Cultural Ecology of Urban Cemeteries

May 20th, 2021

Stanley Spencer; The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-7.

‘In the four or five million years since their development, humans have colonized virtually every terrestrial environment of the planet. Humans everywhere are virtually the same biologically (in spite of visible but superficial differences) but have been able to adapt to the enormous environmental diversity of the planet through culture, an incredibly flexible and adaptive mechanism that other animals lack. Thus, humans have been a very successful species. Human activity has a wide range of impacts on the environment, however, from exceedingly minor to catastrophic. Today, human activities are having huge impacts on the very environment on which we depend, ultimately threatening our own existence. Understanding and dealing with these challenges is a daunting but essential task’

Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson

1  Garden cemeteries

There is no better place to contemplate on humanity’s unique flexible and adaptive cultural mechanism than the cultural diversity of a graveyard. Culture brings people together from varying backgrounds who all share a similar belief system. Thoughts on death and what may or may not come next have varied greatly from culture to culture, with each group expressing unique opinions. However, every individual’s belief will vary and can be on a spectrum even if they identify with a certain practice.

Urban cemeteries were conceived and designed in the 19th century as gardens of the dead and as memorials to local people. They were a major cultural adaptation in the West to urbanisation with respect to disposal of the dead. There was little dispute about the means. Burial was the norm; cremation a peculiar foreign custom. The difficulty lay in finding room in expanding cities for an ever-increasing number of corpses. The burgeoning population of cities was filling up its small churchyards, burial grounds and vaults.  This need for burial space was met by large planned graveyards combining architecture, sculpture and landscape.   It makes these cemeteries like no other place in the historic environment, where culture and ecology may be seen as one conservation management system.

Now, the inscription on memorials, the design of monuments, the choice of stones, the architecture of building and landscape design have all been adapted to shed light on past social customs and cultural events.  They combine to make a cemetery an irreplaceable historical resource and an important record of local social history.  Each cemetery is also the biography of its surrounding community. Today, they are valued as places for quiet reflection, as semi wild green spaces managed for human well being. 

The anthropologist Julian Steward (1902-1972) coined the term ‘cultural ecology’ to describe the ‘ways in which cultural change is induced by adaptation to the environment’. Developing this definition and referring more specifically to ‘culture’ as expressly manifested in artistic works, cultural ecology is an interdisciplinary educational framework to unite and mobilise people who share the conviction that radical and widespread cultural change to bring people and nature together is vital to combat the climate emergency.  

In particular, a garden cemetery is an educational example of cultural ecology.  It is a small segment of the biosphere for reflection and action.  It is part of Earth’s open system, which because it relies on outside sources such as the sun, will eventually have an end.  The big picture is that stars die because they exhaust their nuclear fuel. However, death by total obliteration of life, was not an end for the majority of Victorians, but the beginning of a new future.  As the Victorian Tennyson wrote in his poem “Crossing the Bar”:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the Bar’.

“Crossing the bar” refers to the death of a mariner.  The phrase has its origin in the fact that most rivers and bays develop a sandbar across their entrances, and ‘crossing the bar’ meant leaving the safety of the harbor for the unknown.”  The moral lesson of this poem for Victorians was that we should not fear or mourn death because when we die we are going to meet our “Pilot”, alias God, on a voyage to eternity and resurrection.  The Victorians who bought or leased plots in their local municipal graveyard believed in the biblical stories regarding the nature of resurrection, such as;

“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

John 5:28-29

Thus, belief in bodily resurrection, which reflects the Biblical resurrection of Jesus in the flesh and bone, together with Christian belief in a ‘world without end’, are both against scientific understandings of the cosmos where matter is finite. What about the promise that death and judgement will be the final destiny of the soul and of humankind?  According to scripture, Jesus was resurrected in flesh and bone;

 “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 

The belief in resurrection and ascension to Heaven, which sustained the graveyard mourners was accompanied by a growing interest in séances and spiritualism as a way to remain in contact with the dead. 

Jesus’ tomb was found empty and the post-resurrection Jesus that was encountered was not a spiritual body but a physical ecological one. Thus, the dualism of body and soul, which allows for resurrection of the soul in popular Christianity today, counters both the Biblical and ecological narrative.

We can reflect on these contradictions whilst musing in a graveyard where, according to Nathanial Hawthorne, romance, poetry, ivy, lichens and wallflowers need ruin to make them grow.  Graveyards are a place where different human concerns about bereavement meet: sadness, loss, history, tragedy, and uncertainty for the future.

2 Making a garden cemetery

John Claudius Loudon had a major impact on the design of the cemeteries within the Victorian period. His book ‘On the laying out, planting and managing of cemeteries‘ (1843)

was the “goto manual” of the period. He reasoned that the most efficient layout of burial plots was a rectangular grid system, connected by a series of tree-lined drives and paths. Where the cemetery site was hilly, he recommended broad sweeping drives to nullify the gradients, resulting in a more undulating layout.

Loudon expected grand cemeteries to attract a ‘certain class of people’ so he recommended a boundary wall 10 to 12 feet high, in addition to a main keeper’s lodge to keep undesirables out. He also suggested a combination of chapels at the centre, including both an Anglican one and  Non-conformist one. He admired the principles of Jewish and Quaker burial practices, such as the practice of burial as soon as possible after death, and a prohibition on limited burial rights, and used them to advocate against the re-use of graves. He deplored the use of lead lined coffins, due to the problems of methane gas arising from putrefaction in a closed space. “Even in some of the public catacombs of the new London cemeteries explosions have been known to take place, and the undertaker was obliged to be sent in to resolder the coffin”.

He was a strong advocate for certain types of planting too. Concerned about the annual leaf fall of leaves from deciduous trees, he recommended pines, cypress, yew, and juniper, particularly those with “conical shapes,  Evergreen trees have been associated with places of burial from time immemorial because they symbolise notions about the ephemerality of human endeavours and the sublime power of nature.

The horrific state of parish churchyards particularly in London had led to their widescale closure in the early decades of the 19th century and the creation of a huge wave of new privately-run cemeteries outside urban boundaries. Most of these new burial grounds were being laid out in the style of parks but Loudon was highly critical of this. He argued that cemeteries should combine moods of quiet repose, solemnity and grandeur and have a mixture of architecture and landscape that was instantly recognisable, and never be mistaken for a public park or a country residence. Cemeteries should also be considered to have a moral and educational purpose, where “architecture, beauty, scale, and style were not only connected with aesthetics , but with fitness for function”.

Everything about the design of the new cemeteries, from the flora and fauna to the monuments and  pathways, was aimed at eliciting feelings, and awaken memories of the dead. Cemeteries would thus in turn encourage people to think about their own mortality and place in the world, or as Loudon himself put it, “the delight with which we recollect the traces of their lives, blends itself insensibly with the emotions which the scenery excites”. 

It was the intention of the designers that the very purpose of the cemeteries was to be an amenity for the surrounding population. Although most fell into disrepair, ironically today they are still valuable within their communities. The formation of ‘Friends’ groups and Restoration Societies has given people the chance to volunteer and contribute to their community’s use of a repurposed urban space. Most cemeteries have now been re-instated to commemorate the dead and are still religiously active. Many are maintained to support local fauna and flora, providing a haven for wildlife in the middle of a city. Above all, Rutherford cemeteries remain a valuable cross curricular educational resource for architecture, ecology, history, geology and other subjects”, which was in fact what Loudon had always envisioned.   He was also concerned that burials should be conducted;

“—– in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living; either by affecting their health, or shocking their feelings, opinions, or prejudices. The secondary purpose was thought, or ought to be the improvement of the moral sentiments and general taste of all classes, and more especially of the great masses of society”.

Translating this into present times, graveyards can be places where people learn to locate themselves in cultural ecology to equilibrate society with changing times.

3 Heart-ware.

Cardiff’s Cathays Cemetery, originally known as New Cemetery, occupies 30 acres of arable farmland purchased by local government on the 7th March 1859 from Wyndham William Lewis of the nearby  Heath Estate, at a cost of £4,500. The ground was laid out and chapels built during that year. The cemetery was consecrated 28th October 1859 by the Bishop of Llandaff.  As a garden cemetery, Cathays Cemetery (Fig 1) has a substantial tree collection, which began with planting in the early 1860s.

Fig 1 

Trees are an important part of a graveyard’s ecological assets.  There are also very large numbers of listed buildings in cemeteries, according to the National Monuments Records including lodges and houses, boundary walls, gates, mortuary chapels, cemetery chapels, tombs, headstones and mausoleums. Taken together these cultural assets define a community’s heart-ware and there is a strong case to be made that cemeteries have especial architectural and landscape interest because they have often been trapped in a time-warp, and have not been modified, adapted, overlaid, or even destroyed, as has so much else in the historic environment.

The spirituality pedestal that the brain currently occupies used to belong to the heart. For much of history, the heart was the seat of what made humans human.  As a mental toolkit, heart-ware enables us to reflect and think about where we are going, why we are going there and what really matters.  It allows us to explore how modernity and our constricted notions of progress have contributed to today’s crisis of values, and argues for a re-establishment and re-affirmation of self-transcending priorities, together with an ethos of moderation and sufficiency.  Heart-ware supports a wide range of human concerns, including, 

  • material culture and spiritual teachings; 
  • sustainability and the spiritual perspective;
  • traditional and indigenous knowledge; technology and spirituality; 
  • notions of meaningful design; 
  • and how particular material things can have deeper, symbolic significance. 

Heart-ware also supports reflections on cultural issues, such as the language of design and its relationship to wisdom, social disparity and traditional sacred practices.  This is why the heart is so often used metaphorically in spiritual writings to encapsulate a primary source of so much that happens in our spiritual lives. It also explains why love is associated with the heart, as authentic love comes from the “core” of our being, not something that is on the “surface”, and reintroduces us to our physical and spiritual selves..  

The path to spiritual integrity lies through the way we use material things.  Therefore, every aspect of our relation to what is around us is significant. The challenge for us as human beings is to work out how we live humanly, taking our part in a larger and more mysterious set of processes.  It’s not about trying to stand above or outside the world that makes us real.  Life is about addressing critical aspects of dominant material cultures and the associated devastating production-consumption systems. These systems offer new insights for designers to explore alternative approaches to the world of objects, including ones that can lead to human fulfillment and well being.  In this connection, economic development can lead to the loss of one’s social structure and culture causing a grief reaction, described by Eisenbruch as cultural bereavement. Detachment from nature involves the loss of the familiar, including language (especially colloquial and dialect), attitudes, values, social structures and support of migration.  Eisenbruch has defined extreme cultural bereavement as;

 “the experience of the uprooted person – or group – resulting from loss of social structures, cultural values and self-identity: the person – or group – continues to live in the past, is visited by supernatural forces from the past while asleep or awake, suffers feelings of guilt over abandoning culture and homeland, feels pain if memories of the past begin to fade, but finds constant images of the past (including traumatic images) intruding into daily life, yearns to complete obligations to the dead, and feels stricken by anxieties, morbid thoughts, and anger that mar the ability to get on with daily life

Cultural bereavement is at the centre of the loss of biodiversity so it should be an integral part of conservation management where it carries spiritual valuations of local communities into the planning process.. 

4  What now?

As beautiful as the Victorian Garden Cemeteries were, and some still are, they became a victim of changing times. More recent changes have given them another role to play – that of contributing to the recording of local social and economic history’.  This is important in the context of the need to educate for the adoption of a new economic system, which only takes from Earth what the planet can regenerate.  From this point of view, it has been argued that the range of environmental and social benefits that urban cemeteries potentially deliver might have a great educational impact on the population at large as a resource for lifelong learning. Fundamentally, graveyards now have a function as communicative symbolic places where an individual can construct and express an individual and collective ethnic and cultural identity which centers on one or more features of its heart-ware. 

Because a burial ground’s cultural assets bridge the gap between past, present and future, it is a toolkit for the construction of individual and collective identity. The deceased and the bereaved become anchored in a specific common culture, in a specific value system and world-view, which is expected to persist, regardless of the demise of its singular constituents.  Central to this argument is the graveyard’s urban location and its expression of the ecological principle that makes it imperative for humanity to operate a globally sound ecological economy.  Defined as a circular economy (Fig 2 ) it is a more natural alternative to a traditional linear economy of capitalism i.e. a sequential process of make/use/dispose.  A circular economy keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them while in use, then finally regenerating products and materials at the end of the life of each service. The educational model is the decarbonising ecosystem, which in an urbanised human culture is visible in fragmented green spaces. Cemeteries are metaphors for the linear global economy, which is causing humanity so much grief because of its emphasis on consuming fresh resources to make things that we eventually bury or burn. Managing grass above graves by hand-scything (Fig 3) as a hay meadow is a metaphorical circular economy, generating increased biodiversity and a meditative experience for the community volunteer workforce.

Fig 2 Two kinds of economy

Fig 3 Meadow scything workshop. Hampstead Graveyard.

Municipal cemeteries are fragments of the biosphere typically located within towns and cities and might be larger and older than many municipal parks. Within this urban context, cemeteries can play a key role modeling the infrastructure of cities and deliver a wide range of ecosystem services (ESs). ESs can be defined as 

  • supporting (e.g. soil formation, photosynthesis, primary production, nutrient and water cycling); 
  • provisioning (e.g. food, fibre, fuel, freshwater, genetic resources, natural pharmaceuticals and chemicals), 
  • regulating (ecosystem processes including regulation of air and water quality, climate, pest and disease) 
  • and cultural (including cognitive development, spiritual enrichment, recreation and aesthetic experiences) (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

Climate change is challenging us to reconsider how we manage urban green spaces to deliver more robust and resilient cities. In future, lawns, which are now a major management feature of tidy graveyards, may become an unaffordable luxury (see, Webster et al., 2017) Even the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who pioneered the development of the Lawn Cemetery after the carnage of the First World War, have been experimenting in its removal as part of their climate change strategy (CWGC, 2017).  Large, urban cemeteries could therefore play an important role in helping to move public acceptance towards a less intensively managed landscape that is aesthetically more messy and less manicured. If this can be achieved within a highly invested landscape where communities have chosen to bury their dead, we might ask what contribution it could have, for example, in changing attitudes towards the acceptance of less intensively managed public parks in order to deliver greater ESs. For those who might once have chosen a traditional grave for their deceased, the presence of natural burial or scattered remains of cremations within the urban cemetery might also provide an opportunity to experience and benefit from the different spatial and temporal qualities and integration with nature that they afford.  This process of education could be promoted as part of the Local Agenda 21.

‘Local Agenda 21 (LA21) refers to the general goal set for local communities by Chapter 28 of the ‘action plan for sustainable development’ adopted at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Chapter 28 is an appeal to ‘local authorities’ to engage in a dialogue for sustainable development with the members of their constituencies.

  • Local Agenda 21 is the process that aims to involve local people and communities in the design of a way of life that can be sustained and thus protect the quality of life for future generations. It originates from the Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 which led to the agreement of an Agenda 21 document detailing a series of strategies for action worldwide.
  • Local Agenda 21 is a process that aims to integrate the social, environmental and economic aspects of development in order that all future development is ‘sustainable’. It requires all of us to consider the effects – on the local economy, the local environment and the local community – of every policy and project and then to seek a solution that achieves a realistic balance.
  • Local Agenda 21 is a highly democratic, consensus-building and empowering process. It seeks to strengthen the role of all major groups in society, including children, youth and women. It sets out to develop and build on partnerships between groups in the local community and to make linkages between parallel processes such as Social Needs and Health for All policy work.
  • Local Agenda 21 is essentially about ‘quality of life’: which is perhaps a more friendly term to describe its primary goal. It is a process that asks those of us in local government to work in partnership with the local community to develop a strategy comprising a series of action plans which will set out how we will work together towards the goal of sustainable development in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Chapter 28 explicitly states that the whole local community should be actors in an LA21 process, including both typical citizens and major stakeholder groups. In practice, however, there are quite a lot of variations between LA21 processes. Although stakeholder groups are involved in the majority of Local Agenda 21 processes worldwide, under- or over- representation of certain groups presents a danger to the quality of decision-making. From the worldwide survey one can conclude that local government is the most important formal partner (60%), followed by individuals (57%), community groups (46%), NGOs (46%) and the business/ private sector (42%). The groups least commonly recognised as formal partners include ethnic minorities and trade unions.  

