‘Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos’ by Jack D. Forbes

THE COSMIC VISIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES are significantly diverse. Each nation and community has its own unique traditions. Still, several characteristics stand out. First, it is common to envision the creative process of the universe as a form of thought or mental process. Second, it is common to have a source of creation that is plural, either because several entities participate in creation or because the process as it unfolds includes many sacred actors stemming from a First Principle (Father/Mother or Grandfather/Grandmother). Third, the agents of creation are seldom pictured as human, but are depicted instead as “wakan” (holy), or animal-like (coyote, raven, great white hare, etc.), or as forces of nature (such as wind/breath). The Lakota medicine man Lame Deer says that the Great Spirit “is not like a human being. . . . He is a power. That power could be in a cup of coffee. The Great Spirit is no old man with a beard.”(1) The concept perhaps resembles the elohim of the Jewish Genesis, the plural form of eloi, usually mistranslated as “God,” as though it were singular.

Perhaps the most important aspect of indigenous cosmic visions is the conception of creation as a living process, resulting in a living universe in which a kinship exists between all things. Thus the Creators are our family, our Grandparents or Parents, and all of their creations are children who, of necessity, are also our relations.

An ancient Ashiwi (Zuñi) prayer-song states:

That our earth mother may wrap herself
In a four-fold robe of white meal [snow]; . . .
When our earth mother is replete with living waters,
When spring comes,
The source of our flesh,
All the different kinds of corn
We shall lay to rest in the ground with the earth mother’s
living waters,
They will be made into new beings,
Coming out standing into the daylight of their Sun father, to
all sides
They will stretch out their hands. . . .(2)

Thus the Mother Earth is a living being, as are the waters and the Sun.

Juan Matus told Carlos Castaneda that Genaro, a Mazateco, …was just now embracing this enormous earth . . . but the earth knows that Genaro loves it and it bestows on him its care. . . . This earth, this world. For a warrior there can be no greater love. . . . This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling. . . .(3)

Or, as Lame Deer puts it:

We must try to use the pipe for mankind, which is on the road to self-destruction. . . . This can be done only if all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike, can again see ourselves as part of the earth, not as an enemy from the outside who tries to impose its will on it. Because we . . . also know that, being a living part of the earth, we cannot harm any part of her without hurting ourselves.(4)

European writers long ago referred to indigenous Americans’ ways as “animism,” a term that means “life-ism.” And it is true that most or perhaps all Native Americans see the entire universe as being alive—that is, as having movement and an ability to act. But more than that, indigenous Americans tend to see this living world as a fantastic and beautiful creation engendering extremely powerful feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, obliging us to behave as if we are related to one another. An overriding characteristic of Native North American religion is that of gratitude, a feeling of overwhelming love and thankfulness for the gifts of the Creator and the earth/universe. As a Cahuilla elder, Ruby Modesto, has stated: “Thank you mother earth, for holding me on your breast. You always love me no matter how old I get.”(5) Or as Joshua Wetsit, an Assiniboine elder born in 1886, put it: But our Indian religion is all one religion, the Great Spirit. We’re thankful that we’re on this Mother Earth. That’s the first thing when we wake up in the morning, is to be thankful to the Great Sprit for the Mother Earth: how we live, what it produces, what keeps everything alive. (6)

Many years ago, the Great Spirit gave the Shawnee, Sauk, Fox, and other peoples maize or corn. This gift arrived when a beautiful woman appeared from the sky. She was fed by two hunters, and in return she gave them, after one year, maize, beans, and tobacco. “We thank the Great Spirit for all the benefits he has conferred upon us. For myself, I never take a drink of water from a spring, without being mindful of his goodness.”(7)

Although it is certainly true that Native Americans ask for help from spiritual beings, it is my personal observation that giving thanks, or, in some cases, giving payment for gifts received, is a salient characteristic of most public ceremonies. Perhaps this is related to the overwhelmingly positive attitude Native Americans have had toward the Creator and the world of “nature,” or what I call the “Wemi Tali,” the “All Where” in the Delaware-Lenápe language. Slow Buffalo, a teacher, is remembered to have said about a thousand years ago: Remember . . . the ones you are going to depend upon. Up in the heavens, the Mysterious One, that is your grandfather. In between the earth and the heavens, that is your father. This earth is your grandmother. The dirt is your grandmother. Whatever grows in the earth is your mother. It is just like a sucking baby on a mother. . . 

