(Ashoona, S. Owl with a Human Face1)

1. Introduction and Soul Search: Sacred Landscapes Series

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.10 Spiritual Responses
Page
1.10.1

This seems a strange inclusion in Section 1 which so far has presented physical creations – paintings, poems, music, etc – that offer insight and appreciation of the Nature-human relationship. Often, these insights have been informed by science, but as the majority of the vertical ‘T’ of T10’s sections (2-10, ‘Consumption’ through to ‘Wastes’) is built upon science I didn’t see the need to provide a discrete Science sub-section here. On the other hand, running through much of ‘Films’ to ‘Photographs’ to ‘Articles’ has been a spiritual presence, be it faint and unfocussed, or clear and exclaimed. As such, I thought it necessary to address it directly as it seemed to inform, at least in part, much of the human-Nature response.

This said, it is a brave or foolish person who enters such waters. This ‘ocean’ is vast and complex and contradictory, and I am ill-educated and unequipped in its ways to attempt even a simple navigation. Therefore, the best I can do is offer some stimulus for thought and further exploration.

1 Ashoona, S. In Gibson, G. 2021. The Bedside Book of Birds. Bloomsbury, London, UK.

 

1. Soul Search: Sacred Lanscapes Series

Radio National, ABC, Meredith Lake 2021

 Soul Search is an excellent, wide-ranging and intelligent radio program in Australia that explores the great variety of spiritual and religious responses of people around the world and throughout history.

The Sacred Landscapes series of three, 50-minute programs was of particular interest to me as it gave a good introduction to the response of various groups and religions to Nature.

The first program – Religion and Ecology around the Pacific Sacred landscapes: religion and ecology around the Pacific – Soul Search – ABC Radio National – touches on ecology, Rationalism, Confucianism, Catholicism, the Enlightenment and the specific needs and perspectives of oceanic nations. Apart from an ecologically ill-informed and unfortunate championing of yet more burning of the Australian bush (as if this isn’t the last thing we need!), it serves as a good introduction to the topic.

(Dodd, K. Church Forest, Ethiopia)

The second episode – The Forest as Mirror and Sanctuary Sacred landscapes: the forest as mirror and sanctuary – Soul Search – ABC Radio National – is more interesting again as it takes us to Ethiopia and the tiny ‘Church Forests’, or patches of trees surrounding the churches in this massively cleared (96% cleared!) landscape (see the Tree Foundation website at the bottom of the above Radio National webpage for pictures of these oases in a parched land). This very old form of Christianity has protected the ‘forests’ around the churches as part of their spiritual heritage and even goes so far as to erect stone fences around them to try to stop further encroachment.

This religious response has joined with a scientific response and the desire for the protection of biodiversity in a sort of ‘religious/church conservation’, as Meredith Lake calls it. The ecologist who set up the modern program of protection, Meg Lowman, thinks this is a most important model for grassroots conservation in the Third World where churches can provide a structure and an entry point for the protection of Nature. It seems that these two, often presented as very different and antagonistic approaches to understanding the world – religion and science – have combined to provide a critical perspective on Nature, a recognition of ‘the other’, an other that is of merit and importance and needs to be protected.

This said, they have – obviously – been but a tiny force in the world of northern Ethiopia as witnessed by 96% of the forest being cleared. Obviously, religion and science have been almost entirely over-ridden by a complex combination of social, political and climatic factors, but not least, by the great global belief system of the modern day based on ‘worship’ of the twin-headed ‘god’: Growth and Consumption. This is manifest in various ways, but most obviously in rampant population growth (2.5% or 2 million/year on top of 72 million now) which has swept away other considerations and left nothing but little dots of trees in a bare land.

(As an interesting aside, Meg Lowman offers a personal anecdote as to why she became a tree ecologist: she was a very shy child, apparently, and could only really feel comfortable on her own ‘talking’ to the trees: a sort of curious personal spirituality as a child, leading to a life as a professional scientist as an adult).

The program then moves to a Buddhist temple within Dharug National Park, north of Sydney. Here the case is made for Buddhism and a strong relationship with the forest. It is said that Buddha lived most of his life in the forest, ‘away from greed, hatred and delusion’, and that Buddha received enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. It goes on to explain that this brand of Buddhism – Theravadin – has a forest tradition encapsulated in 13 special practices, which include things like sitting at or living at the root of a tree. Overall, the forest seems to provide a space to still the mind and free oneself from desires.