Taking this route, the Environmental Scrutiny Committee of the City and County of Cardiff produced a document in December 1999 to progress the Local Agenda 21 in Cardiff. The LA21 has now become focussed on the Local Agenda 2030, with its target set on decarbonisation of the city’s economy by 2030.  Cardiff today is a THREE planet city: If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated carbon dioxide at the rate people do in Cardiff, the city would need three planets to support it. This is not sustainable or equitable to those who Cardiff’s citizens share the planet with. Cardiff’s aspiration is to become a One Planet City by 2030, living and thriving within Earth’s environmental means.  Embedding Agenda 21 in the management of a municipal cemetery is an important objective for Friends groups that are important champions of their local cemeteries. Many started as pressure groups concerned about neglect or development threats. They are often involved in recording, research, producing leaflets, guided walks, fund raising, and practical conservation tasks. It is a small step to mobilise a graveyard’s heart-ware to promote cultural ecology of a small segment of the biosphere as a model of future world development.

The National Federation of Cemetery Friends (NFCF) is a support organisation for all Friends groups. They offer guidance on starting up a new group.

There is also the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe (ASCE).

Caring for God’s Acre also provides advice on organising volunteer tasks.

Organisations like TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) can help with advice on conservation projects, tools, health and safety for volunteers, and insurance, and publish handbooks on various topics.

5  Epilogue

“It is a fine spring morning in early May. I am standing next to the largest of the veteran ash trees in Abney Park Cemetery with my camera aimed towards a “rot hole” in the hope of catching a glimpse of the rare hoverfly Pocota personata. As I lean my right hand against the tree, to steady the lens under low light conditions, I can feel the contrast between the rough texture of the exposed bark and softer patches of moss. Looking more closely at the tree trunk I can see that it is teeming with life: single files of ants snake their way across the surface, some carrying fragments of leaves or other organic matter, whilst shafts of sunlight reveal small dancing clouds of midges. This living landscape is comprised of an infinite series of intersecting micro‐realms where moss meets vision amid a jumble of rot and decay: an endless process of breaking down, circulating, and re‐emergence”.  Mathew Gandy, 2019.

These sudden eye-opening moments generate biosphere ecoscopes. (Fig 4)

Fig 4 Mind map of a collection of biosphere ecoscopes.  They are starting points for observers assembling a personal body of knowledge.


Biosphere Ecoscopes for Transformative Learning

May 4th, 2021

Biosphere Reserves are ‘learning places for sustainable development’. They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.


1  Segmenting the biosphere

Fig 1 Model of a biosphere reserve

The biosphere is the region of Earth that encompasses all living organisms: plants, animals and bacteria. It is a feature that distinguishes Earth from the other planets in the solar system. The biosphere is considered to extend from the bottom of the oceans to the highest mountaintops, a layer with an average thickness of about 20 kilometers. It is somewhere between the ground and the sky where life can exist.  Nevertheless, the biosphere is a very tiny region on the scale of the whole of Earth, analogous to the thickness of the skin on an apple. The bulk of living organisms actually live within a smaller fraction of the biosphere, from about 500 meters below the ocean’s surface to about 6 kilometers above sea level.   Each life form is supported within a thin slice of the biosphere from which it takes and recycles materials and energy to support its particular lifestyle. The smallness of the biosphere reflects its cosmic vulnerability.

The concept of the biosphere as a focus for global conservation management emerged as a a central element in UNESCO’s concept of ‘Biosphere Reserves’, This idea for engaging local people in defining their cultural connections with ecology, which is coupled with planning for living sustainably, emerged  in 1971, when UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Council defined the overall objective of the programme: 

  • To develop the basis within the natural and social sciences for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere;
  • To improve the global relationship between people and the environment;
  • To predict the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world;
  • To increase people’s ability to manage efficiently the natural resources of the biosphere’.

UNESCO  envisaged a reserve as an area where natural resources of flora, fauna, or features of geological or other special interest are protected from human exploitation. This ‘green core’ of a Biosphere Reserve is managed to provide special opportunities for people who live around the green core to learn about conservation management by participation in making and operating local community plans for living sustainably (Fig 1).  UNESCO believes that the direct involvement of the local population in the management of Biosphere Reserves, together with the existence of research and monitoring activities in them, constitute the best guarantee for long-term conservation of genetic resources on a world-wide basis.  At the same time people living adjacent to the green core can apply their learning to live sustainably as communities.  They are expected to integrate their day to day lives with research, monitoring and citizen’s environmental networking from their segment of the biosphere where they live and call home.

The idea of involving communities, families and individuals in the production and operation  of local plans for wildlife protection came from the 1983 UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Congress in Minsk.  The Congress led to an Action Plan for Biosphere Reserves, which was adopted by the MAB Council in 1984.  In 1992, an Advisory Committee on Biosphere Reserves was set up.  

In 1995 a major conference in Seville produced the Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves and a Statutory Framework for the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.  The Biosphere Reserve concept was seen as an innovative and practical model for the implementation of significant elements of conventions concerned with the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources and expressed in a community’s local Agenda 21 (Fig 2).  Agenda 21 is a comprehensive voluntary plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, Major NGOs and people in every area in which humankind impacts on the environment.

Fig 2 The process of creating a local Agenda 21.

In 2000, a ‘Seville+5’ review took place in Pamplona, with further refinement, through the Madrid Action Plan, for Biosphere Reserves (2008- 2013),  which promoted them as places for local people to learn about making and operating conservation management systems for wildlife and community living side by side.  

Efforts to promote the participation of indigenous communities in UNESCO biosphere reserve programme for the management of protected areas often fall short of their goals because of the gap between conservation organizations and indigenous peoples. The ideological policies pursued by the government often ignore the economic and social development of indigenous people, and their claims over their customary lands.  For an indigenous people, the forest is considered a living entity, with its own soul and spirituality. This belief transcends generations, thus making it difficult for the local community to understand the short-term social, political and bureaucratic interests of government and the private sector.  They are often at odds with indigenous peoples’ conceptualization of what constitutes moral rights.  

Efforts to promote the participation of communities of the developed world in UNESCO biospheres has fallen considerable short of ambition. Significantly, after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, developed countries did not curb their consumption patterns and failed to find a sustainable development path built on sustainable production methods. As a result, pressure on the global environment have continued to rise since 1992. Specifically, despite continued intergovernmental processes (e.g. climate change talks and further Earth Summits) little progress has been made toward implementation of the deal outlined in Agenda 21.  When it was adopted in 1992 Agenda 21 was meant to be “a programme of action for sustainable development worldwide”. Furthermore, it had the ambition of being “a comprehensive blueprint for action to be taken globally, from now into the twenty-first century”. The ambition was high, and so were the stated goals of the Agenda: improving the living standards of those in need; better manage and protect the global ecosystem; and bring about a more prosperous future for all.  

A significant impediment to the adoption of Agenda 21, particularly in the US, has been the spread of conspiracy theories, which presented it as part of a political movement within the UN to take over the world!  This distorted view has not gone away.  But fortunately, Agenda 21 is now becoming embedded in egalitarian ideas surrounding the concepts of deep place and deep ecology, both of which stress the  importance of historic, social and material connections in belonging to place and address two significant and interconnected social policy problems: how to overcome the inequitable distribution of wealth; and how to effectively adjust to a more environmentally sustainable economic model.  Both issues focus on Mauss’ anthropological concept of a “gift economy” to understand how places are cared for by a community over time.

2  Managing the biosphere for resilience

Over a century ago, in his 1926 book The Biosphere, Russian biogeologist Vladimir Vernadsky was the first to recognize implications of the interdependence between life and Earth’s surface structure. Underlying this interdependence is humanity’s search for happiness through materialism and economic growth,  However, in present-day society, although we recognize our dependence on the earth’s resources, its water, oxygen and other natural components, we do not recognize the connection between the growth of a monetary economy and Earth’s limited capacity to maintain year on year demands for planetary resources to support it.  In the short term, the benefits of economic growth are many: the more that businesses and nations grow and profit, the more individuals have jobs, resources and quality of life. At this point in human history, technology has enabled miraculous products, global travel, rapid communication, astonishing efficiencies and unimagined leisure. Economic growth derived from all these technological marvels does indeed feed on itself, as consumers demand more and more.  The more we take the more we depend upon conservation management systems to protect and maintain a productive biosphere.  Always there has been a search for predictive models of Earth’s resilience to sustain year on year monetary growth.

Over the last three million years the average mean temperature on Earth has never exceeded 2°C above (inter-glacial) or 6°C below (deep ice age) the pre-industrial temperature on Earth (14°C). Already now at 1.2°C warming, we appear to be moving out of the stable and accommodating Holocene environment of the last 11,000 years with predictable seasons that allowed agriculture and, later, civilizations to develop. Already, within the coming 50 years, one to three billion people are projected to experience living conditions that are outside the climate conditions, which have served civilizations well over the past 6,000 years. Climate change impacts are hitting people harder and sooner than envisioned, even a decade ago. This is especially true for extreme events like heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms and variations in their frequency, magnitude and duration. Climate events interact with economic, social, and geopolitical events, creating systemic risks and shocks that spill over multiple sectors and create synchronous challenges rapidly moving across countries and regions. 

Climate stabilization is critical for human wellbeing and prosperity. Human expansion on the urbanized planet is seriously challenging stores of polar ice and critical carbon sinks of soils, biomes and the ocean. There are increasing signs that subsystems of Earth’s biosphere, vital to regulate the state of the planet as a whole, are about to cross tipping points. The fabric of nature and its diversity generates fundamental services to humanity, provides insurance to shocks and surprises, to tipping points and regime shifts, and makes development possible in the face of change. Much of Earth’s biosphere has been converted into simplified ecosystems for the production of a few harvestable species with subsequent widespread loss of biodiversity. Interconnected and simplified systems are vulnerable to change.  They have lost resilience. Resilience refers to the capacity of a system to persist with change, to learn and cultivate the capacity to continue to develop with ever changing environments. 

Conservation management of Biosphere Reserves is therefore critical for the resilience of economies, societies and cultures associated with them in the coevolution of nature and society in and around the reserves.  Management for resilience in this wider view requires creating a suitable management interface between the green core and people as residents and visitors.  The diagram (Fig 3) represents one of the latest designations of a biosphere reserve in India where there is an interactive link between managers and the managed through local nature clubs.  

Fig 3  The management interface between the protected core of the Panna Biosphere Reserve and the wider world 

During the 1970s, humanity as a whole passed the point at which the annual Ecological Footprint matched the Earth’s annual biocapacity (Fig 4) This situation is called “ecological overshoot”, and has continued to grow year on year since then.  There are great inequalities in consumption between countries.  If all of humanity lived like an average Indonesian, for example, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be used; if everyone lived like an average Argentinian, humanity would demand more than half an additional planet; and if everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four Earths would be required to regenerate humanity’s annual demand on nature.   This points to the fact that a global consensus has to be reached for a balanced distribution of natural resources. For equitable use of natural resources people in more developed countries have to lower their consumption so that these resources can be shared fairly between countries.  Equity is an essential psychological dimension of sustainability. This human behavioral characteristic is defined as a tendency to distribute, in a fair way resources, power and benefits among all peoples, avoiding bias or favoritism. Equitable actions, consequently imply dealing with and treating fairly and equally all concerned, regardless of social, economic and demographic differences. To unravel these complexities we probably need to expand the segmentation of the biosphere to get more communities that have already created a local nature sanctuary to adopt the ‘biosphere model’.

Fig 4 Ecological economics  

3  Community Biosphere Ecoscopes

In Elizabeth A. Lange’s book, Transformative Learning in Practice (2009) she described her own journey to transform her teaching practice developed for a course on sustainability for adult learners.  In particular, she tells how she  created a deliberative pedagogy based on ways to create a learning sanctuary as a protected space for critical reflexivity. In this context, reflexivity refers to the examination of one’s own beliefs, judgments and practices during a research process and how these may have influenced the research. Put simply, reflexivity involves questioning one’s own taken for granted assumptions. 

A sanctuary is defined as a special place set aside as a refuge of protection, shelter, and learning for intellectual growth  As the hosts of an educational experience, Lange believes that, at their best, teachers create a learning sanctuary as a place of immunity from the full weight of social forces. Thus, to be transformative, Lange says that education ought to provide a protective sanctuary for a deep encounter with self (mind, spirit, and body), social relationships, habits of thinking and living, and the conjoined individual and social myths that constrain human freedom and justice. So a segment of the biosphere can become a sanctuary containing a personal body of knowledge about deep place that results from the dialectic between a pedagogy of critique and a pedagogy of hope for the future of humankind. In relation to sustainability education, this encounter with managing nature can enlarge the sense of self,  An individual learner moves from seeing oneself as separate and autonomous to seeing one’s embeddedness in a web of living relations, both human and nonhuman; a condition of ecological consciousness.  One of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is to develop an ecological conscience to make the choice between a sustainable and socially just future or maintaining the status quo, which is a threat to Earth’s balanced ecosystems.

There are currently (in 2021) 714 biosphere reserves in 129 countries, including 21 transboundary sites, that belong to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.  As learning areas for sustainable development under diverse ecological, social and economic contexts UNESCO says they are touching the lives of more than 250 million people.  However, the world population in 2019 was 7.674 billion, distributed in 195 independent sovereign nations. Comparing these figures indicates that, although there is a fairly good international network, the Biosphere Reserve recruitment process is not reaching most people. Entry into the scheme inevitably depends on communities and countries selecting their best nature sites, which will already have been designated as national nature reserves or sites of special scientific interests. This is a reminder of the fact that the biosphere reserve concept is centred on the idea of conserving pristine habitats. However, it has been estimated that only 3% of the world’s land remains ecologically intact with healthy populations of all its original animals and undisturbed habitat.  These fragments of wilderness, undamaged by human activities, are mainly in parts of the sparsely populated Amazon and Congo tropical forests, east Siberian and northern Canadian forests, tundra, and the Sahara.  Most communities who are not adjacent to so called pristine sites are left out with the feeling that their environment is third class.  In fact every part of the biosphere is special because it is a part of Earth’s biosphere jigsaw. (Fig 5).  This raises the question as to how a network of ‘nature islands’ can be defined as smaller elements of the biosphere and thereby have a role in creating a larger network of communities in parallel with the UNESCO network Biosphere to spread ideas and experiences about living sustainably.  

Fig 5 Earth’s biosphere as a jigsaw of nature islands

A system of linked up nature islands was envisaged in the UK’s first (1994) strategy for sustainable development and biodiversity as the basis for a citizen’s environmental network to spread local ideas and achievements.  The idea was trialled in Wales in response to ‘Rescue Mission: Planet Earth, an educational outcome of the Rio Environment Summit,in 1996.  The Welsh initiative was known as the young people’s Schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN) and was centred on schools and the communities they served.  