Always remember, your grandmother is underneath your feet always. You are always on her, and your father is above. (8)

Winona LaDuke, a contemporary leader from White Earth Anishinabe land, tells us that: Native American teachings describe the relations all around—animals, fish, trees, and rocks—as our brothers, sisters, uncles, and grandpas. . . 

These relations are honored in ceremony, song, story, and life that keep relations close—to buffalo, sturgeon, salmon, turtles, bears, wolves, and panthers. These are our older relatives—the ones who came before and taught us how to live.(9)

In 1931 Standing Bear, a Lakota, said when reciting an ancient prayer:

To mother earth, it is said . . . you are the only mother that has shown mercy to your children. . . . Behold me, the four quarters of the earth, relative I am. . . . All over the earth faces of all living things are alike. Mother earth has turned these faces out of the earth with tenderness. Oh Great Spirit behold them, all these faces with children in their hands. (10)
Again in 1931, Black Elk, the well-known Lakota medicine man, told us that The four-leggeds and the wings of the air and the mother earth were supposed to be relative-like. . . . The first thing an Indian learns is to love each other and that they should be relative-like to the four-leggeds. (11)And thus we see this very strong kinship relation to the Wemi Tali, the “All Where”: The Great Spirit made the flowers, the streams, the pines, the cedars—takes care of them. . . . He takes care of me, waters me, feeds me, makes me live with plants and animals as one of them. . . . All of nature is in us, all of us is in nature. (12)

At the center of all of the creation is the Great Mystery. As Black Elk said:

When we use the water in the sweat lodge we should think of Wakan-Tanka, who is always flowing, giving His power and life to everything. . . . The round fire place at the center of the sweat lodge is the center of the universe, in which dwells Wakan-Tanka, with His power which is the fire. All these things are Wakan [holy and mystery] and must be understood deeply if we really wish to purify ourselves, for the power of a thing or an act is in the meaning and the understanding.(13)

Luther Standing Bear, writing in the 1930s, noted:

The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. . . . The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing. . . . Wherever the Lakota went, he was with Mother Earth. No matter where he roamed by day or slept by night he was safe with her. (14)

Native people, according to Standing Bear, were often baffled by the European tendency to refer to nature as crude, primitive, wild, rude, untamed, and savage. “For the Lakota, mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, valleys, and woods were all finished beauty. . . .”(15)

Of course, the indigenous tendency to view the earth and other nonorganic entities as being part of bios (life, living) is seen by many post-1500 Europeans as simply romantic or nonsensical. When Native students enroll in many biology or chemistry classes today they are often confronted by professors who are absolutely certain that rocks are not alive. But in reality these professors are themselves products of an idea system of materialism and mechanism that is both relatively modern and indefensible. I have challenged this materialist perspective in a poem, “Kinship is the Basic Principle of Philosophy,” which I will partially reproduce here as indicative of some common indigenous perspectives:

. .For hundreds of years
certainly for thousands
Our Native elders
have taught us
“All My Relations”
means all living things
and the entire Universe
“All Our Relations”
they have said
time and time again. . . .
Do you doubt still?
a rock alive? You say
it is hard!
it doesn’t move of its own accord!
it has no eyes!
it doesn’t think!
but rocks do move
put one in a fire
it will get hot won’t it?
That means
won’t you agree?
that its insides are moving
ever more rapidly?. . .
So don’t kid me my friend,
rocks change
rocks move
rocks flow
rocks combine
rocks are powerful friends
I have many
big and small
their processes, at our temperatures,
are very slow
but very deep!
I understand because, you see,
I am part rock!
I eat rocks
rocks are part of me
I couldn’t exist without
the rock in me
We are all related!
No, it’s alive I tell you,
just like the old ones say
they’ve been there
you know
they’ve crossed the boundaries
not with computers
but with their
very own beings! (16)

