‘A Review and Comparison of the Recent Writings of Iain McGillchrist, Bill Plotkin amd David Abram’ by Don Hills

 In what follows I have tried to glean the essence of these author’s understanding of the ‘pluses and minuses’ of Western culture, as it has evolved to date. Their respective highly imaginative, well researched and readable tomes –  The Master and his Emissary (2009) by Iaian McGilchrist, Nature and the Human Soul(2008) by Bill Plotkin, and Becoming Animal (2010) by David Abram – have each inspired and challenged my own world view, as well as day to day living guidelines. I’ve gathered my thoughts under three main headings – some important background information, theoretical structure of their main work, and its relevance to life today.

Background information.
It’s very important to look carefully at where these three authors are coming from, in grasping their respective messages to the world in which we live.

 Very helpful in understanding his background, is the interview he gave earlier this year (Feb 2010) to Frontier Psychiatrist on the Internet. The first question he was asked was about his change of tack, from being a scholar of English literature to doctor, and then to psychiatrist. Said Iain “Much as I loved working with literature, I began to see that the explicit approach to a work of art, which the critical process demanded, was inherently unsatisfactory. It substituted something abstract, cerebral and generalised for an entity, the whole purpose of which was to lead us into the opposite direction. The encounter between the work of art – the poem or whatever – and ourselves was not like dealing with an object, more like the encounter of two people, each unique, each embodied, each an indissoluble whole that could only be mis-represented by examining its parts.”

Iain then looked at the mind-body problem from a practical point of view, concluding “I thought I ought to train in medicine and find out for myself, in a more embodied way, what it was like when things went wrong with people’s brains and bodies, and how that affected their minds. So I wrote a book about my concerns called Against Criticism and went off to study medicine. Then after a brief spell of neurology, I went to the Maudsley to train as a psychiatrist.”  His comments on why he moved from medicine into psychiatry are also revealing – “When I was a House Physician, I remember there were all these patients who came in with chest pain. Of course we did ECGs and cardiac enzymes  – but no luck…..I remember working for the Professor of Medicine: the tests we were supposed to send for, all done on one page of A4 and half-way down the next. But no-one thought of….sitting down with them and asking about their lives, their families etc. And when I was House Surgeon it was the same, except the problem now was abdominal pain. But the same picture – loads of tests, drips, and invasive procedures: zero insight into the most common cause of abdominal pain. The psyche….”

Finally, what about his move from the NHS into private psychiatric practice, and authorship of The Master and his Emissary? “I never foresaw”, he said, “that I would end up working privately – I was completely committed to the ideal of the NHS; and to this day I do not have health insurance myself. But I could not ignore what was happening. I felt deskilled working as a psychiatrist in the NHS. A largely politically motivated, and in my view deeply mistaken, drive to marginalize the role of the psychiatrist, and with it the skills of diagnosis and appropriate treatment, has been disastrous….far too little patient contact. On top of that, I wanted freedom to be in control of my time and the way in which I worked. I knew I wanted to write the book that became The Master and his Emissary and I knew that there was no way I could do that unless I could choose to work as I do now, fitting a normal week’s work into three very long days (during which, incidentally I get as much clinical contact as I would have done in weeks in the NHS.) This gives me a fighting chance of spending the intercalated days in the library and on research.’

Bill is a depth psychologist, guide of wilderness rites, ecotherapist, author and speaker. As the founder of Animas Valley Institute (Colorado) he has, since 1981, led thousands of people through nature-based initiatory passages, including a contemporary, Western adaptation of the pan-cultural Vision Quest. Previously he had been a research psychologist, psychotherapist, rock musician, white water river guide, and mountain bike racer. His doctorate in psychology was from the University of Colorado. A seminal moment in his life, in 1979, was making a solo winter ascent of the Adirondack mountain, on the summit of which he experienced what Joseph Campbell called the ‘call to adventure’, that led him to abandon academia in search of his true calling.

The Animas Valley Institute’s mission is ‘to help people become more fully human by uncovering the mysteries of their souls – their unique way of belonging and contributing to this world – and by deepening and broadening their intimacy with the wild earth.’ This organisation ‘envisions a world in which inspired youth, true adults, and wise elders work together to create an eco-centric, just, and deeply imaginative society.’ It supports the ideals of the Great Work (Thomas Berry) and the Great Turning (Joanna Macy) by aiming to ‘assist people to become visionary leaders and artisans of cultural change.’

Perhaps the clearest way of grasping David’s background is this quote from the jacket cover of his latest book, ‘Becoming Animal’:

‘David Abram is a cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher who lectures and teaches widely on several continents. Named by Utne Reader as one of the one hundred visionaries transforming the world, he received a Lannan Literary Award for his earlier book, The Spell of the Sensuous. Director of theAlliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), Abram is an accomplished storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician who has lived and traded magic with indigenous medicine persons in Asia and the Americas. He resides with his family in northern New Mexico.’

He holds a special place in the hearts of the GreenSpirit movement for his inspiring contribution to the 2004 Annual Gathering at Leicester University. For those of us present, it was a kind of ‘threshold’ through which we passed in the development of our own eco-spiritual vision. His book ‘Becoming Animal’ promises to do? for our movement in a literary way, what he did for us by his presence among us atLeicester, six years ago.

Theoretical structure of major work

 Iain’s interest in the divided brain arose from Bogen and Sperry’s work in the 1960’s and ‘70s. They found that the right and left hemispheres interpret and create the world differently, with different modes of attention, priorities and values. But according to Iain, the early work didn’t prosper because researchers were looking for different ‘functions’ for the two halves, as if the brain were a machine with a lot of little specialised modules. Over time it was discovered that each ‘function’ was carried out in both hemispheres, and so people gave up looking for a real difference. For Iain in his study of neurology, this was obviously a false conclusion, bearing in mind the objective differences in the shape, size, neuronal architecture, neurochemistry and neuropsychology of the two hemispheres. “What I began to see,” he said in the interview with Frontier Psychiatrist “with John Cutting’s work on the right hemisphere was that the difference lay not in what they do, but how they do it.” Thus:

–          the right is capable of appreciating ambiguity, the implicit and the metaphorical, where the left tends to require certainty, the explicit and the literal,

–          the right sees the broad context and the world as a seamless whole, interconnected with itself, where the left focusses on detail and produced a lot of separate fragments,

–          the right is far more capable of understanding new information, while the left deals with the already known,

–          the right sees individuals, where the left sees categories,

–          the right realises the importance of what is intuitive and embodied (see below), where the left prioritises abstraction and rationality (rather than reason, to which both hemispheres need to contribute).”

For Iain, all of this ‘illuminated problems in the nature of human thought and experience that I had struggled with all my life, and which had been brought into focus by my study of literature.’

So where then, for him, lies the importance of the natural world? It comes through, I suggest, in his use of the term ‘embodied’. In the final chapter of The Master and his Emissary Iain notes:

‘There has, in my view, been a tendency (in the West) to discount and marginalize the importance of our embodied nature, as if it were incidental about us, rather than essential to us: our very thinking, never mind our feeling, is bound up with our embodied nature….so does the converse, that the material world is not wholly distinct from consciousness in some way that remains elusive.’ (p.439).

