Lichens & Mycorrhizae

by Michael Colebrook

The soil is teeming with life (1). I want to focus on just two elements of this life, both of which involve that that rather odd group of organisms, the Fungi. By tradition fungi are included in the botanical curriculum, although it is now believed that the group are more closely related to the animals than to the plants. The Fungi now have the status of a kingdom all to themselves.

Like animals, fungi need complex organic nutrients, and all fungi are saprophytic, (living off dead organic matter) or parasitic (living off living organic matter). The fungi involved in the two systems I want to describe have found ways of associating themselves with green (photosynthetic) organisms and by co-evolving have established mutually beneficial, symbiotic, arrangements with their green partners.

Historically there has been a marked reluctance on the part of evolutionary biologists to accept the existence of intimate, mutually beneficial relationships between different species. In evolutionary theory, competition rules, at least until recently. In his Analysis of Biological Populations (1972) Williamson stated ‘[mutualism] is a fascinating biological topic, but its importance in populations is generally small’ (2). This echoes Beatrix Potter’s dismissive reception by the Linnnean Society to her suggestion that Lichens exist as permanent associations between Algae and Fungi (3).

It is not altogether surprising that Beatrix Potter had a problem persuading the Linnean Society (and Kew Gardens) that lichens were symbionts. They are emergent entities and exist in forms that are sufficiently consistent to be classified as if they were individual species. It is estimated that there are about 20,000 different forms. The photosynthetic components, green algae or cyanobacteria, are capable of independent existence, the fungi are not, they are obligate symbionts.

Lichens on Rocks Cumbria UK.
Photo Dave & Lynne Slater
Lichen crust on tundra, Iceland
Photo Erwan Balança

Lichens play a vital pioneering role in soil formation. Thin surface crusts of lichens are found in most seemingly barren sites from deserts to arctic tundra. They form the first layer of organic matter and, where the conditions are suitable they provide the basis for the subsequent formation of soil. Lynn Margulis describes the process:Algae growing under the protective cover of fungi cling to sheer rock, extend over its face, and ultimately break it down into soil that can be penetrated by roots of plants and fungal hyphal networks. The hard rock of this spinning planet has been crumbling for hundreds of millions of years into rich, nutritive soil as a result of the fungal-algal partnerships.(4)

Without the Lichens there would be no soil. Without the soil there would be no complex life on land. We are most aware of Fungi in the form of mushrooms (edible) and toadstools (some edible, some not). But the real body of an individual soil fungus consists of long and very fine (microscopic) tubular cells, called hyphae, forming a more of less extensive branching and sometimes networking system known as a mycelium. These are not insignificant or transient entities, the mycelium of a specimen of Armillaria ostoyae (the honey mushroom) in a national forest in Oregon is believed to cover an area of nearly 9 sqkm (2,200 acres) and is estimated to be 2,400 years old! This is exceptional, the familiar fairy rings, which indicate the presence of an active mycelium underground, are usually only a few metres in diameter.

Some Fungi have developed symbiotic relationships with land plants known as mycorrhizae, literally fungusroot, which is a good name, it describes exactly what they are. The fungal element in the partnership merges with and extends the root system of the host plant. The host benefits from the extended root system. The very fine fungal hyphae can penetrate into smaller interstices in the soil than even the fine root hairs of the plant and they are very good at extracting nutrients, especially phosphates, from the soil. The fungus benefits by receiving a share in the energy rich, photosynthetic, materials made by the host.

There are two distinct forms of mycorrhizae. In Endomycorrhizae the hyphae penetrate the cell walls of the host plant but the cell membranes remain intact. The hyphae spread out into the surrounding soil for relatively short distances. The fungal species cannot exist independently. Here are about 130 species of endomycorrhizal fungi and all belong to the phylum Glomeromycota. The number of host species is not known but comprises a significant proportion of the total number of plant species.

In Ectomycorrhizae the hyphae form layers around the roots of the host plant and do not penetrate the cell walls. The hyphae radiate out into the surrounding soil for up to several meters.

The fungi are nearly all from the phylum Basidiomycota (toadstool forming). There are about 5,000 ectomycorrhizal species and they form alliances with about 2000 species, mostly conifers and nearly all are trees.

One of the ectomycorrhizal fungi is the quintessential toadstool, the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). This produces the well known, bright red capped toadstool flecked with white which clearly signals that it is not one of the edible kinds. It also forms fairy rings thatmight encircle several trees. The single mycelium may be associated with several host trees. Most of the host and fungal species can exist independently but do not flourish nearly as well as when part of a symbiotic association. It is interesting to speculate on the marked difference in the numbers of species of endomycorrhizal (c 130) and ectomycorrhizal (c 5000) fungi.

Taxonomists place the endo- species in four orders, and all the members of these orders are exclusively mycorrhizal. It would seem likely that the habit evolved once only and the existing species are all descended from a common ancestor through differentiation involved in forming relationships with a enormous variety of host species. There is fossil evidence for the existence of endomycorrhizal species in the early Devonian period (c 400million years ago), long before the emergence of flowering plants.

The ectomycorrhizal species are found in three orders but the species involved are not all mycorrhizal. It is suggested that ectomycorrhizal species emerged together with the appearance of Conifers in the late Mesozoic (c 150 million years ago). The taxonomy would also suggest that the habit emerged more than once, through parallel evolution.

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of mycorrhizal associations for the flourishing of plant life of all forms and in all locations, they are a key element in the life of the soil. Along with Charles Darwin’s beloved earthworms, mycorrhizae are a vital part of the nearly invisible and often discounted infrastructure of life on Earth.


1. James Nardi. Life in the Soil (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

2.MarkWilliamson. The Analysis of Biological Populations (Academic Press, 1972).

3. Michael Colebrook. ‘What have Lichens to do with Peter Rabbit’ (GreenSpirit, Summer 2002), p. 7

4. Lynn Margulis. The Symbiotic Planet (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1998) p. 109.

Michael Allen. The Ecology of Mycorrhizae (Cambridge University Press, 1991

A classification of the whole Kingdom can be found at:

The Dirt Beneath Our Feet

by Marian Van Eyk McCain

Adapted from her book Elderwoman: Reap the wisdom, feel the power, embrace the joy (Findhorn Press, 2002).

Like many older women, then and now, my grandmother was a keen gardener. When I was five, she donated a little patch of her garden to me, and gave me sunflower seeds to plant. For ages, nothing happened. Then, tiny shoots appeared. 1 watched in amazement as the plants grew and grew until they were more than twice as tall as me, their huge yellow heads nodding over, way above my head. It seemed like a miracle. Well, it was, really.

Back then, I assumed that soil was just inert stuff that held the roots and supported the plant stems. No one told me otherwise. It was many years before I really understood what an amazing and important substance soil is, and how unappreciated and badly treated it is by some sections of humanity. Yet a good relationship with it can enrich our lives, which is why I want to begin this essay by thinking about the soil very literally.

Dirt, soil, earth. The topsoil, the subsoil, the rock underneath.  All our lives, we rest upon it. Depend upon it, literally, in all senses of the word. Yet If you think about it, we modern folk spend very little time with our feet actually touching the earth itself. Some of us might go a whole day without glimpsing bare soil. We can even forget that it exists. Much of the time, especially if we live in the city, between that soil and our feet lies the dead weight of concrete, sitting dully and heavily over soil which may never see the sun again. That always makes me feel sad. Although I know it is a silly fantasy, since builders always remove the topsoil before they build, I still have this image of some poor mole or earthworm struggling to the surface only to discover he or she has come up right under the middle of Safeway or the Interstate or Gate Fifteen of the airport. It is a dilemma, for I need stores and roads and airports, too, just like everybody else does.

I also need the soil, for my life utterly depends upon it. Without soil, there would be no food, and without food we would all die. So it seems important to me to think about this dirt, this thing that one’s life depends on.

Firstly, I believe we need to think about it in order to ensure that it is being properly taken care of and that there is enough of it that is not covered over. Lots of areas where the trees can grow and the moles and earthworms can still poke through the surface.  And lots of it that never will be covered over – ever. Because land developers and builders – and governments – often don’t notice when they are overdoing things and putting profit ahead of health and sanity. Sometimes it needs older people like me to point this out; people who have been around a long time and who can see the long-term effects of things are the ones who need to speak out. Just as longitudinal studies in science are a particularly useful and valid way of gaining information, the voices and opinions of older people in a society have a value all their own. It is we who remember the green field which predated a certain parking lot, cattle grazing in what is now the shopping mall, the chopped-down trees. That’s when we find ourselves crying out “STOP!” for we truly understand what is being lost.

Secondly, I think we need to look at our relationship with the soil from the point of view of having been created out of it, and being headed towards intimate reunion with it after our death. Realizing the importance of that relationship, we might want to put more emphasis on celebrating that deep connection. We might want to find opportunities in our lives to walk barefoot, to dig in the garden, plant things in the soil, smell it, get it on our hands. There is literally an earthy satisfaction for many of us in those things, a satisfaction which we may have forgotten in our busy lives up among the concrete buildings, and which will come flooding back when we walk barefoot along the beach or spend an afternoon on our knees in the garden, weeding and planting and mulching.

Thirdly, it seems important to consider the symbolic aspect of it. In other words, the necessity to stay grounded. Physically, we do this by remaining aware of our bodies and not ignoring or overriding their messages of weariness or pain. Emotionally, we do it by keeping a firm hold on reality and commonsense and by tempering drama with humor. And spiritually, we do it by honoring where we come from, our emergence from the ‘stuff’ of the Earth.

So, if the bodies we live in are actually constructed out of the earth, and earth is the substance on which our life and existence depends, surely it must be a highly important substance? Something to give some thought to. What actually is it? Why does it do often get treated as dispensable, as insignificant–or even as horrible? (‘Dirt’ –  ‘dirty ’–  ‘disgusting’ )

I remember thinking about that one day, many years ago, after I had been standing in an airport departure lounge, watching a grandson – then not quite a year old – toddling around on the floor, trying out this new mode of locomotion so lately learned. I recall the way his curved, pink baby feet struggled to splay flat and hold his body vertical. He stepped, he wobbled, he collapsed. Tried again, collapsed, gave up, returned to crawling mode. This he could do, of course, with the speed of several months intensive practice. So off he went, skimming across the vast acres of polished airport vinyl, dodging the travelers and their suitcases. He reached a large trash can of cylindrical metal, twice his height. Up went the hands, fingers seeking, exploring. On to his feet again then, stretching up, those little fingers curling over the top of the trash can, gripping, pulling, until down it came, in a shower of cigarette ash, apple cores, Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers. He settled down contentedly, amid his booty, keen to examine every new object, perhaps to taste some.

By the time I retrieved him, his pink hands and feet and knees were a grimy gray and I tucked him on to my hip and raced for the washroom as though the seeds of a dozen weird and possibly fatal diseases were waiting only for him to put a finger in his mouth.

As I held him firmly with one arm around his waist and used my free hand to wash those baby fingers, my mind went back one week. We had been in the country, staying in our small cabin.

There he was, in my memory’s eye, crawling to the edge of the cabin doorway and easing himself gently over the step. There he was, crawling across the uneven brick paving, pausing to examine and to taste the weeds that grew between the cracks, to pick up a small stone, to dabble in the untidy place where paving and grass met, their boundary blurred by the sprawl of alyssum and nasturtiums.

Off he scuttled, emboldened by a quick look behind him to check that his mother and I were still waiting and caring; off to the mysteries of rainwater tank and bucket, of rock and log, of soft leaves and prickly leaves, darting skinks and slow-moving beetles, and above all, of earth. Dark brown earth.

I remember him coming back, his knees now green from grass, fragments of soil and sand in the soft crevices of his plump little hands, and I remember how I scooped him up and fed him some mashed carrots on a spoon and then, after a while, returned him to his mother’s breast for milk and sleep, and none of us even thought of washing him. So what was the difference? He was dirty, but this time it didn’t matter. Why not?

What, then, is dirt? Words like ‘dirty’ and ‘soiled’ seem to denote some unhealthy, unpleasant state of being, a contamination. But it was only after the airport incident that the truth came to me. The truth that there must once have been a time when the only way you got dirty was in the dirt. The only way you got soiled was in the soil. There was no other class of dirt except that which lay on the forest floor of our ancestors, or within the caves they used for shelter.

The soil, then as now, was made up of three basic types of ingredients: minerals (the fragmentary particles of all kinds of rocks), humus and living organisms. The humus was composed of a vast conglomeration of once-living matter, the waste products of creatures, the broken down remnants of plant parts, all combined into a rich, nurturing compound, essential to continuing life. It was from this compound that seedlings drew their nourishment and built themselves into grass, flowers, trees – green and growing things which, in their turn, nourished and built the animals. Organisms living within this soil mixture – molds, bacteria, worms and other creatures—made up the huge army of workers that converted the raw materials, like dead plant and animal matter, human and animal wastes, etc., into usable form. A huge army which, by the way, is still largely unstudied. It is an astounding fact that only a mere 5 percent of soil organisms have ever been described and classified even though there are thousands of different kinds in every teaspoonful of soil. I always used to assume that scientists knew everything there was to know about soil, but apparently their knowledge is extremely limited.

Once all these decaying and putrefying materials are fully decomposed and turned into humus, they are sweet smelling, clean, beautiful and wholesome again. They eventually become the crumbly chocolate-colored compost into which we love to plant our daffodil bulbs.

But between the decaying, rotting matter and the sweet smelling compost there is a time gap—and, for most of us, an awareness gap. The process of transformation is slow and mysterious and takes place mostly in the dark. So we see the two ends of the cycle but not the middle. Unless we recycle everything ourselves. Then we see the whole cycle. But most of us throw our garbage in the bin and we buy the compost at the garden store and we rarely if ever think about what lies between these two events.

When I rushed my grandson to the airport washroom, the dirt on his little pink hands seemed menacing somehow, ugly, out of place, obscene. It seemed to contain the dirt of a thousand feet that had walked who knows where, over who knows what. The noxious mixture from the trash can was the raw detritus of a culture that no longer recognizes the existence of its own waste products, let alone honors and recycles them. And many are not recyclable anyway. Therefore, this unknown mixture on his innocent hands repulsed and terrified me at some unconscious level where I intuitively felt –  rather than thought about – the difference.

Around that cabin, on the other hand, things lived and things died, and everything, even peoples’ own waste products, ended up eventually as sweet smelling compost in the garden or the orchard. (The residue from the composting toilets, by the way, only goes into the orchard, and not on the vegetable patch.) The process may be mysterious and wonderful, but the processed components are known. We always knew what went in, and always knew what came out. Daily, we remembered to bless the seen and unseen army of converters, the earthworms and their zillions of smaller companions that thrive beneath the surface of our soil. The child, crawling there, was crawling in the known world. Lightly guarded by those who know which berries and which spiders to watch out for, he was safe in his adventuresome exploration of the earth.

So I think that quality of familiarity with the earth, with the movement of things in and out of it, is something we have largely lost. Our loss of that familiarity and knowing, and the pollution of the soil by umpteen industrial and commercial processes that we know so little of, has separated us from that which is really the matrix of our existence. It has made us strangers to the soil and made of dirt a foreign and potentially lethal substance. In a way, we have become strangers to ourselves – to our own bodies and to their matrix.

The soil, and the rock below it, is the body of the Earth. The body with which we were born and in which we age is our borrowed piece of soil. We leave it behind us when we die, returning it to whence it came. So to me it makes sense that while it is in our care, we take good care of it. Like a library book, we should not trash it. Similarly, it behooves us to take good care of the Earth’s body too, since everything else which lives depends on that. To me, there is a deep connection between the way we take care of our bodies and the way we take care of the soil and of the world. Start thinking about one, follow it far enough and it inevitably leads you to thoughts of the other two. Want to be more healthy? Improve your diet. Which means eat better quality, cleaner food – organic food. Which means healthier soil. Which means a healthier planet. Our bodies are the soil, they are the Earth. As the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue so lyrically expressed it in his book Anam Cara, we are beings made of clay.

‘We so easily forget that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay… The human body is at home on the earth.’

So when my own grandchildren planted sunflowers in my garden, I had a lot more to tell them than my grandmother had told me. About the importance of soil, and the creatures who live in it. About the importance of nurturing and protecting it, for all our human sakes and for the sakes of all those non-human life forms with whom we share the planet. About its sacred nature. They needed to learn about humus. And about the huge, unthanked workforce of indefatigable beings who create the basis for new life out of the raw materials of death. A healthy patch of soil, I told them, is a huge, complex ecosystem in itself. An underground community. A vast co-operative project undertaken by billions and billions of tiny interdependent creatures, most of whom we neither see nor know the names of. All of them matter

I hope the children listened. So when that grandson who pulled over the trashcan now walks through the airport wheeling his suitcase, I hope he remembers the soil beneath the concrete and the creatures of the earth. I hope they will still be there for him, in even greater numbers, as people gradually begin to remember the importance of soil, of dirt, of earth. And I hope there are many days in his man’s life when that soil is sweet upon his hands and rich beneath his fingernails.

