The Celestial Earth – “subtle bodies of Light”

CORBIN DESCRIBES SOPHIA, the divine presence of wisdom for our world in an intermediate imaginal world – the Celestial Earth, as follows:

“Between the intellectual and the sensible… [is] a ‘spiritual corporeity’ which represents the Dwelling, the Divine Presence, for our world. This Dwelling is Wisdom itself, Sophia.”[i]

Sophia is “the imaginal place of the Divine Presence in our world”. Sophia as the Celestial Earth is typified in the Shi’ite gnosis by Fatima, “the Sophia of the Shi’ite theosophy and cosmology”.[ii] Thus Sophianity is for the human being to accede here and now to the Celestial Earth, to the world of Hurqalya, world of ‘celestial corporeity’, which is that of the subtle bodies of Light.[iii]

“the Soul of the Perceiver”

THE QUANTUM WORLD of nonmaterial symmetries and archetypes also requires new ways of envisioning the world, description and language.

The importance of the imagination and an inner non-physical reality behind our physical external world is understood by quantum physicists; in particular Wolfgang Pauli, F. David Peat and David Bohm.

Pauli argued that the psychologist and the physicist are engaged in a complimentary quest. Hence he advocated that the:

“[I]nvestigation of scientific knowledge directed outwards should be supplemented by an investigation of this knowledge directed inwards. The former process is directed to adjusting our knowledge to external objects; the latter should bring to light the archetypal images used in the creation of our scientific theories. Only by combining both these directions of research may complete understanding be obtained.”[iv]

Psychiatrist Anthony Stevens states: “The relationship between the physical world we perceive and our cognitive formulations concerning that world is predicated upon the fact that the soul of the perceiver and that which is recognised by perception are subject to an order thought to be objective.”[v]

Stevens notes that, for Pauli, “…the archetypes which order our perceptions and ideas are themselves the product of an objective order which transcends both the human mind and the external world.”[vi]


FOLLOWING ON from Pauli, quantum physicist F. David Peat has also called for changes in our language which apply to both ‘inscape’ and ‘landscape’. This postmodern language draws upon metaphor, allusion, ambiguity and values:

“[T]here can be no single explanation, theory or level within nature. We must seek complementary descriptions rather than the single, all-embracing, complete and logically consistent rational accounts which attempt to answer all questions and close all doors. We must seek to engage nature using all the richness that is possible within human language, by drawing upon metaphor, allusion and ambiguity in order to create coherent yet complementary accounts… the science of inscape and landscape requires a degree of creativity within its language, including the ability to deal with metaphor and ambiguity and to accommodate the qualities and values of our experience.”[vii]

By ‘inscape’ Peat is referring to the authentic voice, or inner-dwellingness of things and our experience of them; hence he argues … “By inscape I wish to suggest the inexhaustible nature of each human being, tree, rock, star and atom, and that there is no most fundamental level, no all embracing account or law of a perception or encounter. Rather one attempts to engage in the inner authenticity of the world”.[viii]

This is the ‘I-Thou’ poesis of the artist and Sophianic Wisdom. As in the Sophia Wisdom Archetype, where there is no dualism, Peat questions the fragmentation within our current (modernist) worldview between inner and outer and “the desire for an objective science which has no room for values, qualities and the nature of subjective experience”.[ix]

Implicate Order

DAVID BOHM has argued similarly that there is “no fundamental distinction between the processes of the imagination and perception”.[x] Bohm distinguishes between primary imagination, creative imagination and reflexive imagination. Thus, “the reality which you perceive is affected by your thought. Thought is working as a kind of imagination being infused into your perception. It becomes part of what you see. And that imagination is necessary”.[xi] According to Talbot, Bohm uses the idea of implicate order to echo the idea that:

“Every action starts from an intention in the implicate order. The imagination is already the creation of the form; it already has the intention and the germs of all the movements needed to carry it out. And it affects the body and so on, so that as creation takes place in that way from the subtler levels of the implicate order, it goes through them until it manifests in the explicate.”[xii]

In other words, in the implicate order, imagination and reality are ultimately indistinguishable.