A current definition of the Local Agenda 21 (LA21) is a voluntary process of community planning with the aim to create local policies and programs that work towards achieving sustainable development. It encompasses awareness raising, capacity building, community participation and the formation of partnerships.  In this context, SCAN defined an ecoscope as the extent of the biosphere that local conservation management deals with or to which it is relevant (Fig 6).  In other words, an ecoscope is a position or perspective from which a part of the biosphere is considered or evaluated.  An ecoscope allows the observer an exceedingly close view of the structures of the biosphere (habitats, ecosystems and species) at a scale convenient for examination and analysis required to make a conservation management system. 

Fig 6 A segment of the biosphere used as a local learning model of sustainable development 

To help realise citizen environmental networks, International Classrooms On Line, which developed from SCAN, is revisiting SCAN to explore the adoption of community biosphere ecoscopes as nature islands where communities and individuals can test interdisciplinary approaches to understand interactions between their local social systems and ecosystems with the goal of living sustainably.   Their common feature is a core of biodiversity with a management plan that provides solutions to the challenges of maintaining the core in a favourable condition.  Community biosphere ecoscopes vary in size and character.  The biodiversity core, for example, can range from a local nature reserve, serving terrestrial, marine or coastal communities, to parks, trees in the street, gardens and a collection of potted plants giving pleasure to families and individuals. The common purpose of a biosphere ecoscope is to create a focus for people to engage in transformative learning about conservation management systems.  Therefore, ecoscopes are hubs for transformative learning about how to engage in sustainable development.

4  Lessons from community biosphere ecoscopes

The long term survival of humanity depends on utilising energy gathered from the sun, which has been converted to a biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Solar energy fuels everything on Earth, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution.  Fritjof Capra, cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy says we do not need to invent sustainable human communities. We can learn from societies that have lived sustainably for centuries. We can also model human communities after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms.  Here lies the value of ecoscopes.  Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honour, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. 

These are five lessons with associated behavioral prescriptions to be learned from making and operating conservation management systems. By far the most common management actions in a conservation management system are aimed at maintaining valued wildlife features by reducing competition between valued and invasive species for space, i.e. the common jobs for local people are maintaining boundaries and removing invasive species. 

Lesson 1 Earth is powered by renewable energy. 

The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space, the “solar constant” and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, ecosystems have flourished on this “solar income” That is until we evolved.

Prescription:- Sunlight and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass has to provide all the energy we need..

Lesson 2 Nature operates with zero waste. 

Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, in the biosphere to work with. So natural systems have evolved to recycle everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What is waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorus atom, a necessary ingredient for life, can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geological forces will ultimately recycle it once again. In contrast, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. 

Prescription:- We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy. 

Lesson 3 Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity.

Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. 

Prescription:- Protect fragile ecosystems and environments by reducing the amount of energy and raw materials society consumes as well as the pollution and waste it produces. Use systems thinking to avoid dependence on monocultures.

Lesson 4  In a rapidly changing world we confront the harsh realities of a deeply unequal global landscape. 

In North and South alike, mass protests have flared up, fueled by a combination of economic woes, growing inequalities and job insecurity. Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations. 

Prescription:- Help to bring about a fairer distribution of wealth both between countries and between different social groups within countries, placing a special emphasis not just on the needs but on the rights of poor and disadvantaged people.

Lesson 5  We have lost sight of Indigenous cosmologies 

They demonstrate that spiritual traditions in cultural ecology originate from different understandings of the human experience.  In particular, ancient cosmologies have generated diverse ways in which we depend on plants to relate spiritually to the biosphere.

Prescription:- Understand how certain plants are singled out by every tradition as particularly sacred or auspicious.  Celebrate the ways in which specific plants are elevated to a role of critical importance in the spiritual life of humankind. Human-plant engagements in all their diversity teach the geography of the heart. 

Through learning these lessons there may be a future for education consistent with Agenda 21 if environmental educators, from every kind of education, committed to fostering cross sectorial competence in order to:-

  • combine to raise the status of what they wish to do into a force which can no longer be ignored or patronised; 
  • agree on a common concept of what to do and how to do it;
  • develop capacity for systemic approaches to understanding environmental issues and reaching decisions on what to do;
  • extend their pressure to ensure quality of educational experience, the educational environment and environmental information;
  • foster a climate of public support for Agenda 21 that will take us smoothly and equitably into a post-carbon lifestyle.

5  Something to Blog About

In a world experiencing rapid change, ecoscopes help people prepare for the future by offering opportunities for transformative learning to preserve the elements of nature that wildlife and people will need for belonging in nature together.  Biosphere ecoscopes give everyone the opportunity to engage in conservation management and apply the lessons to everyday life to build a personal body of knowledge. In order to live sustainably.

Google Blogger is being tested by International Classrooms On Line as a resource for individuals to build personal bodies of knowledge. Subjects (blogs)) are structured by adding posts) and pages, augmented with data gathered from the Internet, particularly from local history Facebook pages of libraries.  The educational theme ‘Belonging In Nature Togrther’ was chosen as a  family ecological perspective (Fig 7) for learning to live sustainably.  These blogs are self-learning models for people to create photo-diaries to focus on the importance of historic, social and material connections in belonging to a place. The idea is to explore the development of tangible and intangible connections between past, present and future people and places. An understanding of place as an inalienable gift may create a moral duty to nurture and pass on places to subsequent generations.  A gift economy refers to economic activity characterised by offering services and goods to other members of the community without the expectation of monetary reward. Giving things to other people may be based on pure altruism, a wish to gain status in society, the hope of reciprocal gifts in the future or out of a sense of mutual obligation.  Most families want to make environmentally friendly choices, but they don’t know how. Sometimes parents worry that their family won’t be able to make sustainable choices, or they fear their green living won’t make much of a difference anyway. Sustainable living doesn’t have to be overwhelming; making a few small changes in your family’s lifestyle will make a big impact on your family’s carbon footprint.

Ultimately, sustainable living simply means making choices and developing habits that are good for the environment. By making intentional choices that are earth-friendly, your goal is to lower your family’s carbon footprint. To motivate yourself and your family, use Ecological Footprint to determine your carbon footprint.

Fig 7 Ecological planning for family living

The directory in the following Appendix  indicates a range of situations that would be suitable for creating and networking community biosphere ecoscopes with a family ecology perspective..

6 Appendix 

Outdoor nature sites


(i) Wandsworth Common, London.

The common is classed as a site of borough importance grade 1 for nature conservation. It has nine different ecological habitats, including the pond and lakes, amphibian wetland, grassland, including acid grassland, meadows and woodland (Fig 8). Only native trees are planted today.  Management of the common is a balancing act: balancing a heritage landscape with biodiversity and use by an ever-growing number of people for a variety of formal and informal recreation.

 Fig 8 Wandsworth Common

(ii) Mass Audubon

As an example of the scale of what can potenetially be achieved with biosphere ecoscopes, the NGO Mass Audubon actively protects over 38,000 acres of land across Massachusetts and is now the largest private conservation landowner in the Commonwealth. This land provides wildlife with undisturbed habitat in which to breed, corridors along which to migrate, and rich settings in which to thrive. It provides people with sanctuaries to experience the restorative benefits of nature, outdoor education where children can learn about the circle of life, and ample space to explore the wonders of nature.  There are hundreds of trails to explore at more than 60 wildlife sanctuaries across the state.

(iii) The Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary

The Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary in Northern Ireland is an example of what a small community can achieve in partnership with a national NGO, the Woodland Trust (Figs 9-10).

Fig 9 Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary (Northern Ireland) and its Maghera community

Fig 10  Diversity of Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary

Management plan

(iv) Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area 

At the junction between the Kinabatangan river and the main road that travels through Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, between Sandakan and Lahad Datu, there is the small village of Batu Puteh, with about 2,000 inhabitants. Here, a community-based project has been set up to take care of the Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area, 4,700 hectares of lowland rainforest, home of the whole range of Borneo’s wildlife, with the river on one side and the Tungog Lake at its heart.  The local community has found a way to fund conservation and reforestation programs through Eco-tourism, providing at the same time a viable alternative to jobs in the vast palm oil plantations. An amazing place to find some quiet and see the Borneo wildlife, KOPEL’s Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area is a success story in sustainability, and an example to follow.

(v)   Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

This report covers the work delivered by the Conservation Team of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) during the financial year 2018 – 2019. It covers the full breadth of work undertaken by the team, including both core funded volunteer activities and fixed-term grant funded projects (Fig 11).

 Fig 11 Potential community biosphere ecoscopes in South and West Wales based on 110 nature reserves managed by the WildlifeTrust of South and West Wales.

Interactive map

A butterfly conservation core management plan for one of these reserves has been used as an ‘educational gateway-concept’ into the global world of conservation management. This involves making connections and transitions between, and within traditional educational silos by highlighting examples of ecological art, literature and science. It is part of a cross- curricular framework linking culture and ecology , with the objective of encouraging young people to become cosmopolitan citizens by seeking wonders in nature.

Potted plants

Plants have long been primary teachers for those who travel deep into the heart of the world, for those who seek the soul teaching that only the wild can bring.”

-Stephen Harrod Buhner.

Caring for plants in pots can be a powerful spiritual experience.  Nicole Mignone says:-  “Each week when I water my houseplants, I am surprised by the subtle changes that have taken place in such a short time. Most of my plants started from seeds or cuttings and continue to grow, sometimes despite their environment and caretaker. Pruning and watering are my moving meditation, and I would like to share the life lessons they have taught me

(vi)  The spring bulb phenology project

A museum outreach project in Wales that gives children the chance to adopt their own spring bulbs and take part in a real climate-change study.

(vii)  Selected succulents

The idea for the project ‘Selected Succulents’ as an educational framework, came from a slide show produced by Donna Kuroda of the Washington DC Cactus Society, 16 October 2011, entitled “A Journey to Travel the Wide World of Aeoniums”.  Donna Kuroda was aiming at persuading people in Washington DC to build personal bodies of practical knowledge about ‘tree houseleeks’ (e.g. Aeonium arborescens). ‘Selected Succulents’ develops this idea to channel the art or practice of garden cultivation and management into an online framework for humanistic education focused on the topic of ‘population displacement’.  In this context, displacement is defined as the action of moving a living entity from its accustomed place to a new position. The educational objective is to help people make a domestic phytarium consisting of a collection of potted succulents and use it to develop the idea that we are embodied in Nature with respect to all that we do, from painting a house to managing a potted plant. Within this perspective the pot is a metaphor of ‘place’. Also a plant can be the metaphor for an ‘invader’ searching for a better life.  Care for potted plants

Is also a metaphor for cultural rooting

 viii Encounters with ivies (Hedera species).

Like many other evergreen plants, which impressed European cultures by persisting through the winter, ivy has traditionally been imbued with a spiritual significance. It was brought into homes to drive out evil spirits.  It is rich in mythology.

Rituals are central to many spiritual traditions, and when plants are not the explicit focus, they are often the means by which ritual is accomplished.  For example, in South Indian temples, many plant-human relations are called upon in the assembly of complex rituals. Plants can also provide the setting within which ritual and spiritual practice occurs.  

In Ancient Rome it was believed that a wreath of ivy could prevent a person from becoming drunk, and such a wreath was worn by Bacchus, the god of intoxication.[8]

Ivy bushes or ivy-wrapped poles have traditionally been used to advertise taverns in the United Kingdom, and many pubs are still called The Ivy.[20]

The clinging nature of ivy makes it a symbol of love and friendship, there was once a tradition of priests giving ivy to newlyweds,[8] and as it clings to dead trees and remains green, it was also viewed as a symbol of the eternal life of the soul after the death of the body in medieval Christian symbolism.[21]

The traditional British Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy, uses ivy as a symbol for the Virgin Mary.

Ivy-covered ruins were a staple of the Romantic movement in landscape painting, for example ‘Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard’ by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1790), ‘Tintern Abbey, West Front’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1794) and ‘Netley Abbey’ by Francis Towne (1809). In this context ivy may represent the ephemerality of human endeavours and the sublime power of nature

Recording variation in Ivy leaves

This activity provides an opportunity to plan an investigation of the variables that might affect the growth of ivy, and a chance to review ideas about factors affecting plant growth (Fig 12). The detail of the relationship between leaf width, petiole length and environmental conditions is complex. It is a good example investigation to develop skills relevant to How Science Works.

Fig 12  Hedera helix: diversity of leaf shapes

7 Internet References

Google Sites for Inquiry Based Learning

Ecological Island

Learning Lessons of the Planet

Re-potting plants; a spiritual exercise.

The wisdom of houseplants

The spiritual life of plants

Plants of Mind and Spirit






Effect of CO2 on growth or ivy

Local Agenda21 Malaysia

Liana control


10 of the Best Nature Reserves on reclaimed land

Bottle biospheres


Friends of Wandsworth Common


Indigenous participation in ecotourism

 Our Future Our Planet

Biosphere reserves and climate change

Nature clubs

Tiger Reserve Communities

Tiger Reserve Communities2

Culture, Ecology, Animality.

April 20th, 2021

“For those of us reared in the tradition of Western thought, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are terms rich in association, fraught with ambiguity, and heavily laden with both intellectual and emotional bias. From classical times to the present day, animals have figured centrally in the Western construction of ‘man’—and we might add, of Western man’s image of woman. Every generation has recreated its own view of animality as a deficiency in everything that we humans are uniquely supposed to have, including language, reason, intellect and moral conscience”Tim Ingold.

1 We people…

Our relation to animals is complicated, sentimental, and fearful (Fig 1). Some can eat you, and you can eat some of them or render them extinct, just by behaving as normal consumers.  The trouble is that the ‘normal behaviour’ of human consumers is stripping Earth of its renewable resources.  A new knowledge framework is needed that fosters the understanding that we are animals and a part of something larger than ourselves.  Present levels and types of human consumption are not environmentally sustainable.  Therefore, consumers need to learn to become more sensitive to environmental issues and the political implications of their behavior. Political consumerism is an expression of humanity that refers to the use of the market as an arena for politics in order to change institutional or market practices found to be ethically, environmentally, or politically objectionable.

Fig 1 Elmgreen and Dragset’s Dawn, 2016: courtesy the artist/Marian Goodman Gallery

Animality defines the combination of features or qualities that form the distinctive character of all animals, including humans.  Humanality defines the combination of features or qualities that zoologists have selected as the distinctive characteristics of humankind, defining people as highly intelligent terrestrial animals who share a common origin with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Within this group, called primates, we characterise our humanality by our: 

  • erect posture;
  • bipedal locomotion; 
  • high manual dexterity;
  • large scale invention of tools; 
  • open-ended and complex language; 
  • exceptionally large and complex brains;
  • unique mental ability to make plans, and 
  • highly advanced and organized societies.

Regarding our basic animality, we have placed ourselves in the animal kingdom, where, because we have a backbone we belong to the group known as chordates. Because we have hair and milk glands,  we are placed in the class of mammals.  In our physical growth, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: i.e. the development of the embryo mirrors in its stages our evolution from more elementary life-forms, a process that began with the origin of life 3.77 billion years ago.

Knowledge about animals is contained in the distinct subject of zoology, which makes a huge impact on our planet through the scientific study of the evolution, anatomy, physiology, behaviour, habitats, and health of animals including humans.  Zoology applies diverse approaches to understand animals, such as electron microscopy, molecular genetics, and ecology.  Importantly, zoology is the only subject devoted to the study of animal selfhood that positions humankind as part of nature in all its manifestations, at every level, from biochemistry to transcendental consciousness. We are part of nature in all that we do. Therefore by studying zoology we are able to develop a better understanding of how we people, as animals, function and interact with the world around us. In particular, within zoology we become aware that the psychological distance between self and other animals is quite short.  This primordial awareness of oneness with nature expresses itself socially in different ways according to local culture. For example, in belief systems such as Buddhism, enlightenment brings with it the realization that separation into this or that, you or me, is an illusion, because all animals are part of the same creation and therefore all non human animals demand our equal respect.  We are also the dominant life form on the planet with the capacity to seek answers to questions about who we are, where we come from  and what is our destiny.  This puts humankind in the unique position of being able to affect change, empower better choices, and develop solutions for a stronger and more stable global ecosystem with plans for making Earth hospitable to life in generations to come.  