Ecopsychology in Practice; Heart and Soul of the ‘GreatTurning’?

by Hilary Prentice

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSPirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 20-21)

I was 13 years old in 1968.Through Sunday papers and eventually television, I learned of student demonstrations and the Vietnam war, countries being invaded, people starving, and amazing hopeful things like acupuncture, ‘flower power’ and civil rights marchers. The world was on fire, it seemed, both with trouble, and with the vision and optimism of upcoming revolution. It seemed inevitable to me that humanity would shortly sort these problems out. My question, as I left home to become a student myself, was how actually that was to be done, and how might I take part.

At University I changed from the school of European Studies, to African and Asian Studies, believing that wisdom would be found by stepping out of the ‘narrow’ world of the continent from which I came. Ironically, in doing so I missed a ‘foundation course’ on the influence of Marx and Freud on European thought.

Looking back, I see myself as having stepped innocently out into a world awash with the influence of these two massively powerful traditions. On the one hand, I learned that human suffering, wars and poverty, are massively shaped by a profit-orientated social and economic system, and that to really address these problems we need to radically change how our society is structured. Only then will human happiness really flower. Religion and psychotherapy were the opium of the masses, a diversion from the real issues, designed to confuse and missing the point.

On the other hand, as my African friends told me to sort out my own country please, and I encountered the women’s movement, I discovered the world of ‘personal politics’. Here, how we relate to each other inside our homes, our private thoughts and repressed pain, our socialisation as children to behave in certain ways, our capacity to take our power or to feel our vulnerability, these things are no longer secondary to the ‘real’ (and more male)world of social and economic structure, but can also be seen as having primacy, as being the ground from which those structures in fact spring. And as personal politics shaded into psychotherapy and counselling, and these in turn into a new spirituality, I found a matching but opposite militancy. Now I was told that all real change comes from within, we create the outer world from the inner, and that efforts to change things by beginning with the outer are doomed to failure, and are in fact a clear avoidance of facing the real issues, which lie inside ourselves.

This division runs very deep in our culture, and there are many who hold to one or other of these opposed views. For me, and I imagine many GreenSpirit readers, new paradigm thinking is more a matter of ‘both/and’ – there is a never-ending yin/yang pattern here, a dialectic, where the outer arises from the inner, and in turn the inner is shaped by the outer. Welcoming both ‘sides’ to their place at the table of transformation seems to me to be hugely healing, echoing the journey of healing between male and female, but also that between science and religion in the west, and that between modern and indigenous, as all of our world can again become ‘animate’, full of inner life, full of spirit, and sacred in its every form.

Ecopsychology, the bringing back together of ecos and psyche, can been seen as also addressing that very wound, that disconnection between the inner worlds of humans and the world all around us, that contrasts so starkly with healthy indigenous societies which both experience the connectedness and know how to live sustainably. I have been passionate about ecopsychology for over a decade, and have found it easy to see its significance at a profound level, and to share that with others to some extent, but much harder to find forms or create practice that really seem able to release the revolutionary potential here, in anyway proportionate to the urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Imagine my excitement then, when less than two years ago I found myself living ten miles from Totnes, as an extraordinary and inspirational process got underway, called ‘Transition Town Totnes’. This turned out to be inspired by Peak Oil, the insight that the entire world ‘civilisation’ is now based on the massive overuse of the energy in oil, laid down billions of years ago over millennia and used up by modern humans in a few decades, the production of which is now peaking and going into decline, whilst world demand for oil continues to increase. Global warming is of course a consequence of our burning of fossil fuels, the other side of the same coin, also warning us to change and change fast. The Transition idea, inspired by Rob Hopkins, is simply that instead of waiting for catastrophic collapse, we plan ahead of time to transform our communities, beginning locally because localisation is key, to a post-oil way of life, sustainable, resilient, and almost certainly happier for humans as well as the earth. This is surely a good idea, and is spontaneously appearing in different forms all over the world. In the form of the Transition Town movement, it has ‘gone viral’; at the time of writing (Jan 2008) over 400 other Transition initiatives in the UK or around the world have either been launched, or are contemplating this.

In Totnes the evolving structure has begun with a number of active working groups and initiatives – a food group, a local government liaison group, a business group and the Totnes pound project, building and housing, transport, arts, education and schools, – and what was originally the ‘Psychology of Change’ group, which we shortly named ‘Heart and Soul’, embracing psychology, spirituality and consciousness aspects of transition.

Here was an opportunity to bring the aspect of inner work, of personal process, to a big project of outer transformation of the very structures by which we live – and we were all welcome, very literally, to sit at the same table. Again that question; how actually do you do that, having arrived at a time and place where it would be possible and welcome? The initial questions we faced, and continue to face about this are several. How do you bring awareness of ‘process’ issues, of our inner worlds to people drawn to other working groups many of whom may not see this as particularly relevant or helpful, and indeed should we? How can we use other skills, such as the capacity to ask deep questions of the overall transition field in eco-constellations work, to help support that field to stay as clear as possible, and informed by as deeper wisdom as possible? How can other skills and insights, such as small group work, or counselling/supervision skills, be brought to support those already active, or to support people to become active, to make profound changes? How might we share the insights of the ‘cognitive and perceptual revolution’ (Macy) in our inner lives, in a way that inspires and supports those who wish to address the practical problems, but believe that it is simply ‘human nature’ to be selfish and greedy? Or the insight that the changes from competition to cooperation, from greed and revenge to compassion, from outer consumption to inner riches of creativity and intimacy – are not just necessary, but are profoundly desirable, a step forward in human evolution? And as Totnes is already awash with therapists and meditation teachers, is it all happening already, or is there a role for focussing on the links between all of that and the external transition process, such that the latter is also transformational in the lives of these very therapists and meditation teachers? In practice, we have taken an open, broad-church approach, hoping to bring people and ideas together towards the goals of synergy and cross-fertilisation in both directions. We began by offering a series ofworkshop type events to whomever might be interested – Joanna Macy based despair and empowerment work, an afternoon of using constellations work to ask questions about our work with healing the earth, a day workshop from someone trained by the Pacha Mama Alliance (Waking the Dreamer) and an outdoor midwinter ritual based on the Dagara tradition – after a formal launch, attended by over 50 people, consisting of a talk, songs, a ‘deep-time’ process, and a spontaneous sharing circle of what we wished to call into being. After this we began to have open meetings, which turned out to be facilitated mixtures of process and business. Next we organised an Open Space day for Heart and Soul – at which a whole mixture of workshops was offered, from exploring the role of anger or meditation, to brief offerings of native American council forms, and pagan rituals. Gradually, more people offered events, including a pagan based ritual around a G8 meeting, an equinox bonfire…

As well as workshop-type events, we were easily able to include Heart and Soul speakers in the big speaker main TTT programme, initially borrowing from the Schumacher teachers. These began with Peter Russell on the planetary evolution of consciousness, followed by a sell-out with Marianne Williamson Each of these attracted people whose first contact with TTT was via these events. As people were turned away from Marianne Williamson, a video of her speech was shown later, followed by a ‘fishbowl’ discussion of some of the themes she raised. This was followed by a poetry event with Drew Dellinger and local poet Matt Harvey. Our next big speaker will be ecopsychologist Mary Jayne Rust.

An idea that has been floating around my world for well over a decade has been the formation of ‘green consciousness raising’ groups, a little like the women’s groups that initially empowered the women’s movement, or the smallish peace groups/affinity groups that were able to take direct action for peace. Small groups in which people become close, share intimately, and also take action for change which arises from this, are a well established and potent form for political and social change. We had an official launch of ‘Home Groups’ last summer. Some seem to have been very successful, and some seem to have fallen at the first hurdle of matching diaries. We feel this project has much potential, but needs more input to be taken up more widely.

A small group of Heart and Soulers organised a celebratory summer picnic for all of TTT. Whilst our job is not, as was once wryly suggested, to make tea for the activists, one of the insights that repeatedly arises in our part of the process is of course that it matters that we get to know each other, that we have fun and that we celebrate, as well as that we make space for our feelings, or stop and enquire, or stop and listen to the silence.

Lastly, my co-focaliser has called for people able to offer supervision/ mentoring support to people very actively involved in TTT, and has begun to match these with requests for such support.

Looking back, we have done a great deal in a short space of time. We are part of a constantly evolving, open, fluid field, which is constantly attracting new people, and of which no-one can have a complete overview. We do tend to attract likeminded people, and do not know how many very different people have also been touched by what we do, or how many people coming from the consciousness end of the spectrum have been moved to also address their carbon footprints, for example. Doing what you may with an open heart and with integrity, and trusting the larger process are strong values in Heart and Soul as well as wider process. Hopefully what we have done ripples out in countless ways, as does the work and play of the many others working on different parts of this giant jigsaw.

To find out about, or initiate, transition initiatives where you live, contact the Transition Network, and of course I hope some of you may wish to start Heart and Soul type groups as part of your own local sustainability initiatives.

 Hilary Prentice is a psychotherapist living and working on Dartmoor. She has been passionately involved with ecopsychology for more than a decade, and has been co-focalising the Heart and Soul group of Transition Town Totnes.

The Ecological Self

by Chris Clarke

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 4-6)

I have twice in a GreenSpirity group sung Ronnie Kahn’s song[1] “Return Again” with the words:

Return again, Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are;
return to what you are;
return to where you are:
born and reborn again.

On the second occasion we danced as we sung it, on a natural lawn encircled by trees in the New Forest. On “who you are” each brought their hands to their heart, the place of the yearning of love, our individuality. Then on “what you are” the hands moved to the belly, the place of our more visceral emotions that we share with our mammalian cousins. Then we raised our arms wide and expanded our consciousness, to join with the trees, and up into the sky and stars as we turned around on “where you are”. At the end we felt we were indeed reborn, because we had redefined what was our self.

Each enactment of a line of the song is a thought, a mini-story, about the self. I see most human activities of meaning-making, and especially sciences, as telling stories; and psychology as telling stories about the self. Psychotherapists help their client to tell a more meaningful story to themselves about themselves; academic psychologists try to tell a more general story. For both, a good story is one that integrates and makes sense of the many aspects of our experience and behaviour, without ignoring the uncomfortable bits. And for the client in psychotherapy, a good story (like a good novel) needs to be one that they can inhabit, live by, that engages their emotions as well as their intellect. The story we tell depends on the way in which we live and experience the world. Conversely, the way we live and experience can be shaped by the story we tell. Each such story carries with it a particular concept of the self.

Stories about the self in the West, from Plato onwards, portrayed it as essentially individual and self-contained. The real self might have been simply the soul, as with Plato; or a combination of different structures, such as Aristotle’s vegetative, animal and human souls, which are all present in us, or the later Christian division into body, spirit and soul. All these, however, are restricted to a single individual. As far as I know, C G Jung was the first in the West to go beyond a self-contained individuality by depicting a self with a dimension that was extended, continuing into the collective unconscious that joined up our conscious parts like the sea bed uniting an archipelago. This notion leads on to our ecological connections, taking us to the Ecological Self.

The name “Ecological Self” was first introduced by Arne Naess[2] in 1985. Later he defined it as “that with which [a person] identifies”, where by “identifies” he understands “a spontaneous, non-rational . . . process through which the interest or interests of another being are reacted to as our own.” The idea is rooted in his own experience. He describes how

“I looked through an old fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic. What was basic was the process of identification, that ‘I see myself in the flea’. If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent.”[3]

A more heroic example is the moment, now famous, when Aldo Leopold witnessed the death of a wolf that he had shot[4] and was so transformed by his experience as to become one of the founders of the environmental movement in the USA. Both these men found their selves extended to a greater world, so that, from their new story of the self, their actions and values were changed.

The Ecological Self is well described by psychological theories that see the self as arising from a dynamic web of relationships. As Isabel Clarke argues in her article here, “our relationship with those other beings with whom we share the earth, the animals, and with the very ecosystem and the earth itself, is knitted into the fabric of our being, The character of that relationship lies at the heart of who we are, but paradoxically, we lose part of our individuality when we really embrace relationship. ” This is a story of the self that goes beyond the individual. Elizabeth Ann Bragg sums up the concept in the following points:

Ecological self is a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life-forms, ecosystems and the Earth itself.

Experiences of ecological self involve:

an emotional resonance with other life-forms;

a perception of being similar, related to, or identical with other life-forms;

spontaneously behaving towards the ecosphere as one would towards one’s small self (with nurture and defence).

It is possible to expand one’s sense of self from the personal to the ecological.

She roots this idea in psychological theories in which “the ‘self’ is constituted in and through connections and relationships with others” and in particular in the insights of systems theory: the modern scientific approach of analysing things not in terms of the parts that they are made of, but in terms of their “dynamics”, the way in which they respond and change within their context, “with energy and information flowing across fluid boundaries” [3].

The most comprehensive account of the Ecological Self has been set out in two books by Freya Mathews, in which she develops a systems-theoretic view of a living cosmos where the Ecological self finds its place. The first, simply called The Ecological Self[5], is rather theoretical in flavour. To begin with she inquires as to what the ultimate foundation of the universe is, the “substance” (in the specialist terminology of mediaeval metaphysics) which owes nothing to anything else for its existence. Using the physics popular at the time she wrote, she suggests that “substance” is none other than space, thought of as a curved, dynamically changing entity. The physics has changed, with the substance now being like a sort of universal field. But the implication remains: the foundation of the universe is a single undivided whole that contains and constitutes everything. She alludes to Spinoza’s vision that this foundational substance (“God, also known as Nature”) must have two aspects: a material aspect of extension which allows all things to find their own identity, and an aspect of consciousness in which all things connect with each other, with themselves and with the whole.

This is a crucial change of emphasis, turning upside down both the old concept of the individual self and the old physics of individual atoms. Now it is not a matter of trying to join together souls and atoms that are created separate. Instead “what we are” and “who we are” is a unity across all space and all beings. On this view, the uniting nature of the Ecological Self is what we start from, the source of our being in which we are created. Our call is not to struggle to create our Ecological Self, but to allow ourselves to “return again” to it. The message is similar to that of the New Universe Story familiar to GreenSpirit members: that “we are stardust”, united with each other and with the depths of time through the cosmic processes that created the atoms of which we are made. But the message is now stronger. We are not just created by combining separate atoms, but we are differentiated from a single undivided substance.

She too, like Bragg, uses systems theory, and for her the idea of a dynamics, with information flowing across boundaries, enters in two distinct ways. First, the dynamics within a region of space marks off this region as an organism, something whose patterns of change are focused within itself. Second, the dynamics connecting it with its outside context establish the ecological nature of the organism and so constitute what she calls a Self: a subsystem which is both part of the greater whole and also has an individuality through its relations with this greater whole. So, as stressed by Isabel Clarke, we are our relationships. This means that when we “return again” to a recognition that our Self is by its nature Ecological, we are not simply flowing back into the oneness from which we came. Rather, we reconnect with this oneness bringing with us also the particular individuality that we have learnt through life. This is the meaning of being human.

Mathew’s second book, For Love of Matter[6] gives these ideas impact by grounding them in her own experience. She recounts her experience of seeing, with an inner eye, the inner consciousness of all things, all linked in their selfhood whether we ordinarily think of them as alive or not. She then recounts through several personal stories how recognition of her Ecological Self has not only overcome difficulties in her life, but has enabled her own individuality to grow as well. Individual and Ecological are not contrary, but mutually reinforcing.

For me, the story of the Ecological Self, at the heart of Ecopsychology, seems a vital part of GreenSpirit’s contribution to spiritual change in society. Our rituals, such as the dance I have described, encourage awareness of the Ecological Self and makes it real for those who take part in them. At the same time, the concept as developed by Mathews, in conjunction with the New Universe Story which links it with our cosmic context, provides for the first time a story that links psychology, physics and theology; not just by analogies, but by a detailed account that is grounded in our individual experience of life and the collective experience of science. I believe that this story matters to society as never before, and that GreenSpirit is uniquely placed to tell it.


[2] Arne Naess (1985) Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In M. Tobias, Ed., Deep Ecology (Avant Books,1985), pp.256-270 (quoted in Bragg [3])
[3] Elizabeth Ann Bragg. Towards Ecological Self: deep ecology meets constructionist self-theory (Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, 93–108, 1987).
[4] Aldo Leopold, Aldo: (1948 [1987]) A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford University Press, 1948[1987]),p. 129
[5] Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge 1991)
[6] Freya Mathews. For Love of Matter: a contemporary panpsychism (State University of New York Press, 2003) reviewed in GreenSpirit, Summer 2005, pp 19-20

Relative to Earth

By Sandra White
In a land not so very far away from here, there lives  “… a Prince who … is interested only in himself and his clothes and how he looks. So his father has a round tower built for him, and the wall of the top room and the roof are made of alternate panels of mirror and window. The view from the windows shows all the world and the sky.