About a thousand years ago, White Buffalo Calf Woman came to the ancestors of the Lakota, giving them a sacred pipe and a round rock. The rock, Black Elk said: . . . is the Earth, your Grandmother and Mother, and it is where you will live and increase. . . . All of this is sacred and so do not forget! Every dawn as it comes is a holy event, and every day is holy, for the light comes from your father Wakan-Tanka; and also you must always remember that the two-leggeds and all the other peoples who stand upon this earth are sacred and should be treated as such.(17)

Here we see not only the expression of relatedness on a living earth, but also the sacredness or holiness of events that some persons take for granted: the dawn, the day, and, in effect, time and the flow of life in its totality. In relation to all of these gifts, human beings are expected to be humble, not arrogant, and to respect other creatures. An ancient Nahua (Mexican) poem tells us that:

Those of the white head of hair, those of the wrinkled face,
our ancestors. . .
They did not come to be arrogant,
They did not come to go about looking greedily,
They did not come to be voracious.
They were such that they were esteemed on the earth:
They reached the stature of eagles and jaguars. (18)

Lame Deer says: “You can tell a good medicine man by his actions and his way of life. Is he lean? Does he live in a poor cabin? Does money leave him cold?”(19) Thus, humility and a lack of arrogance are accompanied by a tendency toward simple living, which reinforces the ideal of nonexploitation of other living creatures. A consciousness of death also adds to the awareness of the importance of concentrating on the ethical quality of one’s life as opposed to considerations of quantity of possessions or size of religious edifices. “A man’s life is short. Make yours a worthy one,” says Lame Deer.

Juan Matus, in Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, captures very well the attitude of many Native people: “. . .You don’t eat five quail; you eat one. You don’t damage the plants just to make a barbecue. . . . You don’t use and squeeze people until they have shriveled to nothing, especially the people you love. . . .”(20) This kind of attitude is found over and over again in the traditions of Native people, from the basketry and food-gathering techniques of Native Californians to the characters in the stories of Anna Lee Walters (as in her novel Ghostsinger, the stories in The Sun is Not Merciful, or in Talking Indian).

Respect and humility are the building blocks of indigenous life-ways, since they not only lead to minimal exploitation of other living creatures but also preclude the arrogance of aggressive missionary activity and secular imperialism, as well as the arrogance of patriarchy.

But Anglo-American “ecologists” often have a very narrow conception of what constitutes “ecology” and the “environment.” Does this contrast with the Native American attitude? Let us examine some definitions first. The root of the concept of environment has to do with “rounding” or “that which arounds [surrounds] us.” It is similar to Latin vicinitat (Spanish vecinidad or English ‘vicinity’), referring to that which neighbors something, and also to Greek oikos (ecos), a house and, by extension, a habitation (Latin dwelling) or area of inhabiting (as in oikoumene, the inhabited or dwelled-in world). Ecology is the logie or study of ecos, the study of inhabiting/dwelling, or, as defined in one dictionary, the study of “organisms and their environment.”

Ecos (oikos) is “the house we live in, our place of habitation.” But where do we live and who are we? Certainly we can define ecos in a narrow sense, as our immediate vicinity, or we can broaden it to include the Sun (which is, of course, the driving power or energy source in everything that we do), the Moon, and the entire known universe (including the Great Creative Power, or Ketanitowit in Lenápe). Our ecos, from the indigenous point of view, extends out to the very boundaries of the great totality of existence, the Wemi Tali.

Similarly, our environment must include the sacred source of creation as well as such things as the light of the Sun, on which all life processes depend. Thus our surroundings include the space of the universe and the solar/stellar bodies that have inspired so much of our human yearnings and dreams.

Ecology, then, in my interpretation, must be the holistic (and interdisciplinary) study of the entire universe, the dynamic relationship of its various parts. And since, from the indigenous perspective, the universe is alive, it follows that we could speak of geo-ecology as well as human ecology, the ecology of oxygen as well as the ecology of water.

Many indigenous thinkers have considered humans part of the Wemi Tali, not separate from it. As I have written:

For us, truly, there are no “surroundings.”
I can lose my hands and still live. I can lose my legs and still live. I can lose my eyes and still live. . . . But if I lose the air I die. If I lose the sun I die. If I lose the earth I die. If I lose the water I die. If I lose the plants and animals I die. All of these things are more a part of me, more essential to my every breath, than is my so-called body. What is my real body?

