Participatory, Poetic Landscapes

HUMANISTIC, EXISTENTIAL and postmodern geographers, who have questioned viewing the world through an objectivist epistemology, or theory of meaning – are supported by some Western philosophers, biologists, neurophysiologists, environmentalists; and East Asian philosophy, particularly Taoism and Buddhism.   Here very briefly, are the arguments of some others who advocate meaning or an epistemology based on an active and relational process of perception and cognition.

OBJECTIVISM AS A ‘GODS-EYE-VIEW’ of reality independent of human understanding is opposed by philosophers Mark Johnson and Hilary Putnam.    According to the Objectivist orientation, which is rooted deeply in the Western philosophical and cultural tradition, the world consists of objects that have properties which stand in relationships independent of human understanding. Human beings can have no significant bearing on the nature of meaning and rationality.[i] Johnson, like Putnam, argues for realism based on our mediated understanding of our experience. They argue that experience is an “organism-environment interaction”. The organism and its environment are not independent and unrelated entities.[ii] Johnson concludes that objectivity “does not require taking up God’s perspective, which is impossible; rather, it requires taking up appropriately shared human perspectives that are tied to reality through our embodied imaginative understanding”.[iii]

Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela reach very similar conclusions to Mark Johnson’s “embodied understanding” by “offering a scientific study of cognition as a biological phenomenon” wherein “the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism)” are eschewed.[iv] The act of cognition does not simply mirror an objective reality “out there” – rather it is rooted in our biological structure and is an active process in which we actually create our world of experience through the process of living itself. We are “continuously immersed in a network of interactions, the results of which depend on history”.[v]

Steve Odin observes that “the primacy accorded to relational ‘field’ over that of the ‘substantial objects’ implicit in the ecological world view is also at the heart of the organismic paradigm of nature in East Asian philosophy, especially Taoism and Buddhism”.[vi]

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), environmentalist, scientist, ecologist, forester and writer of the classic ‘A Sand Country Almanac’ (1949) is widely regarded as establishing environmental ethics as a distinct branch of philosophy. His ethics arise from a “metaphysical presupposition that things in nature are not separate, independent, or substantial objects, but relational fields… the land is a single living organism wherein each part affects every other part”.[vii]

J. Baird Callicott an American philosopher of environment and ethics, follows the insights of Leopold and argues that “object-ontology is inappropriate to an ecological description of the natural environment. Living natural objects should be regarded as ontologically subordinate to “events” and/or “flow patterns” and/or “field patterns”.[viii]

THE RELATIONAL FIELD idea of environment or landscape, has been promoted by ecologists and some significant philosophers, East and West. In the Western philosophic tradition, English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was seminal with this view.

Modernism and hence objectivism was systematically challenged by Alfred North Whitehead. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodernists, Whitehead whose contribution to philosophy, mathematics and logic as well as metaphysics is “considered by many to be one of the great intellectual achievements of all time”[ix] is known in particular for his relational field view of reality. A.N. Whitehead gave the field concept of nature implied by ecology its fullest systematic expression in his process metaphysics and philosophy of organism.

As Odin points out, Whitehead “elaborates a panpsychic vision of nature as a creative and aesthetic continuum of living field events arising through their causal relations to every other event in the continuum”.[x] Odin argues that nature, in terms of the Gaia hypothesis, is “a synergistic ecosystem of symbiotic relationships” and this is the relational view of reality of many ecologists as well as much philosophy of East Asia based on Taoism and Buddhism.[xi]

Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski is another one who argues for a new epistemology based on a “participatory concept of truth” wherein ‘objectivity’ “has become a myth which is pernicious and which we need to transcend”.[xii] He holds that there is “a close and inevitable relationship between the view of the cosmos of a given people (cosmology) and the system of knowledge of a given people (epistemology). One recapitulates the other, and is in the image of the other. Thus the outer walls of the cosmos are the inner walls of the mind.”[xiii]   In other words, there is a close and inevitable relationship between the landscape ‘focus of perception’ of a given people and the system of meaning or knowledge (epistemology) of a given people.