[i] Henry Corbin, ‘Towards a Chart of the Imaginal’, Temenos 1 (1981), 30.
[ii] Ibid, 31.
[iii] Ibid, 32-33.
[iv] Wolfgang Pauli, ‘The influence of archetypal ideas on the scientific theories of Kepler’ in: C.G. Jung and W. Pauli, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), 208.
[v] See Anthony Stevens, Archetype – A Natural History of the Self (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 74.
[vi] Anthony Stevens, ‘Thoughts on the Psychobiology of Religion and the Neurobiology of Archetypal Experience’, Zygon, v.21, no.1 (1986), 19.
[vii] F. David Peat, Synchronicity – The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (New York & London: Bantam Books, 1988), 6-7.
[viii] Ibid, 6.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] David Bohm, Thought as a System (London: Routledge, 1994), 151.
[xi] Ibid, 152.
[xii] Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), 84.

Imaginal-Visionary Landscapes

Landscape is a connector of the soul with Being.

– Belden C. Lane

Our perceptions are colored by preconception and desire… the 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.

A Focus in Feeling

LANDCAPE IS a focus in feeling. For environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, environmental perception is not restricted to vision but is multimodal and feeling, or affect, is central:

“Affect is central to conscious experience and behavior in any environment, whether natural or built, crowded or unpopulated. … because virtually no meaningful thoughts, actions, or environmental encounters occur without affect … an affective state is an important indicator of the nature and significance of a person’s ongoing interaction with an environment.”[i]

Moreover there is no evidence that feelings are preceded by cognitive processes. Ulrich argues that there is mounting empirical support for the view that “many affects are essentially precognitive and constitute the initial level of response to environment.”[ii] Ulrich maintains that while culture is an important and significant variable influencing aesthetic reactions, it has perhaps been overstated.[iii] He argues that “there is no evidence that fundamental perceptual and cognitive processes vary between cultures” and further that “emotions are universal and have the same qualities across different cultures”.[iv]

Ulrich’s conclusion that “feelings, not thoughts, come first in environmental encounters, and the observer’s initial feeling reaction shapes subsequent cognitive events”[v] has been supported by the research of others.[vi] Cross-cultural, universal, pre-verbal, precognitive emotive perception is inherent to archetypes. This is significant because as we shall see, it points the way forward to an archetypal analysis of landscape.

[i] Roger S. Ulrich, ‘Aesthetic and Affective Response to Natural Environment’, Behaviour and the Natural Environment, Irwin Altman and Joachim F. Wohlwill, eds., (Vol. 6 of Human Behaviour and Environment, Plenium Press, New York, 1983), 85.

[ii] Ibid, 89.

[iii] Ibid, 110.

[iv] Ibid, 109.

[v] Ibid, 117.

[vi] See for example Harry Heft and Joachim F. Wohlwill, ‘Environmental Cognition in Children’ in: Daniel Stokols and Irwin Altman (eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology (Malabar Florida: Krieger Publishing Co., 1991), 175-203; Rachel Sebba, ‘The Landscapes of Childhood – The Reflection of Childhood’s Environment in Adult Memories and in Children’s Attitudes’, Environment and Behavior Vol.23, no.4, July (1991), 395-422. As Sebba finds from research(p.395), “the environment which an adult remembers as significant in childhood was personally experienced without adult mediation and the related experiences were only found in childhood. The child’s sensory perception remains in adult memory as a central childhood experience because its relative importance is at its peak at this stage of life. The adult recalls the natural environment due to qualities that are substantially different from those of the man-made environment”.

The Inner, Imaginal ‘Postmodern Ecological Landscape’

FACED WITH AN ECOLOGICAL CRISIS, the landscape which now confronts us is postmodern and ecological in focus. The Technological/Materialist Landscape is now frequently being questioned and even rejected for what could be termed a new, inner and imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape.

This Postmodern Ecological Landscape is concurrent with a revision in epistemology. As has been shown, the modernist domination, objectification and externalisation of nature, built into concepts of science and modernist epistemology, has been increasingly criticised.[i]

With the Postmodern Ecological Landscape we seem to have returned to the primal animist sacred Nature/Earth Landscape imagination and vision. The difference is that perhaps we are more self-consciously and deliberately aware of the imagination in creating landscapes.