However, he does see some light in this puzzle when considering Oriental culture:

‘The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres……The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist in the same way in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere’ (p. 452). He then comes to the point:

‘The recognition (in Japan, for example) of absolute significance within the phenomenal world relates to the traditional Japanese love of nature. Shizen, the Japanese word for nature, also links it clearly to the right hemisphere way of thinking…..Everything about the Japanese attitude to nature, expressed both in mythology and in everyday life, suggests an attitude of mutual trust, dependence and interrelationship between man and nature.’ (p.453). Apparently shizen also refers to the ‘natural self’ – considered as a physical, spiritual and moral being.

Iain also points out that a famous Japanese anthropologist, Iwata, argues that amongst the Japanese as well as most southeast Asian people, whether formally Buddhist or Christian, there exists an ‘intuition’ (Iain’s term) of animism.

‘Everything surrounding human life, including mountains, hills, rivers, plants, trees, animals, fish and insects, has its own spirit (kami), and these spirits communicate with one another, as well as with those who live there……natural things cannot, therefore, be seen by them as merely objects, as in Western science.’ (p.453).

After considering the available evidence, Iain concludes that ‘the East Asian cultures use strategies of both hemispheres more evenly, while Western strategies are steeply skewed towards the left hemisphere. In other words, the Emissary appears to work in harmony with the Master in the East, but is in the process of usurping him in the West’! (p. 458).

NB. As further evidence for Japan’s green credentials, see the article by Chamberlain and Polley, ‘Being Green in Japan’ in the Spring 2010 GreenSpirit Journal.

Of our three major authors, Bill’s theoretical structure is easily the most detailed and worked through. The publishers of his book Nature and the Human Soul actually call it ‘A Manifesto for Personal and Cultural Transformation’ and we are told that the book ‘addresses the pervasive longing for meaning and fulfilment at this time of crisis’ and that it ‘introduces a visionary ecopsychology of human development that reveals how fully and creatively we can mature when soul and wild nature guide us.’ His manifesto/model is based on three premises:

1.      That a more mature human society requires more mature human individuals.

2.      That nature (including our own deeper nature, soul) has always provided, and still provides the best template for human maturation.

3.      That every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood.

Regarding this ‘maturity’, Bill tells us:

‘Western civilization has buried most of (its) mystical roots, yet this knowledge has been at the heart of every indigenous tradition known to us, past and present, including those from which our own societies emerged’ (p 3).

He goes on to say that his book is basically asking the question – ‘what do the stages of modern human development look like when we grow, in each stage,  with nature and soul as our primary guides?’ His answer is an eight-stage model which shows ‘how we can take root in a childhood of innocence and wonder; sprout into an adolescence of creative fire and mystery-probing adventures; blossom into an authentic adulthood of cultural artistry and visionary leadership; and finally ripen into a seed-scattering elderhood of wisdom, grace, and the holistic tending of the more-than-human world.’ (p 5). He describes his model as ‘ecocentric’ in two respects:

1.      The eight life stages are arrayed around a nature-based circle (as opposed to Western style linearity). Beginning and ending in the east and proceeding clockwise (sunwise), the stages and their attributes are based primarily on the qualities found in the four seasons, or possibly on the four times of the day.

2.      The developmental task that characterises each stage has a nature-oriented dimension, as well as a more familiar (to us) culture-oriented dimension. Bill gives the example of the nature task in middle childhood as learning the enchantment of the natural world through absorbing outdoor activities, while the cultural task is learning the social practices, values, knowledge, history, mythology and cosmology of our family and culture. However, the tragedy in ‘industrial growth society’ is that we have ‘either minimised, suppressed, or entirely ignored’ the nature task in the first three stages of infancy through to early adolescence. For Bill this results in ‘an adolescence so out of sync with nature, that most people never mature further.’ (p 5)

Among the many impressive features of his work is the sheer slog he has engaged in over twenty-five years of developing his model, balancing theory and practice all the way. And he is very careful to define his terms as he goes – for example, he gives a detailed treatment of his concepts of ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, and ‘ego’, and their interaction, in chapter 2. He could, I suppose be accused of over-doing the analytical dimension, but there is no denying his long years working as a wilderness guide and engaging in ecotherapy, as well as the setting up of the Animas Valley Institute – all feeding into his very grounded spirituality.

Like Spell of the Sensuous before it, Becoming Animal is a beautifully written, almost poetic book, full of the richness, mystery and enchantment of the material world. In fact it’s not just about ‘becoming animal’, for David also has chapters on Shadow, House, Wood and Stone. For me, it’s a book about embodiment in the most profound sense. Where the animal side comes in has to do with his ability to ‘draw readers ever deeper into their animal senses’, as the blurb on the inside of the front cover tells us, ‘in order to explore, from within, the elemental kinship between the body and the breathing Earth.’ But even then, the material world has its own animate sense: consider this startling passage from his chapter on Reciprocity:

‘Wander over to that oak, or to a maple, or a sycamore; reach out your hand to feel the surface of a single, many-pointed leaf between your thumb and fingers. Note the coolness of that leaf against your skin, the veined texture your fingertips discover as they roam across it. But notice, too, another slightly different sensation: that you are also being touched by the tree. That the leaf itself is gently exploring your fingers, its pores sampling the chemistry of your skin, feeling the smooth and bulging texture of your thumb, even as the thumb moves upon it.’  He then concludes:

‘Such reciprocity is the very structure of perception. We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us, only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain.’ (p58).

Later chapters delve into the more complex worlds of mind, mood and language, stepping finally into ‘the natural magic of perception itself, exploring the willed alteration of our senses, and the wild transformation of the sensuous, addressing magic and shape shifting and the metamorphosis of culture’. (p 8). This is David at his most enigmatic and mystical, perhaps most revealing when he discusses the mind/body relationship, including mind’s relationship with nature. He simply cannot accept that mind is an exclusive property of humans, and in a life-changing journey he walks away from his college, out onto the New England highway, thumbs his way to the Rockies and enters his wilderness experience, as described in this memorable passage:

‘As my legs carried me past the last of the phone lines and into the thick of the forest, as the shadows deepened and the exclusively human world fell behind me, a great remembering shuddered through my muscles, as though a soul long buried were striding to the surface…I found myself sliding through a vast array of feelings and moods, following thoughts as they meandered and fed into other insights and knowings…..It was there in that solitude, that I first noticed how the drift of my thoughts was instilled and steadily carried by subtle alterations in the landscape….

‘The ways of mind seemed more manifold and mysterious here than I’d ever realised. I was beginning to glimpse a complex array of images for mind itself, visible patterns of mental process far more fitting than the neurological categories and mechanical descriptions I’d been inundated by in my psychology classes. Here, all around me, was a field of patterned metaphors as precise as one could want for the dynamic life of the psyche’.  (pps 111 to 113).

Describing in great detail how he came to the realisation of the ubiquitous quality of mind as being at the heart of all life, David exclaims:

‘Mind, here in this high valley suspended beneath the blue, seems a vast thing, open and at ease. The thoughts that soar into view, the sedimented knowings, the bright blossoms of sensation are all held, here, within an accompanying equilibrium, permeated by a silence that wells and breathes with the cycles of light.’ (p 113).

He concludes: ‘Sentience never was our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom.’  (p 129)

Relevance to life today
Each of our three authors has a large claim on our attention, bearing in mind the lengthy and highly committed nature of their respective careers, in seeking the ‘betterment’ of human society in relation to the needs of the natural world.