We are not autonomous, self-sufficient beings as European mythology teaches. . . . We are rooted just like the trees. But our roots come out of our nose and mouth, like an umbilical cord, forever connected with the rest of the world. . . 

Nothing that we do, do we do by ourselves. We do not see by ourselves. We do not hear by ourselves. . . . We do not think, dream, invent, or procreate by ourselves. We do not die by ourselves. . . 

I am a point of awareness, a circle of consciousness, in the midst of a series of circles. One circle is that which we call “the body.” It is a universe itself, full of millions of little living creatures living their own “separate” but dependent lives. . . . But all of these “circles” are not really separate—they are all mutually dependent upon each other. . . .(21)
We, in fact, have no single edge or boundary, but are rather part of a continuum that extends outward from our center of consciousness, both in a perceptual (epistemological-existential) and in a biophysical sense—our brain centers must have oxygen, water, blood with all of its elements, minerals, etc., in order to exist, but also, of course, must connect to the cosmos as a whole. Thus our own personal bodies form part of the universe directly, while these same bodies are miniature universes in which, as noted, millions of living creatures subsist, operate, fight, reproduce, and die.

Anna Lee Walters, the Otoe-Pawnee teacher and writer, in speaking of prayers, notes:

“Waconda,” it says in the Otoe language, Great Mystery, meaning that vital thing or phenomenon in life that cannot ever be entirely comprehensible to us. What is understood though, through the spoken word, is that silence is also Waconda, as is the universe and everything that exists, tangible and intangible, because none of these things are separate from that life force. It is all Waconda. . . (22)

Thus ecos for us must include that which our consciousness inhabits, the house of our soul, ourntchítchank or lenapeyókan, and must not be limited to a dualistic or mechanistic-materialistic view of bios. Ecology must be shorn of its Eurocentric (or, better, reductionist and materialist) perspective and broadened to include the realistic study of how living centers of awareness interact with all of their surroundings.

At a practical level this is very important, because one cannot bring about significant changes in the way in which the Wemi Tali is being abused without considering the values, economic systems, ethics, aspirations, and spiritual beliefs of human groups. For example, the sense of entitlement felt by certain social groups or classes, the idea of being entitled to exploit resources found in the lands of other groups or entitled to exploit “space” without any process of review or permission or approval from all concerned—this sense of superiority and restless acquisitiveness must be confronted by ecology.

The beauty of our night sky, for example, now threatened by hundreds or thousands of potential future satellites and space platforms, by proposed nuclear-powered expeditions to Mars and space-based nuclear weapons, cannot be protected merely by studying the physical relations of organisms with the sky. The cultures of all concerned have to be part of the equation, and within these cultures questions of beauty, ethics, and sacredness must play a role. Sadly, the U.S. government is the greatest offender in the threat to space.

When a mountain is to be pulled down to produce cement, or coal, or cinderstone, or to provide housing for expanding suburbanites, the questions that must be asked are not only those relating to stream-flow, future mudslides, fire danger, loss of animal habitat, air pollution, or damage to stream water quality. Of paramount importance are also questions of beauty, ownership, and the unequal allocation of wealth and power that allows rich investors to make decisions affecting large numbers of creatures based only upon narrow self-interest. Still more difficult are questions relating to the sacredness of Mother Earth and of the rights of mountains to exist without being mutilated. When do humans have the right to mutilate a mountain? Are there procedures that might mitigate such an aggression? Are there processes that might require that the mountain’s right to exist in beauty be weighed against the money-making desires of a human or human group?

We hear a great deal about “impacts” and how “impacts” must be weighed and/or mitigated. But all too often, these considerations do not include aesthetics (unless the destruction is proposed for an area where rich and powerful people live), and very seldom do we hear about sacredness or the rights of the earth. Indeed, we have made progress in the United States with the concept of protecting endangered species, but it is interesting that, for many people, the point of such protection is essentially pragmatic: we are willing to preserve genetic diversity (especially as regards plant life) in order to meet potential human needs. The intrinsic right of different forms of life each to have space and freedom is seldom evoked. (Even homeless humans have no recognized right to “space” in the United States).(23)

All over the Americas, from Chile to the arctic, Native Americans are engaged in battles with aggressive corporations and governments that claim the right to set aside small areas (reserves) for Native people and then to seize the rest of the Native territory and throw it open to Occidental Petroleum, Texaco, or other profit-seeking organizations. Often, as in the case of the U’wa people, the concept of the sacredness of the living earth directly conflicts with the interests of big corporations and the revenue-hungry neocolonial governments that support them.