Cultural ecology is a full-fledged research perspective within geography aimed at establishing the relationships between people, resources, and space, ideas often associated with human ecology.  This blog is about broadening the subject of zoology to strengthen its position as an educational interface with culture and ecology.  The aim of this extension is to explain the bonding of people and animals as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship that is influenced by behaviors considered essential to the health and well-being of both. The bond includes, but is not limited to, the emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.  It is in this interdisciplinary systems perspective that zoology is a subject for teaching “Oneness”, the idea that everything in the world is connected and interdependent, as a general orientation of education toward the life of animals, including humankind.  

Our separation from the natural world may have given us the fruits of technology and science, but it has left us bereft of any instinctual connection to the spiritual dimension of life which connects us to the rest of the world.  What is missing is the knowing that we are all part of one living, spiritual being.   Exploring these ideas of oneness in young children Rebecca Nye coined the term ‘relational consciousness’ to encompass the idea that ‘oneness’ is a spiritual awareness rooted in our biology.  By that she meant an awareness of our interdependence with other beings, including animals, and other humans, is an inbuilt spiritual experience.  The experience seems to involve a primordial, biologically based awareness of a relationship with manifold reality: with the self, with other people: with the environment: and, for believers, with God. The thesis can be summarized in a diagram (Fig 2).  

Fig 2  The socio biological roots of relational consciousness

Why have animals not been subject to greater interest in contemporary conversations and historical discourses in the arts?  With this question as a premise, an exhibition was curated by Jens Hoffman in the Marian Goodman Gallery in 2015.  Entitled ANIMALITY the exhibition examined how an artistic and theoretical impetus might be formed that challenges the way we think about beings that are not of our own species. In its essence, ANIMALITY asks what we as human beings can learn about ourselves when looking at the limitations of our own thinking with respect to nonhuman animals. The exhibition leads us to reflect on the importance of addressing ethical issues, thinking beyond our own cultures, and questioning accepted assumptions of who we are. ANIMALITY proposes that while some distinctions between humans and animals are valid, the two groups are more productively conceived as parts of an ontological whole. The exhibition unfolded around six themes— Crossings, Extinction, Markings, Origins, Traces and Variations.  It participates in a broader philosophical debate of the past two centuries that includes thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who has a particular importance to this exhibition. Foucault, in his groundbreaking 1964 book ‘Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’, connects the idea of human madness with that of animalism. He describes how terms such as ‘wild beasts’, ‘untamed, and ‘frenzied’ have been applied not only to those actually suffering from mental illness, but also to humans from exotic places and cultures that, in the eyes of colonizers, had chosen to live like animals and thus were treated accordingly. 

There are clear parallels between Foucault’s idea and our contemporary realities of refugees and immigrants, expanding the dialogue to the larger social and political issues of our time. Contemporary and historical artworks as well as numerous artifacts, when juxtaposed, allow for relationships between art and non-art materials to emerge, creating strong and provocative links between historical and contemporary realities.

Thus, there is an eco-cultural perspective in zoology beyond the classical perspective based, for example, on anatomy, physiology and embryology.  Zoologists of the 1800s and 1900s operated within a narrow perspective being concerned largely with discovering new kinds of animals and describing their structure and their evolutionary relationships.  Employed in this sense, zoology is divisible into three great but subordinate sciences, morphology, physiology, and distribution, each of which may, to a very great extent, be studied independently of the others.  

Zoology in general now focuses on understanding how different animals solve the common problems of environmental survival, such as behavioural traits, obtaining energy and coping with climate changes. This wider scope is defined by three perspectives on the life of animals, namely ‘form and function’, ‘ecology’ and ‘culture’.

The cultural perspective of zoology has its origins in the Upper Paleolithic era 35,000 years ago with cave paintings of hunted animals associated with a sharp increase in human artefacts such as personal ornaments and grave goods with evidence of goal orientation in the form of advance planning. Archaeologists say this suggests a ‘theory of mind’ with the emergence of human self-conscious awareness separating self and world.  This is a shift away from a primal unity with mother and the world towards an awareness of Self in a world of Others that has led to cultural ideas about the origins of the cosmic unity of all living things.  

Early ideas proposed life was governed as a natural economy established by divine guidance in a universal cycle of “propagation, preservation, and destruction”.  This orderly system was thought to have that emerged to maintain the “established course of nature”.   This idea of a natural economy was replaced with cultural ecology, a cross curricular framework that focuses on the connections between people, ecology and place.  Cultural ecology is a body of knowledge illustrating how cultural beliefs and practices help human populations adapt to their environments and live within the means of their ecosystem, conserving its resources for long-term survival. The problem of being human today is that a person’s individual ecological footprint can have an impact that is thousands of miles away from where they live, which gives zoology a global oversight.  

Humans perceive nature and individual nonhuman animals in various ways. In particular, our animality has produced socially constructed nature, where our place is either within or outside of it. Such constructions from reality are elaborated conceptually and through cultural narratives.  The narratives show how nature and nonhuman animals happen to be perceived. In this connexion, ecological leadership is now a prerequisite for the conservation management of our use of natural resources because we human animals are causing a long-lasting and devastating ecological impact on the biosphere. At the extreme edge of the cultural perspective of zoology ecological leadership includes coordinating conservation management, within and between countries, to establish a fairer sustainable distribution of profits from economic development across social groups (Figs 3 and 4).

Fig 3  Ecological leadership

Fig 4 Four ecological leaders

A ‘Thoreau-Ecological Leadership’, for example, would be based on the truism that life, its abundance and variety, pays for economic development through our day to day increased consumption of non-renewable resources, higher levels of pollution, global warming and the loss of habitats and ecosystems.  

2  Zoology: ‘humanality’ observing ‘animality’

John Peter Berger (1926-2017) was an English art critic, novelist, painter and poet. His essay on art criticism ‘Ways of Seeing’, written as an accompaniment to the BBC series of the same name, is often used as a university text. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals?,’ Berger examines the development of our relationship with animals and how they went from muses for cave drawings painted with animal blood, to spiritual deities, to captive entertainment (Fig 5) .  In the blog ‘Brain Pickings, Maria Popova addresses the questions “Why Look at Animals”: and “What Our Relationship with Our Fellow Beings Reveals About Us”.  The answers are framed within the following 14 quotations taken from, Berger’s essay ‘Why Look At Animals’.  The extracts have been arranged in a semi historical order.                    

Fig 5 Animality

1. To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and “invitation” of the animal in question.

2.  With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals — hence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.

3.  What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from man? The secrets whose existence man recognized as soon as he intercepted an animal’s look.

In one sense the whole of anthropology, concerned with the passage from nature to culture, is an answer to that question.

4.  What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseparable from the development of language in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.

5.  In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.

6.  This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man.

7.  The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.

8.  Equally important is the way the average owner regards his pet. (Children are, briefly, somewhat different.) The pet completes him, offering responses to aspects of his character which would otherwise remain unconfirmed. He can be to his pet what he is not to anybody or anything else. Furthermore, the pet can be conditioned to react as though it, too, recognizes this. The pet offers its owner a mirror to a part that is otherwise never reflected. But, since in this relationship the autonomy of both parties has been lost (the owner has become the-special-man-he-is-only-to-his-pet, and the animal has become dependent on its owner for every physical need), the parallelism of their separate lives has been destroyed.

9.  In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.

10.  About 1867, a music hall artist called the Great Vance sang a song called Walking in the zoo is the OK thing to do, and the word ‘zoo’ came into everyday use. London Zoo also brought the word ‘Jumbo’ into the English language. Jumbo was an African elephant of mammoth size, who lived at the zoo between 1865 and 1882. Queen Victoria took an interest in him and eventually he ended his days as the star of the famous Barnum circus which travelled through America — his name living on to describe things of giant proportions.

11.  The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters. Modern zoos are an epitaph to a relationship which was as old 

12.  Children in the industrialized world are surrounded by animal imagery: toys, cartoons, pictures, decorations of every sort. No other source of imagery can begin to compete with that of animals. The apparently spontaneous interest that children have in animals might lead one to suppose that this has always been the case. Certainly some of the earliest toys (when toys were unknown to the vast majority of the population) were animal. Equally, children’s games, all over the world, include real or pretended animals. Yet it was not until the 19th century that reproductions of animals became a regular part of the decor of middle class childhoods — and then, in this century, with the advent of vast display and selling systems like Disney’s — of all childhoods.

13.  All sites of enforced marginalization — ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouses, concentration camps — have something in common with zoos. But it is both too easy and too evasive to use the zoo as a symbol. The zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else. The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism.

14.  The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention. Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization… This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

Kay Anderson believes the conceptual boundaries which segregate humanity and animality are being disturbed.   The way is being cleared for us to unthink the cultural categories, both popular and scientific, which map our understanding of the animate environment of which human and nonhuman animals are a part. In their paper, Is everybody human?, Douglas Kawaguchi, and Danilo S Guimarães compare the Book of Genesis, with The Falling Sky myth related by a Yanomami Shaman.  They show that Western and Amerindian narratives present mostly opposite conceptions concerning the relationships between “humanality” and “animality”.  The meanings for “human” and “animal” differ essentially in both.  Western psychology lays its foundations on a worldview that presupposes a strict split between Nature and Humanity.  So, there seems to be an insurmountable incompatibility between the impulse of our “natural” desires and the regulation and prohibitions imposed by “culture”.  This contrasts Amerindian cosmology and its relationship with nonhuman animals and calls into question the ethno- anthropocentrism that is present in Western psychology since its birth. 

3 Speciesism

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men” (St. Francis of Assisi)

Charles Darwin, writing in his notebook in 1838, asserted that man thinks of himself as a masterpiece produced by a deity, but that he thought it “truer to consider him created from animals”,  In his 1871 book ‘The Descent of Man’, Darwin argued that:

‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties … [t]he difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals’.

English writer and animal rights advocate Henry S. Salt in his 1892 book Animals’ Rights, argued that for humans to do justice to other animals, they must look beyond the conception of a “great gulf” between them, claiming instead that we should recognize the “common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood ” (Fig 6).

Fig 6 Speciesism and oneness

“Speciesism” is the belief that non human animals (NHAs) are inferior to humanity. Speciesist thinking involves considering animals, who have their own desires, needs, and complex lives, as means to human ends. The term speciesism was coined in 1970 by animal rights proponent Richard D. Ryder to argue that granting humans more rights than animals is an irrational prejudice. The term was popularized in 1975 by the philosopher Peter Singer, known for his contributions to Utilitarian philosophy and his book Animal Liberation.  

An example of applied speciesism is the devaluation of the British grey squirrel.  Red squirrels entered squirrel-free Britain after the last ice age.  In 1876 grey squirrels were introduced to the English countryside from North America as an ornamental species in the grounds of stately homes. It soon became clear that they could out-compete the red squirrel which is now confined to a few remaining areas of the United Kingdom.  There are now moves to exterminate the grey squirrel on ecological grounds because it has been classed as a NHA outside the range it occupies naturally or could not occupy without direct or indirect introduction or care by humans.  Greys are an economic problem in forestry because they strip tree bark.  In extreme cases the tree dies but even minor damage can reduce the value of timber. It is therefore classed as a pest.  The search is on for a method of eradicating grey squirrels without posing any risk to red squirrels and the spotlight is on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene technology.  By encoding the CRISPR editing system into an organism’s DNA, geneticists can make a desired edit reoccur in each generation, driving the trait through the entire population by modifying the genetic makeup of only a few individuals.  Although evolution has enabled some naturally occurring genes to propagate above their expected frequencies, the recent discovery of CRISPR can cause this to happen at exceptionally high rates for chosen genes in the form of “gene drives.”  Applied to the grey squirrel a gene drive which altered the sex ratio so that there are more males than breeding females, will cause the population to fall. This could be done by ensuring that fewer females are born, or that some are sterile. Those gene technicians carrying out such measures, which might end in extinction, are working with the belief in a human- NHA divide.  Dominique Lestel, building on his critique of the very philosophical foundations of the ethological tradition, argues that “To be human does not mean to have fled animality, but on the contrary to live within it and to let it live within us…we are animals and animals are us.”  Regarding extinction, looking at the relationship between animal and human, Lestel argues that species loss has both an ecological and symbolic consequence on our culture, as every species contributes to our very being, our meaning as being. He warns that “each species that disappears is a part of our imagination that we amputate perhaps irreversibly.

When Charles Darwin returned to England in 1836 from his voyage aboard HMS Beagle, he brought back with him not only revolutionary ideas of evolution and natural selection, but also the spark for debate about the very definition of a human being. He drew lines between humans and

nonhuman animals in order to maintain a comfortable separation between “us” and “them,” citing morality as the main difference between man and animal. However, modern scientific discoveries provide sufficient evidence to support the concept of morality in humankind’s closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes).  The standpoint is that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. Now, due to indications that chimpanzees have morality, a trait that Darwin and modern scientists claimed to be unique to humans, the line between human and animal becomes fundamentally blurred. Should the grey squirrel be granted the same basic rights to life that modern society safeguards for humans by having its genome changed irreversibly?  Shouldn’t we people who caused the problem learn to live with the ecological system produced that was produced as a whim. 

 Although it goes unnoticed by most people, speciesism has devastating real-world effects on billions of animals. Some would say that it is also at the biological roots of racism.   Furthermore, connections between speciesism and racism have been found in addition to links to other forms of human to human biases (e.g. sexism and homophobia) which devalue certain cultures in comparison to their own.  Research has shown that attitudes towards NHAs correlated significantly and positively with attitudes towards outgroups, i.e. participants who had positive attitudes towards NHAs also liked human outgroups more.

Both attitudes and the tendency to perceive human outgroups as inferior are forms of ideologies that encourage hierarchical and unequal relationships between people and countries. Also, studies have linked Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), a preference for social inequalities, with a tendency to exploit the environment in unsustainable way.  This is associated with a belief in a sharper human and NHA distinction, and a tendency to endorse utilization of NHAs as ethically justifiable, and a belief in human superiority. Research has found that participants’ SDO was related to a tendency to dehumanize immigrants. In addition, studies have demonstrated that SDO is a key factor connecting ethnic prejudice and speciesist attitudes.

In her paper, ‘Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial Thought’ Billy-Ray Belcourt argues that animal domestication, speciesism, and other modern human-animal interactions are possible because of and through the the emptying of Indigenous lands for settler-colonial expansion. That is to say, we cannot address animal oppression or talk about animal liberation without naming and subsequently dismantling settler colonialism and white supremacy.  They are political machinations that require the simultaneous exploitation and/or erasure of animals and indigenous peoples. She begins by re-framing animality as a politics of space to suggest that animal bodies are made intelligible in the settler imagination on stolen, colonized, and re-settled Indigenous lands. Anthropocentrism is seen as a racialized and speciesist aspect of settler coloniality to re-orient decolonial thought toward animality. 

In 1904, the Herero and Nama people of Namibia (Fig 7) revolted against German colonial rule and were brutally crushed by imperial German troops. On Christmas Day 1906, Catholic missionary Johann Malinowski brokered a peace deal between the Bondelswarts, a Nama ethnic group of Southern Africa living in the extreme south of Namibia, and the German colonial army. The army continued to fight other clans for another two years. It’s estimated that by 1908, more than 75,000 Herero and Nama were killed. Some historians even put the figure at 100,000.