Ian McGilchrist, for example, has progressively worked himself into a position of being able to combine vital research on the divided brain, with seeing patients in some depth, and communicating his ideas in writing – as supremely with The Master and his Emissary. His telling message is that we have allowed our culture to drift far out of balance between hemispheres, becoming virtually a’ left brain society’ immersed in materialism and shallow thinking. He believes it is in the areas of religion, art and our attitude towards nature (all right brain activities), where we particularly display our lack of creative thinking and action. Bill Plotkin comes to a similar conclusion, especially with our attitude to nature. For him we need to ‘deepen and broaden our intimacy with the wild earth’. And David Abram, as we have seen in the previous section, with his remarkable ideas about the vital importance of ‘becoming animal’, firmly believes that we need a total transformation in our relationship with the living land.

  1. McGilchrist.
    Iain concedes that the theme of his book may seem pessimistic, but does, nevertheless see some reasons for hope. For example, he sees some ‘small indications’ that our society is ‘urgently moving on from our current, limiting preconceptions about the nature of physical existence, spiritual life and art’. (p. 445 of The Master). Oddly enough, he finds another reason for hope in that ‘however much the LH sees progress as a straight line, it is rarely so in the real world’. It’s the ‘very circularity of things’ that is important, and in a detailed section of the Conclusion (pps 446 to 449) he compares linear progression with circularity.  The LH’s very cognitive style is sequential – taking bits apart or putting them together, one by one. And it’s always reaching forward with a utilitarian end in mind.

By contrast, says Iain, ‘no straight lines are to be found in the natural world’ and the shape that is suggested by the processing of the RH is that of the circle, and ‘in the round’ is the phrase we use for something that is seen as a whole, and in depth. In a very appealing aside on this idea, he notes that ‘cognition in the RH is not a process of something coming into being through adding piece to piece in a sequence, but of something that is out of focus coming into focus, as a whole’.( p447). He goes on, as discussed above, to talk about what we can learn from oriental culture – especially the Japanese love of nature – and how our far eastern cousins seemed to have achieved a healthy balance between the hemispheres. Iain doesn’t (anywhere that I can see) predict which cultural orientation will ‘win out’ in the end, but does make the useful point that ‘the obvious inauthenticity of the LH world we have come to inhabit, may in itself lead us to seek to change it.’ (p. 449)

  1. Plotkin.
    Bill has devoted a whole chapter  (‘The Eyes of the Future’) of Nature and the Human Soul to looking for any signs of the ‘personal and cultural transformation’ he so earnestly desires. At first sight it seems impossible, given that his ‘Wheel of Soulcentric Human Development’ requires ‘an intact, vital, eco-soulcentric commuity, a village in which people of all stages and ages interact daily’ (p443). He notes that the Tuareg people of the Sahara give just a glimpse of this, and somewhat wryly suggests that ‘in the modern world, there’s mostly an inverse relationship between individual human development and the so-called development, or industrialisation, of what are thought of as poorer, ‘undeveloped countries’. However, he is pleased to note that ‘individual development and socio-economic development need not be opposed, as reported by Helena Norberg-Hodge in her work with people of Ladakh, a high altitude Himalayan desert province:

‘Ladakh ..is a place of few resources and extreme climate. Yet, for more than a thousand years, it has been home to a thriving culture. Traditions of frugality and cooperation, coupled with an intimate and location-specific knowledge of the environment, enabled the Ladakhis not only to survive, but prosper.’ In spite of some unhealthy ‘development’ inputs from the West into Ladakh, Helen and her colleagues have shown that ‘some kinds of technological and economic development can enhance, or at least be compatible with healthy individual and cultural development, e.g. solar greenhouses, solar heating systems for homes, water and cooking, photovoltaic power for lighting, micro-hydro-electric and small wind turbines, and a seed-saving programme.’ (pps 449-50).

Having then introduced the vexed question of global climate change, with its deep need for global cultural change, Bill asks if the necessary changes are possible, and somewhat enigmatically replies – ‘NO, but let’s not let that stop us…’! He then goes on in his final section of the book, ‘Impossible Dreams’, to answer the conundrum of how to make the impossible possible. In the first place, says Bill, this apparent dilemma has always existed. For example, when 2 billion years ago the eukaryotes learned how to metabolise oxygen, giving rise to breath itself. Or the miracle of the emergence of human life itself.

So, Bill’s ‘soul-centric society’ may look impossible, given the generally ecological immaturity of most adult humans. But undeterred, Bill tells us – ‘at this critical hour, any dream worth its salt oughtto seem impossible to mainstream society, and to the mainstream elements of our own minds…. But if alternatively, you look at the miracles – moments of grace – throughout the known history of the universe, it will dawn on you that there is, and has always been, an intelligence or imagination at work much greater than our conscious human minds. Given that we cannot rule out a moment of grace acting through us in this century, we have no alternative but to proceed as if we ourselves in fact can make the difference.’ (p457).

  1. Abram
    David’s hopes for a better ecological future seem to be built on something not immediately obvious to us in western societies. Yes, we can see that the perceived world of today is ‘everywhere filtered and transformed by technology, altered by countless tools that interpose themselves between ourselves and the sensuous’. But, says David, ‘it is less common to suggest that there’s a wildness that still reigns underneath all these mediations – that our animal senses, co-evolved with the animate landscape, are still tuned to the many voiced earth. Our creaturely body, shaped in ongoing reaction with the other bodies that comprise the biosphere, remains poised and thirsting for contact with otherness. Cocooned in a clutch of technologies, the nervous system that seethes within our skin still thirsts for a relatively unmediated exchange with reality in all its more-than-human multiplicity and weirdness.’ (p 264).

David does acknowledge that ‘there can be no complete abolishment of mediation, no pure unadulterated access to the real’ – the languages we’ve evolved are themselves ‘a kind of filter that mediates our experience.’ But nevertheless ‘some ways of speaking are more abstract than others, and some are more permeable to the hoofed and scaly shapes that fly and slither through the sensible surroundings’. Moreover, ‘there are other, older discourses whose sounds still carry the lilt of local songbirds, languages whose meanings are less removed from the intimacy of antler and seed and leaf. Such languages live more on the tongue than on the page or screen.’ And, for David ‘Non-written, oral languages are far more transparent, allowing things and beings of the world to shine through the skein of terms and to touch us more directly.’ (pps 264 and 265)

As an encouragement to persist with what he calls ‘the real in its wonder’, he reminds us ‘although such states may feel peculiar to the modern intellect, it is worth recalling that we all have our indigenous ancestry, and indeed that our hunter-gatherer heritage is by far the largest part of our human intelligence. Human culture was itself born in a thoroughly oral context, informed by songs and spoken stories for many tens of thousands of years before any such stories were preserved in a formal writing system. So while the intensely participatory, or animistic frame of mind common to oral cultures may seem odd to us, it is hardly alien: it is the very form of awareness that shaped all human communication for better than 95% of our cultured presence within the biosphere. It is that modality of experience to which the human organism is most closely adapted, the mode of consciousness that has most deeply defined our imagination and our intelligence. We could never have survived, as a species, without our propensity for animistic engagement with every aspect of our earthly habitat.’ (pps 266 and 267).

This highly adaptive style of experience has lain mostly dormant in the modern era, David is saying, but is still only just under the surface of our shallow culture – WE CAN AND MUST recover it if we are to stop being a curse on this beloved planet, and start to once more becoming simply a part of its amazing ecological beauty and balance.


