Thursday, June 11, 2009

Re-envisaging the Human Wilderness Dichotomy - Chris Alford

…the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that…

(Robinson Jeffers, excerpt from the Answer)

As a response to the present ecological crisis, there is currently, among other significant movements, an expanding focus, both in the developed and developing worlds, (including traditional pre-industrial ‘4th World’ cultures) upon exploring the underlying causes, and further, developing harmonious ways of dealing with this crisis. My particular interest in this discussion centres upon the role of the wilderness, both as a physical place and a psychological metaphor, in bringing about a change in the way “humans of the global industrial society,” (Metzner 1993) relate to nature. Accordingly, I aim to delve into the basic worldviews (i.e. attitudes, values, perceptions) of modern industrial cultures, and in particular Western culture, in order to illicit an understanding, however brief, of the roots of the disconnectedness which underpins the current ecological crisis. Furthermore, I will examine current evidential research into wilderness experience as a transformative and healing process, specifically as pertaining to spiritual and transpersonal dimensions. Following from this, my aim is to explore how physical wilderness experience, on both land and sea, helps us to reconnect with the ‘wild’ part of ourselves and thus facilitates a more ‘connected’ sense of belonging to nature, which can lead into a more harmonious relationship with our environment.

The consequences of separation

The anthropogenic roots of the current ecological crisis can be seen as largely congruent with the basic attitudes, values and perceptions of the global industrialised society; most specifically in Western culture (Metzner 1993). The primary focus of this section is thus to delve below the ‘surface causes’ of this crisis into the “underlying matrix” (Greenway 1995) of cultural forms, i.e. myth, language and shared assumptions, in order to better understand the roots of the disconnected, destructive relationship between Western culture and the ‘natural’ world. In accordance with the work of; Davis (1998) Greenway (1995) Metzner (1993) Snyder (1990) Shepard (1999) and others, I propose that the imbalance in this relationship occurs as a consequence of the intrinsically dualistic nature of the Western cultural “matrix”. The particular definition of dualism that I use in this discussion is borrowed from Rob Greenway’s (1995) effective distinction;

By dualism I mean its radical form, a complete divergence of realities: a person is aware of differences, but sees the differences as existing in different realities (“man’s ways are not God’s ways,” “the stuff of mind is different than the stuff of bodies,” “the natural and the supernatural,” etc.). It’s as if we’ve taken the marvellous (and evolutionary critical) function of distinction making and pushed it until distinctions become disjunctions.

The common element which resonates from such a perception of reality is of course one of separation. As a result, we have become the only species on this planet which falsely believes, in its own independence from, and thus superiority to the natural world (Metzner 1993; Shepard 1999); a phenomenon which Gary Snyder (1990) calls the “Solitary Knower”. In order to accurately understand how we have come into this predicament, I feel it is necessary to begin at a critical juncture the evolutionary history of the Homo Sapien, wherein a significant divergence in both physical and psychological interaction with the natural world began to take shape; the transition from the hunter-gatherer to agricultural farming society.

Whilst it has been historically conventional to interpret the shift from hunting and gathering to agricultural farming as an evolutionary ‘step forward’ for the human race; evidence to the contrary, i.e. Berrill, (1955) Van der Post (1961) Lee and DeVore (1998) suggests that modern day hunter-gatherers remain no less intelligent, artistic, complex or inventive than contemporary counterparts in the industrialised world (Shepard, in White 1994). In consideration of these two fundamentally divergent human systems, is it not pertinent to question the validity of ‘progress’ in the modern industrialised world? Ecologist Paul Shepard (cited in White1994) states that “if we accept ourselves as an integrated part of the ecological system, then we have to ask why that system has evolved to the point of crisis”. In Nature and Madness, (1982) Shepard argues that the planting of annual plants and the domestication of animals leads to a relationship with the natural world defined by control. Wild things, he says, become adversaries to the controlled environment and “enemies of the tame”; importantly, “the wild ‘other’ is no longer seen as the context but the opponent of ‘my’ domain”. How we relate to the other-than-human world is a critical component of the dualistic paradigm that I wish to further discuss.

Several of the analogies or metaphors used to explain the pathological alienation between the human consciousness and the biosphere, which Ralph Metzner (1993) gives light to in his article, The split between Spirit and Nature in European Consciousness, point to significant developmental problems within the Western psyche. Thomas Berry (1988, cited in Metzner 1993) argues that the Western psyche has become autistic towards the natural world; ignorant of the psychic presence of the living planet and its voices and stories. Another metaphor put forward by Paul Shepard (1982, cited in Metzner 1993) argues that the self-serving, exploitative relationship with the environment, characterised by modern consumerist culture, is kind of “arrested development,” a fixation likened to “juvenile psychosis”.