Fig 7  Nomadic Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, aquatint by Samuel Daniell (1805)

 In July 2015, the German government referred to the massacre as genocide for the first time. Namibia’s government has been trying to buy and distribute land to those who don’t own any, but the process has been slow. “We are landless because of the genocide,” says Johannea Matroos, head of the Bondeslwarts Traditional Authority. He is one of the traditional leaders of the Nama. His ancestors lost this land and their cultural heritage of cattle-pastoralism both of which became the spoils of the German colonialists more than 100 years ago.  This land issue is still not being addressed. It is in this context of colonialism that Belcourt propose a decolonized zoological ethic that finds legitimacy in indigenous cosmologies to argue that decolonization can only be reified through a totalizing disruption of those power apparatuses (i.e., settler colonialism, anthropocentrism, white supremacy, and neoliberal pluralism) that lend the settler state sovereignty, normalcy, and futurity insofar as animality is a settler-colonial issue.

From all the above it can be seen that zoology is the body of knowledge which crosses the boundary of culture and ecology, leading us to view the oneness of the human/animal relation overall. There is not a strict separation of humans and animals as categorically distinct entities.  Rationality and animality are in fact entwined, with both contributing to the goodness and full realization of human life.

5 ‘Thinking about Transhumanism’

Systems thinking by making mind maps can be a powerful classroom tool, giving students a personal participatory role in the learning process. By viewing teaching through the lens of systems-thinking  educators can help students recognize how seemingly disparate systems interact, identifying meaningful connections in the wider world around them.  For example, students were tasked with developing plans for a new national park that met specific design requirements: parks needed to be attractive to users, inflict limited environmental harm, and respect a tribal burial ground.  These are three cross-subject areas that have to be integrated and weighted into the plan. During the process of developing their designs, students discovered connections between the social, ecological, and economic components of the project.  To take another instance, in 2012 a book,  Beyond Human: From Animality to Transhumanism’ was produced by the UK University of Edge Hill.  This title explores the implications of our animal origins and posthuman futures to understand our humanity and our relations with other species. In particular.  “Beyond Human” investigates what it means to call ourselves human beings in relation to both our distant past and our possible futures as a species, and the questions this might raise for our relationship with the myriad species with which we share the planet. It draws on insights from the following 13 study areas, which the editors called the fingerprint of the project.

  • Animality
  • Posthuman Future
  • Animals
  • Theology
  • Cave Art
  • Rational Animal
  • Cultural Studies
  • Upper Paleolithic
  • Zoology
  • Biotechnology
  • Planet
  • Human Being
  • Aesthetics

An international line-up of contributors explored the origins of humankind as reflected in early cave art in the upper Palaeolithic through to our prospects of survival at the forefront of contemporary biotechnology. In the process, the book positions ‘the human’ in readiness for what many have characterized as our transhuman or posthuman future. Our status as rational animals or ‘animals that think’ has traditionally distinguished us as apparently superior to other species, but this distinction has become increasingly problematic. It has come to be seen as based on skills and technologies that do not distinguish us so much as position us as transitional animals. It is the direction and consequences of this transition to an equitable, carbon free, zero growth economy that is the central concern of “Beyond Human”.  Looking to the future, if we are to make this transition smoothly, education for sustainability has to take up mind mapping as a central pedagogy of education for sustainability.  The central topics to be mapped are animals, ecosystems and cultures, which together comprise three interconnected perspectives embedding science firmly in the humanities. A demonstration of how this could be achieved is being explored by International Classrooms Online (ICOL) using the GoConqr educational platform, to explore the three pillars of cultural ecology namely zoology, ecology and culture (Fig 8). To see the interactive mind map go to:

Fig 8 Mind map of cultural ecology

6  Internet References

How the world became consumerist

Systems thinking in education

Animals Ecosystems Cultures


What squirrels can teach us about speciesism

The elephant in the room

Thoreau: a sage for all seasons

Gandhian relevance to environmental sustainability

Scweitzer reverence for life

Aldo Leopold

A lobster or the study of zoology

Future of life on earth

Mexican art museum

Zoology and religion


Spirituality as a natural part of childhood

The human being and the animal kingdom

The human being and the animals


Hiroshi Sugimoto’s museum dioramas

Fur in fashion

Why look at animals

The beast within

Art review animosity

From animal to animality

Animality  in decolonial thought

Arts Jungle vips

Humanity and animality

Is everybody human?

Classifying animals

Evolution of human consciousness

Cultural Ecology of Spirituality

March 27th, 2021

“Imagination is fine, so long as we know that we are engaging in it. Problems only arise when we mistake our imagination for reality. Religions start off with imagining. For example, true believing Christians imagine that God exists, that Jesus saves, that sins can be washed away, that heaven awaits after death.  I like how Taoism ends with imagining….  imagination fills the gap between what we can comprehend and what is real”. Brian Hines

1 A New Spiritual Awakening

Fig 1 

“A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity,” 

John Gray writes. Illustration by Seb Agrest

During the modern age, reason became valued over faith, tradition, and revelation. Industrialized society replaced agricultural societies and the old ways of relating to seasons and cycles (Fig 1). Furthermore, the growing predominance of a global, mechanized worldview, a collective sense of the sacred, was severed and replaced with an insatiable drive for scientific progress and material prosperity without any sense of limits or responsibility.  As religious affiliation decreases in the West, there are accompanying declines in church membership, participation in religious activities, and a lack of sustainability in congregations.  Despite these declines, interest in, and practice of spirituality are growing across many diverse populations. Spiritual teachers abound, including both those grounded in religious traditions and those identifying as spiritually independent.  This is the response to a growing movement of people seeking spiritual deepening. According to Diana Butler Bass the trend is clear: “Traditional forms of faith are being replaced by a plethora of new spiritual, ethical, and nonreligious choices. If it is not the end of religion, it certainly seems to be the end of what was conventionally understood to be American religion.” Butler Bass has articulated the critical need for religious adaptation in today’s cultural milieu. In her 2012 book ‘Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening’, Butler Bass discusses the radical shift currently underway and suggests that a changing American Christianity may be part of “forming the contours of a new kind of faith beyond conventional religious boundaries.” Butler Bass’ work also points to the ways in which religious and spiritual change is part of a larger transformation: “When a spiritual and religious upheaval and transformation twins with political and cultural upheaval, it often results in what we call periods of awakening: these times in which American history actually changes. And an awakening is not just like a revival meeting, where individuals might get changed; but instead, an awakening is a time when American society, as a whole, is transformed.”  What is clear is that this is a time when people are starting to think globally about how their spiritual lives can accommodate climate change.  

A Replacement for Religion lays out how we might absorb the best lessons of religion, update them for our times and incorporate them into our daily lives: it tries to rescue some of what remains wise and useful from religion, which for many, no longer seems quite true.

The best lesson to take from religion is that being human is to seek a higher purpose outside oneself. In particular, people need a socioecological framework for community-building to find meaning, belonging and identity,  The basic problem of human survival now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just an endless collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of duality cannot continue?  A nondual ecological culture to manage Earth’s bounty sustainably is required to address an ecological crisis.  An ecological structure is necessary within which people are able to  participate in something vast, consequential and interlocking.  In this connection, the primary aim of education at all levels should be to demonstrate how civic interactions based on trust are correlated with the neighbourly virtues of charitable giving, volunteerism and altruism. An understanding of the relationships between culture and ecology should be a mandatory outcome of education in order to make sense of life’s mysteries. 

At a personal level the search for transcendence is integral to this human experience.  Practically it means adopting a pedagogy for building social capital within individuals to render intelligible and tolerable existential facts about human life, such as suffering and death. With respect to these educational challenges, people, identifying broadly as spiritual seekers, hunger for opportunities to practice and develop their inner lives and connect with the transcendent.  This is why spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human culture.  Contemporary life is calling for the next iteration of the world’s profound religious heritage, as evidenced by the decline in religious participation and the increased opportunities for spiritual seeking.  An organizational culture is an important element for this kind of communal spiritual growth. Also, a cultural organisation is required to bring communities together and provide a space, a setting and a pedagogy for individuals to serve people they otherwise would not connect with  (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A Zen/Taoist cultural organisation to replace religion.

2  Zen/Taoism as a cultural organisation

Many modern problems are one way or the other caused by too many people engaging in too many activities too quickly.  Arrogance and ego mixed with numerous incompatible activities have made global warming and climate change a global threat that is becoming unmanageable. Zen Buddhism offers a solution to advance sustainability. The Zen solution is to become more mindful and selective in daily activity. In this way, one can find more time for self-examination and reflective thought. It is a Zen Buddhist understanding that by grasping the “twist and turn” of unpredictable life, one will have the opportunity to find and apply the Buddha mind.

The Buddha mind is not a special kind of mind, but it has a special effect to make a person realize the importance of every existing thing and its mutual relationships. The Zen idea of interconnectedness helps to neutralize the feelings of hatred, prejudice, pride, disappointment, anxiety, and joy into a well balanced perspective.  This in turn enables one to perceive and to live in the complete state of harmonious existence within Earth’s ecosystem.  Zen as practice is really about re-animating our consciousness. This is how Thomas Berry evocatively describes the vlsionary outcome of Zen thinking:   

“The thousandfold voices of the natural world suddenly became inaudible  to the human. The mountains and rivers and the wind and the sea all  became mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no  longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply  so many board feet of lumber to be “harvested” as objects to be used for 

human benefit. Animals were no longer the companions of humans in the  single community of existence”.  

Regarding Zen and scientific thinking, Rosan Yoshida Roshi promotes the role of Zen as an overarching ethical guideline for the behavior of scientists as well as the consumers of science. He argues the importance of establishing and adhering to such a guideline and states that Zen is particularly suitable to promote it. In this context, science is not value-free and bias-free.  It is a human enterprise which is extremely vulnerable to our tendency to prioritize the demands from me-ism and selfishness manifested as utilitarianism, materialism, militarism, and money-ism. Yoshida states that these tendencies are destructive and threaten the entire human ecosystem.  Zen teachings can counteract or mitigate these tendencies because it emphasizes collective wholeness as its ultimate goal and presents remedies for lessening these egocentric demands.

Tao (also pronounced Dao) is the Chinese word for “The Way”  is a philosophical practice dating back to 6th Century BCE. Tao Te Ching, supposedly authored by Laozi, is the book attributed to Taoist traditions. Taoism arose in a period of war for China, in which people began to look towards nature for peace in order to get away from the chaotic human to human violence. Taoism focuses on the Tao as the “ultimate ordering principle of nature which we should incorporate into our individual and social lives”. Taoist ethics are concerned less with doing good acts than becoming a good person who lives in harmony with all things and people.  The unmistakable teaching of the Tao Te Ching is that humans are indeed capable of intervening in life’s events, but the evidence of life, which humans constantly ignore, is that such intervention is destructive to all involved, and that we therefore have a moral duty to refrain from taking such actions.  Taoist ethics are inseparable from Taoist spirituality, both contain the same ideas.  If Taoists want to live well they should take all their decisions in the context of the Tao, trying to see what will fit best with the natural order of things.  Taoists thus always do what is required by events and their context, but they only do what is required, no more.  Lao Tsz’s Tao Te Ching says: 

“It is the way of Tao to offer where there is a great abundance and to supplement where there is deficiency. This is not so with men’s way. He takes away from those who have not enough to serve the powerful and the rich. Who could use one’s superabundance to help those in need? Only the man in possession of Tao.”

Taoism is an indigenous Chinese cultural tradition which scientists have found resonates with certain aspects of the essence of modern science and responds to modern social and environmental issues. For example, Raymond J. Barnett finds a surprising degree of similarity between Taoism and biological science in their views on death, cyclicity, the place of humans in the universe and the complementary interactions of dichotomous thinking, where everything is an either-or situation i.e. good and bad, right and wrong, but nothing in the middle. The use of the dichotomous Taoist terms yin and yang is similar to the way scientists describe the behavior of subatomic particles. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony.  Yin and yang are the ultimate points of reference for each other. Like the positive and negative poles of a magnet create a magnetic field and magnetic force between them, Yin and Yang form the reference points between which the movements and interactions of life occur. Our lives are a combination of the physical substances of our body that come from the earth (yin), and the energy of the light (harnessed through photosynthesis) coming from the sun (yang). Just as the interplay between positive and negative charges of subatomic particles drives chemical reactions, the interplay between yin and yang drive the happenings and animation of our lives. One can say some things about atomic particles, but only if one realizes that what is said is a statement of statistical probability and that a certain modicum of uncertainty is unavoidable. To take a physiological example, the autonomic nervous system both the sympathetic and parasympathetic subsystems, like the yin and yang, affect most organs. The state of an organ is not a function of one system being totally “off” and the other totally “on.” Rather, the health of an organ depends on the balance between the activities of both systems, with each able to change its input and alter the balance. This is a restatement of the biological principle of homeostasis which maintains an organism in equilibrium with its environment.  The pioneer researcher Joseph Needham contended that Daoist thought is basic to Chinese science and technology.

So, Zen is a practical approach to spirituality where the focus is in the moment, on the process not the outcome, quieting the mind and within that having some ‘oneness’ with the process/activity in question.  Taoism on the other hand, is a complementary philosophy, which is all about being at one with the Tao i.e. the way through nature and the universe.  It is about resisting the urge to limit or define things, but instead, accepting things as they are and moving on.  Therefore, Zen/Taoist thinking can be adopted for resacralization; to return spiritual meanings to public sectors of social life such as politics, the arts, science and the body.  It is an argument against the removal of spiritual meanings from public life.  In Zen and Taoist combined thinking, arts imagination and scientific reason merge to become a holistic aspect of the human educational  experience.  It is in this context that the arts are essential and critical  to our planetary survival.  In particular, we need to apply arts thinking to explain sustainability.   

3  Imagination in place

…once upon a time our society was rich in stories. They united us and helped us understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. In this time of global crisis and transition – of mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity and climate change – it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is inspiring stories, rather than facts and pie-charts, that have the power to animate us and bring us together to change the worldAlex Evans.

Imagination is the ability to think of new ideas and form images or pictures in the mind. Therefore it is the faculty that enables us to tell stories, write novels, to visualize and envisage, and also to picture the possibility that something good or bad might happen in the future. Our ability to create images not available to the sensory system, is arguably our greatest faculty for evolving human consciousness. In order to transform ourselves and our world, we need to be able to leap out of the familiar and into the unknown. The first step in doing this is to imagine a future different from the past, a self-sense different from the one we have now.  New myths about our place in Earth’s ecosystems are required. 

We are often called upon to imagine how a positive vision of the future might be realized, continually updating our guiding myths and stories about ourselves, our societies and the wider world.  Art is necessary for science to participate in creating these positive visions because creativity involves imagination, and imagination is visualization.  In this respect, the ability to visualize and imagine certain processes is important to solving scientific problems.  One such myth is ‘The Lorax’, a children’s book written by Dr. Seuss and first published in 1971.  It chronicles the plight of the environment and the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees”.  Befriending trees is nowa priority to reach the zero carbon targets of 2050.

Duality is the cause of a rigid polarization of life’s dimensions. We have distorted reality by splitting our world into opposites such as secular and sacred female and male, body and spirit, emotion and reason, and then we assign inferior or superior status to each. The artistic imagination is the way to the deepest realities because it approaches life in its wholeness. Scientific reason, on the other hand, abstracts from life in order to formulate clear and manageable concepts. Therefore imagination is not an inferior human capacity. It is the basis of creativity and therefore is a fundamental way of knowing and experiencing reality. 

Imagination is the function of the mind that we call mental activity. Fantasy and scientific conceptualization are both activities of imagining. Memory and hallucinations are also activities of imagining. In modern terms, the central nervous system’s biological activity of recognizing and identifying any aspect of our peripheral nervous system is the psychological activity of imagination. There is no “red rose” except that by our imagination we have designated “red” and “rose.” 