I stated at the outset that each of the three authors have both inspired and challenged my world view, as well as day-to-day living guidelines. So perhaps it is fitting that I conclude by outlining these effects on my life and thinking. I am tempted to simplify things by saying that McGilchrist has influenced me most in the area of MIND, Plotkin in the area of BODY, and Abram in the area of SPIRIT. Stated thus forthrightly, it is certainly a gross over-simplification, and yet such an assertion is probably a good starting point.

With McGilchrist, for example, I have been deeply impressed by his demonstration of the actuality of qualities I value highly – ambiguity, the implicit, the metaphorical, the interconnectedness of everything, the intuitive and the embodied. In fact he surprised himself as he increasingly found the illumination of ‘problems in the nature of human thought’ he had struggled with all his life. His suggestion of the prevalence of left-brain thinking in the West has sent a powerful message to me as to how much I have personally ‘absorbed’ this obsession with materialist mindsets. It is interesting that although the mind-brain question is not the subject of the book, he does offer his own view in his Introduction (pps 19-20). At one level he sees the mind as ‘the brain’s experience of itself’ leading to the idea that ‘the brain necessarily gives structure to the mind’, but he then quickly acknowledges that it is futile to debate whether consciousness is a product of the brain, or vice-versa. He leaves us with the inexplicable mystery of the interworkings between mind, brain and consciousness, something I have come value as I have aged (and hopefully matured). It leaves scope for the intuitive, imaginative aspects of daily living. I awake each day to the immense possibilities and challenges it offers.

With Plotkin we are in very different territory. His ‘eight life stages’ are heavily grounded in nature-oriented dimensions, and our mystical relationship to the ‘wild world’. Just as we need to respect and value the natural world, so we need to do the same with our own bodies. He is looking for ‘an eco-centric, just and deeply imaginative society’. As I look through his eight life stages, I have to acknowledge how far short I fall in many areas, and yet, strangely I don’t feel disheartened. I can see that I am in no sense completely stuck at the ‘early adolescent stage, so common in Western society. What I find really helpful is that Bill gives quite specific suggestions about the tasks and challenges at each stage, buttressed by the gifts and blessings that can accompany our journey if we yield to the ‘moments of grace’ that come to us all.

As for Plotkin’s influence on my world  view, I go back to the essence of his vision – that nature provides the best template for human maturation; that ‘every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood’. This gives me hope that, however immature in ecopsychological terms, any individual has it within him/her to ‘grow up’!

And as we have already seen with Abram, David strongly believes that ‘our animal senses, co-evolved with the animate landscape, are still tuned to the many voiced earth’. Having read his latest book, I cannot go outside my front door without his challenging words ‘we experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world’ ringing in my ears’. As I said above – for me, ‘Becoming Animal’ is a book about embodiment, literally as well as metaphorically. This is a concept that unites our three authors:

–         McGilchrist warns us about the ‘tendency (in the West) to discount and marginalize the importance of our embodied nature, as if it were incidental about us, rather than essential to us’. For him, our very thinking, as well as feeling, is bound up with our embodied nature. It is our right hemispheres which enables this vital perception to reach our conscious minds.

–          In a charming passage from ‘Nature and the Human Soul’, Plotkin tells us: ‘the body is an essential realm of the enchanted world. Its thorough exploration, befriending, and celebration with the child’s own hands, eyes, nose, ears, tongue, thought, emotions, imagination, and movement is natural and essential for healthy development….’

–          And, of course, David’s book is just replete with the intensity of his immersion in the ‘wild world ‘. As Joanna Macy said of it: ‘It’s teachings leap off the page and translate immediately into lived experience. Shaking us free from the prisons of our mental constructions. ‘Becoming Animal’ brings us home to ourselves as living organs of this wild planet’.

Although, then,  McGilchrist, Plotkin and Abram, are giving us substantial separate accounts of, respectively, mind, body and spirit, their thoughts coalesce and intermingle freely and imaginatively. They are indeed separate rivers flowing into the mighty ocean of the All.


Deep Ecology

Deep Ecology, developed by Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, is a radical approach to environmentalism which, rather than seeing Nature as a resource bank for human beings, stresses the intrinsic value of every life form from the biggest to the smallest. 

Wikipedia describes it thus:

Deep ecology is a contemporary ecological and environmental philosophy characterized by its advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and advocacy for a radical restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the existence of organisms is dependent on the existence of others within ecosystems. Human interference with or destruction of the natural world poses a threat therefore not only to humans but to all organisms constituting the natural order.
Deep ecology’s core principle is the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having certain legal rights to live and flourish. It describes itself as “deep” because it regards itself as looking more deeply into the actual reality of humanity’s relationship with the natural world arriving at philosophically more profound conclusions than that of the prevailing view of ecology as a branch of biology. The movement does not subscribe to anthropocentric environmentalism (which is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for human purposes) since Deep ecology is grounded in a quite different set of philosophical assumptions. Deep ecology takes a more holistic view of the world human beings live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that the separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole. This philosophy provides a foundation for the environmental, ecology and green movements and has fostered a new system of environmental ethics advocating wilderness preservation, human population control and simple living

Deep Ecology is a new way to think about our relationship to the Earth – and thinking is a prelude to action.

Biography of Arne Naess  The founder of the concept of Deep Ecology

Arne Naess

The  Deep  Ecology  Platform articulated by Arne Naess and George Sessions

Introduction To Deep Ecology

Ecophilosophy, Ecosophy and the Deep Ecology Movement: An Overview
By Alan Drengson ©1999

Quotes about Deep Ecology


Recovering Bear Sacredness

by Leon Chartrand

Insights into Phenomenal Presence of a More-than-Human World for Future Grizzly Bear Recovery Initiatives.

KALISPELL, MONTANA. Glacier National Park is ideal for spotting wildlife from the safety and comforts of a vehicle. It is so popular that signs are posted to warn visitors of the hazards of “wildlife traffic jams.” No matter. Given the millions of visitors here each summer, sudden halts and long delays are to be expected.

Today is no exception; it’s a parking lot on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Several hundred camera-toting tourists are leaning over the guardrail, pointing fingers, and talking amongst themselves. Their “object” of fascination: a 300 lb grizzly and her two cubs-of-the-year foraging in a meadow fifty yards from the road.

The photo shoot begins.


Clicking cameras and human scent are usually enough to chase off even the most dominate grizzly in Glacier, but surprisingly these bears do not run. This is unique considering the intense protectiveness of a mother with cubs. Perhaps for now ripened huckleberries are worth risking close proximity. The smaller cub, still new to the lessons of bearhood, senses a threat, probably from her mother’s cue. She scurries and summersaults under the shade of the maternal belly taking shelter in a brief attempt to nurse. The dominate cub, oblivious to the crowd gathering nearby, bites and tugs on the yellow tag clipped to his mom’s ear. But with a quick snap to his behind, mother bear instructs him that now is not playtime; and the rambunctious one obediently returns to the business of fattening himself. The family spends nearly half-an-hour consuming the choicest berries until the onlookers become too much of a disturbance to tolerate. With the crowd growing larger by the minute and cars lining up for a mile in both directions, mother decides it is time to leave. She unhurriedly strolls towards the ridgeline with wrestling cubs in tow until they are eventually out of sight from camera’s eye. The audience, jubilant about the show, return to their vehicles with expended roles of film and a story to tell others. Nothing more happens. Bears leave, humans return to their cars and traffic resumes.