For example, Lopez argues that the rational, scientific approach to land loses something profound; rather the land is like poetry. For instance:

A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.[xiv]

[i] Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind – The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1987),  x.
[ii] Ibid, 207.
[iii] Ibid, 212.
[iv] Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge –The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (New Science Library, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987), 214.
[v] Ibid, 241.
[vi] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, Environmental Ethics, v.13, no. 4 (1991), 350.
[vii] Ibid, 346; see also Aldo Leopold, A Sand CountryAlmanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (N.Y: Ballantine Books, 1966).[viii] J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.) Nature in Asian Traditions ofThought – Essays in Environmental Philosophy (State University of New York, 1989), 58.
[ix] Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 909-910.
[x] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, 350.
[xi] Ibid, 360.
[xii] Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind – A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe (Arkana, Penguin Group, 1994), xviii-xix.
[xiii] Ibid, xvii.[xiv] Lopez (1998)  Arctic Dreams, 274.


The Great Nurturer

SANDRA LEE, NEW ZEALAND MINISTER OF CONSERVATION, 1999-2002, and a Maori, once said, in reference to the earth: “It is Mother, Papatuanuku; we shouldn’t strive to have power over her, but rather acknowledge that she is the essence which nurtures us and enables us to be”.[i]

Intrinsic to the Mother Earth Archetype and the Nature/Earth Landscape is nurturing. This is characteristic of old European and near Eastern spirituality as well as old Maori mythology, lore and proverbs. It is also true of Native American Indian spirituality and that of other primal peoples. Nurturing is a universal feeling and root metaphor inherent in the Mother Earth Archetype and the Nature/Earth Landscape. Nurturing and mothering are components of the individual personality and the collective psyche.

THE OLD MAORI SAW THE EARTH as their Mother. Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, is “someone who nurtures us and to whom we in turn owe important duties of care”.[ii] In Maori mythology the elemental gods of the natural world are children of Mother Earth and stay close to their nursing Mother.[iii] In Maori mythology it is the Earth Mother who is ultimately responsible for all the foods which sustain us – especially crops such as the kumera (sweet potato) which grow directly within her body. The seasons which relate to Papatuanuku and the growing and harvesting of her foods are found in many ancient Maori proverbs.[iv] Papatuanuku’s children live and function in a symbiotic relationship:

“From unicellular through to more complex multi-cellular organisms each species depends upon other species as well as its own, to provide the basic biological needs for existence. The different species contribute to the welfare of other species and together they help to sustain the biological functions of their primeval mother, herself a living organism. They also facilitate the processes of ingestion, digestion and waste disposal… they cover her and clothe her to protect her from the ravages of her fierce son, Tawhiri the storm-bringer. She nourishes them and they nourish her.”[v]

Nurturing by and of Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, is not just a symbiotic physical relationship, it is also a spiritual nurturing. Maori Marsden points out that Papatuanuku belongs to an older primeval order. Her sustenance derives not only from the mauri – the life force immanent in all creation which generates, regenerates and upholds creation – active within her, but is supported by other members of that order.[vi] Marsden defines the mauri as “the bonding element that knits all the diverse elements within the Universal ‘Procession’ giving creation its unity in diversity. It is the bonding element that holds the fabric of the universe together”.[vii] Mauri is a force or energy mediated by Hauora – the Breath of the Spirit of Life. “Mauri-ora was the life-force (mauri) transformed into life-principle by the infusion of life itself”.[viii] This view was not unique to the New Zealand Maori.

In old European mythology, “Mother Earth was seen to be very active. She was thought to exhale the breath of life, which nourished living organisms on her surface”.[ix]

Anthony Stevens, on the Mother Archetype, notes that:

“It is necessary to repeat that when Jungians speak of a mother archetype, they are not referring to an innate image but to an inner dynamic in the phylogenetic psyche. The ‘artefacts’ of this dynamic – its symbolic residues – are to be found in the myths and artistic creations of mankind. The ‘symbolic canon’ of the mother archetype is very extensive… However some expressions are so universally encountered that they can be mentioned here: as Mother Nature and Earth Mother she is goddess of fertility and dispenser of nourishment; as water or sea she represents the origins of all life as well as a symbol of the unconscious, the fount of all psychic creativity; as Moon Goddess she exemplifies the essential periodicity of womanhood. She also takes the form of divine animals: the bear (jealous guardian of her children), the celestial cow, who nourishes the earth with milky rain.”[x]

Jung speaks of the qualities associated with the Mother Archetype as “maternal solicitude and sympathy…all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility”.[xi] The nurturing Mother Earth Archetype, while a component of the inner psyche, also extends to the outer world and is found in symbols:

“The archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype.”[xii]

The nurturing Mother Earth Archetype, while associated with particular cultures, is to be found in all cultures and mythologies.