The Prince loves the room and won’t leave it. All he does is look at himself in the mirrors and at the reflections from every side. He never looks out of a window.

The next day he’s woken by a creaking sound. And the creaking wakes him every morning. He thinks nothing of it; then after several days he notices that the mirrors are becoming wider than the windows. …

Well, the Prince is chuffed with the bigger mirrors, and every morning he wakes at the creaking and goes to see how much more they have widened. This goes on until, one day, he thinks the mirrors are getting dirty, because he can’t see himself clearly, so he sets about polishing the glass. But it makes no difference. Then he sees what’s happening.

The mirrors aren’t dirty. It’s the windows that are getting narrower and letting less and less light in. He tries to force the windows apart, but he can’t. Outside, the sun is shining and he sees all the bright colours. And when he looks in the mirrors all he sees is a dimming reflection.

Each day he presses his face against the mirrors, but he can see no more than his own self fading. Then there is one last creak, and the wall and roof becomes all mirror, and the Prince is alone in the dark.” (1)

Meanwhile, outside and “In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key but does fit it!” thought he; “no doubt there are precious things in that little box.” He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.” (2)

These two fairy stories, the first from Alan Garner’s novel “Thursbitch” and the second, “The Golden Key”, the last of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, come together in my mind as a metaphor for our time.

As we know, one usual way of the fairy story is to start with an old King who has no sons … or perhaps he has sons but they are lost … or the youngest son is apparently a simpleton … in any event, the end of an era is nigh and a miracle is needed, an act of transformation to enable the creation of a much needed new order. At the start of the story it is completely unclear where the transformation is to be found, which character(s), which plot turn(s), which juxtaposition of opposites will birth the magic …

As an image of Western culture’s fixation with itself, which it is energetically exporting to the rest of the world, Alan Garner’s story is compelling. It reminds me of eco-philosopher David Abram’s (3) talk to GreenSpirit in April 2004, my first meeting with that organisation. I will never forget how he described the impact of the moment in human history when we changed from pictorial writing to alphabets, using letters expressing only the sounds made by the human mouth: moving his right hand back and forth between an imagined page in his left hand and his own mouth, it was then, he suggested, we first turned away from the natural world that our pictograms evoked and chose a mirror over a window.

The trouble in Alan Garner’s fairy tale is that the King is not old and dying. Rather, he is alive and well, the designer, architect and builder of the Prince’s tower, facilitating without challenge his son’s bedazzlement with himself and his fine clothes. No graceful abdication here, no allegiance to the cycle of life, no making way for the new. Rather, a seeding of more of the same.

Herein lies the deepest danger to humanity and the rest of large life on this planet now. There may be sophisticated story lines in The Archers where ‘true greenies’ splutter and argue that being sustainable is not about technological fixes … but most people do believe that the whole problem will be solved by technology with little noticeable impact on our current lifestyles. Our culture holds technology in such bright light that few recognise that we are, indeed, living in the darkness of the Prince’s tower of mirrors. While we live in such relative material comfort, the proposition that we (4) are harming ourselves profoundly through our cultural norms and that the damage we are doing to the rest of life on Earth is an inevitable extension of our self-harm, seems preposterous.

Yet, in the ways we live, it is as if we no longer know what it means to be fully human.

Autumn 2007 saw me helping a friend sift her two large compost bins, which had been left to their own devices for over two years. Once a week, I walked up the hill and for one or two hours repeatedly thrust my spade into the compost and then spread it out with my hands, looking for unbroken-down matter. Of course, there was hardly any and I marvelled at the fineness of this soil. Each time, my next two days were transformed. Everything I engaged in, work or play, filled the ‘right’ amount of time and I was in an effortless, grounded, calm, light and joyful state! As the week wore on, these qualities gradually faded. I became hungry for those compost bins! Sometimes I went twice. I seemed to understand innately that, on my hands and knees in the compost, I was in the heart of the cycle of life itself. Some days I wanted to burrow deep into that soil, breathe in its smell, feel its fine granules and its clumps, cover myself with it; move myself into the very centre of life. I was home. At home, my body feels secure and my mind can settle in its safety, in its solidity, in its fluid responsiveness. At home, my unified mind and body relate anew to time, space and motion, accurately measuring them while flowing expansively within them. Reconnected with my ‘creatureness’, more is available to me: my whole, instinctual intelligence as well as that of my intellect, working in harmony. Why is this unified, flowing state so elusive in modern life?

In her lecture to the Guild of Psychotherapy in November 2007, Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust highlighted how Freud expressed Western humanity’s attitude to Nature: “The principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature. We all know that in many ways civilisation does this fairly well already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the elements which seem to mock at all human control; the earth which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them. … With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilisation.” (5) With this, he named our fear, inherited through generations and generations since earliest humanity and still as live today; our fear of being overwhelmed and, ultimately, of death. How accurately he described our project of compensating for our smallness and vulnerability by erecting bigger and bigger towers … for the work of civilisation is twofold: not only does it serve our pragmatic needs and creative aspirations, it also compensates for our collective, cultural inability to be at peace with our individual, small and finite place within the cycle of life.

In September 2007, at the GreenSpirit annual gathering at Scargill House in Yorkshire, I facilitated a workshop ‘Re-Turning to Earth’, during which we found another living being and regarded it with loving attention and then imagined it regarding us in the same way. I was drawn to a beautiful flaming tree, gorgeous in its autumn coat. Up close, inside its branches, I found myself contemplating its trunk, surprised at its firmness and strength. I admired the level of protection its bark gave the tree – and when I imagined it looking at me, for the first time I realised how vulnerable I am under my soft outer layer. I understood in a new way why we humans build defensive walls in our minds.

Freud also addressed this, for his words describe not only our relationship with Nature, but also our relationship with our own minds and, particularly, the unconscious. The powers of the unconscious mind can feel like the tumult of Nature, and therapy rooms and great literature across many lands resonate with vivid accounts of quaking and feeling torn apart, buried, deluged, drowned, in turmoil, and blown before the storms of the deep layers of our minds. Here, in this inner landscape, we must civilise ourselves too or be swept away. When we look at how he described the project of building consciousness, we can see that the thread of conquest continues: “Where id was, there ego shall be.”(6) He explicitly equates the unconscious with Nature when describing the intention of psycho-analysis as “to strengthen the ego, … to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id … it is a work of culture not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee”. (7) With his verb “appropriate”, the founding father of psycho-analysis draws attention to our plunder, our taking to ourselves what is not ours to take. Out of its fear of the unconscious, the modern ego does that within the ecology of the mind, aspiring to make itself large and dominant and take the credit for creativity, order, value and intelligence. Within this mindset, denying those qualities to the Earth and, indeed, the Cosmos is a tiny, inevitable step.

From inside and out, then, a core aspect of humanity’s experience is one of being threatened and assaulted by powers vastly bigger than us. How welcome, how vital, the idea of a rational self – an island of certainty! And how greatly we feel we need to build up this experience of rationality, of logic, of control, against the forces opposing us. How safe and attractive those towers feel! Perhaps, if we can build them high enough, we will finally feel secure.

Carl Jung built a tower, between 1923 and 1955 and largely with his own hands, right on the edge of the upper lake of Zürich at Bollingen. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he wrote: “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself. … At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” (8) His whole description of how he built the Tower, in successive sections, each when he “once more had a feeling of incompleteness”, 9 shows how it traced the evolution of his personality, expanding and spiralling as he allowed in and explored different aspects of his own and universal human experiences as they surfaced from the unconscious. What a different project! And how beautiful the paradox that when he is most deeply himself inside his tower, he also is spread out, inside everything in the external landscape … These moments of interconnection allow us access to the truly infinite – here we can experience largesse without having to compensate for our smallness. Here we can find our loving empathy.

For Jung, individuation is achieved through dialogue, allowing in as many facets of our minds as is humanly possible so that each can take its place within the personality and be consciously mediated – not eradicated – by an ego that can also take its rightful place, both strong and humble. This endeavour is counter-intuitive to the modern mind, for it involves turning to meet exactly that which one fears, despises and hates, experiencing time and again our “weakness and helplessness” when grappling with something new, alien and previously rejected, learning to love and respect it and finally making room for it within oneself. Even with the ultimate gains of strengthening and growing, settling within one’s own skin rather than continually running scared, this rich but sometimes arduous, life-long journey seems an unattractive undertaking in our material age, where immediate success, power, and practical effectiveness are so highly prized.

Jung understood too the vital tragedy that the modern mind has cut itself off from earlier times when we valued our live connection with the mythic orders of life. In unexplainable ways, this connection enables us to be with both our smallness and our magnificence, just as tales of the gods the world over expose their foibles as well as acclaim their powers. In this connection, we can acclimatise ourselves to Nature within and without; we can meet the vastness of life and not feel that we have to conquer it. Upon this bedrock, the expansive experience Jung describes is available to us and, in its turn, feeds our inner security, from where we can be at peace inside with the small, finite nature of our individual lives and our relativity to Earth. This, perhaps, is the psychological/spiritual plane of the cycle of life.

Instead, so fixed are we on the dangers evoked by Freud, our modern minds seem hardly able to understand the dangers of the over-specialisation, one-sidedness, and mono-culture we are generating in our hunger for comfort and certainty. Never has “as within, so without” been so visible: As 21st century humanity cultivates our linear, rational, literal, either/or aspects of mind until they flourish and colonise the majority of our inner being, so we impose that inner state on the outer world. As we crush more and more of our imagination in our inner lives, siphoning it off into the realm of artists rather than welcoming it (unless for advertising) into the business of our everyday concerns, so we squeeze out the habitats of other, fantastic species. As we train our children to become commercially useful, so we commodify the natural world. Intoxicated by the apparently limitless capability of the technology we have engineered, as we denigrate and seek to escape the limits of our bodies, so we cannot bear to engage with the finite capacity of Earth. And, as we treat ourselves increasingly like machines, refusing to honour and heed the stress and breakdown of our sensitive bodies and psychologies, so we deny the feedback signals of the sentient, living Earth herself, equally stressed and breaking down under the strain of modern living, of being treated like both a machine and a huge warehouse of resources existing only to service our every unfeasible, material whim.

As we hate and conquer our inner multiplicity, so we hate and destroy the sheer biodiversity of life on the planet. In so doing, we forget that through our evolutionary journey we are her descendants; with our bodies made of the same elements as the Earth, we are expressions of her. In so doing, we dishonour what it means to be a full human being, which is to be a member of the Earth community. In our forgetting and dishonouring, roundly we attack our whole self!

This is where our fear has brought us. Small wonder that we shop and binge in myriad ways, alternately exciting, numbing and comforting ourselves in the face of our ongoing self-assault. And no wonder at all that we do equal violence to our larger body, the Earth, and the other species sharing her with us as home.

On 16th January 2008, Microsoft announced that they have developed sensory pads wired up to computers, to be placed on the skins of the people operating them. The pads’ purpose is to monitor the people’s efficiency, measuring their bodies for signs of stress and, equally, drops in concentration and breaks in work. So this also is where we have come to: human being as battery hen – both abominable! What an image for our age: humanity in service to the machine.

Why are we willing to subject ourselves to this?

Contemplating the conflicting realities of human life, our wrestling with the duality of aspiring to so much while inhabiting small, fragile bodies, I have reconnected with the image of the “iron chest” of “precious things” buried in the ground underneath the snow. The story speaks to one, central quest of human life; the desire in each of us to find the treasure, whatever form it takes. Our commercial culture may have frozen out ancient aspirations to inner wealth and no doubt this fuels our inability to feel sated and rich. Yet Jung’s explorations of the collective unconscious, “the dynamic psychic substratum, common to all humanity, on the basis of which each individual builds his or her private experience of life” (10) show that all of us have access to older, deeper and wider wisdom. However thoroughly modernity denies olden truths, there is a layer of knowing that is ever present, within us and beyond, always available to us if we turn towards it. So, I believe, it is within human nature itself to cherish our individual portions of the soul, even unconsciously. This, too, is why our minds build walls; to protect our inner riches. For their nature is itself paradoxical – resilient and delicate, perhaps like whatever is closed inside the buried iron chest. With its tiny key and almost invisible keyhole, to me that chest represents the very thing that our precious inner selves need in this age of reason, in the conditions we are creating for ourselves, our communities and the rest of life on Earth – a place of safety. Where can that be, now?

In a leap of imagination I instantly feel myself resisting, I suddenly wonder whether today it is within technology. With our physical being under such onslaught, such denigration, it seems the modern mind cannot contemplate humanity itself as a safe harbour. In the unconscious process of projection, what if we have collectively, secretly, unknowingly and imaginatively placed all that is precious of the inner life of the human being inside the hard outer boxes of our exalted computers and our machines … for safe keeping? Of course, then, we would become fascinated with our souls’ new home … of course we would engage animatedly with whatever the machines can do, exhorting them to become greater and greater, achieve more and more, craving sight of our magnificence. I can hardly bear this idea. Yet it makes a macabre sense to me. In this frame, Microsoft’s dream of human beings wired up to computers becomes an image of our linking ourselves to life support machines … More than tolerating it, we would intuit that our lives depend upon it for, unlike Mrs Coulter and her experimenters at Bolvanger, (11) we unconsciously know that we must never sever ourselves from our daemons …

It may be that the machines provide a temporary safe house; I can feel I want to allow it in. But I also shake in the immense danger of tethering ourselves to equipment which operates only in linear, either/or ways and then identifying with the sense of control it fosters. There lies the road to destruction.

“The Golden Key” provides an image of hope for this moment in time. In his need for warmth, the boy allowed himself to be called to the Earth. Herself an expression of the Cosmos and a true home of the soul from which ‘our individual portions’ derive, (12) the Earth endures, waits and calls to us, out of her yearning for reunification and to receive, once more, our adoring gaze. Could we but know it, we too yearn for reunification. And here is an essential paradox: we need to know, experience and express our unity in the Earth, in the Cosmos, and simultaneously we need to know, experience and express our separate individuality. For us, at our current stage of evolution, it is two-ness not one-ness, it is relationship between opposites, not identification, which provides the conditions for creation. In the modern era, Western culture has lost this perspective. Rather than continually endeavouring to hold these two different realities in our consciousness and bear the unbearable tension between them, we have collapsed them together, living as if we believe ourselves to be the sole unity, the only unit of value. This is not an instance of ‘the macrocosm in the microcosm’; our relinquishing of this mighty, core effort and replacing it with the pursuit of happiness and comfort is both effect and cause of an impoverished, increasingly exhausted psychological state, developed over millennia as we have profoundly struggled to find our place in the world, to come to terms with our greatness and our smallness, our very humanity. Our exhaustion can only exacerbate if we continue to seek replenishment through the seductive substitutes, including adrenalin, which we are currently creating for ourselves; in which case we will continue to impose exhaustion on the Earth’s resources.

In my view, one major question for our age lies in the iron chest’s key and in the nature of its keyhole. Rather than being a matter of one more turn in the same direction, surely, just like the circular dial on a safe it requires turning to the opposite: To embodiment! To imagination! To relating to the living Earth herself! For, could we but know it too, whilst safety and certainty of life cannot be guaranteed, there is greater safety in fully occupying and relying on the resources of our whole, human being, embedded in and in relationship with Earth’s ecology. Inside our whole being, we may withdraw our projections from technology and discover how extraordinarily rich and powerful we ordinarily are. In such a place of security, we may become open again to desiring the extraordinary richness of the rest of life also to flourish into its full power. And in that place, we may remember that the health and wellbeing of the whole supports the health and wellbeing of the individual whereas, when an either/or world view dominates a finite system, the converse is not true.

Only relationship – engagement with the other – develops our sensitivity to that other and our capacity to meet their needs as well as our own. Like many, I believe that the redemption of our age lies in our reviving the field of mutual attraction between human creature and Earth, and rooting ourselves here. For me, the iron chest provides a tiny metaphor for the Earth’s own ability to protect her treasure, of course just like ours, keeping it safe and waiting until we are ready to find it … hoping that we will eventually feel the bite of where we are – isolated in the Prince’s dark tower. Inside each of us is the being, here in the Golden Key a boy, who has always known the value of the gold he glimpsed and who holds the hope that a different, fruitful, life-sustaining relationship with ourselves, with our human communities, with the whole Earth community and indeed with technology can be birthed. For, by first listening to his freezing body and then digging with his bare hands in the snow, down into the Earth to find the treasure chest, this boy answers Nature’s call, out of her echo within him, out of his own knowing that he is “spread out over the landscape and inside things, and … living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” …

How will we turn the key?