This type of bear encounter is a relatively new phenomenon. For thousands of years, grizzlies and humans have lived within the same habitat, but not without each fearing and respecting the other. Both found a distinct survival advantage in giving the other plenty of space. For some native peoples, forests inhabited by the brown bear had a presence that invited humility, reverence and wisdom. In fact, the grizzly was potentially the most sacred encounter experienced on a vision quest. Today, whether in the backcountry or along the roadside, seeing bears is becoming less a transformative experience and more a spectacular vacation highlight. Just now we appreciate what makes them sensational rather than ordinary. But through our fascination with their charisma, their endangerment and physical qualities—the cub’s fuzzy innocence, the mother’s raised shoulder muscles and long sharp claws, and the almost human-like personalities they portray—we are not open to a much more ordinary yet profound reality that lies within them. This withinness, characterized by a deep sense of presence and profound otherness of being, is an important part of their full identity that we too often ignore or, once encountered, cannot find words to articulate. Withinness continues to be shutout by our self-centeredness and exploitive tendencies to treat the world mechanistically and out of concern that it would cloud our “objective” view of a subjective world. In turn, grizzly bears like the family encountered along the roadside are treated as objects, as means to an end. Thus, in acting out of this pathology, we remain disconnected from the earth community. And the bear’s voice, along with the incomprehensible wildness that it represents, remains silenced until it one day inevitably becomes a relic of wilderness past.

Forever silencing the grizzly is indeed on its way to realization. In less than two hundred years, the grizzly bear has been extirpated from most of its former habitat. At one time, the grizzly was estimated at 100,000 with about half of that population inhabiting the contiguous states. Presently there are only six small isolated populations remaining in the northwest U.S. totalling at around 1,100 bears. And, with an expanding human population and the unsustainable economic development and resource extraction corresponding with that expansion, the effort to protect the grizzly is not getting any easier.

Accordingly, grizzly conservation has correctly extended beyond the realm of scientific research to include political, economic, legal, technological and ethical initiatives. Various specialists, lobbyists and activists are devoted to finding the most appropriate method for maintaining the current population size and facilitating their full recovery. Yet, the issue at hand is a much more profound issue than any specialized discipline or political movement is capable of addressing. For, even with all the progress we have made, the grizzly still rarely dies of natural causes and its viability is at the mercy of human influence. In fact, human-caused mortalities, loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, and lack of public support continue to be the most serious threats to their survival. Clearly, while we now have more scientific knowledge about grizzly bears than ever, and while these animals are legally protected and much of ecotourism’s success depends upon their continued protection, it is not the only type of knowledge or progress we need. Something is missing. Just now we have lost our ability to be open to the deep presence that pervades all life. We only momentarily, if at all, experience a deeper reality, the numinous presence that pervades a more-than-human world. By focusing on the grizzly bear’s circumstance in a strictly profane manner, we have inevitably lost a deep sense of the sacred.

Scientific insights and recent ethical paradigms, while important, have not led us towards an intimate presence with a meaningful universe and, therefore, a meaningful relationship with other earth community members. We continue to define the grizzly in terms of instrumental and intrinsic value. They are important to us instrumentally by way of the economic advantages they provide. They are important to us intrinsically by way of the sense of wildness that they bring to the national park that would not exist if they were absent. It, therefore, has become important to protect them because of the instrumental enjoyment and aesthetic aura that they bring to the wilderness experience. But, the difficulty with instrumental value is that the grizzly is valued as an object or instrument for our own benefit. This does not acknowledge the bear’s importance to the earth community or the earth’s life processes. It ignores the following ecological insight: the grizzly exists because, in some undefined way, it has had something of value to offer to the earth community. Furthermore, the difficulty with the bear’s inherent value is that it is understood by what value lies within them. It is quite possible that the inner depths of the grizzly are just as mysterious as its beyondness and just as unavoidable. And if we are authentically seeking to understand their wholeness of being, the challenge then becomes how we choose to address their mystery. We can certainly address mystery as we have in the past, as an incompleteness of knowledge or puzzle to be figured out. We can extrapolate based on what is observed and quantified. We can continue tranquilizing them to understand them. But new subjectivities always emerge and indicate that a profane journey into knowing the grizzly is destined for quiet desperation, especially for the bear. However, if we open ourselves to the otherness of the world, we invite an encounter with this mystery. We may then become aware of a pervading presence when confronted with incomprehensibility. In this act, we come to know the sacred as different from the secular and, consequently, become aware that the secular solution alone is insufficient. We may recognize that the bear has a presence that is not defined by its wondrous physical characteristics or the complexities of its habitat alone but by something more deeply profound as well. Through this encounter, it becomes something else, something more, yet continues to remain a bear. This means that the sacred we encounter within the grizzly does not necessarily venerate the bear itself but allows it to be revered, not as a bear, but as a unique manifestation of the numinous presence that pervades all of life. In other words, when one has such an encounter, the bear remains a bear in that it is not discernible from other bears or other living beings except that it’s physical reality becomes a celebration of a more profoundly deep reality capable of transforming our present consciousness.

Certainly, the grizzly bear family encountered along Going-to-the-Sun Road, if it is to survive, demands a response that is beyond secular thought, beyond rational knowledge, beyond sensationalism. Indeed there are important aspects of their full identity not presently being considered. We ought to explore how new insights can potentially transform the human consciousness—the way we see ourselves in relationship to other beings and, consequently, the way in which we address our own influences upon the grizzly mother and her two cubs’ uncertain future. For once we encounter the grizzly in this manner, we awaken to a world of wonder, a world of pervading presence that is so much more than aesthetic beauty, more than recognizing their inherent value, much deeper than personal growth. We experience a deep sense of withinness and profound beyondness. And we come to understand the grizzly as a unique celebratory moment in the Great Self, a unique articulation of existence, a communion of relationships between varying moments in a fifteen billion year cosmological story that extends far beyond our ability to objectively study or quantifiably explain. For, indeed, in all their finite ordinariness, we come to know that within each bear—within the cautious mother, the shy and the rambunctious cubs—there exists the universe.

The author is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto with the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology & Ecology and the Institute for Environmental Studies. His research is in grizzly bear management and recovery strategies in Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, and Jasper National Parks as well as the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Program. His dissertation is on Articulating Otherness and Mystery in the Endangered Species Encounter as a Path for Transforming the Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for North America. He has been involved in Parks Canada’s Year of the Great Bear Campaign and the Sierra Club-Canada’s “People & the Planet.”

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Research News

Power of the Wild


by Roderick Frazier Nash

Reprinted from New Scientist, no. 2336, 30th March 2002, pp. 42-45.

My purpose is to persuade you that wilderness is a moral resource, Human cultures have seen an extraordinary intellectual revolution in recent centuries that has transformed their view of wilderness from a liability to an asset. That transformation has largely been promoted by anthropocentric arguments emphasising the value of wilderness to civilisation: recreational, scenic and spiritual values use man as the measure. But, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, the point of wilderness is that it is the home of ‘civilisations other than our own’. Or, as children’s author Maurice Sendak put it more recently, it is ‘where the wild things are’. Conceived as the habitat of other species, not as a human playground, wilderness is the best environment in which to learn that humans are members in, and not masters of, the community of life. And this ethical idea, working as a restraint in our relations with the environment, may be the starting point for saving this planet.