It could be argued that it is the inner archetypal landscapes of the psyche, from which the imagination springs, that creates the outer landscapes of our being in the world. Indeed, as shall be shown in the final chapter, this is what was argued by Henry Corbin in his translations and interpretations of the writings of the ancient Persian pre-Islamic mystics and the Shi’ite, Mazdean and Sufi mystics in respect to their ‘visionary geography’.

If this inner landscape of the psyche – or as cultural historian William Irwin Thompson terms it, “imaginary landscape of the “middle way of the mind”, in which “we humans come to know our world”[ii] – is accepted, then we would seem to have arrived at, or spiraled into, old understandings, feelings and rememberings of our spiritual embeddedness in the natural world.

American environmentalist and academic Lynn Ross-Bryant argues that Barry Lopez is one of a number of contemporary writers of ecological literature who offers a postmodern and holistic view of humans, nature and spirit. Most of these writers share a sense that “in allowing the mysterious otherness of nature to present itself, the ultimate dimension of life, the sacred, is revealed”.[iii]

For Lopez, imagination is the key to the relations and interactions between the natural world and human beings. These relations are mediated by the imagination and creations of the imagination. Thus Lopez asks: “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”[iv]

Lopez argues that we must approach the land with an “uncalculating mind” and with an attitude of regard, because whatever evaluation we finally make will be inadequate: “To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know that the land knows you are there”.[v]

Imagination, mystery, wisdom, the sacred within the mundane and the reciprocity of I-Thou relation are all characteristics of the Postmodern Ecological Landscape. Lopez speaks of a relationship with the arctic landscape which is mystical, emotional, lyrical and reverent:

“I came to believe that people’s desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra. And, too, that the land itself existed quite apart from these.”[vi]

This is a very different imagination and ‘focus of perception’ from the secular I-It world of the modernist Technological/Materialist Landscape, in which the sacred has been critically and rationally excised from the landscape.

Oil workers in the arctic told Lopez “the Arctic was really a great wasteland ‘with a few stupid birds’, too vast to be hurt. Whatever strong men could accomplish against the elements in such a place, they insisted was inherently right.” A drilling supervisor said “Technology is inevitable. People just got to get that through their heads”.[vii]

Lopez like other recent writers of ecological literature, who could be described as postmodernist, share not only an extensive knowledge of the land but also an unabashed I-Thou relation with the Nature/Earth Landscape. They are not restricted by the I-It objectivist epistemology of science, technology and materialism. Rather they are willing and unafraid to use poetic language and acknowledge imagination and metaphor as a means of exploring and describing other ways of knowing. There is an emphasis on wholeness and relationship with the natural world. In Lynn Ross-Bryant’s words:

“Their intent is to know humans better by knowing them as part of the natural order, and, insofar as possible, through metaphor and imagination, to know the land better as well. Through this use of the imagination they come to an awareness of the whole process of which humans are an interrelated part which leads them to a double emphasis, first on human responsibility to the whole and all its parts and second on human spirituality as it is rooted in this experience of the whole.”[viii]

Unlike The Judaic-Christian Anthropocentric Landscape where the sacred is transcendent, and the Technological/Materialist Landscape where the sacred is leached from the landscape and men would objectify and manipulate the land to their own materialist ‘progressive’ ends, there is a revisioning in landscape perception by these environmentalist writers towards a Postmodern Ecological Landscape.

These writers “share a love for and extensive knowledge of the land emphasizing nature as nature rather than nature as a springboard to transcendent reflections on humans”.[ix] Ross-Bryant argues that for Lopez there is an interaction between humans and nature:

“imagination and desire encounter the landscape and the living things in it: knowledge is gained – not simply of one’s imagination, nor purely of the land, but of the mysterious process in which land and humans – all living things – are involved.”[x]

This is in essence a description of the mystical I-Thou relation.