1 Garner, A Thursbitch (The Harvill Press 2003) pp.120-121

2 ‘The Golden Key’, in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1975)

3 Abram, D The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books 1997) pp. 256-257

4 Whilst respecting that many of us choose to live differently from the dominant cultural norms I describe, I use “we” throughout to avoid a false ‘them and us’ dichotomy

5 Freud, S The Future of an Illusion (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1961) as quoted in Dunann Winter, D Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (Addison Wesley Longman 1997)

6 Freud, S New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1933)

7 ibid.

8 Jung, C G Memories, Dreams and Reflections (Fontana Press 1993) p.252

9 ibid., p.251

10 Stevens, A A Very Short Introduction to Jung (Oxford University Press 1994) p.22

11 Pullman, P Northern Lights (Scholastic Ltd 1998) pp. 274-275

12 For some discussion of alchemical ideas about the ‘Lumen Naturae’ see Jung, C G Collected Works 8 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche paras 388-389 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969)

Sandra White works as a Jungian counsellor and an ecopsychologist and she is in preparation to become a Jungian analyst. She also offers coaching and, together with others in a range of settings, is co-creating programmes which facilitate enrichment through embodiment, imagination and relating to our living Earth. She walks regularly on Hartham Common near her home, loves to honour and celebrate the sacred in all life and was a member of the GreenSpirit Council when this was first posted.

Cosmos and Psyche

by Jean Hardy

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 6-8)

When writing on ecopsychology one has usually, not surprisingly, started off from the person, the psyche, to try to understand the vast and intricate interconnections of universe and individual. But a different light might be thrown if we started off from some tentative consideration of Cosmos, the Universe, the Earth, and then tried to deduce something of our own nature, our psyche, as creatures in this world?

I am encouraged and stimulated to do this now, because of the vivid presentation of the earth’s story in a television series by lain Stewart called Earth: The Power of the Planet. The story starts with Impact, the violence of the universe’s formation and continuing array of projectiles ‘careering’ constantly and uncontrolled round the cosmic system for billions of years: then, moving to Gaia herself, Fire, the volcanoes and the earth’s centre, as hot as the sun: then the story moves to Air, atmosphere within above and below the earth’s surface and boundaries, then Water – ice and ocean: then the energies and forces and powerful contradictions that act and react between all these elements: and then a story of extraordinary order which underlies it all, and the unique alignment of planets that enabled life to occur on earth – shielded from meteorites by the greater magnetism of Jupiter, held in place by the moon, warmed by the sun, held to a enabling temperature for life. Perhaps we live in the only place that has all these features in the universe: we are ‘a rare earth’, as Stewart puts it.

So what could we deduce about ourselves from this stunning and energetic story about earth’s creatures over the four and a half billion years of her existence? Such an amazing variety of forms- bacteria still predominant: flowers from 65 million years ago: dinosaurs, carnivores and herbivores, worms, mammals including people, fish and whales, trees and vegetables. All grow, change and die: all are forever changing throughout their lives – are ‘temporary arrangements’ from moment to moment – all live with other organisms, so each body is a world in itself. All are related and interconnected – feeding from each other, protecting each other in communities, genetically similar. The embryos of modern humans are almost indistinguishable from those of other mammals and there is evidence that we have the remnants of reptilian as well as mammalian brains, together with human frontal lobes and the neocortex. Physically there is a continuity of being, and communication at many levels in plants and animals.

So what is that the creatures of this earth basically do in their lives? Gerard Manley Hopkins gives the most succinct answer I know in his poem As Kingfishers catch fire.. “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…. Crying ‘what I do is me: for that I came’.”

It seems reasonable that we, in the same way as every other living being, came in order to live out our potential and our particular form of intelligence and spirit. And maybe we came to do that not only as individuals but as a collective as we are such sociable beings. Here we could find Carl Jung’s concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ and ‘collective unconscious’ as relevant. So for humans, as well as for any other social interacting being, there are always three explicit yet connected levels of being: the individual, the social/group and the cosmic.

What are the characteristics we could see in the nature of the earth, and of the universe itself, that we could take from Stewart’s presentation, or from the Universe Story, and that could be seen in us? This is almost going back to the medieval theory of correspondence – “as above, so below”. Humans have long perceived that the universe is made of patterns and energies that are repeated at different levels. The characteristics which seem to me most obvious are:- i) change and order: creation and destruction: the fundamental opposites ii) the creative, innovative energy within all things, always changing iii) the relationship of all living creatures to each other, so we are all as one, and yet so separate iv) the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water, the humours, long recognised v) the inner consciousness, the outer creative spirit, all one in most of the indigenous religions vi) light and dark vii) so, if we are lucky, a sense of the deep order and transcendent intelligence, beauty and terror of things, truly not fully imaginable to our human brains but expressed in some early religions

Walt Whitman, the poet, wrote a remarkable passage in 1882, summing up a picture of something like this perception from the point of view of the individual:-

“There is, apart from pure intellect, in the makeup of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realises without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it the goal and apex of all education deserving the name), an intuition of absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible makebelieve and general unsettleness, we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all histories and all time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the hunter. (Of) such soul-sight and root center for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface.”

When we find a particularly articulate, fulfilled and insightful person, he or she can express something of this realisation: I am thinking of Simon Rattle, the conductor, who said in a recent radio interview this year, 126 years later than Whitman, that for him, great music is the lava flow… coming from the centre of the earth’: that for him, music is the ‘Vine of life, and words, even poetry, only the bottle, the container’: and that, for him, great joy and great grief come together, as an equal force, in much magnificent music. He added, that in becoming a conductor, he had found early “the right thing to do”: this whole interview seems to fulfil the spirit of the Hopkins poem – “for this I came”.

Our Greenspirit articles all touch upon this primary element of search in the human experience, Don and I in the realisation that the psychology we learned earlier in our educational lives was decidedly lacking in the transcendent realisation that we are one with the spirit of the cosmos, a transliminal sense as Isabel expresses it. David Abram in his introduction to Radical Ecopsychology writes “Intelligence is no longer (to be seen as) ours alone but is a property of the earth: we are in it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its own unique version of soil and leaf and sky. Each place its own mind, its own psychology.”

But we then have to remember the three distinct layers of which we are a part, touched on earlier, because to cope with our own sense of meaning, and to learn to live in some human kind of order, we have to tell ourselves stories. Indeed, we could say, we have nothing else but stories – even Western science that, because of the ‘proof of the experimental method we often regard as more true’ than any others. We therefore have political, religious, scientific, spiritual social stories, and these too are deeply contained within our individual psyches, often as profound as those arising from our personal experiences. For instance, in some sense, we all have an experience of war, even if we have never directly experienced it, from the collective consciousness from seeing and reading the daily News – and also from collective unconscious material we may carry from our family and cultural history.

I am a sociologist, and remember from my very first class at University the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s phrase that “no-one ever looks at the world with pristine eyes”.

This would apply to living beings of any species who all carry, as David Abram writes, their own particular version of biological and psychological reality. The ‘reality’ that we perceive is essentially tied to who and what we are – be we hare or eagle, twenty-first century city dweller or Indian villager, male or female.

And also it is clear that everything is constantly changing, the cells of our bodies, the coves around the coast, the social and cultural worlds humans create. We feel some stability in ourselves and in the earth that seems real because we live such brief lives: and we are all part of the overall creativity where order, beauty and destruction flow. All the new knowledge constantly made available to us brings an open-mouthed astonishment: could it really be true that our planet had a twin which we have named Theia’, which collided with the nascent Earth, and created the Moon 4.5 billion years ago? And how can we relate to the physical change in our bodies through aging, as I know that the child I once was is both a very different person from the adult I am today – and yet there is a consciousness, a memory, an observer, a spirit within that feels somehow deeply connected.

The ambitious scheme of ecopsychology is trying to relate the individual, social and cosmic levels of human experience. A tough job, particularly because for the last four hundred years we have increasingly lived in a contradictory framework. As Tarnas puts it, for the Western world, “our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology” (p.31). People alert to the issue of meaning in today’s modern world find themselves against the grain of the twenty-first century main thrust of capitalism, the earth being seen as property, species other than human largely regarded with indifference except as human recourses, and the universe being seen as exploitable and quantified.

The hope is that if we could truly face our twenty-first century situation as a species, as an individual is encouraged to do in personal therapy to name, work through and get rid of some of the rubbish and cherish the growing points. Those points may be synonymous with that ‘wondrous something’ mentioned by Whitman, aligned to the spirit within and without, the identical spirit within each, Atman and Brahman. Then maybe we could understand more of why we are here. Maybe we could understand the hunter’ who holds Whitman’s leash a little more from within ourselves.

D.H.Lawrence has as usual a pointed, if sexist comment on all of this. In Reflections on the Death of the Porcupine, he write: “Man, as yet, is less than half grown. Even his flower-stem has not appeared yet. He is all leaves and roots, without any clue put forth. No sign of a bud anywhere……

Blossoming means the establishment of a pure, new relationship with the cosmos. This is the state of heaven. And it is a state of a flower, a cobra, a jenny-wren in spring, a man who knows himself royal and crowned with the sun, with his feet gripping the core of the earth.”

Maybe nearly 80 years after Lawrence’s death, we might discern the beginnings of a bud and a trace of its colour.


•           Iain Stewart & John Lynch. Earth: the Power of the Planet. (BBC Books 2008). Accompaniment to DVD of the same name.

•           Walt Whitman. Specimen Days (1882): Carlyle from American points of view. ( tml).

•           Interview with Sir Simon Rattle on Desert Island Discs January 2008. BBC Radio 4.

•           Isabel Clarke: The New Human Story (Greenspirit. Spring 2004) Jean Hardy: Who are we? ( Greenspirit. Summer 2004)

•           Don Hills: Getting in to it: the lure of ecopsychology. (Greenspirit: Winter 2005)

•           Andy Fisher. Foreword by David Abram. Radical Ecopsychology (State University of New York 2002).

•           Richard Tarnas. Cosmos and Psyche (Viking, Penguin, 2006).

•           Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems.

•           D.H.Lawrence. Reflections on the death of a porcupine and other essays (CUP, 1988).


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889

Cooperative Enquiry

GreenSpirit Co-operative Enquiry into Ecopsychology: A Personal Memoir

by Sandra White


From mid-May until the end of July 2008, seven people conducted an experiment to address the question:

‘How can we help people move from awareness and concern about environmental issues into progressive changes in motivation and behaviour?’

We decided ‘To address the question by researching through our own experience the hypothesis that practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour.’

This paper is one member of the group’s attempt to provide an insight into this endeavour and communicate something of the process we engaged in; its flavour and texture as well as what we discovered. It is by definition partial and subjective, which is entirely resonant with the exercise itself, for at the heart of Co-operative Enquiry is a proposition that we learn best from the subjective experiences of all the participants, shared, witnessed, contrasted and examined together. That said, this piece was circulated among the group, who have contributed amendments and finally endorsed it. Still, I would encourage readers to make contact with other group members and listen to their perspectives.

The participants were:

Chris Clarke, Council Member, GreenSpirit
Don Hills, Council Member, GreenSpirit and ecopsychologist
Jean Campbell, Arts Educator
Nicola Graham, Movement Director
Sandra White, Council Member, GreenSpirit, ecopsychologist, consultant and coach
Tania Dolley, Counselling psychologist and ecopsychologist
Trevor Sharman, Council Member, GreenSpirit
We met four times at Douai Abbey at Woolhampton in Berkshire, (, a small community of Benedictine monks living in resplendent buildings at the top of a hill. Their land includes open spaces, woods, fields where sheep graze and more cultivated and manicured gardens, including a pond where we often visited the resident newts. Near to the Abbey itself, we sometimes sat in a circle on the grass between two apple trees on one side and a maple on the other; the view on their web page shows the apple trees in blossom nearest and provides a glimpse of the maple just beyond. The monks’ hospitality was welcoming and their catering, generous and delicious. The relatively recent residential extensions were beautifully crafted with oak flooring and curving granite walls. In the hall outside our meeting room and in the dining hall, the walls were lined with portraits of previous abbots, many of them exquisitely painted enabling the qualities of these men to shine through despite the general dark palette of the portraiture style.

For about three years, Chris, Don, Tania and I had been meeting regularly in an exploration of how ecopsychology fits with green spirituality and green activism. Through a series of residential weekends at Redmarley d’Abitot in Herefordshire, we examined how we could run a large event which would offer a combination of experiences of connection with Nature, theoretical psychological and spiritual models, and sharing of successful practical initiatives. These meetings at Redmarley had originated in an experimental meeting at Braziers Hall in February 2005, at which a wide range of people shared their dreams of what such a large event could look like. Our underlying intention was to bring together people from the three different constituencies of eco-activism, eco-spirituality and eco-psychology and try to bridge the frequent dissonances between these groups and, thereby, strengthen the green movement. The small group who volunteered to progress things after Braziers were a microcosm of this intention and included ecopsychologist Hilary Prentice and activist Barry Johnson; later, we were joined for one meeting by activist Susan Dye. One cultural feature our group developed was that we paid as much attention to the dynamics between us, and the difficulties that surfaced between us rooted in our inherent differences, as we did to our relationships with Nature and, throughout, we also wrestled with our language which always seemed to separate ‘us’ from ‘Nature’. Eventually, we realised that the large event was not something we could run, for a variety of reasons – including, it may be argued, that we did not achieve that bridging between the constituencies enough to arrive at a fully shared vision – and yet we wanted to build upon what we had created and experienced through this process of regularly meeting. Once we accepted that we were not going to run a large event, Chris proposed that we continue through a more formal structure, that of Co-operative Enquiry, and he secured funding from the Scientific & Medical Network and GreenSpirit. With the funding, we were able to issue an invitation for other people to join us, to which Jean, Nicola and Trevor responded. We also were joined for our first meeting by a member of staff from one of the large environmental organisations.


The Douai meetings were held over a 24 hour period, Thursdays at 4.00 pm until Fridays at 4.00 pm. The first was mid-May, the second at the end of May, the third at the end of June and the fourth at the end of July. When we dreamed overnight, we would bring these into our check-in the following morning.

The Co-operative Enquiry process is an established method of social research in which a number of people are both experimenters and subjects. For us it provided a technique which enabled experiencing the macrocosm through the microcosm in that it addressed a question which Trevor, out of his previous experience of it, expressed as “how do we explore the wider world through us?” Its cyclical structure enables an enquiry to move between hypothesis, experiment, review and posing new hypotheses on the basis of experience. He outlined the process for us in the first meeting and we used it rigorously:


We used it rigorously with one addition: Chris also had prior experience of Co-operative Enquiry and, in one discussion with me while fundraising, he had described a stage of ‘expressing’ the experience through non-verbal means – using art, music, gestures or a combination of these – to delay for as long as possible the moment when linear, rational functions determine how the experience is interpreted and thereby shape the refining that follows. This had caught my imagination and inspired me to invite Jean and Nicola. So, from the start, our process looked like this:


This expressive element took me to places and ideas which I would not have reached purely cognitively and contributed profoundly to the transformations experienced by several of us. The recording was important; several of us took our own process notes, which we shared with each other and Trevor undertook to write the more formal notes that could be shared with those outside the process. We also took lots of photographs, some of which are reproduced here.

This cycle was conducted while we were together and, to my surprise, each meeting enabled us to move through a number of questions and actions. Before parting, we arrived at a new question and action that we all committed to undertake during the period until our next meeting, sometimes accompanied by journaling so that we could each record our progress.


The first Thursday evening, once we had fully introduced ourselves, we didn’t ask a question. We simply went outside into the grounds of Douai to discover where we were, locate ourselves there and make contact with one life form or small ecosystem in the area. We started as we meant to go on, by expressing to each other something of that experience non-verbally through a gesture and, now at the end of the whole process, I can see how those first experiences and gestures provided a foundation for all that followed. I spent a long time with a tall holly tree just outside the building where we were meeting and, during the following day, after I’d initiated a rather challenging discussion, I went back and sought reassurance from that tree, spontaneously pushing my head in among its leaves and discovering that they stroked my face remarkably gently, leaving no scratches! After that, I held a strong sense of the tree, its dark green leaves, its hollows, the low swing of its branches, the texture and colour of its trunk, and where the shape of its leaves changed to being smooth, without needles, high up where it no longer needs to protect itself. I often think of that phenomenon in holly trees and find parallels in how my mind structures itself, where it needs to protect me and where it can be open.

We took great care with how we spent our first evening together, aware that some of us knew each other well while others were complete strangers. Perhaps helped by giving good attention to forming this new group plus the clarity of the structure that we were to follow, we quickly engaged with our task creatively and openly, taking risks and listening to each other closely.