The central psychological activity of imagination has been one of the main features of Zen and Taoism for over two millennia and the notion of imagination has played an important role in their history.  Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi, also called the Daodejing, or The Way and Its Power, has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, as something imaginative, ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. 

Daoist art reflects the broad time span and the diverse regions, constituencies, and practices of its creators. The artists commissioned professionals, but also leading Daoist masters, adepts, scholar-amateurs, and even emperors working in written, painted, sewn, sculpted, or modeled media, created an astonishingly eclectic body of works ranging from sublime evocations of cosmic principles to elaborate visions of immortal realms and paradises as well as visualizations of the Daoist pantheon, medicinal charts, and ritual implements.  Zen/Taoist arts are cultural landmarks ranging  from an ornamental tree or shrub, a landscape to buildings or and objects that possess a special cultural significance for a group of people, and more often than not, for the whole of humankind as well. As a result, they have usually come to stand as an iconic representation of certain concepts, ideals, cultures, historical events, beliefs, etc., and in most cases have come to be considered a part of the common cultural heritage of humanity, standing as masterpieces of humanity’s creative genius. They teach us that it is possible to express great beauty and convey powerful messages through simplification.  Zen may not verbalize “amplification through simplification,” but you can see this idea everywhere in the Zen arts. There is a style of Japanese painting called the “one-corner” style, for example, which goes back some 800 years and is derived from the concepts of wabi and sabi. Paintings in this style are very simple and contain much empty space (Fig 3 ). You may have a painting depicting a large ocean scene and empty sky, for example. In the corner, there is a small, old fishing canoe, hardly visible. It’s the smallness and placement of the canoe that give vastness to the ocean and evoke a feeling of calm and an empathy for the aloneness the fisherman faces. Such visuals have few elements yet can be profoundly evocative.  Art is just an imitation of imitation. A painting is just an imitation of nature, which is also just an imitation of reality.   For Aristotle, all kinds of art do not aim to represent reality as it is, it endeavors to provide a version of what might be or the myriad possibilities of imagining reality.

Fig 3 A 12th-century Song Dynasty painting entitled ‘Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one’.  

This is artistic evidence of the way these three imaginative philosophies were mixed over time, and often believed to be fully compatible.

Spirituality is captured by the Australian artist J,J. Hilder without reference to an origin in Daoism (Fig  4 ). Debi Riley claims everyone can express this kind of creativity providing they have simplification in mind.

Fig 4  Dry Lagoon, J J Hilder (Australia, 1911)

Fig 5

The object of Zen rock gardens is to provide a calm and harmonious environment for contemplation (Fig 5)..  The aim is not to represent the appearance of things but their inward significance.  Just as Japanese landscape paintings often depict subjects that exist only in the imagination so, in reverse, Zen landscapes are real places only in the sense that they exist to promote the imagination.  A Zen garden, then, whatever its meaning, fulfils the three principles of Zen thought in art and architecture: ‘simplicity’, ‘suggestion’, and ‘irregularity’, and certainly achieves the desired symbolism of yugen or ‘elegant mystery.’

Fig 6)

Bonsai is the art of growing certain trees and shrubs, of many varieties, in small, shallow containers. … It is through careful and precise training and pruning, that the plant is slowly shaped and manipulated to give the appearance of an older, mature tree (Fig 6).

4 Sites of Memory (lieu de mémoire )

“A lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community.  It may refer to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag or the French figure Marianne, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). According to La Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoire communs (French-Québécois Commission for Common Sites of Memory) a lieu de mémoire signifies the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).  The term sites of memory was outlined in a seven-volume study edited by Pierre Nora,and has been extended to many different texts, from legends to stories to concepts. 

Sites of memory are entities which groups of people engage with in public activity through which they express “a collective shared knowledge of entity’s past, on which a group’s sense of unity and individuality is based.”‘ The group engages with such entities inherits earlier meanings attached to it, as well as adding new meanings. Such activity is crucial to the presentation and preservation of commemorative entities. When such groups disperse or disappear, sites of memory lose their initial force, and may fade away entirely. 

Memory is a major theme in contemporary life, a key to personal, social and cultural identity. Scholars have studied the concept from different perspectives and within different disciplines: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, geography, architecture, urban design, and the interdisciplinary “place studies”. According to Pierre Nora, places of memory refer to entities where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself”; the places where the exhausted capital of collective memory condenses and is expressed (Fig 7). To be considered as such, these entities must be definable in the three senses of the word: material, symbolical and functional, all in different degrees but always present. What makes an entity a memory site is the interplay of memory history and imagination.

As sites of memory became better known and made official by governments, they can tend to homogenize varied local memories. In Nora’s words: “In the past, then, there was one national history and there were many particular memories. Today, there is one national memory, but its unity stems from a divided patrimonial demand that is constantly expanding and in search of coherence.” Thus sites of memory may risk becoming “invented traditions”.

The concept has been listed in Le Grand Robert de la langue française, the authoritative French dictionary, and studied by scholars and others. There are attempts made to map sites of memory globally. Quebec and France have a joint commission to identify and codify sites of memory. An International Coalition of Sites of Conscience of more than 200 museums, monuments and other institutions around the world uses the concept to group “sites, individuals, and initiatives activating the power of places of memory to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future.

Fig 7 Places as reservoirs of memory

Ecological Sites of Memory is a Rachel Carson Centre project that seeks to look into the historical memories that resonate in our environmental thinking, thus bringing environmental history into a dialogue with the burgeoning field of memory studies. Important questions are What are the key events that have influenced and defined our understanding of environmental issues? How did memories take shape, and how have they changed over time? Do memories create opportunities for environmentalism, or are they more of a hindrance in the light of today’s challenges? And how do these memories relate to historical facts?  Locating Imagination in Popular Culture offers a multi-disciplinary account of the ways in which popular culture, tourism and notions of place intertwine in an environment characterized by ongoing processes of globalization, digitization and an increasingly ubiquitous nature of multi-media.  With respect to the role of imagination in place popular culture and media are becoming increasingly important to the ways in which places and localities are imagined.  Also, how they do media use narratives to stimulate a desire to visit the actual places in which people’s favourite stories are conveyed through media to stimulate and reflect desire in tourism. 

8 Internet references

Simplify to amplify

Fetzer Report 2020

The Threshold Society

Memory  Sites

‘The Saints’: Suffolk, England

Panna Biosphere Reserve; India

Govardhan Hill; India

St Denis’ Well; Cardiff, Wales 

Borobudur: Java

Landscapes without memory

A Zen and Taoism Pedagogy

Imagination and spirituality

Wishing for Wellbeing, Old Clee, UK

Wishing for Well Being

March 25th, 2021

The ‘Wishing Stone’, Church Lane, Old Clee.

Curiosity about the world is one of the joys of childhood. Discovering everything for the first time, a child never stops asking, “Why?” Why this and not some other world? Why blue, why green, why thunder, why snow, why? If we are very fortunate, this curiosity stays with us throughout our lives. Wondering about the world and trying to understand how it works and why is one of the finest things we do as a species. Michael Frame

1 Prosperity

We can use the word ‘hope’ to talk about things that we desire for other people. In these cases, the meaning of  ‘hope’ is similar to ‘wish’. This meaning of ‘hope’ was used by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018.  He defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

“ …morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainable virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, ‘adnabod’ in Welsh, which means recognise or know someone.  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as a neighbour in a true humanism”.

 Education has a key role to play. First, students somehow encounter material and immaterial traces of the past in their daily lives or later when they are adults. They are thus participants in the continuous social process defined as eutierria: “a good and positive feeling of oneness with the earth and its life forces.”  It arises when the human-nature relationship is spontaneous and mutually enriching (symbiotic).  We are both separate and one.  Neither standpoint by itself will do to make the selection and give meaning to the past in which people in the present form their identities. Second, due to processes of mobility and migration, new artefacts and ideas come into focus. 

This is how education for sustainable development will become based on the replacement of monetary prosperity with Williams’ universal prosperity of sharing for the common good.  The common good is defined as “certain general conditions that are… equally to everyone’s advantage”. … The pay off, from sharing the common good, is prosperity, as well being, to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment and increased prosperity no one can be easily excluded. Real prosperity would be using sustainable energy sources and aiming towards non-financial goals such as family life, health and community. The Buddhist definition of prosperity is based on collectivism and compassion, is a good way begin thinking about non-monetary prosperity.

2 Imagination and Bluestones

This blog is about exploring the topic of ‘making wishes’. I first encountered its practicality in 1940 as a six year old boy roaming Grimsby’s Greetham’s Fields, with a gang of older children from Cooper Rd and Ladysmith Rd at the very edge of the town’s urbanisation. The following ritual was enacted at the ‘Wishing Stone, then, as now, sited beside the back gate of what we called the Curvy Cottage on the corner of Church Lane, Old Clee.

The wish-maker first recited the following rhyme: 

To make a wish;

First spit and turn. 

Then catch a kiss.

Next, you stood on the stone, spat on it, turned around three times, spreading your saliva over the surface; girls clockwise, boys anticlockwise.  After making the wish, someone might blow you a kiss, when a couple were said to be ‘sweethearting’.  Needless to say, a common wish in the 1940s was for the war to end.

This is not to say that the wishing stone did not once play a deeper role in the social life of adults in and around the village.  The stone belongs to a group of volcanic rocks known locally as bluestones.  They are thought to have been transported to Lincolnshire by glaciers  from the Whin Sill outcrop in Northumberland.  In days before maps they were frequently used on Lincolshire’s flat featureless claylands as boundary markers. Several marker bluestones are described in Bates’ book entitled “A Gossip about old Grimsby”.  There is a bluestone at Immingham situated in the carpark of the Bluestone Inn, Bluestone Lane.  Louth has a bluestone, now at the entrance to the museum.  Others gave the name Bluestone Heath to a remote part of the Wolds, traversed by an ancient ridgeway between Candlesby and Caistor.  This widespread distribution raises questions regarding the uses of other kinds of rocks moved by glaciation and deposited as Boulder Clay, (now called Till) when the ice melted. For example, a large block of distinctive granite from the Lake District was found during the excavation of Grimsby’s docks indicating that ice from the Lake District had crossed the Pennines and merged with North British ice.  Larvikite, a rare rock type from the Oslo Fjord area of southern Norway, is frequently found in the till beneath the submerged forests on the Lincolnshire coast. Some of these stones, called erratics, may have been gathered to build Old Clee Church’s Saxon tower, which is a compendium of many kinds of rocks scraped from the bedrock over which the ice travelled. 

Because of its rarity and size Old Clee’s bluestone will always trigger a sense of wonderment.  In the pre-scientific past it would have been a mystery; a doorway for the imagination and therefore a tool for learning the symbolic rural language of mental processes deep in the mind.  These are referred to as the unconscious. The unconscious deals with feelings and is a much larger realm than most of us realize. It has a complete life of its own, an enormous field of nerve energy, which constantly streams through our imaginations as a powerful organ of communication to make sense of the environment.   It does not make anything up but gives preexisting symbols a cultural meaning. Wishes exist because they are fleeting thoughts released by some kind of symbol. They are sudden daydreams that are appealing because you think they would make your life better. You see the surface of someone else’s life, and wish you could have that too.  

Eighty years ago, in Church Lane, the knowhow for making wishes was staged in a primitive courtship ritual which was passed from child to child at the boundary of their understanding. We were children of newly urbanized grandparents living in densely packed Edwardian terraces built on Grimsby’s former pastures (Figs 1 & 2).  In this sense, Old Clee is now a small, green ritual landscape left behind after a tide of post-war urbanisation..

Fig 1 Map of Old Clee, its pasture lands and the wooded Weelsby Estate (1905-6)

Fig 2  Ladysmith Rd.; the tree-less edge of Grimsby’s Edwardian urbanisation named after a British success in the Boer War. My childhood home.

In the early 1940s children’s imaginations were occupied with the Wizard of Oz, Pinochio, Snow White and Bambi, movies that all focussed on the power of making wishes.   From this point of view, it would only take the imagination of one child to invent a wishing stone myth that would be eagerly adopted by others. In this context, I remember many of us actors in the Church Lane wishing ritual had invented imaginary companions for effective coping with the blitz on dockland but, which scattered its bombs in the surrounding fields.  These invisible friends were a positive source of entertainment, friendship, and social support when making a wish. 

3 Landmarking the past

By Identifying prosperity with oneness in nature, can we identify patterns in cultural systems that could provide a systematic model for developing cities?  That is to say, can we build cities that will always and simultaneously incorporate the essential characteristics of ecologically sustainable ruralism promoting oneness with nature?  Might this be applicable for fractal reproduction of sustainable cultures across the spectrum from eco-village to eco-metropolis?  Today we can view our reactions to volcanic bluestones and other glacial erratics as solid symbols of this spectrum of cultural ecology. We can use the passengers of glaciation to meditate on Grimsby’s efforts to be great again after decimating the North Sea fishing stocks that earned it, briefly, the title of greatest fishing port in the world, and face up to the catastrophic polar ice melt of global warming. The bluestones provide an educational window to see the town in a ruralised glacial landscape.  In fact they offer local history a cosmic timescale for people to think about the short term mindless actions of their leaders in relation to securing the future of great grandchildren yet to come.

However, for me, above and beyond all this, Old Clee’s wishing stone marks a route to articulate the common wish of humanity for a better life.  This wish for economic prosperity brought my heroic grandparents to Grimsby from harsh livelihoods as agricultural labourers in the East Anglian countryside.  It was then perceived as a Victorian boom town, which attracted hundreds of economic migrants far and wide.  They were aiming for what they imagined would be a life of monetary plenty. This vision of Grimsby is now curated as history with the objective to stimulate the unconscious as an image/memory value forming faculty. These days the past is expressed in digital landmarking, adding heritage values to objects, places and neighbourhoods.  By viewing and collecting digital landmarks we encounter material and immaterial traces of the past in our daily lives. We are thus participants in the continuous social processes of social selection which gives meaning to the past.  People in the present value where they live and identify with it through pride in place.  This process of self education is particularly important to the future of Grimsby and other post industrial communities who, like Rowen Williams, are struggling to rethink individual prosperity in a world of increasing inequalities.  Prosperity is now being seen as a non monetary lifestyle, something to be wished for among several alternatives to conventional economic prosperity. The big wish is for a fairer society that operates within Earth’s ecological limits.  

Using social media, like this Internet page for digital landmarking, is to make an open international educational resource for the application of arts reasoning to explain sustainability.  Here the task of educators is to master the imaginative power of heritage and demonstrate to young people, fed up with a curriculum they see as irrelevant to their future, that history is not boring but life saving. The local library’s digital initiative clearly energises people to generate blogs, posts and pages demonstrating that heritage values represent a public interest in places, regardless of their ownership. Therefore, the use of law, public policy and public investment is justified to protect that public interest and incorporate it into plans for living sustainably.  In this context, a wish to save Grimsby’s huge, but redundant, dockside ice factory inevitably nudges us closer towards a culture of sustainability and equity.

At the start of the 2nd World War, Old Clee comprised a Saxon church, two farms, and a handful of ornamental cottages (Fig 3) built for agricultural labourers owing deference to the super–wealthy Grant Thorald family, who owned much of the parish. Little had changed since Old Clee was mapped as a cultural island at the turn of the 20th century (Fig 1) Its lord of the manor lived two miles away in his vast landscaped Weelsby Hall domain.  The fractal housing of urbanising Clee is evidenced by the identical bay windowed semi detached houses of the 1930s, lined up along Clee Crescent (Fig 4), punctuated by the singular, expensive, arts and crafts mansion. through whose railings I peered and wondered as a small child (Fig 5).  Development of what remained of its former open fields was paused until the War ended.  The fields, ditches and hedgerows awaiting development for housing were rich in biodiversity.  It was commonplace to encounter nesting birds, exotic butterflies, bats minnows and water voles.  Now the only evidence for its agricultural past and outstanding biodiversity is a few acres of wilding impoverished pasture at the end of Church Lane (Fig 6).