So far so good, but then the story weakens somewhat, I feel, when the monastery head, Ajahn Khemavaro, is asked more specific questions about why the forest is important and he answers that the forest is a ‘mirror’ for sending the meditator back into his mind. This worries me because it strikes me as a very extrinsic view, a secondary valuation of the forest as only a quiet deflector of thought back to the human sphere. This seems, on face value, to be little better than the trailbike rider or jet skier: Nature as a tabular rasa for our wants, but little else. If this is all the forest is, then its services can surely be just as well supplied by something like noise-cancelling headphones.

There is little solace, either, when specific questions are asked about forest protection, climate change and so forth. The only ‘answer’ provided is that everything is impermanent, transient, and we must adapt. Well, again at face value, that would mean acceptance of destruction and loss, a sort of tolerant acquiescence. Not very helpful, I think.

Episode three – Mountains and Spiritual Freedom – Sacred Landscapes: the mountains and spiritual freedom – Soul Search – ABC Radio National – is the most thoughtful of all, I found. The role of the mountain in spiritual questing, the seeking of the sacred, is explored by Thomas Michael, an expert in the ancient religion of Daoism, and Gary Khor, Grandmaster of Tai Chi.

Thomas Michael takes us on a journey through Western and Eastern traditions and says that the mountain is a vital component of all, the place where a heaven or Heaven can be approached or even reached, where there is no intervening shield of civilisation, where one is transported to a very different, non-human world. In his ‘Inferno’ Dante has us climbing Mt Purgatory to get to Heaven, and Jesus must rise from Mt Golgotha to get to Heaven. Meredith Lake fleshes this out further when she says that mountains bring a feeling of smallness to us, of great forces and great time, that induce “a kind of modesty”. This is very reminiscent of many of the paintings and poems of the Romantics (see sections 1.7 and 1.9). Again, the key to this perception is the recognition of ‘the other’ of an altered consciousness brought about by being in the mountains, a recognition of sacredness which Michael defines as “that which is kept separate”.

Gary Khor explains a more Buddhist-like approach to mountains through Tai Chi. They are a place of peace and tranquility, somewhere the mind can settle down and both recognise ‘the other’, but also “blend with the rhythm” of the world and achieve a state where difference dissolves and all becomes one. There is a possible solution here to the Buddhist problem of mirrored inwardness in which inward and outward, self and other, become irrelevant, become a harmonious whole.

Thomas Michael then explains the idea of chi, the pure material of earth and bones and sky and how Daoists believed it could be obtained in the mountains where there is no gap between Heaven and Earth. Apparently, in an interesting comparison with The Fall, the belief in Daoism that we are born perfect but lose perfection as we age, can be corrected, to a degree, by inhaling the pure chi of the mountaintops, by communing with Nature. He also observes, sadly, how hard it is to find these wild, remote mountains in the modern world.

(Daoist Temple, Mt Hua, China)

 

Of course, we can be inspired by Nature without religious belief, and even if we are of a spiritual bent, as Thomas Michael observes, “we register the sacred differently”; but, nonetheless, many do ‘register’ and this can only be good for the natural world.

Listening to this last episode in the series I was reminded of the intriguing book, ‘The Snow Leopard’, by Peter Matthiessen1. This had quite a hippy-ish vogue in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but it is far more than simple navel-gazing. Matthiessen goes to Nepal with his friend, biologist George Schaller, to study Snow Leopards and their prey, Blue Sheep. The exquisite, almost mythical Snow Leopard is a wraith-like presence throughout, as are the extraordinary mountains thrusting up into the cold, cold thin air. There are good doses of scientific method, zoology, geography, politics, travel adventure and race relations here, as well as hints of mysticism and transcendentalism. You can almost hear the prayer flags snapping in the biting mountain winds as Matthiessen and Schaller wander in this completely other world. Well worth the read, if you can find a copy, and it makes a most interesting companion to this ‘Mountains’ podcast.

(Pixabay. Snow Leopard)

 

1 Matthiessen, P. 1978. The Snow Leopard. Viking Press, New York, USA.

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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
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4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
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What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
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6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
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The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
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7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
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9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
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