One of the things we acknowledged early on was that, in our task of learning about the wider world through ourselves, we could not regard ourselves as a typical group when considering environmental behaviour, for we are all people with strong connections with Nature and high levels of awareness. Of course, these differed among us and none of us were claiming that our environmental behaviours are always perfect and consistent. Yet we recognised that, for us to spend our time engaging with ‘practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world’ to see if they ‘are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour’ might not enable us to learn how other, less connected people may respond to such practices. Through discussion, we eventually drew a parallel between how some people might react with fear, distrust and even hatred when they think of the natural world and how we ourselves can feel those emotions when we meet or think about certain other people. These people might be very different from us, or we may have past or current difficulties with them, or we could be reacting to them out of pure imagination, not knowing them at all but assigning negative attributes to them out of ignorance. Effectively, we were proposing that the psychological dynamics underlying our culture’s denigration of Nature were the same as those which underpin people’s ill-treatment of each other.

Out of this, we focused on the experience of fear, asking the question “How can we best acknowledge and respond to fear?” We decided to give ourselves an embodied experience of fear and Jean volunteered to sculpt what fear looks like, using each of us to get into specific postures which expressed its different manifestations, as she had experienced and witnessed it in her life. When this was in place, she asked me to react to what I saw – I looked at it and spontaneously ran, leaping up on to a chair at the far end of the room and heading for the window!

As this had been an action that was entirely embodied, we went straight into discussing the experience. We noted feelings of avoidance, desperation, despair, horror, fight and flight. We considered the learning that being with fear rather than reacting to it was important. We realised that we had explored the acknowledgement of fear, but not the response to it and, through further discussion, identified empathy as a key quality in being able to respond helpfully to fear. We had extensive discussion about our views and understanding of empathy. Several times, Jean proposed that we also sculpt empathy but we did not respond to this. Curiously, because we might think that empathy would be easier to engage with than fear, there came a point when we noticed that we had fairly immediately agreed to participate in a fear sculpt and here we were practically ignoring Jean’s repeated suggestion that we sculpt empathy. She wondered aloud, eventually, whether our reluctance and resistance to engaging with empathy may be due, in part, to a fear of intimacy. Finally, we agreed our next hypothesis: ‘We can intuit empathy with the whole through the human’ and decided to sculpt empathy which I volunteered to design. I discovered that I didn’t really know if I was sculpting empathy or love.

I placed the group in interrelated pairs with different forms of connections – one pair, for example, stood with their backs touching each other and linked hands, providing an image of empathic connection with people and other life forms that we don’t know. I asked Jean to stand with one hand on Chris’ chest and her other on Trevor’s back, beaming a quality of empathy to both, one person she could clearly see and one she could not. I finally stepped into the sculpt, and joined hands with Tania and Trevor so that the whole group was interconnected.

Once we had discussed the experience, we agreed that, until our next meeting, we would do daily empathy meditations, following a practice in which we would, in meditation, connect empathically with ever widening circles of people, starting with people close to us and with whom we have strong, loving relationships and progressively including people with whom we were experiencing difficulties or strain and, ultimately, people in the public sphere whose actions we hate. (There are many versions of this meditation exercise available; for an example, see Buddha Mind). Throughout the interim period, outside of meditations, we would observe our feelings when listening to the news and also when thinking about and even meeting people with whom we felt discomfort. Right at the end, Chris expressed some doubts about whether it was valid, within the Enquiry as a whole, to have shifted our focus to the human realm but we stayed with our agreed plan and thought we would keep this under review.

Early the next morning, I went out onto Hartham Common where I regularly walk and sat on a bench under a yew tree next to St Leonards, a tiny Norman church at the top of a small hill, to do my first empathy meditation. There I experienced a remarkable piece of synchronicity, which I excitedly emailed to all my colleagues as soon as I got home and here is an extract:

“It took me a while to focus and I spent some time simply admiring the view and listening to the birdsong.
I was just gathering myself together, deciding to start when I noticed a small squirrel ahead of me in the church yard, bouncing and bounding along the grass and then on to the path. It was coming straight towards me. Then I realised it hadn’t seen me because it stopped short when it did. It turned sideways to me and breathed quickly for a long time. Then it turned towards me again and looked straight at me. I stayed very still. It turned sideways again. It seemed as if it didn’t know what to do. After a while, it bounded across the grass and up a tombstone and stood on top of it. It repeated what it had been doing on the path, alternating between turning to look directly at me and then turning sideways. When it looked directly at me, it stood on its hind legs and brought its front paws together in front of its chest. If its paws had been moving, I would have said it was “wringing its hands”.
It was this gesture, even though it wasn’t wringing its hands, it was protecting its heart, that suddenly put me in touch with its fear. I started consciously to smile gently at it and to radiate love towards it directly from my heart. Not a big blast; a warm, gentle ray. I said to it in my mind, “I understand your fear and I love you for it”. I kept repeating that. Soon it turned into the more simple “I love you for your fear”. My heart started to glow and this glow strengthened and grew. I kept sending a steady, warm, gentle ray to the squirrel. I don’t know if I was still smiling, I think my face was just soft.
Then suddenly the squirrel crawled down the tombstone and bounded slowly across the grass directly towards me, looking at me all the time. When it reached the path, it turned to its left and passed me, so that it effectively continued the journey it had originally been making. It climbed the yew tree just behind me. I then let it go in my mind, so that I didn’t interfere with whatever it wanted to do next.
I then immediately realised that I needed to receive the same as what I had offered the squirrel. So I asked to receive “love for my fear” into my heart, from the Earth and whatever is beyond. I focused on that sentence, “May I receive love for my fear” and imagined receiving a ray of love, similar to that I had been sending to the squirrel. The glow in my heart deepened, I did experience it going inside, and my heart seemed to expand and keep on warming until I was in an experience of quite a solid – or strong – glowing ball in my chest which was radiating outside my body. I felt deeply happy and secure.
I then imagined sending this love to my family members and others, as we discussed yesterday. As I brought my father into my mind’s eye and started this intention, it immediately changed and I spontaneously brought the image of my father towards me and into my heart so that he could bathe in this warm, loving glow I had been given and be part of me. This happened without my conscious decision and seems to fit with the discussion yesterday about identity and identifying.
I then understood what the difference is between empathy and love – they are clearly closely connected but, in the sculpt yesterday, I think that I was asking you to express love. I think that empathy is to do with the wound, whatever it is. A compassionate connection with the flaw and an identification with it, knowing that the same flaw is in me, which helps me to know how difficult the experience is for the other. The squirrel effectively taught me what I didn’t know.”

I experienced this moment as an affirmation from the Earth of our endeavour and, more specifically, a response to Chris’ expressed concern at the end of the previous day’s meeting that we had shifted too far away from our topic into the purely human realm: By providing me with a teaching through the squirrel, the Earth was confirming the underlying unity of life and our place, as humans, within Nature itself.

It is not my intention to go into this kind of detail about our whole journey. At the end of this document is a list of all the questions/hypotheses we addressed throughout the four meetings. Accompanying it are the four accounts written by Trevor of our meetings, which set out these questions with the activities we undertook for each one and the major discussion/learning points generated by them. What I have tried to do here is give a flavour of our endeavour and indicate the range of what we undertook. There was extraordinarily powerful learning through it and I want now to highlight those which for me were key. Then I will describe one more activity towards the end in greater detail before sharing some of the most valuable outcomes we identified in our final meeting.

A theme that emerged for me during June and July, which I think was made available through how open I became during May’s daily empathy meditations, was a far greater awareness of myself as a sentient, sensitive being. I came to realise that others’ negative reactions and behaviours to me could have a very big impact on my equilibrium. This says something about me as an individual, of course, but I offer it here as an observation about all of us. Through personal development work of various kinds, we can all learn not to react to such negative treatment. I think that is widely understood. I am proposing here, though, that such treatment still has an important impact upon us. I have a sudden association as I write with a time in my early 30s when I had a bout of tinnitus – a condition of the ear which made me ultra sensitive to every vibration, whether or not I could hear its source. Walking down the street, I became extraordinarily aware of all the physical impacts upon me, from lorries passing, to music playing, to footfalls on the pavement, to birdsong and even the wind itself. My ear was vibrating to traffic long before it arrived within my hearing. Ordinarily, we may hear the sounds but be oblivious to the physical contact they make with us. I see this as an analogy to what I experienced in the summer: even if I chose not to react to others’ ill treatment of me, the impact had still been made. I think that we all know when we are being ill treated at some level of our being, right in that moment, and our psychological defences will kick in, shaping our response in whatever is our innate or our learned or chosen behaviour pattern. What I connected with much more deeply is that treating another person badly is rooted in contempt and denial of their being. We are denying their intrinsic validity in being just who they are. I think this is some of the most challenging territory in human psychology and spirituality. I drew an image when we came together in our second meeting:


It seemed to me that an instance of ill treatment – which I am equating with a denial of validity – can trigger existential rage which can provoke retaliatory behaviour which also denies the validity of the first person. Vicious circles of repeated ill treatment going back and forth between two individuals or families or communities can ensue. Our rage may or may not be directly or consciously experienced, depending upon our individual psychological makeup and the contexts and cultures in which we have grown up and live. Some people direct their rage out and others direct their rage inside against themselves, both equally destructive. These two types of people coming together can produce an ever intensifying situation of bullying, oppression and victimisation. What I discovered through the empathy meditations is how that existential rage operates within me and the crucial recognition, prompted by the squirrel, that the wound or flaw that is operating in the other person and generating their ill treatment of me is also within me. I found that practising empathy enabled me to secure myself in a place of equality and to treat the other person as equal to me and also myself as equal to them. My sense “we must be equal” gave me the imperative to find the behaviours to match my underlying understanding that we ARE all equal. To many who are practised in spiritual and/or psychological work, this may all seem rather obvious. It is stuff that I thought I knew. Yet, it brought me to a deeper place of appreciating how difficult it is in our culture, which creates or exacerbates inner wounds, to meet “the other” as truly equal and consistently behave out of this reality. The new element for me was thinking about how ill treatment is an act of denying the other person’s intrinsic validity. This was then easily transferable to thinking about how we do or don’t treat the rest of life on the planet as equal with its own intrinsic validity. I have ceased being a vegan through these considerations, something I have been contemplating for a while. While this may be counter-intuitive at this moment in the Earth’s history, given that a vegan diet is being recommended as vital to reducing emissions, I can no longer privilege mammals and fish above all other life forms, for the teaching of a diverse, interconnected system is that each life form contributes vitally to the whole in its own way. I eat sustainably caught fish and organic meat now, only occasionally because of the environmental situation, and the important thing is that this process grounded me enough to take the decision to practice my view of equality in a new, tangible way.

The group’s discussions around these themes brought us to the questions: “In what sense do my inner battles hinder my relationship with Earth? What helps turning towards integration?” for the interim period between Enquiries 2 and 3. Each of us learned much more about what inner psychological and spiritual states enable or undermine our ecologically aware behaviour and Trevor’s phrase, “right psychic diet” became currency throughout the rest of our meetings. In our final meeting, during a wide-ranging review, Trevor elaborated helpfully on this phrase, saying “right psychic diet means feeding our sense of our core validity” and I have understood more deeply the imperative to continue to find the ways of doing this which enable me to behave more consistently in connection with other people and with the Earth.

At our third meeting, this was tested anew: Don had been circulating material published by Natural England and Defra that provided surveys of attitude and behaviour change in the British population towards the environment in the light of climate change. He was emphasising how these reports document that much is changing. Yet, while I travel regularly around London, I witness the vast majority of people around me talking and behaving as if they are completely oblivious to the environmental situation. When I told the group this, he and I found ourselves instantly in a row, our very first during the five years of our close friendship! When I reflected, I realised that, in presenting the dark picture of what I see, I had lost my connection with Don who readily describes himself as an optimist. By saying that what I was seeing was a “truer” picture of the state of the general population’s engagement with our ecological situation, it was not simply that I was trying to win an argument, I had in that moment forgotten who he is inside and how intrinsic it is to him as a person to see the bright side – in effect, I was denying him. I took away from this experience some deep reflecting on what it would take to live and work in ways which could support us in maintaining high levels of connection with each other – high enough to behave more often in ways which uphold others’ being instead of trample on it. All of life, I think, has this capacity for such exquisite, connected sensitivity and yet, through the ways we have constructed our culture over hundreds of years, we are trashing this faculty, with dire consequences. Our culture and the ways most of us live and work these days does the opposite – it fosters fragmentation instead of cohesion. In a way, I can understand it, for high levels of sensitivity can be, at least, challenging and, at best, painful to live with. This is part of my learning from the holly tree – we all need to protect ourselves from the real dangers in the world and the way we do this is to build psychological defences which we absolutely need to keep ourselves safe. Yet these structures also separate us. I have come to think more deeply about the paradoxical condition of being human – how to live my separateness and my connectedness and honour both as intrinsic to me and to every other person and life form I meet?

One of the difficulties, it seems to me, in promoting more ecologically aware behaviour is that our cultural norms deny and denigrate the intrinsic validity of being human – we seem, rather, to have become ‘human doings’: Our contemporary culture tells us we are only worth what we produce or own. So, if there is no intrinsic validity in who we are, the need to find ways of proving our validity increases and we have to identify with what we produce or own in order to feel valid. I think this is a particularly difficult aspect of encouraging people to change behaviours for, without psychological or spiritual work, producing or owning less equates to feeling worth-less. Further, our cultural messages which promote competition create separation and illusions of superiority or inferiority, which also fuel greater productivity and/or ownership. Many, many aspects of our economic and cultural norms are self-attacking and self-defeating and feed more and more separation and illusions of superiority or inferiority. The Co-operative Enquiry has deepened my understanding of these cultural norms and focused my attention on how to create conditions which foster a sense of innate worth and connection with self and other, and counteract the energies of separation and superiority.

The exchange between Don and me focused the group’s attention on hope. Here we created a very beautiful and powerful exercise which anyone can do, once conditions of trust have been created: We each took a few moments to close our eyes and answer the question: “What do I hope for myself in my lifetime?” and then we wrote down how we had answered that question. Next we took three elements of what we had written down and silently enacted them to ourselves. Then, each in turn, we performed our enactment to the group and verbally described it. After that, and in silence for the rest of the time, we stood in a circle and, one by one, we taught each other our enactments, by first showing it again and then the others doing it with us twice. Finally, still standing in the circle, we all enacted together, once, each person’s sequence in turn. This was extraordinarily moving and uplifting! I felt that everyone shared and wished for my hopes and that I shared and wished for theirs. All of our hopes felt strengthened, enlivened, magnified and pushed out further into the world, closer to manifestation. When we came together at the end for a close group hug, the words were spontaneously said: “Who dares, hopes: who hopes, dares”. We made a strong connection with how courageous we had been to explore and share our precious hopes and dreams with each other. Those words seem so vitally relevant to our time: Who dares, hopes: who hopes, dares.

At our final meeting, we discovered that major transformations had happened for four people in the group: feeling more connected with the whole, with the Ecological Self and, thereby, grounded in ‘being’ and therefore more intrinsically valid, calmer and more content; growing vegetables and herbs in all available window-boxes in the absence of a garden; FEELING being inside a living interconnected system, rather than simply intellectually knowing it; and shifting into an embodied sense of powerful light, love and hope, instead of fear and darkness.

We gave as good attention to ending as we did to beginning, going out into the grounds of Douai Abbey again and taking our leave of the place and life forms we had met there. Two photographs from the exercise are significant: the first, a young deer Trevor met on an early morning walk, and the second, an aged, hollow tree showing how branches start forming deep inside the trunk, invisible to the outer world. For me, this image has become a guiding visual metaphor for what we explored in this Co-operative Enquiry: how our inner experiences shape our outer behaviour and what conditions support the kinds of inner experiences that promote connected and sensitive behaviour and sustain life. This experience has surpassed most of our expectations and is still proving to be life-changing. We are considering how to share its benefits most widely and, in preparation for that, we examined and charted the key skills, processes and qualities that we had engaged with to produce such results.The hearts in “Principles and Process” indicate those we considered to be most fundamental.ecopsy4



The ‘Call’ to enquire:

‘How can we help people move from awareness and concern about environmental issues into progressive changes in motivation and behaviour?’


‘To address the question by researching through our own experience the hypothesis that practices which enhance strong empathic connection with the everyday natural world are highly effective in altering our attitudes and behaviour.’

Go outside, see what attracts you, spend time, reflect and share (not an Enquiry question; rather the way we went out on the first evening to find out and root ourselves where we were).