Fig 3. Grant Thorald’s Old Clee estate cottages in the Dutch style (1870s)

Fig 4 Clee Crescent fractile mass produced housing; pre-2nd World War

Fig 5 A unique Arts and Crafts ‘mansion’, Clee Crescent

But what if it were different, asks Paul Downton, founding convener of Urban Ecology Australia and a recognised ‘eco city pioneer’?  What if, every time we added to the urban weave we duplicated units of ruralism that not only provided good shelter for people but also increased biodiversity and enhanced the value of natural capital?  At best, sustainability and equity. are spiritual emotions denoting a profound sense of belonging with nature and refer to positive, pleasant feelings like joy, exaltation and the sublime feeling of living in nature.  These feelings may lead to a sense of inner peace that suspends the individual in a deep, inner spiritual state, which is hard to explain rationally with words and is best understood through lived experience and the application of memory and imagination.  This is where memory sites are a form of natural capital that can provide roots to bind urbanised people to place.

Fig 6  Church Lane end, Old Clee.

Memory is a major theme in contemporary life, a key to personal, social and cultural identity.  A memory site is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time, has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of a community.  It may refer to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). What makes an entity a memory site is the interplay of memory history and imagination. 

To be considered as a memory site an entity must be definable in three senses: material, symbolic and functional, all in different degrees but always present. Within this category of memory sites Old Clee may be categorised as a ritual landscape where memory crystallizes and secretes itself around its wishing stone. Ritual landscapes are often associated with origin myths, ancestors, homes of spiritual essences, or locales where mythical or historical events occurred.  The features of ritual landscapes embed collective memory exemplified by groups that include nations, generations, communities and the preservation of the myths, histories, and the belongings of a locale.  Aside from a place of origin and mythology, ritual landscapes were also considered places of protection and renewal. Now memory sites are in need of protection because they landmark the cultural, traditional, spiritual, and religious importance of nature to people in their day to day surroundings. 

4 Internet References

More on Clee Fields…..

Open fields in Old Clee

Neighbourhoods and urban fractals

Ancestors and place

Grimsby and Cleethorpes Place Names

Memory  Sites

Adopting Arts Thinking to Explain Sustainability

March 11th, 2021

Establishing spiritual bonds with landscapes (Fig 1)

“A Tibetan pilgrim marches into sacred valleys aware and in touch with local spirits. His journey is an ascent into a divine residence: a mountain and its roots. As a guest, the pilgrim offers gifts and proceeds with caution and awakened senses. These and other practices weave together a world of places physically present, socially powerful, and personally meaningful”.  Chris Limburg.

1 Spirituality and deep thinking

 Fig 1 Pilgrimage Mountain, Corixus, (2021)

Spirituality and religious activity have been a source of comfort and relief from stress for multitudes of people. While people use many different religions and secular paths to express their spirituality world, ​research has shown that those who use their spirituality to cope with challenges in life experience many benefits to their health and well being.


Spirituality is the broad concept of a belief in something beyond the self. It may involve religious traditions centering on the belief in a higher power, but it can also involve a holistic belief in an individual connection to others and to the world as a whole.  The transcendentalists were responsible for introducing the distinction between religion and spirituality, which is a prominent issue of life in the West today. Spirituality offers a worldview that suggests there is more to life than just what people experience on sensory, physical levels.  It suggests that there is something greater that connects all beings to each other and to the universe itself. Scientifically, this connection is centred on the biochemical unity of life on Earth and its dependence on a Big Bang cosmology that produced all the materials and energy for the evolution of life.  Spirituality strives to answer deeper questions about the meaning of this life, how people are connected to each other and truths about the universe.   and other mysteries of human existence such as consciousness, free will and God.  Other former inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, have been explained by scientific advancements, but consciousness, free will and commitment to a supreme being seem to recede ever further away from understanding.

To think deeply means to go beyond what you think you know. It means to let go of preconceived ideas in order to discover wider truths. By cultivating the skill of deep thinking, we can gain freedom of thought. Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy which promotes the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus the restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. Things are deemed to have instrumental value if they help one achieve a particular end; intrinsic values, by contrast, are understood to be desirable in and of themselves.  The deeper your thinking becomes, the more focused, meaningful andvauable your actions will be.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives on intrinsic values. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience; something that touches us all. For instance, people may describe a spiritual experience as sacred, transcendent or simply as a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.   The notion of ‘spirituality in place’ refers to an educational framework for self education that allows people who live and walk there to find greater meaning in their surroundings.  This framework for place-based spirituality  to weave together humanity, sensuality with sustainability, illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow originally identified these needs as ‘physiological maintenance’, ‘safety’, ‘love’, ‘esteem’, ‘self-actualization’ and ‘self-transcendence’.  When one of these hierarchical needs is “fairly well satisfied, the next need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life”.  The highest level is an expression of self-transcendence characteristic of individuals who have “peak experiences” that strive to further a goal beyond the self.  Self-transcendental goals may involve service to others, devotion to an ideal (e.g. truth, art) or a cause (e.g. social justice, environmentalism, the pursuit of science, a religious faith) and/or a desire to be united with what is perceived as transcendent or divine. 

2  Meditation and mindfulness

According to Maslow, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”  As such it is the goal of many contemplative practices (Fig 2).

Fig 2 The variety of contemplative practices 

Because of the importance of developing self transcendence new pedagogies are needed to train our minds to dwell fully in the present moment, using contemplative practices that have no goal, no purpose other than just being ).  Eihei Dogen addressed this issue in his “Genjo koan” essay, where he says “When the self advances toward the ten thousand things, is delusion. When the ten thousand things advance to the self, that’s awakening.”  Henry Thoreau defined the methodological problem succinctly as the “difficulty in placing your head where your body is”.  Thoreau continues;

“Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither.  I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.  In my afternoon walk I would feign forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society, but it still  happens sometimes that I cannot easily shake the village.  The thought of some work will run through my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of  my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking out of the woods?”.

The difference between the two states of mind might best be appreciated by calling the first state a “nature meditation” and the second “objectless meditation”.  The latter takes the form of a classic Buddhist practice, which David Jones believes is of limited value because, “… if we are not fully engaged in our experiences at the present moment, then we’re missing stuff. And, if we’re only focused on ourselves, our feet, our muscles, our breathing, we won’t be fully present during this practice.  

Referring to meditative walks, Jones’ advice is, “Center yourself before you begin. It’s important to get your head in the right space before you start. This is where you form the “intention” of your “intentional walk.” In a way, you’re making a vow to walk as a truly awake person, aware and engaged.  Engage the world with all your available senses and attention. Everything around you is a part of you and you’re a part of it; learn to see that connection and you’ll find compassion waiting there”.

A goal of meditation, and its outcome of mindfulness, is to become aware of your thoughts in a nonjudgmental fashion.  ‘Yoga International’ claims that meditation is a practical means for calming yourself, for letting go of your biases and seeing what is, openly and clearly. It is a way of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning. Meditation teaches you to systematically explore your inner dimensions. It is a system of commitment, not commandment. You are committing to yourself, to your path, and to the goal of knowing yourself. But at the same time, learning to be calm and still should not become a ceremony or religious ritual; it is a universal requirement of the human body.  

Jeff Warren takes up the idea of meditation-as-path to explore existential questions that have to do with the nature of experience itself, with who we are at the deepest level. It is both a means and an end.  These insights can involve more dramatic transformations around our sense of self and agency and wholeness. Meditation in this sense is both a discovery and a training.  We gain experience about the nature of reality, and yet paradoxically we are sculpting our mind-bodies to receive these discoveries.

School children are experiencing the nature of reality when they complain about the vast quantities of seemingly useless information that they are forced to memorise as part of their education.  Had they been the children of Stone Age hunters, they would have learned their lessons first hand, where the practical value in everyday life would have been obvious. Prehistoric people had to become masters of observation, with an acute knowledge of every plant and animal shape, colour, pattern, movement, sound and smell in so far as knowledge of these aspects of their environment enabled them to survive in a hostile world.  This urge to find memorable pattern and harmony in the environment is called taxophilia and accompanies spirituality.  The human taxophilic imperative was so important that it evolved to become as basic and distinct as the need to feed, mate or sleep.  Originally our ancestors may have classified berries or antelopes as part of their food-finding activities.

In the abstract world of the modern classroom, botany can seem remote, geology boring, and entomology meaningless.  Yet despite these complaints, the taxophilic instinct remains as an urge to commit to memory huge assemblages of facts on topics that will hardly ever encounter a need in the future.   Information is not just simply accumulated; it is classified, particularly where there is a current social context, such as the latest football statistics, scores and titles of pop music, and the makes and dates of manufacture of motorcars.

The human brain functions as a magnificent classifying machine, and every time we walk through a landscape it is busy feeding in new experiences and comparing them with the old.  The brain classifies everything we see, and the survival value of this procedure is obvious. It is also the case with other mammals.  A monkey, for instance, has to know many different kinds of trees and bushes in its forest home, and needs to be able to tell which one has ripening fruit at any particular season, which is poisonous, and which is thorny.  If it is to survive, a monkey has to become a good botanist.  In the same way a lion has to become a first-rate zoologist, able to tell at a glance, which prey species it is, how fast it can run, and which escape pattern it is likely to use.


3  Walking mindfully

In the 1950’s, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote an essay on people’s interaction with urban landscapes, and proposed the idea of psychogeography.  This focuses on discovering forgotten aspects or paths less traveled in the city and the effects that has on the individual in a receptive state.  Debord devized groups of these routes he called “dérives,” (French for “drift”) which were basically long, meandering walks around Paris. Dérives were described as “an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations,” and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”  Debord’s practice of ‘walking drifts’ is the practical outcome of the Buddhist ‘mindful walking practice’, where the goal is to concentrate the mind on the bodily experience of putting one foot in front of the other to reach a high level of awareness defined as mindfulness.   Walking mindfully for a Buddhist is simple; walk at a very slow pace looking down at your feet as you walk. As you pick up one foot, consciously inhale. Setting your foot down, consciously exhale. Focus only on your breathing and footsteps. If thoughts start to pop up in your mind, refocus back on your breath. 

The big question about walking mindfully is how does the practice of mindfulness contribute to individual behaviour change and how does this individual change translate into societal change?

In Debord’s ‘situational practice’ the walker from the start is a spectator on the lookout for the unexpected intervention for deeper thinking.   Situationism is the theory that says changes in human behavior are factors of the situation rather than the mental traits a person possesses. Behaviour is believed to be influenced by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations. However, we can never be free of educational preparedness for accepting the invisible. Indigenous African thought systems believe that the world consists of two realities: the visible and the invisible worlds. The invisible spiritual world comprises entities that are imperceptible to the naked eye but exist within the same temporal/spatial realm of visible human beings. As the visible world changes how does this affect the invisible world? 

The act of experiencing unforeseen changes within a periodic routine has been thoroughly embodied and cherished in both Buddhism and Situationism as a means to achieve moments of enlightenment. A situational walk can be categorized into two stages based on the scale of intervention into the existing urban texture. At the human scale, it can be a series of unexpected architectural insertions, which serve as an invitation for the spectators to explore their taken-for-granted city life under different, unexpected perspectives. These insertions are considered as the unplanned destinations of the walk and in a Zen framework they can serve as stimuli to record deeper thinking about them in words or pictures. At the urban scale, Dubord proposed the deliberate introduction of a number of conceptual pathways for ‘drifting’ and ‘changing course’ as a method of making connections between the human scale insertions. These urban interventions will serve their purpose as the journey, which encourages the spectators to deviate from the ordinary and emerge into the unexpected.  It’s difficult for people to accept but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.  In other words, most of the time we are simply reacting instinctively to the world around us. The Buddhist pedestrian seeks to avoid interventions as distractors of meditation whereas the walking Situationist embraces them as starting points for meditations,

The Jesuit priest/poet and Situationist Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the sonnet “God’s Grandeur” in 1877 to convey his reverence for the magnificence of God and nature.  The background was his despair about the way that humanity has seemed to lose sight of the close connection between God and nature during the Industrial Revolution.  The word “grandeur” means grandness or magnificence and was used by the semi-Christian Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. For him, grandeur was the wonderful things generated by natural selection, which he described as ‘the war of nature’, that had a simple and chaotic beginning to produce endless forms and ways of life.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In his journals, Manley Hopkins used two terms, “inscape” and “instress” to define the visual system by which we are able to select things in our surroundings for deep thinking and pass on our feelings about them to others.   By “inscape” he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by “instress” he means the force of being which holds the inscape together and carries it whole into the mind of the beholder, from which it reappears as a personalised poem or other art form. The system in which inscape and instress are major components of learning-by-seeing is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment (the inscape).  It is a route to creativity, as an integral part of the dynamic attributes of our perceptual and conceptual systems (the instress).

Hopkins says “unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”  Hence, an object’s inscape is not truly discovered until a poet, for example, combines observation with self-examination. The final step of the process is achieved by taking what has been discovered and subsequently studied to capture the object’s essence in words or pictures.  If you have a companion with you the inscape cannot be examined and reported on in this way. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by inscapes; they permeate everything that we see and do.  

There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.” G.M.H.

The term inscape refers to the unifying designs by which the unique interior essences of a thing are expressed at its surface,. The word does not merely refer to what is particular and individual about an object, but defines an order or pattern by which these individual essences form an harmonious composition.  For example, Manley Hopkins, in his poem,  As Kingfishers Catch Fire, selected two optical images from an aquatic ecosystem, a kingfisher and a dragonfly.  He selects them because of their individual colourful inscapes. The inner tensions of textures, shapes, patterns and composition by which a reader can recapture the poet’s perception and experience he defines as their instress. Inscape and instress define the actual creative process of an author and determine how it is received into the sight, memory and imagination of a reader so they can recapture the poet’s perception and experience. 

In 1872 Hopkins discovered that Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308), who was one of the most important and influential Christian philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages, has put forward a theory of haecceitas, not unlike his own theory of inscape.  Scotus argues that every thing and every natural phenomenon contains within itself individual properties (principle of individuation) which differentiate it from every other thing. He argues that  each thing possesses intrinsic qualities which make it ‘this thing’ [=haecceitas]  rather than that thing.  It seemed to Hopkins that this endorses his own vision of the makeup of the natural world.  As a Jesuit, Hopkins realises that he is theologically entitled to his perception of the natural world in which each thing, including man, has a specific purpose that reflects its glorious Creator.  For a humanist or a Buddhist it is absolutely clear that facing grandeur expressed in places, systems or objects today there is no longer a need to underline some mythical or divine presence because grandeur is endemic in the thing itself.

Manley Hopkins developed his ideas about inscape and instress around the English verse style.  Can they be applied to the creation of other art forms ? Surely the answer is yes.  For instance, a  digital image where colour is the primary factor responsible for making it feel exciting, lively, mysterious or perhaps melancholic, defines its inscape (Fig 3).  Its instress is revealed by stripping out the colour (Fig 4).  The black and white image highlights more fundamental aspects of the picture, such as the subject, the textures, shapes, patterns, and the composition.  The images have to be viewed as pairs.