It has to be said that some indigenous governments and groups have also allowed devastating projects to be developed on their territories. Sometimes there has been grassroots resistance to the extraction of coal, uranium, and other minerals, but very often the non-Native government has encouraged (or strong-armed) the indigenous peoples into agreeing to a contract providing for little or no protection to the environment.

In her book, All Our Relations, Winona LaDuke focuses on a number of specific struggles involving Native people in the United States and Canada. She points out that “Grassroots and land-based struggles characterize most of Native environmentalism. We are nations of people with distinct land areas, and our leadership and direction emerge from the land up.”(24) LaDuke shows in each of her chapters how different groups of First Nations people are facing up to serious problems and are seeking to address them at the local, community level. They are also forming national and international organizations that seek to help individual nations, in great part through the sharing of information and technical assistance. In the final analysis, however, each nation, reserve, or community has to confront its own issues and develop its own responsible leadership. This must be stressed again and again: each sovereign Native nation will deal with its own environmental issues in its own way. There is no single Native American government that can develop a common indigenous response to the crisis we all face.

Mention should be made here of the work of Debra Harry, a Northern Paiute activist from the Pyramid Lake Reservation who is spearheading an information campaign relative to biopiracy and the dangers of the Human Genome Diversity Project. The collection of Native American tissue samples and DNA/mtDNA information represents a very serious environmental threat, since the discovery of unique genetic material could be used not only for patenting and sale but also for future campaigns of germ or biological warfare. The latter may seem extreme, but Native peoples have reason to be cautious about sharing potentially dangerous information with agencies, governments, and organizations not under their own control. The entire field of biopiracy, the theft of indigenous knowledge about plants and drugs, represents another area of great concern, since Native peoples could find themselves having to pay for the use of their own cultural heritage or for treatment using genetic material of indigenous origin.(25)

Many activists are concerned primarily with the environmental responses of Native Americans belonging to specific land-based communities recognized as sovereign by the U.S. or Canadian governments. But in addition, there are millions of Native people who do not have “tribal” governments that are recognized as legitimate by a state. In California and Mexico, numerous Mixtec communities must deal with the hazards of agricultural pesticide, crop-dusting on top of workers, poor housing, inadequate sanitation, poor or polluted water sources, and a host of other issues. The Mixtec have responded by organizing around farm-labor issues, as well as developing their own ways of coping. For example, in Baja California they are often forced to build their own houses on steep hillsides where they must use old cast-off truck and auto tires as retaining walls to provide a level area for living.

Many Native groups, including Kickapoos, Navajos, Papagos, Zapotecs, and Chinantecs, produce a number of migrant agricultural laborers. These workers often remain rooted in home villages to which they may return seasonally. Such persons have a primary responsibility to their families; they cannot be expected to devote much energy to environmentalism, apart from attempting to obtain clean water, healthy food, and sanitary living conditions.

On a positive note, the environmental awareness of many indigenous American groups translates into a high respect for women in their communities. It would be hypocritical to seek to control women or restrict their opportunities for full self-realization while pretending to respect living creatures. This is a significant issue, because a great deal of evidence has shown that when women have high status, education, and choices, they tend to enrich a community greatly and to stabilize population growth. Many traditional American societies have been able to remain in balance with their environments because of the high status of women, a long nursing period for children, and/or the control of reproductive decisions by women. (26) Many of the leaders in the Native struggle today are women.

