This past summer, I helped to design an undergraduate course at Stonehill College in the US on ‘Ecospirituality.’ My mentoring professor suggested that we begin by defining what eco-spirituality means to each of us. Little did I know, after three months of scouring literature, attending conferences, and scrapping drafts of our course plan, I would still be searching for a sufficient definition of eco-spirituality.
The underlying principles that provide the basis for eco-spirituality are not new. Arguably, they are an ancient part of some cultures. However, recently this field has emerged as a prominent and cohesive intellectual, practical, and social trend. At its foundation, eco-spirituality is a theory that calls us to have a personal connection with the Earth, while also acknowledging that we share it with a global community.
For many of us in industrialised, globalised nations, this realisation has been lost in our material focus on production and limitless ’progress.’ Eco-spirituality calls on us to understand this modern scientific perspective as only one of many tools in approaching the world and assessing the challenges that we face as we move into a century marked by climate change, ecosystem collapse and extensive population growth.
Eco-spirituality doesn’t demand we throw out all our technology, competitive attitudes and objective mindsets. It merely suggests that, as with all things, each tool must be employed in moderation and integrated with other ways of seeing the world.
The trouble is the reconciliation of an objective, scientific method of thinking, with other perspectives. We live predominantly in cultures that not only create binaries of reason/emotion and spirituality/science, but we have polarised these perspectives in ways that create a fundamental incompatibility between scientific empiricism and other ways of viewing the world.
However, there is a real need to break down the barriers between modes of thinking by infusing our predominately scientific outlook with more mindful, inclusive, and non-analytical perspectives. And much like the awe of a fireworks show or the sensation of falling in love, understanding ecospirituality is better described through personal experience than explanation or analysis.
Something of this can be seen in the experience of entomologist, Jeffrey Lockwood. He has spent much of his career studying insects on the prairies of Montana. In two autobiographical accounts of his career, Grasshopper Dreaming and Prairie Soul, Lockwood explains that his original attraction to nature came by way of a scholarly interest in entomology, and grasshoppers in particular. However, as Lockwood delves into his relationship to his work and the grasshoppers that he studies, the science of the insects becomes secondary as he integrates a spiritual element into his scientific writing. After spending several days in the grasslands of Montana observing grasshoppers, Lockwood begins to insert himself – the supposedly objective scientist – into the natural world around him. Rather than observe only for the sake of science, Lockwood’s relationship with the grasshoppers and the prairie became a struggle to understand the ethical connection between humans and those creatures that we declare as ’pests.’
With this new perspective, Lockwood’s view of his ‘subjects’ shift from scientific assessment to a search for intrinsic value and holistic understanding. Even by detailed entomological standards, grasshoppers live a dull life. Yet Lockwood tries to understand the insects on a different level. After placing value on just ‘being,’ Lockwood sees the lack of activity in grasshoppers in a new light. Their existence does not require a scientific explanation or assessment. Consequently, Lockwood’s dialogue with the natural world, which began with a ’judicious use of an insecticide… and experimentation,‘ is transformed into a subtle, yet productive conversation ‘…not only with the grasshoppers, but the soil, grasses, and birds. I speak to the prairie and God answers. Well, sort of.’
Lockwood’s growing realisation of the intrinsic value of grasshoppers represents the sort of transition that ecospirituality calls us to achieve. While grasshoppers may be useless if our goal is to collect meaningful scientific data, they become a deeply important part of the natural world for ‘…an ecologist who wants to relate to a prairie as a living being worthy of deep respect.’ By the end of his books, it becomes clear that the instruments of science that once served as Lockwood’s only means of connection to the Montana grasslands can no longer capture or explain his full experience of grasshoppers.
In this way, ecospirituality does not call us to give up our day jobs in order to befriend grasshoppers and stare at the soil, but it does push us to question how we conceive our relationship to the Earth. It asks us – in this increasingly fast-paced and globalized world – to become mindful of our relationship, not separateness, with the Earth and its many diverse forms. According to Lockwood, it is only after we expand our perspective in this way that ‘…the All emerges, and manifests at the scale of the cosmos and at the level of a blade of grass.’
The great difficulty of ecospirituality is that it does not give us answers, solutions, or concrete methods by which to solve our problems. Instead, it starts at a more fundamental level by challenging the very way in which we view the world around us. Referencing one of the fathers of ecospirituality, Thomas Berry, Lockwood argues that ‘We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.’ Ecospirituality, then, is the process that helps us love, not simply value, the world around us and all that is a part of it.
Article written by Andrew Norkiewicz
Photograph by Karen and Bob Richardson
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