Erich Neumann points out that Mother Goddess cultures and their mythologies are intrinsically connected with fertility, growth and agriculture in particular – hence with the sphere of food, the material and bodily sphere.[xiii] As the good mother:

“she is fullness and abundance; the dispenser of life and happiness; the nutrient earth, the cornucopia of the fruitful womb. She is mankind’s instinctive experience of the world’s depth and beauty, of the goodness and graciousness of Mother Nature who daily fulfills the promise of redemption and resurrection, of new life and new birth.”[xiv]

Rupert Sheldrake, biochemist, argues there “is something to be found ‘in nature’ which many of us feel we need… Nature is calm, kindly and nurturing, like an ideal wife”.[xv]

“Nature was traditionally idealized as benevolent Mother in images of the Golden Age. All was peaceful and fertile; nature gave freely of her bounty; animals grazed contentedly; birds sang pure melodies; flowers were everywhere, and trees bore fruit abundantly. Men and women lived in harmony.”[xvi]

In old Europe with the development of agriculture Mother Earth gave way to a more restricted notion of the Great Goddess of vegetation and harvesting. For example, in Greece Gaia was replaced by Demeter – but women were still closely associated with agriculture and soil fertility. Of course, metaphors connecting women with the ploughed earth and fertility exist all over the world. For example, in an ancient Hindu text it is written: “This woman is come as a living soil: sow seed in her, ye men!” and in the Koran: “your wives are to you as field”.[xvii] As Sheldrake points out, the “same metaphor is implicit in our word semen, the Latin word for seed”.[xviii] The Mother Earth Archetype invites feelings of a return to the protection of the maternal nourishing womb.

[i] Sandra Lee, ’Cherishing Papatuanuku’ – Interview with Powhiri Rika-Heke in: Nga Kaitiaki, no.21, August/September (1989), 9.

[ii] John Patterson, Exploring Maori Values ( New Zealand: Dunmore Press Ltd., 1992), 157.

[iii] Ibid, 158.

[iv] Ibid, 48.

[v] Marsden(1989) ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives’, 22.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid, 20.

[viii] Ibid, 21.

[ix] Sheldrake(1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 9.

[x] Anthony Stevens, Archetype – A Natural History of the Self (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 89.

[xi] C.G. Jung, ‘Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype’, The Collected Works, vol.9, Part 1, para.158 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1959), 82. See also C.G. Jung, Four Archetypes, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972), 15.

[xii] Ibid, para. 156, 81.

[xiii] Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XLII, 1973), 43.

[xiv] Ibid, 40.

[xv] Sheldrake (1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 9.

[xvi] Ibid, 8.

[xvii] Ibid, 13.

[xviii] Ibid, 8.

Imaginal-Visionary Landscapes

Landscape is a connector of the soul with Being.
– Belden C. Lane

Our perceptions are colored by preconception and desire… landscapes in which history unfolds are both real, that is, profound in their physical effects on mankind, and not real, but mere projections, artifacts of human perception.
–Barry Lopez

LANDSCAPES ARE imaginal and they are visionary.[i] They are both timeless and they are time-bound, hence particular spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes predominate in particular historical epochs.

GEOGRAPHERS HAVE FOR A LONG TIME understood the idea that our landscapes spring forth from personal and collective imagination.

However it is the postmodern geographers who place most importance on the role of the imagination in creating landscape. In part this is due to their understanding and receptivity to depth, analytical and archetypal psychology, where there has been a revival of interest in the image, the imagination and the imaginal. It is an old way of finding meaning and it is a theory of knowledge which has had a relatively recent revival in the twentieth century.