Many Native homelands are much reduced in size from former years and are often located on land of poor quality. These conditions can create overuse of resources. Human population growth is, of course, one of the fundamental issues of environmental science. Along with the unequal distribution of resources and the taking away of resources (such as the removal of oil from indigenous lands, leaving polluted streams and poisoned soil) from militarily weaker peoples, human population growth is one of the major causes of species loss and damage to ecos. These are major issues in ecology but also must be overriding concerns for economists, political scientists, and political economists. In fact, the tendency in North America to ignore the impact of money-seeking activities upon nonmarket relations is a major source of environmental degradation. The recent effort to “charge” the industrial nations for the damage they have caused to world environments (as a new form of “debt” from the capitalist world to the rest of the world) is an example of how we must proceed.(27)

To many of the more materialistic peoples of the world, indigenous people have often seemed “backward” or “simple.” They have seemed ripe for conquest or conversion, or both. The fact is, however, that the kind of ethical living characteristic of so many indigenous groups, with its respect for other life forms and its desire for wholeness of intellect, may be the best answer to the problems faced by all peoples today.

Yet there are some who challenge the environmental record of Native Americans, seeking to prove that in spite of the ideals expressed in indigenous spirituality, Native peoples were actually large-scale predators responsible some ten thousand years ago for widespread slaughter and even species annihilation. This viewpoint, shared primarily by a few anthropologists, overlooks the fact that during the Pleistocene era and later extinctions occurred in Eurasia and elsewhere, and that Native Americans cannot be blamed for a global phenomenon. In any case, indigenous Americans have always belonged to numerous independent political and familial units, each with its own set of values and behavioral strategies. One can hardly assign blame to modern Native people as a whole group when the “culprits” (if there were any) cannot even be identified.

In dealing with the sacred traditions of original Americans and their relationship to the environment, we must keep in mind a common-sense fact: not only do different Native groups have different traditions, stories, ceremonies, living conditions, challenges, and values, but each family or group has its own unique approach to “together-living” or “culture.” We must also factor in time, since different days, years, and epochs have presented different circumstances. In short, humans do not live by abstract rule alone. They live as well through a unique set of decisions informed by inspiration, personality, situation, and opportunity.

Native Americans, like any other group, are capable of acts that might well conflict with the major thrust of their sacred traditions. We must, therefore, differentiate between the concrete behavior of a people and their ideals. But in the case of indigenous Americans, such a distinction is perhaps less important than in other traditions. Why? Because Native Americans often lack a single, authoritative book or set of dogmas that tells them what their “ideals” should be. On the contrary, Native American sacred traditions are more the result of choices made over and over again within the parameters of a basic philosophy of life. Thus, we must look at the ideals expressed in sacred texts (including those conveyed orally), but also at the choices that people actually make.

Nonetheless, I believe that we can make the kinds of generalizations that I have, at least as regards those Native North Americans still following traditional values.

. . .The Old Ones say
outward is inward to the heart
and inward is outward to the center
for us
there are no absolute boundaries
no borders
no environments
no outside
no inside
no dualisms
no single body
no non-body
We don’t stop at our eyes
We don’t begin at our skin
We don’t end at our smell
We don’t start at our sounds. . . .
Some scientists think
they can study a world of
matter separate from themselves
but there is no
Universe Un-observed
(knowable to us at least)
nothing can be known
without being channeled
through some creature’s senses,
the unobserved Universe
cannot be discussed
for we, the observers,
being its very description
are its eyes and ears
its very making
is our seeing of it
our sensing of it. . . .
Perhaps we are Ideas in the mind
of our Grandfather-Grandmother
for, as many nations declare,
the Universe
by mental action
was created
by thought
was moved
So be it well proclaimed!
our boundary is the edge of the Universe
and beyond,
to wherever the Creator’s thoughts
go surging. . . .(28)

Native people are not only trying to clean up uranium tailings, purify polluted water, and mount opposition to genetically engineered organisms; they are also continuing their spiritual ways of seeking to purify and support all life by means of ceremonies and prayers. As LaDuke tells us: “In our communities, Native environmentalists sing centuries-old songs to renew life, to give thanks for the strawberries, to call home fish, and to thank Mother Earth for her blessings.”(29)


1 John Fire, Lame Deer, and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 39–40.

2 Ruth Bunzel, “Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism,” Forty-Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), 483–486.

3 Some writers have attacked Carlos Castaneda; however, I find that many of the insights in his first four books are quite valuable. Since he was most assuredly a man of Indigenous American ancestry, I am willing to quote him without arguing over whether his works are fiction or nonfiction. Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 284–285.