What then, we may ask, is the cause of such pathological development of the Western psyche in relation to the other-than-human world? In Jonathon White’s (1994) Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity, Paul Shepard explains that exposure to what is “other-than-us” is essential to human development:

To my understanding, this interest [in animals for example] is a response to an interior calendar that tells the child something about addressing otherness in a larger-than-human context….Normal development may require cooperation, mentorship and respect for a mysterious and beautiful world, a world where the clues to the meaning of life are embodied in natural things and experienced through ritual participation of individual stages and passages.

Here Shepard is modelling a healthy relationship with ‘otherness’ upon his observations of present-day hunter-gatherer groups i.e. the !Kung San, (Africa) Aranda, (Australia) and Manus (New Guinea). He later explains that in our modern urban civilisation, the shortcutting of this process of exposure to the other-than-human world leads to an inability to adequately transition into maturity. Thus, Shepard elaborates, “the grief and sense of loss that we often interpret as a failure in our personality is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered”. Besides significant social dysfunctions, which are evidenced in the modern industrial world as a result of the inability to ‘wholly’ mature, there are more far-reaching and devastating consequence for all that is other-than-human. These consequences are primarily manifested in the fundamentally anthropocentric worldview which underpins the current ecological crisis.

Critique of modern anthropocentrism has been largely the work of the “deep ecology movement,” formulated by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (Metzner 1993). The deep ecology movement, with its “life centred” (LaChapelle, in White 1994) approach to ecology, argues that the dominant anthropocentric worldview of the global industrial society, (particularly in the West) promotes a position of superiority over the non-human world, which leads directly to control, domination and destruction; wherein the natural world is seen only as instrumentally valuable as an exploitable commodity (Metzner 1993). The roots of anthropocentrism in the modern Western world are deeply intertwined within religious and scientific spheres. Jonathon White (1994) identifies the shift from animism to monotheism (between five and ten thousand year ago) as the precursor to a patriarchal, “sky” (God above) spirituality. Matthew Fox (in White 1994) explains this as symbolising the removal of divinity from the natural world to be “placed in the sky where it is unreachable by the Earth Goddess and all she represents”. The growth and dominance of Christianity in the Western world has served to further develop a fundamentally dualistic apprehension of reality. As Metzner (1993) puts it:

The stage was set for a further and complete desacralization of the natural world, with the transcendent creator progressively marginalised, until we have the totally life-less, non-sentient, purpose-less world of the modern age.

This development of religious anthropocentrism is part of what Gary Snyder (1990) is referring to when he writes, “huge numbers of Europeans, in the climate of a nature-denying mechanistic ideology, were losing the opportunity for direct experience of nature”. Here, he is also referring to the modern rationalist, scientific line of thought (championed by the likes of Descartes, Newton and Bacon) which sought, through a “model of sterile mechanism and an economy of ‘production’”, to define humankind as separate and above the ‘wild,’ natural world.

If, as expressed by Rob Greenway, (1995) “the appetites rooted in our culture’s mythology of human superiority and autonomy are virtually impossible to assuage,” then through what avenue can we possibly pursue change? In the following two sections I will explore the possibility that wilderness experience can offer us a way to transcend culturally imbedded boundaries in order to re-discover ways of living harmoniously within the other-than-human world.

Relearning the Wild

The strong body of research on the psychological impact of wilderness experience and the wealth of anecdotal evidence clearly express the positive relationship between these experiences and mental health and wellbeing (Davis 2008). Whilst the major focus of research has centred upon on relaxation, a sense of restoration, and the capacity to focus attention, (i.e. Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Hartig, Mang, and Evans 1991; Ulrich, et al 1991; Kaplan, 1995) the transpersonal dimension of wilderness experience remains an important and observable component (Davis 1998). The focus of this discussion thus seeks to explore the transpersonal and spiritual aspects of wilderness experience; with particular emphasis upon the effects of wilderness ‘rites of passage’ experiences and how they facilitate transformations in the way people relate to the natural world.

My first objective is to clarify what is understood as a spiritual or transpersonal experience in the context of this discussion. Driver et al. (1996, cited in Ashley 2007) offer a thorough referential foundation for such experiences;

Introspection and reflection on deep personal values; the elements of human devotion, reverence, respect, wonder, awe, mystery or lack of total understanding; inspiration; interaction with and relationship to something other and greater than oneself; sense of humility; and sense of timelessness, integration, continuity, connectedness and community.