Lopez wants to change the way we imagine the world. He shows the different ways in which Eskimos, explorers, painters and oil workers have imagined the arctic landscape and the consequences of their imagination. Ross-Bryant says of Lopez’s spirituality and what he identifies as sacred is an encounter with wholeness and mystery in the encounter with the earth:

“The experience of wholeness and mystery that he everywhere encounters in the things and people of the earth is the heart of his spirituality and his connection with what he identifies as the sacred.”[xi]

THE IMAGINATION HAS A ROLE IN EVOLUTION and one might add a spiritual revolution. Lopez states “The continuous work of the imagination…(is)…to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution”.[xii]

It could also be argued that it is the continuous work of the imagination to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed of, that is reflected at the collective level in historical changes in landscape ‘focus of perception’. In this regard, it is worth noting Bishop’s argument that:

“Postmodernism marks not so much the end of history, as the end of history as concrete reality … Indeed, it marks the beginning of history (the past memory) as a metaphorical reality. By identifying the possible plurality of histories, HISTORY can be deliteralised. Like all the old literal power-words – Progress, Duty, Heritage, God – ‘History’ now becomes an imagistic truth.”[xiii]

For cultural historian William Thompson the orthodox religion of our era is “scientific materialism,”[xiv] but at the same time “Gaia [the Earth] is a new landscape” and the new mentality is a “planetary culture” or “postmodernism”.[xv] While he uses different terms, Thompson’s arguments accord with the perspective of the postmodern ecological landscape.

Thompson critiques modernism and argues for the return of the imagination as a mode of participatory perception – a way of being in the world and knowing.

“[T]he value of the imagination returns to challenge the reductionist mentality of modernism that ruled during the period of the mechanization of the world picture.”[xvi]

Thompson points out that in the straightforward linear world that Whitehead called “scientific materialism”, “it is precisely simile and metaphor that the materialist is trying to eliminate in reductionism” and that:

“this naïve philosophy, cultural constructs like “space” and “objects” are taken to be independent of the mind that frames them through its own threshold of possible perceptions, and by a strange inversion that amounts to a perversion, “mind” and “culture” are reduced to accidental collisions of these imaginary “real” objects in “real” space.”[xvii]

We are at one of “those exciting times when the creative imagination of an entire civilization is undergoing a transformation of its basic mentality”.[xviii] The dynamic mentality of modernism, the mentality of Galileo, Newton and Descartes with its linear equations is moving into a postmodernist science of which Chaos Dynamics is one important expression.[xix]

The Gaia hypothesis has stimulated a new way of knowing the planet and it is “as large and imaginatively provocative for our era as Darwinian evolution was for our great-grand parents time”.[xx] It gives “a new way of appreciating how the part participates in the whole” .[xxi]

Again there is great emphasis on the imagination. Thompson maintains that the imagistic mode that we call the Imagination is an ancient faculty which seems to involve a prelinguistic form of mind in which “thought is developed through correspondences, homologies, and participations of identity”.[xxii]

The imagination “is like a transformer” and metaphors are by their very nature transformers.[xxiii] Thompson argues that it is the “metaphorical process through which the Imagination takes in knowledge and steps it down into the conventional imagery of the sensory world with which we are all familiar… the Imagination is an intermediate realm, the realm of the artist, scientist, or prophet who renders the Intelligible into the Sensible”.[xxiv] The fundamentalist is not able to follow the symbolic utterance and takes image literally.[xxv] Thompson concludes that:

“Between the heights of the macrocosm of the Gaian atmosphere and the elemental depths of the microcosm of the bacterial earth lies the middle way of the Mind and it is in this imaginary landscape of the middle way, whether we call it the Madhyamika of Buddhism or the Christ of Steiner or the Da’at of the Kabbalah, that we humans take our life and come to know our world as the dark horizon that illuminates our hidden center.”[xxvi]

In Thompson’s view, landscape is inextricably tied to the interior mind and the imagination; and this is a postmodern view of landscape.

LANDSCAPES ARE BOTH IMAGINAL AND VISIONARY. In this chapter it has been shown that landscapes are sourced in the personal and collective imagination of the psyche. That our landscapes derive from personal and collective imagination has long been recognized by geographers wrestling with the concept of landscape. The prime role of the imagination in creating landscape is inherent in postmodern geography. It is however in the consideration of spiritual landscapes that the role of the imagination becomes most apparent.

