, stops with his client to do some active sparing. Thwack twack go the boxing gloves. Muffled voices from the rowers echo up the riverbank as their coaches or coxwains urge them into faster and more coordinated rhythms. In the distance the low throaty thrum of peak hour traffic and the growl of planes overhead seems to vanish in the space of heightened awareness and sensitivity.

The river trail is a haven, a refuge from the outer life of the city. It helps people turn inward, so connecting with the river becomes both leisure activity and spiritual experience.

Two New Zealand researchers, Christopher Schmidt and Donna Little (2007) have explored the interconnection between leisure and spirit and found that people who feel their leisure experiences are spiritual experiences say they gain a renewed sense of vitality, awe and appreciation. Being in nature was 'inspirational', 'an escape' from everyday life (235), where they could feel 'more peaceful and connected', where there were 'no distractions' and 'no one to judge you' (236).

Others found an affirmation of their Christian beliefs saying they felt closer to God. One woman described the sunrise and the spreading rays of the sun as 'a great miracle being unveiled... like God stroking your face' (236).

Walking in nature and being connected to nature, even in the city, created meaning in the lives of the informants. They gained personal insight and one Buddhist practitioner said it helped her tap 'into emotions that had been lidded by modern society' (237).

Leisure activities like meditation, yoga, tai chi also enhanced the spiritual. The informants said that these and other ritual practices laid a spiritual foundation for their day, a place for 'spiritual reflection' and 'guidance' for the day; this was in addition to the exercise they gain. Schmidt and Little comment that leisure became 'a composite tapestry with multiple elements and implications' (239-240).

If natural beauty is inspirational, a significant trigger for physical, emotional and spiritual enhancement, what happens in a world where the beauty of nature is being smothered with the entrapments of postmodern society? Governmental predictions show a rise in depression and other mental illnesses, so can nature-centred leisure help?

While nature-based leisure experiences are not the only answer, the culling of trees, the plastering over of river spaces, the consequent disappearance of birds and animals, can give rise to grief and trauma about the on-going loss of place and sense of community (human and nature). As the study by Schmidt and Little has shown, nature encounters can offer individuals guidance, insight and wellbeing, an escape from their busy city-driven lives and a provide a new sense of vitality and meaning.

Schmidt C and DE Little, 2007, Qualitative Insights into Leisure as a Spiritual Experience, Journal of Leisure Research, 39, 2, 222-247.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Leaf Watching.

Young leaves along the river trail glow in the aftermath of rain. Crimson. Bronze. Copper.

As the new leaves grow they change colour due to the green pigment that is Cholorphyll. Cholorphyll is a natural molecule engaged in an intimate tango with the sun and the wider ecosystem. It is also a very clever molecule. Its role is to capture the sun's energy so that it can be harvested for use in leaf and plant growth. By absorbing the sun's energy, Chlorophyll is able to synthesise carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water and produce sugars in the form of glucose.

This whole process from energy absorption to flourishing plant life is known as photosynthesis, literally meaning 'putting together with light'. Photosynthesis is the basis for sustaining the life of all plants and, as humans and animals alike consume plants of all varieties, and as humans breathe the oxygen from trees, this wondrous eco-cycle is the basis for sustaining the life of the whole planet.

The young new growth along the river trail, the scarlet of the Callistemons, the coppery leaves of some Eucalypts and the crimsons of other gum species, have not yet been awoken to Cholorophyll's green energy. In contrast, the colour fiesta of deciduous leaves in Autumn has lost its Chlorophyll greenness and as the green fades, bountiful yellows, oranges, browns, reds and purples are revealed.

As the weather cools, the energy exchange between plant and sun begins to grow sluggish. The colour green from Chlorophyll is slowly sucked from the leaves allowing the beauty of the changing seasons to explode into multiple hues. The reds and yellows are present in the leaves all the time but are not visible until Autumn when the green from Chlorophyll slowly vanishes.

When the sun's energy withdraws and the days grow colder, the glucose stored in the leaves is transformed into myriad luscious shades of yellows (known as 'carotenoids') and reds (known as 'anthocyanins'). The brightness and intensity of the Autumn colour fiesta is based on the kinds of weather patterns experienced both before and during the withering away of the Chlorophyll molecules. Cold nights, clear sunny days and adequate soil moisture are the most favourable conditions for the most spectacular display of colour.