In the beginning, civilisation created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who have represented our species for most of its existence, everything natural is simply habitat, and people understood themselves to be part of a seamless living community. Lines began to be drawn with the advent of herding, agriculture and settlement. Distinctions between controlled and uncontrolled animals and plants became meaningful, as did the concept of controlled space: corrals, fields and towns.

The unmastered lands – the habitat of hunter-gatherers – came to seem threatening to settled folk. Ancient Greeks who had to pass through forest or mountain dreaded an encounter with Pan, the lord of the woods – who combined gross sensuality with boundless sportive energy. Indeed, the word ‘panic’ originated from the blinding fear that seized travellers on hearing strange cries in the wilderness and assuming them to signify Pan’s approach.

The origins of the English word ‘wilderness’ reflect this trepidation. In the early Teutonic and Norse languages, the root seems to have been ‘will’ with a descriptive meaning of self-willed, wilful or uncontrolled. From ‘willed’ came the adjective ‘wild’. By the eighth century, the Beowulf epic was populated by wildeor – a compound of ‘wild’ and ‘deor’, meaning beast – savage and fantastic beasts inhabiting a dismal region of forests, crags and cliffs.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition constituted another powerful formative influence on Europeans’ attitude to wilderness, perhaps especially those who colonised the New World. When the Lord of the Old Testament desired to threaten or punish a sinful people, he found the wilderness condition to be his most powerful weapon.

So the dawn of civilisation created powerful biases. We settled down, developed an ecological superiority complex and bet our evolutionary future on the control of nature. Now there were survival-related reasons to understand, order and transform the environment. The largest part of the energy of early civilisation was directed at conquering wildness in nature and disciplining it in human nature.

For the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from – and, they reasoned, better than the rest of nature. They began to think of themselves as masters, not members, of the community of life.

Civilisation severed the web of life as humans distanced themselves from the rest of nature. Behind fenced pastures, village walls and, later, gated condominiums, it was hard to imagine other living things as relatives, or nature as sacred. The remaining hunters and gatherers became ‘savages’. The community concepts, and attendant ethical respect, that had worked to curb human self-interest in dealings with nature declined in direct proportion to the ‘rise’ of civilisation. Nature lost its significance as something to which people belonged and became something they possessed: an adversary, a target, an object for exploitation.

The resulting war against the wilderness was astonishingly successful. Today we have fragments of a once-wild world, and with the wholesale disappearance of species. The ark is sinking – and on our watch.

Of course humans remain ‘natural’. But somewhere along the evolutionary way from spears to spaceships humanity dropped off the biotic team and, as author and naturalist Henry Beston recognised, became a ‘cosmic outlaw’. The point is that we are no longer thinking and acting like a part of nature. Or, if we are a part, it is a cancerous one, growing so rapidly as to endanger the larger environmental organism. Our species has become a terrible neighbour to the 30 million and more other species sharing space on this planet. Our numbers and our technology are wreaking ecological havoc. We have become the latter-day ‘death star’, with the same potential for destruction as the asteroid that ended the days of the dinosaurs.

This is not really an ‘environmental problem’. It’s a human problem. What needs to be conquered now is not the wilderness, but ourselves. We need to understand that it is civilisation that is out of control.

Mind-pollution is more serious than chemical pollution. It is time to understand that there is no ‘good life’ without a good environment and that it is a false prosperity that cannot be sustained over the long ecological haul. Growth must be dissociated from progress. Bigger is not better if the system is destroyed. As the deep ecologists recognise, we must now emphasise wholes over parts, and pursue justice at the level of entire ecosystems. A new valuation of wilderness is an excellent place to start.

The transformation that led some to view wilderness as an asset probably began with the Romantics. For example, Byron wrote in 1817 in the fourth canto of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: ‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep sea, and music in its roar: / I love not man the less, but Nature more…’

But this insight developed into a largely anthropocentric justification of wilderness, as something to be valued and preserved for people. Recreational, spiritual and scenic values all used man as the measure. And so did the early ecological arguments for wilderness, with their utilitarian emphasis on protecting species that possibly held the cure for cancer. More recently, wild ecosystems have been praised as resources capable of providing environmental ‘services’ and sup porting human health. These are the arguments that, sometimes, sell nature protection on the political stage. But wilderness is not for people at all. It is where the wild things, the willed things, are. From this eco-centric perspective, wilderness preservation becomes a gesture of planetary modesty and a badly needed exercise in restraint on the part of a species intoxicated with its power. Seen this way, wilderness preservation expresses a belief in the rights of nature. Rightly seen, wilderness is the best demonstration that we are not the only, or even the primary, members of the biotic team. It is a living reminder of the gross limitations of our definitions of ‘society’ and ‘morality’. Our real society is coterminous with life on this planet, a fact that our ethical sensibilities have as yet failed to recognise.

In the biblical past people went to the wilderness to receive the commandments with which to restructure society. We need to do so again. Right now we desperately need a ‘time out’ to learn how to be team players in the biosphere. We need to learn – or, perhaps, to relearn – how to live responsibly in the larger community called the ecosystem. The first requirement for this is to respect our neighbours’ need for habitat.

We should try to define an ‘ecological contract’ that widens the circle of morality beyond the limits of the ‘social contract’ proposed by the 17th century philosopher John Locke. Aldo Leopold, a founder of conservationism in America, would have understood this to give priority to what he called the ‘land community’. The challenge is to advance morality from natural rights to the rights of nature. And this is where wilderness assumes critical importance. What it provides is precisely this ‘time out’ from the juggernaut of civilisation. Wild places are uncontrolled. Their presence reminds us of just how far we have distanced ourselves from the rest of nature.

We did not, after all, make wilderness. In it we stand naked of the built and modified environment, open to seeing ourselves once again as large mammals dependent not on our technological cleverness but on the health of the ecological community to which we belong. Writing in a pre-ecological age, Thoreau was more correct than he could have imagined about the importance of wildness to the preservation of the world. The actuality of wilderness reminds us that when we enter it we enter someone else’s home. Recall your parents’ admonitions: courtesy is called for; so is respect. Stealing is wrong (but think of the past few thousand years of human relationship to nature). Wild places deserve respect not for what they can do for us but for what they mean to our fellow evolutionary travellers.

The concept of wilderness is just as important. It instructs us in the need for a more embracing, environmental ethic. The fact that wilderness is nature we do not own or use can open us to perceiving its intrinsic value. By definition we do not dominate or control wild places, and so they suggest the importance of sharing – which was, after all, the basis of the ethic of fair play that we did not learn very well in kindergarten. A species whose technological cleverness has made it the schoolyard bully desperately needs the ethical discipline that wilderness provides. Ethics are concepts of right and wrong that work as restraints on freedom in the interest of preserving communities. It is easy to think of the kind of eco-centric ethic that I propose as being ‘against’ human, interests and freedoms. But most basic interests of human beings are inextricably linked to those of the greater environmental whole. From this perspective, less, in the way of human impact on the Earth, can indeed be more. Growth is a good thing that has been carried too far. We spend our ecological capital as if there were no tomorrow and run an environmental deficit. In the relatively near future, some feel, the notes will come due. Our self-interest is very definitely involved. If we sink that ark, we go down too. Respecting wildness, then, is prudent as well as ethically enlightened. Its instrumental and intrinsic values converge on the distant perspective point of evolutionary biology. Evolutionists increasingly recognise that species co-evolve – in communities. In respecting wildness, we forgo economic advantages. Lumbering, farming and mining stop. Roads and buildings stay outside. We even limit our recreational options: limiting the use of mechanised transport, for example. Indeed the power of ‘recreation’ as a justification for keeping land wild is in its twilight years; the Sun is rising on the new moral and ecological arguments. Wilderness is the best place both to learn and to express ecological limitation. Its value as a moral resource is not in the least diminished by our staying out altogether. Properly managed and interpreted, designated wilderness could give us the inspiration to live responsibly and sustainably elsewhere. In wildness is the promise of both biological and ethical repair.