4 Fire, Lame Deer, and Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, 265–266; emphasis added.

5 Ruby Modesto and Guy Mount, Not For Innocent Ears: Spiritual Traditions of a Desert Cahuilla Medicine Woman (Angelus Oaks, Calif.: Sweetlight Books, 1980), 72.

6 Sylvester M. Morey, ed., Can The Red Man Help The White Man? (New York: G. Church, 1970), 47.

7 Black Hawk, Black Hawk; An Autobiography (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1955), 106.

8 John Gneisenau Neihardt, The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 312.

9 Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1999), 2.

10 Neihardt, The Sixth Grandfather, 288.

11 Ibid., 288–289.

12 Pete Catches, Lakota elder, quoted in Fire, Lame Deer, and Erdoes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, 137–139.

13 Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, rec. and ed. Joseph Epes Brown (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971), 31–32.

14 Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), 192–193.

15 Ibid., 196.

16 Jack D. Forbes, “Kinship is the Basic Principle of Philosophy,” Gatherings: The En’owkin Journal of First North American Peoples VI (Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 1995), 144–150.

17 Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe, 7.

18 Miguel Leon-Portilla, La Filosofia Nahuatl: Estudiada en sus Fuentes (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, 1966), 237–238. My translation.

19 Fire, Lame Deer, and Erdoes, Lame Deer, 155–158.

20 Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 69–70; Fire, Lame Deer, and Erdoes, Lame Deer, 16.

21 Jack D. Forbes, A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Aggression, Violence, and Imperialism (Davis, Calif.: D-Q University Press, 1979), 85–86. See also Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1992), 145–147.

22 Anna Lee Walters, Talking Indian: Reflections on Survival and Writing (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1992), 19–20.

23 See Jack D. Forbes, “A Right to Life and Shelter,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 May 2000, zone 7, 9.

24 LaDuke, All Our Relations, 4.

25 Debra Harry is executive director of Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolo-nialism, 850 Numana Dam Road, P.O. Box 818, Wadsworth, NV 89442, USA.

26 Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals, 109–110.

27 This is a proposal made by Third World nations that seeks to “capitalize” the costs of environmental damage.

28 Jack D. Forbes, “The Universe Is Our Holy Book,” unpublished poem, 1992.

29 LaDuke, All Our Relations, 3.


‘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:

HIGHLY VALUED                        LOW/NO VALUE
Men                                               Women
Employment                                 Domestic work
Market                                           Subsistence
Marketable resources                   Eco-systems
Personal wealth                            Social reciprocity
Science/technology                       Traditional Knowledge
Reason                                          Emotion
Mind/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:

VALUED ECONOMY                     ME-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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical structure of major work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding this ‘maturity’, Bill tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deep Ecology

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

Wikipedia describes it thus:

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

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

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

Arne Naess

The  Deep  Ecology  Platform articulated by Arne Naess and George Sessions

Introduction To Deep Ecology

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

Quotes about Deep Ecology


Recovering Bear Sacredness

by Leon Chartrand

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

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

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

The photo shoot begins.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Research News

Power of the Wild


by Roderick Frazier Nash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Evolution of Death and Samhain

by Michael Colebrook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

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

long dead in your tongue.’

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

to the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all the things that you love, name

their names, prepare to lose them. It will be

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


And I went and put my hands

into the ground, and they took root

and grew into a season’s harvest.

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

that I knew had been dead

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

Then the voice following me said:

‘You have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground. Learn

from the woodcock in the woods

whose feathering is a ritual of the fallen leaves,

and from the nesting quail

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

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

the greenery and the furrows of his fields, and bear

the long standing of the woods.’


And I asked: ‘You mean a death then?’

‘Yes,’ the voice said. ‘Die

into what the earth requires of you.’

Then I let go of all holds, and sank

like a hopeless swimmer into the earth, and at last

came fully into the ease

and the joy of that place,

all my lost ones returning.


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

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

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

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

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

Everyman replies:

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

In thy power it lyeth me to save,

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

Ye a thousand pound shalt thou have,

And defer this matter till another day.

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

Everyman, it may not be, by no way.

I set not by gold, silver nor riches,

Nor by pope, emperour, kynge, duke nor princes

For and I would receive gifts great,

All the world I might get.

But my custom is clean contrary

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

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

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

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

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

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