Jeffrey Dawson, Professor of Professor of Tree Physiology at the University of Illinois has studied the magical process of photosynthesis and comments almost with a scientifically-embedded religious fervour:

'Leaf pigments behind the flashy autumn display of color ... are much more than cellular trash. Recognizing tree colors not only for their beauty, but also for the complex and vital roles the underlying pigments play in forest function and survival, might just bring new awe and appreciation to the autumnal rite of leaf peeping.'

'New awe and appreciation' can perhaps be interpreted as a new spiritual movement of leaf watching in Autumn. While photosynthesis is the holy ritual of this new spirituality.

The River's Side

When I was in Java a few years ago staying with friends, we'd often go for a walk around dusk. The locals would ask what we were doing and where we were going. 'We're going for a walk,' we'd say. 'Where to?', they'd ask and they'd look quizzically when we replied, 'Well, no where in particular, just going for a walk.'

In Britain walking is the most popular and pleasurable activity according to a study by the Department of Transport (cited in Edensor, 2000). Fourteen percent of people who go for walks said they take them for no particular reason, while one third of those surveyed go to the countryside specifically to go walking.

In contrast, city living, overshadowed by cars, noise and de-greened spaces, does not encourage walking or other physical activity. But this changes where there are parks in a local area. One US study on women and exercise found that urban parks, especially those with natural and aesthetic amenity, are beneficial to both physical and mental health (Krenchyn, 2006).

Parks having a range of attractive scenic elements such as hills, woodlands, wide views, open spaces and water were related to the frequency of exercise. The women interviewed by researcher Kira Krenchyn spoke about the beauty of the park and its peacefulness. They noticed the changing seasons, the feel of the wind, and the aroma of grass and flowers. It reminded them of the countryside, or of their favourite places while growing up. Specifically it offered an opportunity to escape 'the chaos' of the city, to reduce stress and to be in nature.

Visiting the park was a vital part of the women's day. Significant benefits included the sense of 'freedom', the chance to meditate, to 'clear out the cobwebs', and to reflect on things going on in their lives. 'You can get away from's rewarding.'

An Australian study by Ball et al (2001) reported similar findings. Both men and women were less likely to go walking for exercise or recreation in a 'less aesthetically pleasing or less convenient environment'. Women particularly said that without company or a pet to walk with, they were less inclined to do any exercise. Further research by MacDougall et al (1997) affirmed that attractiveness is an important correlate in encouraging locals to undertake physical activity (See also Booth et al, 2000; Pretty et al, 2005).

Walking the river is more than an aesthetic experience. It is a beautiful place, it offers an opportunity for relaxation, enhanced physical and mental health and spiritual reflection. As well as the sensory and emotional benefits noted by Krenchyn, and the desire for environmental aesthetics and convenience from Ball et al, the river offers something more. This is the sense of reciprocity, of mindfulness, bound up in an ethic of care or moral duty to act on behalf of the river. To speak for the river. To act for the river. To be on the river's side.

Ball K, A Bauman, E Leslie and N Owen, 2001, Perceived Environmental Aesthetics and Convenience and Company Are Associated with Walking for Exercise among Australian Adults, Preventive Medicine, 33, 5, 434-444.
Booth ML, N Owen, A Bauman, O Clavisi and E Leslie, 2000, Social-Cognitive and Perceived Environment Influences Associated wsith Physical Activity in Older Australians, Preventative Medicine, 31, 15-22.
Edensor T, 2000, Walking in the British Countryside: reflexivity, Embodied Practices and Ways to Escape, Body and Society, 6, 3-4, 81-106.
Krenchyn K, 2006, 'The only place to go and be in the city': Women talk about exercise, being outdoors, and the meanings of a large urban park, Health and Place, 12, 4, 631-643.
MacDougall C, R Cooke, N. Owen, K. Wilson, A Bauman, 1997, Relating Physical Activity to Health Status, Social Connections and Community Facilities, Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 21, 6, 631-637.
Pretty J, J Peacock, M Sellens and M Griffin, 2005, The Mental and Physical Outcomes of Green Exercise, International Journal of Environmental Health, 15, 5, 319-317.