Roderick Frazier Nash is professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His Wilderness and the American Mind is now in its fourth edition (Yale University Press, 2001)



The Evolution of Death and Samhain

by Michael Colebrook

(A paper  presented at the Annual Members meeting of GreenSpirit held in October 2002,  just a few days away from the festival of Samhain)

In the Irish tradition, Samhain contains the celebration of the Sacred Marriage between the Daghda, the God/King of the People of Dannan and the Morrigan, an aspect of the triple Goddess.

The sacred marriage between king and goddess is a fairly widespread element in the cultures of the ancient world. Probably the best known story involving the sacred marriage is that of Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus claims the kingship of Ithaca by virtue of his marriage to the earthmother/goddess Penelope and their marriage was celebrated in a bed whose kingpost was carved from a living olive tree still rooted in the earth. The sacred marriage is more than simply a union between king and goddess. It also usually includes an element of relationship with the land or with a particular place.

In the Irish story, the Dagda and the Morrigan are not permitted the comfort of a bed, they have to stand astride a river with their feet on each bank.The Morrigan is clearly in the classic triple-goddess tradition. She is also a bird Goddess, common in the neolithic cultures of Old Europe and the Middle-East, linking her back to Lilith and Inanna and forward to Mother Goose and Halloween witches. In her various aspects the Morrigan is goddess of birth and death and fertility.The Daghda carries a massive club the business end of which kills while the other end heals. He also owns a cauldron of plenty.

Looking at the attributes of The Daghda and The Morrigan they are clearly linked to birth, death, and fertility and they are both fairly wild and unpredictable characters. . One of their daughters conceived at Samhain is Bridget who is associated with the re-birth festival of Imbolc.

The sacred marriage celebrated at Samhain re-enacts the union between the divine, the human and the land, between male and female, between life and death, it celebrates the turning of the year. For the Celts the eight seasonal festivals represent transitions and ‘between’ times when boundaries become transparent and borders can be crossed. Hence the sacred marriage celebrated with feet on either side of a river. At Samhain the crossable border is that between life and death. The idea has been carried over into the Christian tradition of Halloween when all sorts of spirits are abroad, followed by All Saints day when, in many Catholic countries, it is customary to visit the graves of close relatives.

So, it seems appropriate, as we are thinking about Samhain that we should include a consideration of the dialectic of life and death.

We generally think about autumn as a time of death and dying, a sad time, followed by winter and then the joyous time of spring when we celebrate rebirth. But this is actually the wrong way round, birth has come before death. Actually autumn is supremely a time of birth. Many of the seeds that will produce next year’s plants have already germinated. They pass the winter as relatively small rosettes of leaves ready to grow in the spring. On the trees most of the cells that will be next years leaves have already been produced. They are sitting curled up inside tight buds ready to burst out next spring. Many animals pass the winter as fertilised females ready to give birth as soon as spring arrives. The autumn is as much a period of birth and preparation as it is a period of death and dying. It has to be so because birth and death are inseparable, they are both parts of a continuous process, the process we call life.

In John Muir’s account of his thousand mile walk from Indianapolis to Florida in 1867 he tells of spending a few days and nights at a place called Bonaventure which was the graveyard for the town of Savannah in the state of Georgia. I quote:

‘I gazed awe-struck as one newly arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favoured abodes of life and light.’

He goes on:

‘On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc. Town children, especially, are steeped in this death orthodoxy, for the natural beauties of death are seldom seen or taught in towns. But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory… All is divine harmony.’

In the same vein Goethe wrote: ’The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.’

Both Muir and Goethe are emphasising that death is an essential feature of the continuity of life; as does Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible. ’First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.’

Eugene Odum, who is one of the leading contemporary figures in scientific ecology has summed up whole the subject in just four words: ‘Matter circulates. Energy dissipates’. The estimate for the turnover time for the available global stock of carbon is about 100 years. There is the quick turn around of a few hours of eating, burning for energy and breathing out. There is the annual turn around. This has been measured and it amounts to about 200 thousand million tonnes of carbon exchanged between the biosphere and the atmosphere every year. There is the long, slow turn around in wood and coral reef and sea-shell of hundreds or even thousands of years.The earth has been carrying a stock of animals and plants for about 500 million years. We don’t know much about the sizes of these stocks but we do know that the diversity of species, has been more or less the same, although with lots of ups and downs, until about 100 million years or so. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the average total stock has had been more or less constant. This means that over this period every atom of carbon in my body and in all of your bodies has been part of another living organism an average of about 5 million times and it could be a lot more. Not all of the events have to end in a death, but a lot of them do.Each one of us exists on the back of millions of deaths.

The average life span of a species is about 5 million years. There have been many that have survived for less than this but there have also been some that have lasted a lot longer. The best known are a Brachiopod called Lingula and Limulus, the Horseshoe Crab. The diversity of species is high at the moment. There are probably somewhere between ten and thirty million species of living organisms. And over 500 million years there has probably been about a hundred complete turnovers of the species of living things.Just think for a moment about the awesome picture this conjures up. The countless livings and dyings of individuals and species. The whole involving a continuous cycling of about 2 thousand million tonnes of carbon every year. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. None of this would be possible without plenty of death and dying. Goethe’s insight was spot on – ‘The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators. Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.’ What Goethe did not know was the grand, indeed enormous and magnificent scale on which nature did these things. Life and death are inseparable. They are part of the same process. We call it the life cycle, but you could just as easily call it the death cycle. If there is too much death then obviously the life cycle will collapse but there are also situations when too much life creates a problem. An obvious example is the Desert Locust whose populations occasionally go wild with devastating effects on large areas of vegetation. There is also the bacterium called Yersinia pestis which during the plague known as the Black Death the life of this little creature along with the lives of lots of fleas and lots of rats, was responsible for the death of about a third of the human population of Europe.

Two key chemical elements in the life process are carbon and nitrogen. Both exhibit clear cycles, but there is something odd about both of them. I have already talked about the carbon cycle in which the main exchanges take place between living things and the atmosphere. But by far the largest stock of carbon is underground in the form of rock, limestone and coal. In contrast to this in the nitrogen cycle the main exchanges take place between living things and the soil. But by far the largest global stock of nitrogen is in the atmosphere. Gaia seldom does things in what seems the most obvious and sensible way. We tend think about these cycles as involved in nurturing life and so they are. But they also necessarily involve death. Wendell Berry focuses on this aspect in what is in effect a beautiful meditation on the nitrogen cycle:

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

‘Go look under the leaves,’ it said, ‘for what is living there is

long dead in your tongue.’

And it said, ‘Put your hands into the earth. Live close

to the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all the things that you love, name

their names, prepare to lose them. It will be

as if you all you know were turned around in your body.’