Seminal in the revival of this epistemology, or imaginal theory of knowledge and meaning in recent times are such thinkers as Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious; Bachelard, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne, who raised poetic imagination to a level equal in importance to scientific knowledge; Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) anthropologist and ethnologist, regarded as the “father of modern anthropology”, who spoke of cultures which did not neglect the feminine guide of the imagination, the creative Sophia; Henry Corbin, with his translations of the ancient Persian pre-Islamic Mystics and the Mazdean, Shi’ite and Sufi mystics (thirteen centuries in which the imaginal has been the focal point); as well as the romantics, the surrealists and most recently postmodernists.

Gilbert Durand concludes that imagination gives “the possibility of experiencing the noumenal… the imaginal is the New World that allows the revival of this gnosis”.[ii]

It is however in the consideration of sacred landscapes and sacred places that the role of the imagination becomes most apparent.

[i] The term imaginal means relating to, or resembling an image (Cf. Collins English Dictionary, London (1979), 731). The term is used most notably by such thinkers as Henry Corbin and Gilbert Durand.

[ii] Gilbert Durand ‘Exploration of the Imaginal’, Spring (1971), 88.

Papatuanuku and the Gaia Hypothesis – Maori Mythology Meets Science

FOR THE OLD NEW ZEALAND MAORI, Papatuanuku was a personification of the Earth. Like the Greek ‘Ge’ or ‘Gaia’, Papatuanuku is Mother Earth, the archetype.

Tohunga and theologian, Maori Marsden (1924-1993) argues that

“Papatuanuku – ‘Land from beyond the veil’, or originating from the realm beyond the world of sense-perception, was the personified form of ‘whenua’ – the natural earth”.[i]

Papatuanuku is an organic Mother, like the Earth Mother of Old Europe.[ii]

“Papatuanuku is our Mother and deserves our love and respect. She is a living organism with her own biological systems and functions creating and supplying a web of support systems for all her children whether man, animal, bird, tree or grass”.[iii]

Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, understood as a living organism and revered by the Maori of antiquity, strikingly resembles James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – the recent scientifically based and described Gaia, also regarded as a living organism.

Up until seventeenth century Europe the root metaphor binding self, society and the cosmos was that of organism and the idea of nature as a living organism and a nurturing Mother. This had philosophical antecedents in ancient systems of thought. Indeed, “Central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficient female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe”.[iv]

For the Roman Stoics from the third century BCE to the first century CE, the world was an intelligent organism and God and Mother were synonymous.

In a theory which is strikingly similar to Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis – which showed that the Earth, its rocks, oceans, and atmosphere, and all living things are part of one great organism evolving over the vast span of geological time – the Roman Stoic, Lucias Seneca (4B CE – 65 CE) argued that the earth’s breath nourished both plant life and the heavens.[v] Analogies were drawn between the human body and the body of Mother Earth.[vi]

For old primal religions, the Mother Earth Archetype remains the supreme underlying holistic force within their landscape. Harold Turner argues that there is “a profound sense in many primal societies that man is akin to nature, a child of Mother Earth and brother to the plants and animals which have their own spiritual existence and place in the universe”.[vii]

That the Earth is a living, conscious being that must be treated with respect and loving care, is also a very central belief to Native American cultures where the “Earth may be referred to as Mother, or Grandmother, and these are quite literal terms, for the Earth is the source, the mother of all living beings, including human beings”.[viii]

Black Elk, a Lakota, asked: “Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother and are not all living things with feet and wings or roots their children?”[ix] Black Elk spoke resentfully of white pressures on the Sioux to sell their land: “only crazy or very foolish men would sell their Mother Earth”.[x]

By the 1960s the Native American had became a symbol in the ecology movement’s search for alternatives to Western exploitative attitudes:

“The Indian animistic belief-system and reverence for the earth as mother were contrasted with the Judeo-Christian heritage of dominion over nature with capitalistic practices resulting in the “tragedy of the commons” (exploitation of resources available for any person’s or nation’s use)”.[xi]

The relevance of the Mother Earth Archetype today can be seen in the modern ecology movement, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and the ecofeminist movement which has reasserted the association between women and nature.

