(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 6-8)
When writing on ecopsychology one has usually, not surprisingly, started off from the person, the psyche, to try to understand the vast and intricate interconnections of universe and individual. But a different light might be thrown if we started off from some tentative consideration of Cosmos, the Universe, the Earth, and then tried to deduce something of our own nature, our psyche, as creatures in this world?
I am encouraged and stimulated to do this now, because of the vivid presentation of the earth’s story in a television series by lain Stewart called Earth: The Power of the Planet. The story starts with Impact, the violence of the universe’s formation and continuing array of projectiles ‘careering’ constantly and uncontrolled round the cosmic system for billions of years: then, moving to Gaia herself, Fire, the volcanoes and the earth’s centre, as hot as the sun: then the story moves to Air, atmosphere within above and below the earth’s surface and boundaries, then Water – ice and ocean: then the energies and forces and powerful contradictions that act and react between all these elements: and then a story of extraordinary order which underlies it all, and the unique alignment of planets that enabled life to occur on earth – shielded from meteorites by the greater magnetism of Jupiter, held in place by the moon, warmed by the sun, held to a enabling temperature for life. Perhaps we live in the only place that has all these features in the universe: we are ‘a rare earth’, as Stewart puts it.
So what could we deduce about ourselves from this stunning and energetic story about earth’s creatures over the four and a half billion years of her existence? Such an amazing variety of forms- bacteria still predominant: flowers from 65 million years ago: dinosaurs, carnivores and herbivores, worms, mammals including people, fish and whales, trees and vegetables. All grow, change and die: all are forever changing throughout their lives – are ‘temporary arrangements’ from moment to moment – all live with other organisms, so each body is a world in itself. All are related and interconnected – feeding from each other, protecting each other in communities, genetically similar. The embryos of modern humans are almost indistinguishable from those of other mammals and there is evidence that we have the remnants of reptilian as well as mammalian brains, together with human frontal lobes and the neocortex. Physically there is a continuity of being, and communication at many levels in plants and animals.
So what is that the creatures of this earth basically do in their lives? Gerard Manley Hopkins gives the most succinct answer I know in his poem As Kingfishers catch fire.. “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…. Crying ‘what I do is me: for that I came’.”
It seems reasonable that we, in the same way as every other living being, came in order to live out our potential and our particular form of intelligence and spirit. And maybe we came to do that not only as individuals but as a collective as we are such sociable beings. Here we could find Carl Jung’s concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ and ‘collective unconscious’ as relevant. So for humans, as well as for any other social interacting being, there are always three explicit yet connected levels of being: the individual, the social/group and the cosmic.
What are the characteristics we could see in the nature of the earth, and of the universe itself, that we could take from Stewart’s presentation, or from the Universe Story, and that could be seen in us? This is almost going back to the medieval theory of correspondence – “as above, so below”. Humans have long perceived that the universe is made of patterns and energies that are repeated at different levels. The characteristics which seem to me most obvious are:- i) change and order: creation and destruction: the fundamental opposites ii) the creative, innovative energy within all things, always changing iii) the relationship of all living creatures to each other, so we are all as one, and yet so separate iv) the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water, the humours, long recognised v) the inner consciousness, the outer creative spirit, all one in most of the indigenous religions vi) light and dark vii) so, if we are lucky, a sense of the deep order and transcendent intelligence, beauty and terror of things, truly not fully imaginable to our human brains but expressed in some early religions
Walt Whitman, the poet, wrote a remarkable passage in 1882, summing up a picture of something like this perception from the point of view of the individual:-
“There is, apart from pure intellect, in the makeup of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realises without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it the goal and apex of all education deserving the name), an intuition of absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible makebelieve and general unsettleness, we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all histories and all time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the hunter. (Of) such soul-sight and root center for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface.”
When we find a particularly articulate, fulfilled and insightful person, he or she can express something of this realisation: I am thinking of Simon Rattle, the conductor, who said in a recent radio interview this year, 126 years later than Whitman, that for him, great music is the lava flow… coming from the centre of the earth’: that for him, music is the ‘Vine of life, and words, even poetry, only the bottle, the container’: and that, for him, great joy and great grief come together, as an equal force, in much magnificent music. He added, that in becoming a conductor, he had found early “the right thing to do”: this whole interview seems to fulfil the spirit of the Hopkins poem – “for this I came”.