How can we best acknowledge and respond to fear?
We can intuit empathy with the whole through the human.
Engaging in a sharing of our private passions helps us to expand our awareness and connection with our place in the wider world.
Beginning with silence facilitates connection.
In what sense do my inner battles hinder my relationship with Earth? What helps turning towards integration?
Can we create experience of hope for the future of human life on Earth?
How do we feed, nurture and sustain our hope?
Would a review of our original question reveal changes in us due to the impact of the processes we have been through?
What are the key skills, principles and processes we have learned and what do we do with these?

Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism


by Charlene Spretnak

(From Charlene Spretnak, “Critical and Constructive Contributions of Ecofeminism,” Pp. 181- 189 in Peter Tucker and Evelyn Grim (Eds.),Worldviews and Ecology, Philadelphia: Bucknell Press, 1993.)

The earth-body and the womb-body run on cosmological time. Just as the flow of earth’s life-giving waters follows lunar rhythms, so too follow the tides of a woman’s womb. No culture has failed to notice these connections or the related feats of elemental power: that the female can grow both sexes from her very flesh and transform food into milk for them, and that the earth cyclically produces vast bounty and intricate dynamics of the biosphere that allow life. Cultural responses to the physical connections between nature and the female range from respect and honor to fear, resentment, and denigration. Whatever the response, it is elaborately constructed over time and plays a primal, informing role in the evolution of society’s worldview.

The central insight of ecofeminism is that a historical, symbolic, and political relationship exists between the denigration of nature and the female in Western cultures. The field has grown immensely since the term (as eco-feminisme) was coined in 1972 by Françoise d’Eaubonne in La feminisme ou la mort. Women have come into ecofeminism in the United States from several directions, including the environmental movement, various types of alternative politics, and the feminist spirituality movement. (l) In recent years, a number of ecofeminist anthologies, as well as hundreds of articles, have been published. (2) This introductory article will present three main aspects of ecofeminism: philosophy, political activism, and spirituality.

Historical Background

With regard to European cultures, considerable archaeological evidence indicates that both the earth and the female were held in high regard in the Neolithic settlements prior to the Bronze Age. (3)Ritual figurines of a stylized sacred female with incised patterns of water or with the head of a bird, for instance, reflect perceptions of inherent interconnectedness with nature and seemingly “obvious” honoring of the elemental power of the female. After 4500 B.C. the archaeological record reveals a radical shift. Graves were no longer roughly egalitarian between the sexes (with women having somewhat more burial items than men) but suddenly followed the barrow model of burial, wherein a chieftain is surrounded by the bodies of men, women, children, animals and objects that he owned or controlled. The westward migrations of nomadic Indo-European tribes from the Eurasian steppes imposed in old Europe a warrior cult, the addition of fortifications around settlements, a patriarchal social system, and the transferral of the sense of the sacred from nature and the female to a distant sky-god, although not all societies followed this pattern, of course. (4)

From the Bronze Age onward, the denigration of nature and the female in European societies fluctuated but never disappeared. The Pythagoreans codified their influential table of opposites in which the female is linked with the negative attributes of formlessness, the indeterminate, the irregular, the unlimited–that is, dumb matter, as opposed to the (male) principles of fixed form and distinct boundaries. Aristotle considered females to be passive deformities. The intellectual prowess of the male, he felt could reveal and categorize all forms and functions of organisms in nature. Later, the medieval cosmology ranked men above women, animals, and the rest of nature, all of which were considered to be entangled with matter in ways that the male spirit and intellect were not. The advent of modernity created by the succession of Renaissance humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment shattered the holism (but not the hierarchical assumptions) of the medieval synthesis by framing the story of the human apart from the larger unfolding story of the earth community. (5) The “new mechanical philosophy” of the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries perceived the natural world as a clockwork that could be fully apprehended and mastered by (male) human intellect. The practitioners of empirical science used metaphors that express heady delight in assaulting nature in order to learn “her” secrets. “Ecofeminists and others have noted that similar metaphors and attitudes were used in the “trials” (legalistic rituals of patriarchal hysteria) that preceded witch burnings and other torture during the era of the new rationalism. (6)

Dualistic Thinking in Western Philosophy and Culture

The dualistic thinking that has shaped so much of the Eurocentric worldview is perhaps the central concern of ecofeminist philosophical and political analysis. Countless ramifications follow from the Eurocentric notion of “the masculine” being associated with rationality, spirit, culture, autonomy, assertiveness, and the public sphere, while “the feminine” is associated with emotion, body, nature, connectedness, receptivity, and the private sphere. The reductionism of this orientation is accompanied by several assumptions that are essential to patriarchy: that the cluster of attributes associated with the masculine is superior to that associated with the feminine; that the latter exists in service tithe former; that the relationship between the two is inherently agonistic; and that a logic of domination over nature and the female should prevail among (male) humans in the “superior” configuration. The Eurocentric construction of masculinity hence is a reactive and unstable posturing to appear “not-nature” and “not-female.” The patriarchal core of the Eurocentric worldview is the culturally imposed fear that nature and the elemental power of the female are potentially chaotic and engulfing unless contained by the will of the cultural fathers.

Ecofeminists feel that the above analysis is relevant to identifying problematic assumptions in philosophical and political situations that have evolved within the Eurocentric orientation. In the area of ecofeminist philosophy, two topics that have received good deal of attention are the critique of “mainstream” (7)environmental ethics and the dialogue between ecofeminism and deep ecology.

Ecofeminist Critiques of Environmental Philosophy

With regard to the field of environmental ethics, ecofeminists maintain that many of its leading philosophers are largely blind toothier patriarchal assumptions and hence can only replicate the logic of domination, albeit embedded in various versions of an ecological worldview. Ecofeminist philosophers reject the assumption that clinging to the rationalist concept of the self and the instrumental view of nature that dominates Western philosophy is a viable way to frame a post patriarchal environmental ethics. The Kantian-rationalist framework is based on appositionally construed reason: intellectual facility that is sharply distinct from the “corrupting” influences of the emotional, the personal, the particular. (8) Because the self disbelieved to be discontinuous from other humans and the rest of the natural world, moral progress is possible via a progression away from personal feelings to abstract, universalized reason. This approach results in strong opposition between care and concern for particular others (the “feminine,” private realm) and generalized moral concern (the “masculine,” public realm). Ecofeminists have identified this false opposition as a major cause of Western maltreatment of nature, noting that concern for nature should not be viewed as the completion of a process of (masculine) universalization, moral abstraction and disconnection, discarding the self, emotions, and special ties(“Nature,” passim).

Ecofeminists also challenge the Eurocentric concept of rights as a basis for philosophical frameworks of environmental ethics. “Ethical humanists” and “animal liberationists” attempt to establish the relative values of various parts of nature via such criteria as sentience, consciousness, rationality, self-determination, and interests. A being possessing one of these characteristics is said to have “intrinsic value” and hence the right to “moral consideration.”(9) Ecofeminists generally regard this approach as static, arbitrary, and lacking a holistic apprehension of the natural world (including humans). Another objection to the use of rights theory is that it requires strong separation of individual rights-holders and is set in a framework of human community and legality. Its extension to the rest of the natural world often draws upon Mill’s notion that if a being has a right to something not only should he or she (or it) have that something but others are obligated to intervene and secure it. Such reasoning gives humans almost limitless obligations to intervene massively in all sorts of far-reaching and conflicting ways in natural, balanced cycles to secure rights of a bewildering variety of beings (“Nature,” 8). Ecofeminists feel that a more promising approach for an ethics of nature would be to remove the concept frights from the central position it currently holds and focus instead on less dualistic moral concepts such as respect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship, and responsibility(“Nature,” 9). (10)

The Ecofeminist Dialogue with Deep Ecology

The response of ecofeminist philosophers to the body of thought known as deep ecology has drawn attention to its gender-blind assumptions in condemning anthropocentrism without taking seriously the formative dynamics of androcentrism, or male dominance. Most ecofeminists acknowledge common ground with deep ecology’s rejection of rationalist value theories and an environmental ethic grounded in abstract principles and universal rules believed to be discoverable through reason alone. (11) Most ecofeminists also appreciate deep ecology’s rejection of the Eurocentric sense of discontinuity between humans and nature. However, ecofeminists are wary of assumptions that may lie embedded in the concept of the “ecological self,” which was formulated by the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, and which refers to the aspect of one’s being that is continuous with the large Self (that is, the unitive dimension of being) rather than the individual self. It is sometimes described by Naess’s colleagues in ways that could be interpreted to result in the obliterating of all particularity, a worrisome notion to the sex that has been socialized in patriarchal culture to sacrifice their own self-definition to the needs of husbands and children. Other ecofeminist concerns include issues of differentiation (embedded in relationship), biocentric egalitarianism (the recognition that all species have worth), and concepts of caring. (12)

Political Analysis and Activism

In this area, ecofeminists have astutely critiqued the masculinist bias in the daily functioning of the environmental movement; (13)played an important role in the growing challenge to the modern model of “development” for the Third and Fourth Worlds; (14) and been a leading force in campaigns for animal rights (15.) and opposition to several aspects of reproductive technologies. (16) Most ecofeminist activists are engaged with grassroots political work, whether or not they identify themselves with any particular party, movement, or ideology. Many ecofeminists work in the Green politics movement, often within Green parties, because the democratic, community-based, and the ecological Green political vision includes ecofeminist concerns and aspirations. (17.) Its ideal of community-based economics, in which wealth and ownership are spread as broadly as possible, stands in stark contrast to the increasing centralization of power and control in the hands of huge corporations.

The experience of most feminists who have entered the environmental movement either in institutionalized organizations or alternative groups has been painfully disillusioning. The historical link noted by ecofeminist theory between patriarchal attitudes and the logic of domination over nature, women, and people of color has yet to be acknowledged in practice by most male activists. In the Green politics movement this situation is often somewhat better than in environmentalist organizations because feminist values are among the core values, at least in principle. Hence Greens are ideologically committed to eliminating patriarchal behavior. When that fails to occur, women leave the Greens, as they have demonstrated in several countries. Sometimes they return when conditions improve.

An example of the political issues addressed by ecofeminists is their vocal opposition to policies that reduce women of the Third(“developing”) and Fourth (indigenous) Worlds to “resources” in the emerging global economy. A leading ecofeminist critic, Vandana Shiva, who is an Indian physicist, maintains that “maldevelopment” is a new project of Western patriarchy, one that results in the death of the “feminine principle.” She asserts that the modern model of development being imposed by the West is inherently patriarchal because it is fragmented, “anti-life,” opposed to diversity, dominating, and delights in “progress” based on nature’s destruction and women’s subjugation. (18) Ecofeminists insist that Third and Fourth World women themselves must have control over decisions about whether to opt for local self-reliance or integrate into the global economy. Unfortunately, enormously powerful banks and transnational corporations in the “developed” world are furthering “maldevelopment” via centralized, large-scale projects that are usually capital-intensive, energy-intensive, and disruptive of local self-reliance and ecological integrity.

Spiritual Dimension

In addition to the philosophical and political aspects, ecofeminism contains a spiritual dimension. The ecofeminist alternative to the Western patriarchal worldview of fragmentation, alienation, agonistic dualisms, and exploitative dynamics is a radical reconceptualization that honors holistic integration: interrelatedness, transformation, embodiment, caring, and love. Such an orientation is simpatico with the teachings of several Eastern and indigenous spiritual traditions on nonduality and the relative nature of seemingly sharp divisions and separations. To refer to the ultimate mystery of creativity in the cosmos–its self-organizing, self-regulating dynamics– spiritual traditions draw on metaphor and symbol. Those may be female, male, or nonanthropomorphic, such as the Taoist perception of The Way. Ecofeminists are situated in all the major religious traditions, and most see good reason for women to use female imagery in references to “the divine,” or ultimate mystery in the cosmos. Particularly, in patriarchal societies, the choice of female metaphors is a healthy antidote to the cultural denigration of women. Those ecofeminists drawn to Goddess spirituality appreciate the nature-based sense of the sacred as immanent in the earth, our bodies, and the entire cosmic community–rather than being located in some distant father-god far removed from “entanglement” with matter. The transcendent nature of creativity in the cosmos, or the divine, lies not above us but in the infinite complexity of the sacred whole that continues to unfold. Goddess spirituality is not the sole tradition that contains these understandings, and even religions that are somewhat hostile to them are being persistently challenged by their own ecofeminist members.


In summary, ecofeminism is a movement that focuses attention on the historical linkage between denigration of nature and the female. It seeks to shed light on why Eurocentric societies, as well as those in their global sphere of influence, are now enmeshed in environmental crises and economic systems that require continuing the ecocide and the dynamics of exploitation. Ecofeminism continues the progression within traditional feminism from attention to sexism to attention to all systems of human oppression (such as racism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism) to recognition that “naturism”(the exploitation of nature) is also a result of the logic of domination. (19) Ecofeminism challenges environmental philosophy to abandon postures upholding supposedly gender-free abstract individualism and “rights” fixations and to realize that human relationships (between self and the rest of the world) are constitutive, not peripheral. Hence care for relationships and contextual embeddedness provides grounds for ethical behavior and moral theory. Politically, ecofeminists work in a broad range of efforts to halt destructive policies and practices and to create alternatives rooted in community-based legitimacy that honors the self-determination of women as well as men and that locates the well-being of human societies within the well-being of the entire earth community. Spiritually, ecofeminists are drawn to practices and orientations that nurture experiences of nonduality and loving reverence for the sacred whole that is the cosmos.

Ecofeminism is a global phenomenon that is bringing attention to the linked domination of women and nature in order that both aspects can be adequately understood. Ecofeminists seek to transform the social and political orders that promote human oppression embedded in ecocidal practices. The work consists of resistance, creativity, and hope.




1. See Charlene Spretnak, “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering,” in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990).

2. The anthologies include the one in the previous citation plus Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, ed. Judith Plant (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); Ecofeminism. Women, Animals, and Nature, ed. Greta Gaard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Ecofeminism and the Sacred, ed. Carol J. Adams (New York: Crossroads Press, 1993); Ecofeminist Philosophy, ed. Karen J. Warren (New York: Routledge); and Ecological Feminism, ed. Karen J. Warren(Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

3. See Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization and The Civilization of the Goddess: Neolithic Europe before the Patriarchy (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1989 and 1991respectively). Gimbutas cites the work of numerous European archaeologists in addition to the discoveries from her own excavations.

4. For an account of other, living options, see Peggy Reeves, Female Power and Male Dominance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

5. See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).

6. See Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row,1980). Also see Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

7. The term “manstream” is used by Janis Birkeland to refer to the male-dominant manstream of Eurocentric societies. See ‘ Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice,” in Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism.

8. See Val Plumwood, ”Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism, “Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 6, no. 1 (Spring1991): 1-7; hereafter, “Nature,” with page references cited in the text.

9. See Marti Kheel, “The Liberation of Nature: A Circular Affair.” Environmental Ethics 7, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 139.

10. This list is common in feminist models for ethics, but Plumwood is citing here from a book on Buddhism, Francis Cook’s Hue-Yen Buddhism The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977). Plumwood’s citation of an admirable approach to moral theory from a book on Buddhism reflects the common ground between many of the concerns of ecofeminism and those spiritual traditions that emphasize nonduality, wisdom, and compassion.

11. Marti Kheel, “Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology: Reflections on Identity and Difference,” Covenant for a New Creation: Ethics, Religion, and Public Policy, ed. Carol S. Robb and Carl J. Casebolt (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 142-45.

12. For a summary of the dialogue between ecofeminism and deep ecology as of spring 1987, see Michael E. Zimmerman, “Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism: The Emerging Dialogue,” in Diamond and Orenstein, eds., Reweaving the World. Also see the articles by Kheel and Plumwood cited in nn 8, 9, and 11, above. Also see Charlene Spretnak, ‘Radical Nonduality in Ecofeminist Philosophy,” in Warren, ed., Ecological Feminism.

13. See Pam Simmons, ‘The Challenge of Feminism,” The Ecologist 22, no. 1 (January/ February 1992): 2-3.

14. See Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London Zed Books, 1988). Also see Pam Simmons, “‘Women in Development’: A Threat to Liberation,” The Ecologist22, no. I (January/February 1992): 16-21.

15. See Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics Meat (New York: Continuum, 1990). Also see Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci, Rape of the Wild: Men’s Violence against Animals and the Earth(London: The Women’s Press, 1988). Also see several articles in Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism. Also see the article by Kheel cited in n. 9. above.

16. See Irene Diamond, “Babies, Heroic Experts, and a Poisoned Earth,” Reweaving the World, 201-10. Also see Vandana Shiva,” The Seed and the Earth: Women, Ecology, and Biotechnology,” The Ecologist 22, no. I (January/February 1992): 4-7.