Whilst this list is in no way exhaustive, such definitions reflect genuine experience, as they have been mostly self-defined by participants in wilderness experience projects (Heintzman 2003). Furthermore, this kind of language connotes possible non-dual spiritual (in some cases possibly mystical) experience; the possibility of which will require further exploration.

Increased research into the spiritual dimension of wilderness therapy programs, whilst offering significant structural difficulties, reflects a growing need to understand how the concept of spirituality fits into therapeutic experience (Rothwell 2008). Rothwell, (2008) in her work with wilderness therapy guides, identified that the emergence of spirituality in wilderness experience, “whether intentional or not,” was “essential to the successful fulfilment of a model that stresses connection to self, others and new life habits”. Considering the strong possibility of spirituality being conducive to beneficial changes in personal and group relationships, is it possible to observe changes in transpersonal spiritual relationships to the natural world? In a summary of research into the transpersonal elements of ecopsychology, John Davis (1998) identified that within Talbot and Kaplan’s (1986) research on wilderness experience, transpersonal qualities were found to be the strongest theme.

For many participants [during the backpacking trips] there is eventually a surprising sense of revelation, as both the environment and the self are newly perceived and seem newly wondrous. The wilderness inspires feelings of awe and wonder, and one's intimate contact with this environment leads to thoughts about spiritual meanings and eternal processes. Individuals feel better acquainted with their own thoughts and feelings, and they feel "different" in some way--calmer, at peace with themselves, "more beautiful on the inside and unstifled." (Kaplan and Talbot 1983, cited in Davis 1998)

[After the trips] there is a growing sense of wonder and a complex awareness of spiritual meanings as individuals feel at one with nature, yet they are aware of the transience of individual concerns when seen against the background of enduring natural rhythms. (Kaplan and Talbot 1983, cited in Davis 1998)

This research clearly shows the transformational capacity of wilderness experience in bringing people into a closer and more spiritually fulfilling relationship with the other-than-human world.

Another important component of wilderness experience is the possibility of facilitating and giving meaning to successful life transitions through rites of passage and rituals; which are evidently neglected and unfulfilling in modern industrial society (LaChapelle, in White 1994). John Davis (2003) has developed a structure of wilderness rites of passage which includes five stages; preparation, severance, threshold, return and implementation. Davis has observed that;

On wilderness rites of passage, one finds oneself and one's journey to be part of a larger whole. The need for control over one's environment deepens into trust and a sense of harmony with one's environment. Nature is not a background against which to be challenged and grow. Rather, nature comes front and centre as the foundation and container for the story of one's life. The Earth itself comes alive and, at the deepest, wilderness rites of passage become a gift to the Earth as well as one's people.

Accordingly, wilderness rites of passage experiences provide not only a beneficial framework for successfully negotiating life transitions, but also a way to meaningfully acknowledge one’s ‘place’, to be “reinserted into nature through direct experience” (LaChapelle, in White 1994).

The transpersonal dimensions of Wilderness experience are by no means confined to terrestrial settings. Whilst the research discussed previously pertains largely to land based wilderness programs and experiences, the sea offers an equally valuable, yet less well understood, medium of wilderness experience. Surfing can be seen both as a sport and an aquatic wilderness experience (Taylor 2007). Bron Taylor (2007) defines “soul surfers,” as people who understand surfing to be “a profoundly meaningful practice that brings physical, psychological and spiritual benefits”. His analysis of the myths, symbols, beliefs and practices within surfing subculture deduces a relationship with the sea that reflects mystical connections to the wild, mysterious and magical nature of water. Andrew Francis (2008) further develops this relationship with the sea.

For me, the underworld journey is undersea. Into dark waters I plunge with the eels and the other denizens of the Deep, there to seek the dissolution and rebirth that will pull a few more threads of me together, that will allow me to understand a bit more, create myth, integrate and strengthen archetypes, connect with those that dwell within those waters.

Francis’ relationship with the sea, as both a surfer and a “creature of water,” exemplifies our potential, through wilderness experience, to integrate the neglected or forgotten links which connect us to our environment.

Research into the transpersonal and spiritual dimensions of wilderness experience shows a correlation between such experience and the development of a more connected sense of belonging to the natural world. Following from this, an important question must be addressed; if we grant that wilderness experience allows for the development of a more harmonious way of relating to what is other-than-human, can we integrate such changes into a culture which is in fundamental opposition to the other-than-human world?