Our Greenspirit articles all touch upon this primary element of search in the human experience, Don and I in the realisation that the psychology we learned earlier in our educational lives was decidedly lacking in the transcendent realisation that we are one with the spirit of the cosmos, a transliminal sense as Isabel expresses it. David Abram in his introduction to Radical Ecopsychology writes “Intelligence is no longer (to be seen as) ours alone but is a property of the earth: we are in it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its own unique version of soil and leaf and sky. Each place its own mind, its own psychology.”
But we then have to remember the three distinct layers of which we are a part, touched on earlier, because to cope with our own sense of meaning, and to learn to live in some human kind of order, we have to tell ourselves stories. Indeed, we could say, we have nothing else but stories – even Western science that, because of the ‘proof of the experimental method we often regard as more true’ than any others. We therefore have political, religious, scientific, spiritual social stories, and these too are deeply contained within our individual psyches, often as profound as those arising from our personal experiences. For instance, in some sense, we all have an experience of war, even if we have never directly experienced it, from the collective consciousness from seeing and reading the daily News – and also from collective unconscious material we may carry from our family and cultural history.
I am a sociologist, and remember from my very first class at University the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s phrase that “no-one ever looks at the world with pristine eyes”.
This would apply to living beings of any species who all carry, as David Abram writes, their own particular version of biological and psychological reality. The ‘reality’ that we perceive is essentially tied to who and what we are – be we hare or eagle, twenty-first century city dweller or Indian villager, male or female.
And also it is clear that everything is constantly changing, the cells of our bodies, the coves around the coast, the social and cultural worlds humans create. We feel some stability in ourselves and in the earth that seems real because we live such brief lives: and we are all part of the overall creativity where order, beauty and destruction flow. All the new knowledge constantly made available to us brings an open-mouthed astonishment: could it really be true that our planet had a twin which we have named Theia’, which collided with the nascent Earth, and created the Moon 4.5 billion years ago? And how can we relate to the physical change in our bodies through aging, as I know that the child I once was is both a very different person from the adult I am today – and yet there is a consciousness, a memory, an observer, a spirit within that feels somehow deeply connected.
The ambitious scheme of ecopsychology is trying to relate the individual, social and cosmic levels of human experience. A tough job, particularly because for the last four hundred years we have increasingly lived in a contradictory framework. As Tarnas puts it, for the Western world, “our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology” (p.31). People alert to the issue of meaning in today’s modern world find themselves against the grain of the twenty-first century main thrust of capitalism, the earth being seen as property, species other than human largely regarded with indifference except as human recourses, and the universe being seen as exploitable and quantified.
The hope is that if we could truly face our twenty-first century situation as a species, as an individual is encouraged to do in personal therapy to name, work through and get rid of some of the rubbish and cherish the growing points. Those points may be synonymous with that ‘wondrous something’ mentioned by Whitman, aligned to the spirit within and without, the identical spirit within each, Atman and Brahman. Then maybe we could understand more of why we are here. Maybe we could understand the hunter’ who holds Whitman’s leash a little more from within ourselves.
D.H.Lawrence has as usual a pointed, if sexist comment on all of this. In Reflections on the Death of the Porcupine, he write: “Man, as yet, is less than half grown. Even his flower-stem has not appeared yet. He is all leaves and roots, without any clue put forth. No sign of a bud anywhere……
Blossoming means the establishment of a pure, new relationship with the cosmos. This is the state of heaven. And it is a state of a flower, a cobra, a jenny-wren in spring, a man who knows himself royal and crowned with the sun, with his feet gripping the core of the earth.”
Maybe nearly 80 years after Lawrence’s death, we might discern the beginnings of a bud and a trace of its colour.
• Iain Stewart & John Lynch. Earth: the Power of the Planet. (BBC Books 2008). Accompaniment to DVD of the same name.
• Walt Whitman. Specimen Days (1882): Carlyle from American points of view. (http://www.bartleby.com/229/1223.h tml).
• Interview with Sir Simon Rattle on Desert Island Discs January 2008. BBC Radio 4.
• Isabel Clarke: The New Human Story (Greenspirit. Spring 2004) Jean Hardy: Who are we? ( Greenspirit. Summer 2004)
• Don Hills: Getting in to it: the lure of ecopsychology. (Greenspirit: Winter 2005)
• Andy Fisher. Foreword by David Abram. Radical Ecopsychology (State University of New York 2002).
• Richard Tarnas. Cosmos and Psyche (Viking, Penguin, 2006).
• Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems.
• D.H.Lawrence. Reflections on the death of a porcupine and other essays (CUP, 1988).
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889