17. The “Ten Key Values” of’ the Green politics movement in the U.S. are ecological wisdom, nonviolence, grassroots democracy, social justice and personal responsibility, community-based economics, decentralization, feminism, respect for diversity, global responsibility, and sustainable future focus. See Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra, Green Politics: The Global Promise (New York: Dutton, 1984)

18. See Shiva, Staying Alive.

19. See Karen J. Warren, “The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Environmental Ethics 12, no. 2 (Summer 1990):132-46. Note that the first footnote in this article is a bibliographic listing that cites numerous ecofeminist books and articles.


Ecofeminist Economics: Women, Work and the Environment

by Mary Mellor

Ecofeminism has a major contribution to make to our understanding of the current destructive relationship between humanity and nonhuman nature.
Ecofeminism as its name implies brings together the insights of feminism and ecology.
FEMINISM is concerned with the way in which women in general have been subordinated to men in general.
ECOLOGY is concerned that human activity is destroying the viability of the global ecosystem.
ECOFEMINISM argues that the two are linked.
Women have been seen as inferior to men in most human societies – I would even go so far as to say all. The natural world has not suffered the same almost universal devaluing within human societies. Through much of human history it has been valued, even worshipped. However, the natural world is not just ecology, the ecosystem, it is also biology. It is through their biology that women have been devalued, even seen as unclean. Women have historically been associated with the life and needs of the human body – that is, domestic work. Their own bodies have also been seen as weak, even dangerous.
Women have been persecuted as witches, disproportionately subject to infanticide and suffered domestic violence in most cultures. Males on the other hand are valued, as strong, resourceful with automatic rights of social dominance. Successful women often have to portray themselves as ‘honorary’ men without the attributes or dependencies of womanhood – particularly the needs of children.
However not all women are subordinate to all men and many men are oppressed through class, caste, ‘race’ or ethnic discrimination. Women also dominate each other. The key issue for ecological economics, therefore is not sex-gender difference but the gendering of human societies.
For ecofeminists the most important aspect of the present global economy is that it represents a value system that subordinates both women and nature. It also sees itself as superior to traditional economies based on rural subsistence production for direct use and local exchange. The modern economic system is based on a dualistic hierarchy of values:

Men /Women
Employment /Domestic work
Market /Subsistence
Marketable resources /Eco-systems
Personal wealth /Social reciprocity
Science/technology /Traditional Knowledge
Reason /Emotion
Mind and Intellect/ Body
Able-bodied Adults /Children,Elderly,People with disabilities

Valuing within economic systems is mainly expressed through money/profit but also as prestige. External to these values are the unvalued or undervalued, the resilience of the eco-system, the unpaid and unrecognised domestic work of women, the social reciprocity in communal societies as represented in non-market economies. While the modern global economy may displace traditional subsistence production, societies still need the stability of social reciprocity – what Adam Smith referred to as moral sentiments.
The valued economy rests on these unacknowledged and unvalued support structures. In doing so it avoids meeting the costs of that economy:

( money, profit, prestige) (based on men’s experience)
marketable resources
well paid work

(undervalued, unacknowledged) (based on women’s experience)
resilience of ecosystem
unpaid domestic work
social reciprocity

The link between women’s subordination and the degradation of the natural world lies in women’s centrality to the support economies of unpaid domestic work and social reciprocity i.e. the home and the community. It is the world of women, of women’s experience – a WE-economy. The valued economy on the other hand is male dominated, representing men’s experience -a ME-economy.
Ecofeminist political economy offers an explanation of how destructive economic systems are constructed and see the WE-economy as the basis of an alternative non-exploiting, sustainable economy.
Central to the present globalised ME-economy is the insistence that we all jump to the same tune – the iron law of so-called free market economics. As in the fairy story, like the children of Hamelin we are compelled to follow the economic piper to our doom. However, if we remember the story, there was one child with disabilities who couldn’t keep up and avoided the fate of the rest. For ecofeminists this is the position of women. They have largely been left behind as the mad economic dance goes by. In the lives and experience of women there lies the possibility of an alternative path.
The roots of our current ills go much deeper than the present globalised capitalist market economy. It is a reflection of the way human activities are valued in all societies that devalue women. And it is not just a case of values, it reflects real material relations. What my studies and those of other feminists have revealed is that women do the majority of work in human societies and are devalued on account of it. The stories of man the hunter are a myth and man-the -breadwinner is a very contemporary and socially limited phenomenon. Throughout history, women have formed the backbone of economic and social systems, although their work has been largely unacknowledged – hidden from history.
Compared with women’s work, men’s valued activities can be seen as an extension of play – often dangerous and difficult – complex and competitive – building monuments, exploring, trading, fighting, hunting, politicking, professing, preaching. Behind they leave the evidence of their passing, the great defensive walls, the tombs and palaces, the gladiatorial arenas, cathedrals, missile silos, Trump tower, the Getty museum.

Women have always worked. In modern economies they are particularly exploited as low wage labourers. In the early industrial economies it was women and children who filled the first factories. Women have lower pay than men and less job security, pension, perks and all the other benefits of being at the head of the economic dance. Globalisation is mercilessly exploiting the labour of women as cheap and expendable workers.
However, I am not basing my argument on the unfairness of women’s lives within economic systems but their position at the boundaries of economic systems.
Women have two lives one within the valued economy as workers, consumers, professionals and one without, the world of women’s work. It is generally accepted that women workers with families have two shifts, the first at paid work and the second at home with domestic work, unless their social position enables them to employ other women to do it.
It is important to make a distinction between the work of women and women’s work. The work of women is what they have done through history (including being Prime Minister of Britain). Women’s work is a particular type of work that would be demeaning for a man to do on a regular basis unless he was already demeaned by his low social status on the basis of class, caste, ‘race’ or ethnicity. If a man is not to lose status, women’s work is reclassified from cook to chef, dressmaker to tailor.
Women do far more domestic work than men even when they have full time paid work. The UN Human Development Report of 1995 surveyed 31 countries and showed that combining paid and unpaid work women on average worked much longer hours than men. Men spent from 55 – 79% of their time in paid work. Women spent from 42% – 81% of their time in unpaid work. If women’s unpaid work was valued it would be equivalent to 40% of GDP – even based on the low pay rates for women.
Studies show women doing up to 80% of subsistence agricultural labour in rural communities. There are women in Mozambique spending 2 hours a day collecting water. Women in Peru spending three hours a day gathering fuel wood.
Marilyn Waring reports that among the Nomadic people of the Iranian Zagros mountains while the men look after the animals the women do virtually everything else:
Preparing meals, looking after children, fetching water, collecting fuel wood (which can take up to half a day and large distances), milk and shear the animals, collect edible plants, churn butter, make cheese and yoghurt, spin wool to make clothes, tent cloth and carpets.

Women’s work is the basic work that makes other forms of activity possible. It secures the human body and the community. It is work done for others. While a good deal of this has passed to the market in modern economies a lot remains.
– CARING – child care, sick care, aged care, animal care, community care (volunteering, relationship building), family care (listening, cuddling, sexual nurturing, esteem building)
– ROUTINE AND REPETITIVE – cooking, cleaning, fetching and carrying, weeding,
– WATCHING AND WAITING – being there, available, dependable, on call
(if women go out men are often asked to ‘baby sit’ their own children as if doing a favour)
– EMBODIED It is the work of the human body and its basic needs. Maintenance and sustenance through the cycle of the day and the cycle of life (birth to death). in sickness and in health.
-EMBEDDED WORK It is of necessity local, communal close to home. In subsistence economies it is embedded in the local ecosystem.
When women’s work is taken into the valued economy its pay rates and conditions of work are poor (nursing, catering and cleaning).
The interesting question about women’s work is why is it not valued? Why are there no historical monuments to the woman weeder, grinder, spinner, water carrier?
What is even more interesting is the way women’s economic activities have been lost to history. The modern economy has its ideal as man-the-breadwinner. The true history is woman-the-breadmaker after she has planted, harvested and ground the grain.
Studies of women’s activities in gatherer-hunter and early agricultural
societies show that women’s work was much more important than that of men in the provision of calories. Women were the gatherers, gardeners, small scale trappers and hunters. Men’s activities were much more intermittent, ritual and leisure-based. Through history women (and children) worked the fields and on the looms. They were in the mines (in the UK they formed the first miner’s union).
If this is the case how have men come to dominate valued economic systems? The answer lies in the process by which economic systems are constructed. Economic systems do not relate to human labour directly, what could be described as the real economy, they relate to valued labour. It is the process of valuing and male-ness that are connected. Men do not obtain value because they work, they work because they obtain value. Where there is no value in preference they do not work. The more work is valued, the more male-dominated it becomes. The more necessary and unremitting it is, the more female-dominated work becomes.

Valued economic systems are created through a distinction within human activities. Some activities are counted in, others are not. At the same time social time and space is accumulated. The more time an activity takes and the more limited it is spatially the more likely it is to be excluded from economic value. From my reading of the history of gender relations it seems that men have claimed social space and time while women have been engaged in the routine and necessary labours of life close to home and domestic responsibilties.
We have an old socialist saying in Britain:WHEN ADAM DELVED (was digging) AND EVE SPAN (was spinning) WHO WAS THEN THE GENTLEMAN?
My version would read:
Women’s work in the unvalued economy is based on boundaries of space and time
LIMITED SPACE: women’s work is close to home. Her duties mean that she cannot move far from her responsibilities. She often cannot take higher paid jobs because of her limited mobility
UNLIMITED TIME: Women’s work never ends. Its routine nature means that it endlessly recycles and it must be done when needed – by day or night. The sick must be nursed when they are ill, the children when they wake.
UNREWARDED/ALTRUISTIC: Women do not get any tangible benefit from this work although they may find it intrinsically rewarding. They usually put their own needs last in the family.
The valued economy is quite the opposite:
UNLIMITED SPACE: Mobility is all, goods fly around the world regardless of seasons and local availability. Companies make a fetish of moving their senior staff every few years if not months or days.
LIMITED TIME: The working day has a beginning and end. There is a distinction between paid and unpaid time (leisure). In fact, many women take paid work to get time for themselves even if the work is low paid.
REWARDED: Work is rewarded by pay and prestige

Why do women do women’s work? Why through history have they not refused? Partly it is the nature of the work. It is necessary, remorseless work. If it is not done suffering will ensue quite quickly. We can see the problem of street children in societies where women no longer have the resources to cope.
Women in this sense have been altruistic. They have worked through history for little recognition. However this is an imposed altruism. Most women feel they have little choice but to do this work, although it might be experienced as an expression of love and duty. For many women it is fear of violence and/or lack of any other economic options.
Men have justified women’s imposed altruism by claiming that women are naturally suited to women’s work. They are naturally caring and nurturing. Many ecofeminists have sympathy with this view and speak of an ethics of care that can be extended to the natural world. However, I would argue that this ethic is related to women’s work rather than to women themselves.
In prosperous economies women are increasingly refusing to undertake women’s work. Marriage and birth rates are falling dramatically where women have clear economic choices. Italy’s birth rate is 1.3% well below replacement level and women give as their reason for not having children that men do not help domestically. The gender differential in overall working hours is higher in Italy than elsewhere in Europe (nearly two hours a day). In Japan many women are refusing to marry, particularly if a man displays traditional values.
Men’s assumption that they have a natural right to socio-economic domination is also being challenged by women. Where professional positions depend on academic qualifications, women are competing very actively with men.
However, for ecofeminists the future does not lie with women playing
the male game even if that does have the side effect of reducing population rates. A country with a small or negative population growth and a high level of consumption is much more problematic ecologically than a country with a high population growth and low consumption. If women join men in the high production-consumption stakes they will compound the ecological problems we face.

The case for linking women’s work with the ecosystem is that they are both externalised by male-dominated economic value systems. Women’s work is not valued because it is body-work, the work associated with the most basic needs of human existence. The natural environment is also the basis for human existence. Why, then are these both externalised? The answer lies in the nature of the ME-economy. The ME-economy is disembodied from the daily cycle, the life cycle and women’s work. It is disembedded from the ecological framework:
DAILY CYCLE – The ideal ME-economy worker comes to work fed, cleaned nurtured and emotionally supported.
LIFE CYCLE – The ideal ME-economy worker is not too young or old, fit, healthy
NO WOMEN’S WORK – The ideal ME-economy worker has no routine responsibility for others and is personally mobile.
SEASONS: The ME-economy is not limited by local growing seasons
LOCAL ECOLOGICAL LIMITS: The ME-economy draws on the resources of countries around the world – The ecological footprint of London alone requires the equivalent of the land area of Britain
RESOURCE DEPLETION: This will affect future generations, poorer communities or other species not the privileged members of the ME-economy.
TOXICITY/POLLUTION: The ME-economy locates its polluting industries and toxic dumps in poorer communities.
In the ME-economy there is no space for the young, the old, the sick, the tired, the unhappy except as consumers of the (private) old folks home or therapist. They are seen as a burden on the welfare state, which itself is also seen as a burden on the so-called wealth-creating sector. Mostly they disappear into the world of women, the home and community.
The ME-economy is not concerned with the loss of resources for future generations, loss of habitat for other species, loss of biodiversity, the loss of peace, quiet and amenity – unless it can be sold.
The ME-economy is a DIS-EMBEDDED system. It bears no responsibility for the life-cycle of its environment. It is disengaged from ECOLOGICAL TIME – that is the time it takes to restore the effects of human activity – the life-cycle of renewal and replenishment within the eco-system. If there is any possibility of renewal.
The valued economy can be seen as disengaged from BIOLOGICAL TIME – the time of replenishment and renewal for the human body in its daily cycle and life-cycle.
It is not therefore to be unexpected that such an economic system should disrupt biological and ecological systems. Destructiveness is central to its fundamental structure.
How did such a disembodied and disembedded system emerge?

Ecofeminists see women’s work as the ‘bridge’ between unsustainable economic systems and the embedded nature of human existence.
The gendered nature of human society means that women in most societies throughout history have done the routine work of the body whether as food growers or domestic workers. Dominant men have distanced themselves from these roles and taken more statusful roles whether as ritual leaders, traders or war-makers.
In most societies there is some version of the ‘men’s house’, a separate place or set of activities which are barred to women. Within this space men concoct the elaborate socio-political ‘games’ that maintain their dominance. In modern societies women have stormed these men’s houses: the law, business, medicine, politics, the military but only on male terms. As Audre Lorde and other feminists have argued you cannot use men’s tools to break down the men’s house.
Men have generally been seen as doing the important things in human history. It has been claimed that men have constructed civilisation. Have they? Are the monuments they have left more important than the sustenance of human existence? Women’s digging stick has rotted back into the earth unlike the stone monuments of men. Why should the digging stick be less valued than the sword?
My basic argument is that male-dominated socio-economic systems have not accepted the embodied and embedded nature of human existence. Instead this has been rejected and despised as women’s work. Valued systems have therefore been erected on a false base. The modern economy does meet many of our basic needs but that is not its primary purpose. The value base is profitable financial exchange or prestige occupations not sustainable provisioning on an equitable basis. The command economy of the Soviet Unionwas little better. It did try to meet basic needs but valued male militarism and monumentalism equally highly. Women carried the double burden of work and the ecological consequences were appalling.
We cannot however, look to women or to Nature for the answer. If women step in and sort out the ME-economy’s mess they are again doing women’s work and no wisdom will have been gained.
It is the responsibility of dominant men and the few women who have joined them, to have the vision to understand the false base upon which historic systems have rested. This understanding will be triggered by the instability and unsustainablity of the ME-economy. Falsely grounded economic systems have built-in contradictions as Marx has pointed out.
Men and women can then jointly construct new socio-economic structures that are egalitarian and sustainable. Where to begin? A number of greens suggest returning to a subsistence economy. I am not sure this is practicable for urbanised and industrialised societies. We should certainly support existing subsistence economies to retain their skills and resource base. However, I would envisage most people living in an economic system based on a division of labour and mutually achieved sufficiency, rather than peasant-style self-sufficiency.

The central feature of the modern ME-economy is the fact that it is beyond the control even of those who benefit from it. In a very real sense it is always THERE somewhere else (national, trans-national, global) and never HERE where we live in our lives. Although most of us take the THERE economy for granted very little of it is HERE within our control. This is fundamentally undemocratic and makes us behave in unsustainable ways to secure our livelihood.
What would an ecofeminist economy look like?
1. There would be a shift of focus from disembedded and disembodied structures to patterns of work and consumption that are sensitive to the human life cycle and to ecological sustainability.
2. Local production would be oriented to local need using sustainable local resources with minimal waste.
3. Basic food provisioning would be local and seasonal. Food would be grown locally where possible, but direct purchasing arrangements could also be agreed with local farmers. Farmers markets would be encouraged where they do not already exist.
4. Provisioning of necessary goods and services would be the main focus of economic systems not money making. It should be possible for people to live and work entirely within a provisioning system.
5. The emphasis would be on useful work rather than employment. That is, people would not need to do harmful work in order to have a livelihood. Any additional profit-based economic activity would be subject to stringent resource/pollution and labour exploitation rules.
6. Work and life would be integrated. Workplace and living base would be interactive. People of all ages would share activities. Living base households would vary from single person to multi-person.
7. Necessary work would be fulfilling and shared. Work and leisure would interact. Productive work would be regularly punctuated by festivals and other celebratory activities
8. Inter-regional and international trade would be seen as a cultural as much as an economic exchange. Travel would also be seen as education and communication rather than consumption.
9. Personal security would rest in the social reciprocity of a provisioning WE-economy rather than in money accumulation systems, particularly in old age.