At the collective level, particularly in the West, there have been discernable historical changes in spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes: the primal sacred Nature/Earth Landscape; the Judeao-Christian revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape; the modernist ‘secular’ Technological/Materialist Landscape; and the imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape which allows for an Inner Landscape from which our outer landscapes are a manifestation and materialization.

With the Postmodern Ecological Landscape we seem to have created a full circle return to the animist, sacred, Nature/Earth Landscape imagination and vision. The difference is that we are more consciously and deliberately aware of the imagination in creating landscape.

Paradoxically, it would seem that spiritual and imaginal-visionary landscapes have simultaneously undergone historical change and are timeless. There is a timelessness or historical transcendence in our understanding of and our potentiality to participate in different spiritual, imaginal-visionary landscapes, which could be called archetypal. This archetypal aspect of landscape, which is historically transcendent and centred in the individual’s psyche, is the subject for the next chapter.

[i] Cindy Katz and Andrew Kirby, ‘In the Nature of Things: The Environment and Everyday Life’, in: Transactions – Institute of British Geographers, v.16, no.3 (1991), 259-271.

[ii] William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1989),169.

[iii] Lynn Ross-Bryant, ‘Of Nature and Texts: Nature and Religion in American Ecological Literature’, Anglican Theological Review, v.73, no.1 (1991), 38.

[iv] Lopez, Arctic Dreams, xxvii.

[v] Ibid, 228.

[vi] Ibid, xxii.

[vii] Ibid, 398-399.

[viii] Lynn Ross-Bryant, ‘Of Nature and Texts: Nature and Religion in American Ecological Literature’, 39.

[ix] Ibid, 39.

[x] Ibid, 41.

[xi] Ibid, 49.

[xii] Lopez(1998) Arctic Dreams, 414.

[xiii] P. Bishop, ‘Rhetoric, Memory, and Power: Depth Psychology and Postmodern Geography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, v.10, no.1 (1992), 17.

[xiv] William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science, 52.

[xv] Ibid, 130; see also 123.

[xvi] Ibid, 131.

[xvii] Ibid, 50-51.

[xviii] Ibid, xviii.

[xix] Ibid, xix.

[xx] Ibid, 130.

[xxi] Ibid, 84.

[xxii] Ibid, 80.

[xxiii] Ibid, 83.

[xxiv] Ibid, 84.

[xxv] Ibid, 83.

[xxvi] Ibid, 169.

The Modernist, Secular ‘Technological/Materialist Landscape’

THE SACRED IS ALMOST completely leached from the Nature/Earth Landscape and replaced by a sceptical secularism. This is the imaginative construct and ‘focus of perception’ of the scientific, realist and objectivist mind. In the new modernist, ‘secular’ Technological/Materialist Landscape, it could be argued that ‘religious’ enthusiasm is now for the idea of man and man-made progress in scientific discoveries and technological and materialist creations – as opposed to an omnipotent, transcendent God Father revealed through the Bible (His ‘Holy Word’) and in His holy places: temples, cities and churches.

The Nature/Earth Landscape where all natural phenomena are intrinsically sacred has been left far behind and is no longer regarded as a threat. It is derogated as ‘primitive’ or ‘romantic sentimentality’ or ‘new age nonsense’ by the positivist sceptic and materialist alike.

IN THE EARLY 1960s, Erich Isaac described this situation in geography of religion, where in a modern, secular culture, religion’s impact on landscape is minimal. He argued that geography of religion had become in practice “an essentially ethnological and historical study… religion as a great basic power in transforming the landscape has virtually ceased to operate”.[i]

Isaac drew a distinction between ‘religion’ and the ‘religious impulse’, which could be imputed to ‘secular ideologies’. He argued that humanity has become the new object of worship and man’s secular ideologies have important parallels to religion:

“It is not accurate to say that the religious impulse as a transforming power in the landscape has virtually disappeared in the 20th Century. What has actually happened is that this impulse has been translated into another form. … This … has made it possible for secular ideologies to develop, bearing certain important parallels to religion. The important ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries postulate a world order which must be brought into being.”[ii]