And I went and put my hands

into the ground, and they took root

and grew into a season’s harvest.

I looked behind the veil of the leaves, and heard voices

that I knew had been dead

in my tongue years before my birth. I learned the dark.

Then the voice following me said:

‘You have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground. Learn

from the woodcock in the woods

whose feathering is a ritual of the fallen leaves,

and from the nesting quail

whose speckling makes her hard to see in the long grass.

Study the coat of the mole. For the farmer shall wear

the greenery and the furrows of his fields, and bear

the long standing of the woods.’


And I asked: ‘You mean a death then?’

‘Yes,’ the voice said. ‘Die

into what the earth requires of you.’

Then I let go of all holds, and sank

like a hopeless swimmer into the earth, and at last

came fully into the ease

and the joy of that place,

all my lost ones returning.


By far the commonest form of dying ‘into what the earth requires of you’ is to be eaten. As Brian Swimme came to realise in the Brazilian rain forest, ‘the whole of existence is concerned with eating and being eaten.’

Part of the endless fascination of the study of biology lies in finding out about the seemingly endless ways that organisms have discovered of eating each other, on one hand, and found ways of avoiding being eaten on the other.

One of my favourite stories is about a rain forest tree that when it is being eaten by a particular caterpillar it uses some of the saliva of the caterpillar to produce a pheromone, a chemical with a particular smell, which, with a bit of luck, attracts a particular wasp which then lays its eggs inside the caterpillar which, as it is being eaten from the inside, soon stops eating the tree.

Just think for a moment about the complexity of the co-evolutionary processes that resulted in this system, which is just one of thousands of other equally improbable stories that make up a tropical rain forest, which is just one of hundreds of different ecosystems that make up Gaia, the earth system as a whole. According to the French biologist François Jacob there are two necessary conditions for biological evolution. Firstly, there is sex which establishes a system of communication at the genetic level and, ‘the other necessary condition for the very possibility of evolution is death. Not death from without, as the result of some accident; but death imposed from within, as a necessity prescribed from the egg onward by the genetic programme itself. For evolution is the result of a struggle between what was and what is to be.’ So we have the evolution of natural death as an essential feature of the evolution of life. Natural death highlights the fact that living is a continuous process of self making. The posh word for this is autopoesis which is simply Greek for self making. It is important to realise just what is involved here. Living organisms do not only use food to build their own bodies, they also make the tools needed to convert food into their bodies. More, they hold the blue-prints needed to make the tools needed to convert food into body. And the body is the place where the tools work and the blue-prints are stored. There is more, the blue-prints contain the instructions for making the tools needed to make copies of the blue-prints. There is more. The processes are continuous – self-making involves self-unmaking and self-remaking. Bits of us are dying all the time and being remade. Our skin replaces its cells at the rate of 100,000 cells every minute. On the evolutionary time-scale the process of remaking involves the emergence of a programmed element of ageing leading to natural death.

There is a profound dilemma here. We humans pride ourselves on being at the top of the evolutionary ladder and then treat either as evil or tragic the death that is an essential feature of the evolutionary process that got us where we are. The Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara, as reported by Rosemary Radford Ruether, claims that original sin was not an act of disobedience that resulted in a fall into mortality, but rather the primal sin lies in the effort to escape from mortality, finitude and vulnerability. Evil lies not in death but in attempts to deny mortality by accumulating possessions and seeking for power over the natural world and over other people. In the medieval play Everyman is called by Death to go on the last journey:

Everyman replies:

O death thou comest when I had ye least in mind,

In thy power it lyeth me to save,

Yet of my goods will I give ye if thou will be kind

Ye a thousand pound shalt thou have,

And defer this matter till another day.

At the values of 1530 a thousand pounds was a vast sum. But Death is not moved:

Everyman, it may not be, by no way.

I set not by gold, silver nor riches,

Nor by pope, emperour, kynge, duke nor princes

For and I would receive gifts great,

All the world I might get.

But my custom is clean contrary

I give thee no respite, come hence and do not tarry.

Everyman goes on to seek help from kindred and friends, from his worldly goods, then from Beauty, Strength, Discretion and Knowledge. To no avail. Everything that Everyman had banked on to keep him safe deserts him. But, this being a morality play, Everyman’s Good Deeds do offer to be his guide. I suspect that one of the things that humans see as distinguishing us from most other animals is our relative longevity, three score years and ten plus plus – it seems to be getting more all the time – Death obviously appeared to Everyman well before he was expected.

Although humans do live longer than most other animals. It is also a fact that, on the whole, plants live longer than animals. Nearly all species of trees and a lot of woody shrubs can live for well over 100 years, and there are many perennial plants, including grasses that can go on making themselves more or less indefinitely. Very few plants live for less than a year. In contrast there are lots of insects and small invertebrates that have several generations a year and very few animals live for more than a few decades. In this country alone there are more than 400 Yew trees that are over 1000 years old and the oldest, at Fortingall on Tayside, is believed to be over 5000 years old. When you look at one of these aged Yew trees you get a very clear message. Old and tired they may be but they haven’t given up on the struggle to stay alive. This is the paradox of death. Although death is inevitable and an essential feature of life, all living things do their best to stay alive. From the humblest bacterium to ourselves, all living organisms react to unfavourable conditions up to the limit of their capabilities. Everything tries to avoid death as far as possible, but a lot of organisms have to die for other organisms to stay alive. This is the paradox of life. Which brings us back to the celebration of Samhain when in particular we may ponder on these profound paradoxical aspects of life and death in the context of the endless cycling of the seasons.

I don’t think I can do better than to finish with the words of Rosemary Radford Ruether: ‘In order to create a spirituality of recycling in which the human life cycle becomes complementary to the life cycles of the plants and animals, air, water, and soil around us, I believe we have to come to terms with our mortality. We must overcome the false world view that has rationalised our flight from mortality. We will not overcome our tendencies to turn the waste, death and decay side of our life-cycle into poisons until we accept ourselves as mortal and learn to reintegrate ourselves as beings that die and decay into the natural processes of the renewal of life. Although humans are, in one way, the apex, at least up to now, of the evolutionary process, we, as much as plants and other animals, are finite centres of life, who exist for a season. We too die; all the cells in our bodies disintegrate back into the stuff of the universe, to rise again in new forms, as part of a worm or a bird, a flower or a human child. The material substances of our bodies live on in plants and animals, just as our own living bodies are composed of substances that were once part of rocks, plants, and animals, stretching back through time to prehistoric ferns and reptiles, before that to ancient organisms that once floated the first seas of the earth, and before that to the stardust of exploding stars. The spirituality of recycling, by which we become interdependent with the positive life processes of all other beings around us, demands a fundamental conversion of consciousness. We have to take into our consciousness and practice recognition of our mortality and transience, relinquishing the illusion of permanence of immortal selves that can be exempt from this process. While this may be a sad word for those who see the individual self as ultimate, it can become a joyful word once we have learned to see ourselves as an integral part of the great matrix of being which is ever renewing life in new creative forms out of the very processes we call ‘death’.

‘One generation of beings dies and is dispersed back into the matrix, so that another generation of beings can grow from its womb. This is the true and only resurrection of the dead. It is the real process of what has been called ‘reincarnation’. As we surrender our ego-clinging to ‘personal immortality’, we find our selves upheld in the immortality of the wondrous whole, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

This festival of Samhain is the time of year when it is the tradition to ponder on these mysteries.