The ‘in between’ of civilisation and wilderness

Gauging the possibility of real change can be best done by listening to the voices within modern industrial society calling for change. The recent intensification of calls to develop a responsible and sustainable relationship with the environment, (i.e. Earth First!) in the face of increasing ecological turmoil, is a positive indication of such change. However, for the purpose of this discussion, my focus is more specifically upon ways of realising an alternative future for human-environment relationships, one that aims to move beyond the present predominantly dualistic and anthropocentric worldview of the global industrial society.

There is a broad and central theme that can be identified within the work of many people committed to resolving what Metzner (1993) calls the “human superiority complex”. It is derived from an understanding that a total abandoning of our current ‘civilisation’ in favour of wilderness escapism would be not only grossly naïve and unrealistic but, more importantly, it would be nothing but a perpetuation of the same dualistic paradigm that has got us into this situation in the first place (Greenway 1995; Snyder 1990; Sheppard, in White 1994; Fox, in White 1994). Rob Greenway, in the vein of great but simple epiphanies, presents a succinct solution to this seemingly paradoxical situation:

I came to realise that one didn’t need to replace connections made in the wilderness with aspects of our culture that are destructive of nature. In other words, to see nature and culture as an either/or situation is simply to maintain the kind of dualism I was trying to heal. What I needed was to learn to maintain connections with nature anywhere. I began realising that it was crossing a wilderness boundary to maintain awareness of my heartbeat, my breathing – to allow all my bodily functions. I began realising the underlying “given from nature” aspects of human (and highly acculturated) activities such as eating, gardening, sex, child-rearing and dying. I began to see that on every front, in every crack and cranny of our culture, the drama between nature and culture is being played out….and that the transition between wilderness and culture occurs virtually all the time!

Can we read Gary Snyder (1990) as trying to convey something of this realisation in his amendment of Thoreau’s famous line? – “Wilderness is not just the preservation of the world – it is the world!” I certainly believe so. Snyder further expands this idea as a psychological metaphor in saying that, “our bodies are wild… the depths of mind, the unconsciousness are our wilderness areas”. Shepard (in White 1994) paints a similar picture. He describes our journey (to recovery) as beginning in the “heart of darkness,” (borrowing from Joseph Conrad)…. An adventure into our deepest past”, wherein surrendering to the “darkness,” (to processes beyond our control) we reach “the source of spontaneity and connectedness to non-human life.” Shepard remains convinced that:

A journey beneath the veneer of civilisation would not reveal the barbarian but the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich, non-human environment, and the expressive art of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product. That human knows how to play at being an animal, the importance of clan membership, and the profound claims and liberation of daily ritual. There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these experiences, and sensitive to the right moments in our lives.

To rediscover this secret person within us, must we await deep and transformative wilderness experiences? For Dolores LaChapelle, (in White 1994) the answer lies “in a change in our perception and approach more than location”. She explains that “during rituals we have the experience of being neither opposite nature or trying to be in communion with it. Instead, we have the experience of finding ourselves within nature, and that is the key to sustainable culture.”

So can we really make positive and effectual change to our negative cultural habits? I feel that the answer lies fundamentally in changing our perspective. As Matthew Fox says, “People are Earth. We are Earth on two legs. You have to save both at once” (Fox, in White 1994). It follows that when we deeply understand that we belong to the Earth, we are no longer the separate opposite, we are part of the whole.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
Whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
(Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus)

Ashley, Peter. 2007. Towards a definition of Wilderness Spirituality. Australian Geographer. 38 (1): 53-69.

Davis, John. 1998. The Transpersonal Dimensions of Ecopsychology: Nature, Nonduality, and Spiritual Practice. The Humanistic Psychologist. 26 (1-3): 60-100.

Davis, John. 2003. Wilderness Rites Of Passage: Healing, Growth, and Initiation.

Davis, John. 2008. Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: Research and Theory.

Dunlap, Thomas R. 2005. Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a religious quest. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Francis, Andrew. 2008. Creature of Water. In Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, eds. Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis, 89-105. London: Equinox.

Greenway, Robert. 1995. Healing by the Wilderness experience. In Wild Ideas, ed. David Rothenberg, 182-193. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Heintzman, Paul. 2003. The Wilderness Experience and Spirituality: What recent research tells us. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. 74 (6): 27-31.

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Snyder, Gary. 1990. The Practice of the wild. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Shepard, Paul. 1999. Encounters with Nature: Essays by Paul Sheppard. ed. Florence R Sheppard. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Shepard, Paul. 1982. Nature and Madness. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

Taylor, Bron. Surfing into Spirituality. 2007. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 75 (4) 923-951.

White, Jonathan. 1994. Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

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