One can think of a number of ideologies that would fit Isaac’s description of the religious impulse – in particular Marxism and Capitalism, both of which are based on salvation through material progress, although Marxism in theory is more concerned with social equality and justice. It is arguable that the underlying ideology of the twentieth century is that of human progress as salvation, here on earth, based on a technological/materialism. Indeed, Isaac concluded that for those studying the religious motive in cultural landscape the study of the role of ideology in landscape transformation is essential:

“Problematic though it be, the study of transformations of the landscape made upon ideological principles constitutes the major material for one who would study the religious motive at work in the cultural landscape of the present day.”[iii]

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, 1978, also noted the decline of the sacred and transcendental and questioned whether in fact there is now a secular church – a church which “is increasingly a social and service center”. In contrast, the medieval church “however much it catered to secular activities, was primarily sacred space: it radiated power”. [iv] Wistfully he concluded that contemporary life has lost its sense of the sacred, whether it be in the forests and streams or the sacred space of the church:

“Today the gods no longer dwell in forests and streams. If we abuse nature we shall pay for our wantonness in the long run and ecologists can tell us just how this will happen with the help of systems analysis and computers. But such rational and longwinded argument cannot chill our spine as can the belief that if we polluted a sacred spring our limbs would at once wither. …our pretense to scientific understanding and power has also corroded our feeling for profound mysteries. The world seems transparent. Contemporary space, however colorful and varied, lacks polarized tension as between the numinous and the quotidian. Contemporary life, however pleasant and exciting, moves on one plane – the plane encompassed by rational and humanist vision. Ecstasy and dread, the heights and the depths, the awesome and the transcendent rarely intrude on our lives and on our landscapes except under the influence of chemical stimulus… A sense of holiness and of worldly splendor has dimmed in modern times, and some people feel the loss.”[v]

Belden Lane also expresses a sense of the loss of the sacred and the mysterious for modern humanity: “As much as we might be tempted, amid the spiritual poverty of our contemporary life, to reach back to a renewed sense of paleolithic wonder, it is no longer possible or perhaps even desirable. The oracle is dumb. All shrines are defunct”.[vi] His description of modern life exemplifies the loss of and the longing for both the Nature/Earth Landscape and the revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape of patriarchal monotheism:

“The rootless character of American life, the Neo-Platonic impulse within the history of western spirituality, radical monotheism’s stubborn resistance to circumscribing the holy – all these would seem to minimise the significance of the phenomena [sacred space] being considered here. They are joined, finally, by the extraordinary impact of modern, critical thought in desacrilizing the world of nature, driving all mystery from it.”[vii]

He argues that, since Descartes and the Enlightenment:

“we no longer attribute numinous power to the landscape. The world is not for us the clear window of access to God that it might once have been… Yet human beings have never more longed for an awareness of God’s presence than today. Seldom have they been so divorced from a sense of place and the experience of meaningful dwelling that it can provide. Modern men and women, no less than their forebears, still hunger for the power of myth and place.”[viii]

Perhaps anticipating the imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape, Lane concludes:

“If there is hope for a rediscovery of the spirit, it will not be found in looking back to an innocence once lost, a simplistic return to the paradise of Eden. It will demand a reaching through and beyond the harshest criticisms leveled by the whole of western spiritual tradition. It will require a metanoia, a turning away from all efforts to manage the mystery of God. Only then may it be possible to encounter, by grace, a second naivete – a renewed sense of wonder glimpsed within the myriad landscapes of the holy.”[ix]

Lane places emphasis on the imagination, the experience of meeting and the mystery of grace and wonder which reveals the spiritual multiplicity of landscapes. This points to a description of the Postmodern Ecological Landscape to which we now turn.

[i] Erich Isaac ‘Religion, Landscape and Space’, Landscape, v.9, no.2, Winter (1959-60),18.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Sacred Space: Explorations of an Idea’ in: Butzer, K. (ed.), Dimensions of Human Geography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 94.

[v] Ibid, 98-99.

[vi] Lane(1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 190-1.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid, 191.

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 Country Almanac: 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 of Thought – 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.