‘Being Prey’ by Val Plumwood

A crocodile attack can reveal the truth about nature in an instant.

But putting that insight into words can take years.


In the early wet season, Kakadu’s paperbark wetlands are especially stunning, as the water lilies weave white, pink, and blue patterns of dreamlike beauty over the shining thunderclouds reflected in their still waters. Yesterday, the water lilies and the wonderful bird life had enticed me into a joyous afternoon’s idyll as I ventured onto the East Alligator Lagoon for the first time in a canoe lent by the park service. “You can play about on the backwaters,” the ranger had said, “but don’t go onto the main river channel. The current’s too swift, and if you get into trouble, there are the crocodiles. Lots of them along the river!” I followed his advice and glutted myself on the magical beauty and bird life of the lily lagoons, untroubled by crocodiles. Today, I wanted to repeat that experience despite the drizzle beginning to fall as I neared the canoe launch site. I set off on a day trip in search of an Aboriginal rock art site across the lagoon and up a side channel. The drizzle turned to a warm rain within a few hours, and the magic was lost. The birds were invisible, the water lilies were sparser, and the lagoon seemed even a little menacing. I noticed now how low the 14-foot canoe sat in the water, just a few inches of fiberglass between me and the great saurians, close relatives of the ancient dinosaurs. Not long ago, saltwater crocodiles were considered endangered, as virtually all mature animals in Australia’s north were shot by commercial hunters. But after a decade and more of protection, they are now the most plentiful of the large animals of Kakadu National Park. I was actively involved in preserving such places, and for me, the crocodile was a symbol of the power and integrity of this place and the incredible richness of its aquatic habitats.

After hours of searching the maze of shallow channels in the swamp, I had not found the clear channel leading to the rock art site, as shown on the ranger’s sketch map. When I pulled my canoe over in driving rain to a rock outcrop for a hasty, sodden lunch, I experienced the unfamiliar sensation of being watched. Having never been one for timidity, in philosophy or in life, I decided, rather than return defeated to my sticky trailer, to explore a clear, deep channel closer to the river I had travelled along the previous day.

The rain and wind grew more severe, and several times I pulled over to tip water from the canoe. The channel soon developed steep mud banks and snags. Farther on, the channel opened up and was eventually blocked by a large sandy bar. I pushed the canoe toward the bank, looking around carefully before getting out in the shallows and pulling the canoe up. I would be safe from crocodiles in the canoe I had been told but swimming and standing or wading at the water’s edge were dangerous. Edges are one of the crocodile’s favourite food-capturing places. I saw nothing, but the feeling of unease that had been with me all day intensified.

The rain eased temporarily, and I crossed a sandbar to see more of this puzzling place. As I crested a gentle dune, I was shocked to glimpse the muddy waters of the East Alligator River gliding silently only 100 yards away. The channel had led me back to the main river. Nothing stirred along the riverbank, but a great tumble of escarpment cliffs up on the other side caught my attention. One especially striking rock formation a single large rock balanced precariously on a much smaller one held my gaze. As I looked, my whispering sense of unease turned into a shout of danger. The strange formation put me sharply in mind of two things: of the indigenous Gagadgu owners of Kakadu, whose advice about coming here I had not sought, and of the precariousness of my own life, of human lives. As a solitary specimen of a major prey species of the saltwater crocodile, I was standing in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

I turned back with a feeling of relief. I had not found the rock paintings, I rationalized, but it was too late to look for them. The strange rock formation presented itself instead as a telos of the day, and now I could go, home to trailer comfort.

As I pulled the canoe out into the main current, the rain and wind started up again. I had not gone more than five or ten minutes down the channel when, rounding a bend, I saw in midstream what looked like a floating stick one I did not recall passing on my way up. As the current moved me toward it, the stick developed eyes. A crocodile! It did not look like a large one. I was close to it now but was not especially afraid; an encounter would add interest to the day.
Although I was paddling to miss the crocodile, our paths were strangely convergent. I knew it would be close, but I was totally unprepared for the great blow when it struck the canoe. Again it struck, again and again, now from behind, shuddering the flimsy craft. As I paddled furiously, the blows continued. The unheard of was happening; the canoe was under attack! For the first time, it came to me fully that I was prey. I realized I had to get out of the canoe or risk being capsized.
The bank now presented a high, steep face of slippery mud. The only obvious avenue of escape was a paperbark tree near the muddy bank wall. I made the split-second decision to leap into its lower branches and climb to safety. I steered to the tree and stood up to jump. At the same instant, the crocodile rushed up alongside the canoe, and its beautiful, flecked golden eyes looked straight into mine. Perhaps I could bluff it, drive it away, as I had read of British tiger hunters doing. I waved my arms and shouted, “Go away!” (We’re British here.) The golden eyes glinted with interest. I tensed for the jump and leapt. Before my foot even tripped the first branch, I had a blurred, incredulous vision of great toothed jaws bursting from the water. Then I was seized between the legs in a red-hot pincer grip and whirled into the suffocating wet darkness.
Our final thoughts during near-death experiences can tell us much about our frameworks of subjectivity. A framework capable of sustaining action and purpose must, I think, view the world “from the inside,” structured to sustain the concept of a continuing, narrative self; we remake the world in that way as our own, investing it with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution. The lack of fit between this subject-centered version and reality comes into play in extreme moments. In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: This is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside,” as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.
Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile’s breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim’s resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll.
When the whirling terror stopped again I surfaced again, still in the crocodile’s grip next to a stout branch of a large sandpaper fig growing in the water. I grabbed the branch, vowing to let the crocodile tear me apart rather than throw me again into that spinning, suffocating hell. For the first time I realized that the crocodile was growling, as if angry. I braced myself for another roll, but then its jaws simply relaxed; I was free. I gripped the branch and pulled away, dodging around the back of the fig tree to avoid the forbidding mud bank, and tried once more to climb into the paperbark tree.
As in the repetition of a nightmare, the horror of my first escape attempt was repeated. As I leapt into the same branch, the crocodile seized me again, this time around the upper left thigh, and pulled me under. Like the others, the third death roll stopped, and we came up next to the sandpaper fig branch again. I was growing weaker, but I could see the crocodile taking a long time to kill me this way. I prayed for a quick finish and decided to provoke it by attacking it with my hands. Feeling back behind me along the head, I encountered two lumps. Thinking I had the eye sockets, I jabbed my thumbs into them with all my might. They slid into warm, unresisting holes (which may have been the ears, or perhaps the nostrils), and the crocodile did not so much as flinch. In despair, I grabbed the branch again. And once again, after a time, I felt the crocodile jaws relax, and I pulled free.
I knew I had to break the pattern; up the slippery mud bank was the only way. I scrabbled for a grip, then slid back to-ward the waiting jaws. The second time I almost made it before again sliding back, braking my slide by grabbing a tuft of grass. I hung there, exhausted. I can’t make it, I thought. It’ll just have to come and get me. The grass tuft began to give way. Flailing to keep from sliding farther, I jammed my fingers into the mud. This was the clue I needed to survive. I used this method and the last of my strength to climb up the bank and reach the top. I was alive!
Escaping the crocodile was not the end of my struggle to survive. I was alone, severely injured, and many miles from help. During the attack, the pain from the injuries had not fully registered. As I took my first urgent steps, I knew something was wrong with my leg. I did not wait to inspect the damage but took off away from the crocodile toward the ranger station.
After putting more distance between me and the crocodile, I stopped and realized for the first time how serious my wounds were. I did not remove my clothing to see the damage to the groin area inflicted by the first hold. What I could see was bad enough. The left thigh hung open, with bits of fat, tendon, and muscle showing, and a sick, numb feeling suffused my entire body. I tore up some clothing to bind the wounds and made a tourniquet for my bleeding thigh, then staggered on, still elated from my escape. I went some distance before realizing with a sinking heart that I had crossed the swamp above the ranger station in the canoe and could not get back without it.
I would have to hope for a search party, but I could maximize my chances by moving downstream toward the swamp edge, almost two miles away. I struggled on, through driving rain, shouting for mercy from the sky, apologizing to the angry crocodile, repenting to this place for my intrusion. I came to a flooded tributary and made a long upstream detour looking for a safe place to cross.
My considerable bush experience served me well, keeping me on course (navigating was second nature). After several hours, I began to black out and had to crawl the final distance to the swamp’s edge. I lay there in the gathering dusk to await what would come. I did not expect a search party until the following day, and I doubted I could last the night.
The rain and wind stopped with the onset of darkness, and it grew perfectly still. Dingoes howled, and clouds of mosquitoes whined around my body. I hoped to pass out soon, but consciousness persisted. There were loud swirling noises in the water, and I knew I was easy meat for another crocodile. After what seemed like a long time, I heard the distant sound of a motor and saw a light moving on the swamp’s far side. Thinking it was a boat, I rose up on my elbow and called for help. I thought I heard a faint reply, but then the motor grew fainter and the lights went away. I was as devastated as any castaway who signals desperately to a passing ship and is not seen.
The lights had not come from a boat. Passing my trailer, the ranger noticed there was no light inside it. He had driven to the canoe launch site on a motorized trike and realized I had not returned. He had heard my faint call for help, and after some time, a rescue craft appeared. As I began my 13-hour journey to Darwin Hospital, my rescuers discussed going upriver the next day to shoot a crocodile. I spoke strongly against this plan: I was the intruder, and no good purpose could be served by random revenge. The water around the spot where I had been lying was full of crocodiles. That spot was under six feet of water the next morning, flooded by the rains signaling the start of the wet season.
In the end I was found in time and survived against many odds. A similar combination of good fortune and human care enabled me to overcome a leg infection that threatened amputation or worse. I probably have Paddy Pallin’s incredibly tough walking shorts to thank for the fact that the groin injuries were not as severe as the leg injuries. I am very lucky that I can still walk well and have lost few of my previous capacities. The wonder of being alive after being held quite literally in the jaws of death has never entirely left me. For the first year, the experience of existence as an unexpected blessing cast a golden glow over my life, despite the injuries and the pain. The glow has slowly faded, but some of that new gratitude for life endures, even if I remain unsure whom I should thank. The gift of gratitude came from the searing flash of near-death knowledge, a glimpse “from the outside” of the alien, incomprehensible world in which the narrative of self has ended.
I had survived the crocodile attack, but not the cultural drive to represent it in terms of the masculinist monster myth: the master narrative. The encounter did not immediately present itself to me as a mythic struggle. I recall thinking with relief, as I struggled from the attack site, that I now had a good excuse for being late with an overdue article and a foolish but unusual story to tell a few friends. Crocodile attacks in North Queensland have often led to massive crocodile slaughters, and I feared that my experience might have put the creatures at risk again. That’s why I tried to minimize publicity and save the story for my friends alone.
This proved to be extremely difficult. The media machine headlined a garbled version anyway, and I came under great pressure, especially from the hospital authorities, whose phone lines had been jammed for days, to give a press interview. We all want to pass on our story, of course, and I was no exception. During those incredible split seconds when the crocodile dragged me a second time from tree to water, I had a powerful vision of friends discussing my death with grief and puzzlement. The focus of my own regret was that they might think I had been taken while risking a swim. So important is the story and so deep the connection to others, carried through the narrative self, that it haunts even our final desperate moments.
By the same token, the narrative self is threatened when its story is taken over by others and given an alien meaning. This is what the mass media do in stereotyping and sensationalizing stories like mine and when they digest and repackage the stories of indigenous peoples and other subordinated groups. As a story that evoked the monster myth, mine was especially subject to masculinist appropriation. The imposition of the master narrative occurred in several ways: in the exaggeration of the crocodile’s size, in portraying the encounter as a heroic wrestling match, and especially in its sexualization. The events seemed to provide irresistible material for the pornographic imagination, which encouraged male identification with the crocodile and interpretation of the attack as sadistic rape.
Although I had survived in part because of my active struggle and bush experience, one of the major meanings imposed on my story was that the bush was no place for a woman. Much of the Australian media had trouble accepting that women could be competent in the bush, but the most advanced expression of this masculinist mind-set was Crocodile Dundee, which was filmed in Kakadu not long after my encounter. Two recent escape accounts had both involved active women, one of whom had actually saved a man. The film’s story line, however, split the experience along conventional gender lines, appropriating the active struggle and escape parts for the male hero and representing the passive “victim” parts in the character of an irrational and helpless woman who has to be rescued from the crocodile-sadist (the rival male) by the bushman hero.
I had to wait nearly a decade before I could repossess my story and write about it in my own terms. For our narrative selves, passing on our stories is crucial, a way to participate in and be empowered by culture. Retelling the story of a traumatic event can have tremendous healing power. During my recovery, it seemed as if each telling took part of the pain and distress of the memory away. Passing on the story can help us transcend not only social harm, but also our own biological death. Cultures differ in how well they provide for passing on their stories. Because of its highly privatized sense of the individual, contemporary Western culture is, I think, relatively impoverished in this respect. In contrast, many Australian Aboriginal cultures offer rich opportunities for passing on stories. What’s more, Aboriginal thinking about death sees animals, plants, and humans sharing a common life force. Their cultural stories often express continuity and fluidity between humans and other life that enables a degree of transcendence of the individual’s death.
In Western thinking, in contrast, the human is set apart from nature as radically other. Religions like Christianity must then seek narrative continuity for the individual in the idea of an authentic self that belongs to an imperishable realm above the lower sphere of nature and animal life. The eternal soul is the real, enduring, and identifying part of the human self, while the body is animal and corrupting. But transcending death this way exacts a great price; it treats the earth as a lower, fallen realm, true human identity as outside nature, and it provides narrative continuity for the individual only in isolation from the cultural and ecological community and in opposition to a person’s perishable body.
It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain. This denial that we ourselves are food for others is reflected in many aspects of our death and burial practices the strong coffin, conventionally buried well below the level of soil fauna activity, and the slab over the grave to prevent any other thing from digging us up, keeps the Western human body from becoming food for other species. Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: Horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood, and alien monsters eating humans. Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating humans. Even being nibbled by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes can stir various levels of hysteria.
This concept of human identity positions humans outside and above the food chain, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters of it: Animals can be our food, but we can never be their food. The outrage we experience at the idea of a human being eaten is certainly not what we experience at the idea of animals as food. The idea of human prey threatens the dualistic vision of human mastery in which we humans manipulate nature from outside, as predators but never prey. We may daily consume other animals by the billions, but we ourselves cannot be food for worms and certainly not meat for crocodiles. This is one reason why we now treat so inhumanely the animals we make our food, for we cannot imagine ourselves similarly positioned as food. We act as if we live in a separate realm of culture in which we are never food, while other animals inhabit a different world of nature in which they are no more than food, and their lives can be utterly distorted in the service of this end.
Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, “This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being. I am more than just food!” was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible. Respectful, ecological eating must recognize both of these things. I was a vegetarian at the time of my encounter with the crocodile, and remain one today. This is not because I think predation itself is demonic and impure, but because I object to the reduction of animal lives in factory farming systems that treat them as living meat.
Large predators like lions and crocodiles present an important test for us. An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.
Thus the story of the crocodile encounter now has, for me, a significance quite the opposite of that conveyed in the master/monster narrative. It is a humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability. I learned many lessons from the event, one of which is to know better when to turn back and to be more open to the sorts of warnings I had ignored that day. As on the day itself, so even more to me now, the telos of these events lies in the strange rock formation, which symbolized so well the lessons about the vulnerability of humankind I had to learn, lessons largely lost to the technological culture that now dominates the earth. In my work as a philosopher, I see more and more reason to stress our failure to perceive this vulnerability, to realize how misguided we are to view ourselves as masters of a tamed and malleable nature. The balanced rock suggests a link between my personal insensitivity and that of my culture. Let us hope that it does not take a similar near-death experience to instruct us all in the wisdom of the balanced rock.

Val Plumwood survived this incident in February 1985. After a stint as visiting professor of women’s studies at North Carolina State University, she returned to Australia and became ARC Fellow at the University of Sydney. She died in 2008. This essay is adapted from ‘The Ultimate Journey’ (Travelers’ Tales, 1999).