David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson argue that modern ecology is a continuation of the age old human quest for a deeper understanding of the relationships which mysteriously and invisibly connect living things to each other and the earth: “Today’s infant science of nature’s patterns and relations has scarcely begun to unveil the tangles of bonds that exist between the species, forces, and materials of the natural world”.[xii] However, what is being increasingly revealed is a central biological truth, that the “earth’s fragile, enveloping film of life and life-supporting air, water, and soil is a single ecological whole or biosphere”.[xiii]

Biochemist Rupert Sheldrake concludes that despite the fact that in the last few centuries an educated minority in the West has believed the scientific mechanistic myth that the Earth is dead, throughout history practically all humanity has believed it to be alive.[xiv] While most scientists use the vernacular of their profession and tend to view the earth’s “exquisite self-regulating tendencies as merely a manifestation of the system’s many machinelike feedback mechanisms, referred to collectively as homeostasis”[xv] other scientists have viewed it increasingly in a more poetic light.

Former NASA scientist and formulator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, openly expresses his awe and reverence in like fashion to Native elders the world over, who continue to address the same earth – or any of the transcendent or spiritual dimensions they perceive with it – with undisguised love, respect and awe. For many primal peoples the earth is their living, nurturing, reciprocally affectionate Mother Earth. Lovelock has christened this “wonderous lifelike biosphere system Gaia, this total planetary being, in honour of the earth goddess of Greek myth”:[xvi]

“The idea that the Earth is alive is at the outer bounds of scientific credibility. I started to think and then write about it in my early fifties… My contemporary and fellow villager, the novelist William Golding, suggested that anything alive deserves a name – what better for a living Planet than Gaia, the name the Greeks used for the Earth Goddess?”[xvii]

Ecofeminism is a driving spiritual and philosophical force behind the ideology of the ecology movement. Indeed, Carolyn Merchant argues that “Women and nature have an age-old association – an affiliation that has persisted throughout culture, language, and history”:[xviii]

“The ancient identity of nature as a nurturing mother links women’s history with the history of the environment and ecological change. The female earth was central to the organic cosmology that was undermined by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a market-orientated Europe. The ecology movement has reawakened interest in the values and concepts associated historically with the premodern organic world.”[xix]

Mother Earth is a timeless archetype which continues to move modern technologically sophisticated man , albeit unexpectedly.

The Bulgarian cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov, awed by the vision of Earth from the perspective of outer space, described his feelings this way:

“And then it struck me that we are all children of our Earth. It does not matter what country you look at. We are all Earth’s children, and we should treat her as our Mother”.[xx]

[i] Maori Marsden, ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives’, in: Resource Management Law Reform Core Group Working Paper, Part A, No.29, (Wellington: Ministry for the Environment, July 1989), 21.

[ii] See D.R. Simmons, Iconography of New Zealand Maori Religion (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1986); Elsdon Best, Maori Religion and Mythology, Part 1 (New Zealand: Dominion Museum Bulletin 10.\ (1924): 33); R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui. New Zealand and its Inhabitants (London: Wertheim & McIntosh, 1855).

[iii] Marsden (1989) ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources ‘, 22.

[iv] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature – Woman, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 2.

[v] Ibid, 23-24.

[vi] Ibid, 25-26.

[vii] Harold Turner, ‘The Primal Religions of the World and their Study’, in: Victor Hayes (ed.), Australian Essays in World Religions (The Australian Assn. for the Study of Religions, 1977), 30.

[viii] Annie L. Booth and Harvey M. Jacobs, ‘Ties that Bind: Native American Beliefs as a Foundation for Environmental Consciousness’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 12, no.1 (1990), 32.

[ix] John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (New York: Pocket Books, 1975), 6.

[x] Ibid, 113.

[xi] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature, 28.

[xii] David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, Wisdom of the Elders – Honoring Sacred Native Visions of Nature (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 53.

[xiii] Ibid, 53.

[xiv] Sheldrake(1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 123.

[xv] Ibid, 55.

[xvi] Ibid, 56.

[xvii] James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia – A Biography Of Our Living Earth (Oxford University Press, 1989), 3.

[xviii] Merchant, ibid, xv.

[xix] Ibid, xvi.

[xx] K.W. Kelly,(ed.), The Home Planet (Reading, Mass.: Addison- Wesley, 1988), 109.