Fig 3 God’s grandeur; a ‘ Suffolk gull’ ( the inscape)

Fig 4 God’s grandeur; a ‘Suffolk gull’. (the instress)

5 Buddhist practice and Street View

Google Street View allows an individual to bond virtually with landscapes throughout the world,  It  is a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides 

interactive panoramas from positions along streets. It was launched in 2007 in several cities in the United States, and has since expanded to include cities and rural areas in other countries with the aim of documenting  everything in the world that could be seen from a moving car. Street View is a massive, undiscerning machine for image-making whose purpose is to simply capture everything.  Street View takes a continuous panoramic photograph as the camera car is driven along the public roads without apparent concern for ethics or aesthetics, from a supposedly neutral point of view.  The screen-clicking viewer follows the car route on Google Earth, to ‘walk’ mindfully, forwards, backwards or sideways, to reveal a sequence of walking pace views.  These views can be captured and their position recorded on Google Earth as a preliminary to a dialectic between a viewer and a virtual locale.

Working with Google Earth can be a virtual pilgrimage or journey to a sacred place motivated by religious devotion.  However,  the term may also be applied to a meditative search for new spiritual experiences, prolonged wanderings, or travel to a place of nostalgic meaning or absence through bereavement for an individual.  In this context, the term ‘therapeutic landscapes’ was first coined by health geographer, Wilbert Gesler, in 1992 to explore why certain environments seem to contribute to a healing sense of place. Since then, the concept and its applications have evolved and expanded as researchers have examined the dynamic material, affective and socio-cultural roots and routes to experiences of health and wellbeing in specific places and the dynamic nature of people’s therapeutic place assemblages over time.  Objectification, the process through which physical things are imbued with meaning in a specific sociocultural context, is a key concept in this understanding. Objectification is the capacity of things to carry meaning.  It therefore has the potential to assist individuals in their personal growth. Recognition of the symbolic dimension of objects through contemplation is particularly critical in enabling individuals to strive for detachment in highly materialistic societies. 

Semi abstract landscape snapshots can become things of the spirit and objects to meditate upon. The semi abstraction is applied using an algorithm that simplifies the image by desaturating the colour and maximising and unifying surface texture (Figs 5-7  ). Different moments in time and space are then  available for comparative meditation.  Photography encourages mindfulness by heightening our awareness of seeing.  Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily in order to see more clearly. To see in this way involves shifting to a frame of mind in which the habitual view of a familiar and self-evident world is replaced by a keen sense of the unprecedented and unrepeatable configuration of each moment. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.  The following paragraph describes taking a photography as a zen routine.

Fig 5 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Linstead Magna, Suffolk   

Fig 6  Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk 

Fig 7 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk

When feeling ready, focus your eyes at the centre of your picture and relaxingly keep on your deep breathing. Some feelings and thoughts will start occurring. Take a notice of them but don’t dwell in them. Observe them like they are the feelings and thoughts of somebody else. Your main interest is your breathing. When and if your eyes want to move around the image, let them do so. And then let them focus wherever in the image they want. Don’t force them to stay focused in the centre or any part of the image, and don’t impel them to change place. Just keep your head motionless, focus on your breathing and trust your eyes.

The following is an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual routine by Diane Walker.

“Wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred.  That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results”.

6  The invisible landscape

According to Ed Bastian,

“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.” 

How does a transcendentally desirous individual live happily and meaningfully?  Zen thinking engages place as a fundamental arena to develop self-transcendence as a central concept behind Buddhist placemaking.  The groundwork is based on geographic thought and Buddhist practices of pilgrimage, namely the cultivation of enlightenment through mindfulness that comes from meditation as a spiritual practice.  The objective is to apply mindfulness to uncover a landscape’s unseen components.  These are the subjective resources of experience, memory, and a narrative, which people familiar with the place understand to be an integral part of its geography.  Outsiders may not suspect the existence of these resources unless they see and listen carefully. This invisible landscape is made visible though stories, and these stories are the focus of the art forms of Zen.  Zen-places encourage individuals to reveal the real condition of their situation as humans in the world working towards their goal of awakening via deep thinking about what they have perceived what they value and how it is communicated

Kent C. Ryden’s ‘Mapping the Invisible Landscape’ is an examination of the concept of place in which he detects and examines a dialectic between a given locale and the representation of that locale in folklore and literature. Traveling across the invisible landscapes in which we imaginatively dwell, Ryden asks the following questions. What categories of meaning do we read into our surroundings? What forms of expression serve as the most reliable maps to understanding those meanings? Our sense of any place, he argues, consists of a deeply ingrained experiential knowledge of its physical makeup; an awareness of its communal and personal history; a sense of our identity as being inextricably bound up with its events and ways of life; and an emotional reaction, positive or negative, to its meanings and memories.  These questions were the drivers for ‘Blything and Nine Parishes’  a community project launched in Suffolk at the dawn of the Internet. A practical goal was for people to seek out things of the spirit as peak experiences that attached them to their locale using a set of Zen aesthetic values embedded in landscape and works of art, whether they be paintings, gardens, ceramics, or architecture. These are, in brief: 

  • Wabi, a nostalgic sense of shabbiness, or decay brought on by age.  “Wabi”  connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the quirks and anomalies that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object; 
  • Sabi, a bittersweet sense of sadness or forlornness.  “Sabi” refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.; 
  • Shibui, a stark sense of unadorned simplicity; “Shibui” (adjective), “shibumi” (noun), and “shibusa” (noun) are Japanese words to express an aesthetic sense of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Originating in the Muromachi period (1336–1392) as “shibushi,” the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui still maintains that literal meaning, and remains the antonym of “amai,” meaning “sweet.” Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as “iki” and “wabi-sabi,” shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion. Shibusa objects appear to be simple overall, but include subtle details such as textures, that balance simplicity with complexity.  This balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object, but rather constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauties that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years.
  • Yūgen is said to mean a profound, mysterious sense of the hidden or suggested beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering. 

A Zen-place will likely exhibit one or more of these values, and they are apprehended by a person in a receptive state as things of the spirit.

4 Things of the spirit

“Spiritual but not religious”, also known as “spiritual but not affiliated”, is a popular phrase used to self-identify what a person accepts as being of ultimate importance. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.  However, in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon personal well being, while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.

An object connected with interior life  can convey the  essence of something that can not be understood necessarily by the mind, rather in the senses. All great works of art move and transport one into a state where we feel enchanted by the spirit of the painting, story, or song. We are taken over by an essence, an experience, that transforms our sense of a wider, deeper world and our place in it.  The phrase “power objects” has been used to describe transpersonal carriers, the term originating within every culture in the world.  Such objects of mediation have been called ‘artes’ and indigenous cultures especially view artes as tools, as aids to ensoulment i.e. they are used to define selfhood. Things of the spirit are thereby considered “animate” with consciousness and intelligence, a stretch of the imagination that justifies their collection as evidence of well being.  Connecting to spirits through objects is the essence of Shamanism, an ancient religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance. The goal of this is usually to direct these spirits or spiritual energies into the physical world, for healing or another purpose. 

Intangible, non-physical concepts are difficult to grasp. They are elusive by nature because we cannot see, feel, touch or hear them.  Artes are representations of what is meaningful to us as well as links to greater unseen forces we know exist in our cosmos. We engage and commune with these objects because it gives us the physical sensation and connection our bodies crave.  A collection of artes collected together on an altar (Fig 8) helps devotees cultivate the ability to connect at a deeper, sharper, and more distinct level with the subtle realms, abstract concepts, and multiple dimensions we traverse in our daily shamanic lives.

Fig 8 A New Age, personalised shamanistic altar

Shamanism is everywhere. If we go deep in Hinduism and Buddhism, we find they have their base in shamanism, although now there is a difference between these institutionalised religions and shamanism, which was/is the original tribal earth spirituality.  It is generally agreed that shamanism originated among hunting-and-gathering cultures, and that it persisted within some herding and farming societies after the origins of agriculture. Some would say that the Hindu puja (Fig 9) evolved from the interactive shaman altar.

Fig 9 Hundu family puja

‘New Age’ is a range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices, derived from shamanism which rapidly grew in the Western world during the 1970s.  Although analytically often considered to be religious, those involved in it typically prefer the designation of spiritual or Mind, Body, Spirit and rarely use the term New Age themselves.

It was in this context that Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk  became involved in defining things of the spirit in their parish churches, particularly the villages representing settlements on the watershed of the River Blyth, which flowed through the town.  The project was taken up by the school’s poetry group, which made links with communities served by the school and its primary feeders. Pupils and their parents took pictures of objects in local churches to focus discussions about the importance of spirituality to a largely secular society.  The idea came from researching the demolition of the medieval church at Linstead Magna and the sale of Ubbeston’s church and its conversion to a private house.  There is now a biennial memorial pilgrimage to the site of Linstead’s church, which together with its churchyard, is a memorial artifact expressed by a crop mark in a huge arable field.  This has become a thin place where imagination about the past and present can run riot.  In this context, Avril Maddrell develops a thesis for the powerful absence-presence in vernacular memorial artefacts, spaces and performances at a variety of scales and locations.  She explores the ways in which the emotions, memory and materiality of absence through death/loss are expressed and negotiated in different memorial forms and landscape settings in the British Isles. She questions how living with absence as a result of bereavement or loss of an historical connection is mediated through different material forms and practices including expressions of continuing spiritual bonds with landscape.

7  A non dualistic pedagogy

Today, many people argue that scientific thinking presents a powerful challenge to religion because it offers explanations of nature, the cosmos, and human origins that require no reference to God or any other manifestation of spiritual power.  In an age dominated by economism and its supportive philosophy of instrumentalism, science thinking is taught as the essence of economism and instrumentalism. Science education is seen as an investment for future employment to support the endless growth and spread of capitalism.  For the past three centuries, education systems of the West have been based on an instrumentalist pedagogy of scientific thinking with unsustainable outcomes because the world is being used as a warehouse for our consumption and as a sink for our wastes. The concept of duality frames our world so that we split things up into separate sides.  There are many examples of dualistic thinking.  The separation of science and art in curricula is an instance of dualism with widespread repercussions in the way we treat ecological problems, which require cross subject thinking to solve them. The arts are often considered unimportant, or, at best, to have entertainment or recreation value. However, arts thinking has a wider and deeper scope centred on beauty and ethics as a system of moral principles concerned with what is good for individuals and society. In terms of effects on society, there is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger. Principles and standards of ethical behavior are as important to peace, order, and social cooperation in the world as they have ever been. Science, however, has very little to tell us about ethics. Also, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic disease, and crime have defied the best efforts of humanity’s scientific imagination. Amid the distresses and dangers of our contemporary era, people have sought not only cooperative, communal ties to one another but also moral and spiritual certainties. Spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human culture. In Zen and Taoist thinking, arts and science merge to become a holistic aspect of the human educational  experience.  It is in this context that the arts are essential and critical  to our planetary survival.  In particular, we need to apply arts thinking to explain sustainability.  We live unsustainably because we see but do not look.  We go for immediate judgement and we  intellectualise objects.  A nondual prescription to live sustainably is to first put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking long and hard. Second, do not treat objects as subjects for the specialists to chew over endlessly. Third,  just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself.  All Zen arts  provide ways to achieve this state of intensified consciousness.      

Zen as practice is really about re-animating our consciousness.  Zen arts are concrete, sensuous ways to  accomplish this re-animation of the self and the universe. The key to Zen arts is to repeatedly, release and arrest the hyperactive intellect by means of complete  absorption in what is perceived or experienced moment by moment. What results is intensification of  consciousness through concentrated and sustained attention.  This is how Thomas Berry evocatively describes the outcome of zen thinking: 

“The thousandfold voices of the natural world suddenly became inaudible  to the human. The mountains and rivers and the wind and the sea all  became mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no  longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply  so many board feet of lumber to be “harvested” as objects to be used for 

human benefit. Animals were no longer the companions of humans in the  single community of existence”.  

Similarly, Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Japanese Mingei (folk crafts) movement, gives this advice on incorporating a zen approach to  cultivate artistic perception for living sustainably:

“Such consciousness is no  longer divided into the subject and the object, the perceiver and the perceived.  The two poles of perception are integrated into a seamless unity, and as a result, a tremendous sense of vitality is released. This is how we re-animate the universe.  This is the way to heal our sense of existential alienation and numbing which  drives us more and more to such pathological behaviour as treating the world as  if it had no life of its own and existed solely for the human consumption and wastage”.

These quotations raise an important example of our collective nonduality with Earth. The basic problem now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just an endless collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of duality cannot continue?  A nondual ecological culture to manage Earth’s bounty sustaonaly is required to address an ecological crisis (Fig 10).  

Fig 10 A non dualistic pedagogy

8 Internet references

Contemplative photography

Connecting to spirits through objects


Things of the spirit at St Michaels

The puja

Spiritual life and moral codes

Community learning

Situationism and Buddhism

Zen with Google Street View

Towards a Buddhist place making

The real meaning of meditation

Learning from zen arts

Meditation: consider walking

Zen and the Art of Ecosystem Management

February 26th, 2021

The extinction of species, each one a pilgrim of four billion years of evolution, is an irreversible loss. The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief. Death can be accepted and to some degree transformed. But the loss of lineages and all their future young is not something to accept. It must be rigorously and intelligently resisted.

Gary Snyder (1990

1 The Breath of Life

Our common desire to look to earthly things comes from thinking how they will serve us somehow, such as bring us comfort, identity, pleasure, etc.  Usually, earthly thinking has to do with material objects, like jobs, money, cars, and houses.  Spiritual thinking, on the other hand, focuses on social concerns like love, faith, beauty and origins.  In this context, many scholars have ventured general comparisons of Eastern and Western artistic creativity. One suggestion is that Oriental art depicts spirit, while Western art depicts form.  Another comparative perspective holds that the West sees and depicts nature in terms of human-made symmetries and superimposed forms.  Nature is squeezed to fit ideas of Western culture, while the East accepts an object as is, and presents it for what it is, not what the artist thinks it means. Interpretation is then firmly in the mind of the beholder.   Also, the cultural positioning of an object can make it cosmocentric, and therefore spiritual, either because it has been put in a certain place (Fig 1) or because its spiritual content has been explained in words or pictures (Fig 2). A thing of the earth thereby becomes a thing of the spirit. Oriental artists are not interested in a photographic representation of an object.  

Fig 1 Things of the spirit:  Aldeburgh Parish Church

Fig 2 ‘The father of the goddess Sita ploughs the land to find her as a baby’. The Textile Art Of Kalamkari, Ramayana detail.

Oriental art is cosmocentric. It sees humankind as an integral part of nature interpreting its spirits. Occidental art exalts personality, it is anthropocentric.  It is an affinity between man and nature that impressed Oriental artists rather than their contrast, as in the West. To Occidentals, the physical world is an objective reality, to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, it is a realm of beauty to be admired, but also a sphere of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by mythmakers, and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions.

The Latin spiritus means ‘breath’, which is also true for the related Latin word anima, the Greek psyche, and the Sanskrit atman. The common meaning of these key terms indicates that the original meaning of spirit in many ancient philosophical and religious traditions, in the West as well as in the East, is an awareness of the breath of life. A common practise to achieve a Zen state of mindfulness is to meditate on one’s breathing. Spirituality is usually understood as a way of being that flows from a certain profound experience of reality, which is known as a ‘mystical’, ‘religious’, or ‘spiritual’ experience.  This encounter with mystery is often accompanied by a deep sense of awe and wonder together with a feeling of great humility.  Scientists, in their systematic observations of natural phenomena, do not consider their experience of reality as ineffable. On the contrary, they attempt to express it in technical language, including mathematics, as precisely as possible. However, the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena is a dominant theme also in modern science, and many great scientists have expressed their sense of awe and wonder when faced with the mystery that lies beyond the limits of their theories. Albert Einstein, for one, repeatedly expressed these feelings, as in the following celebrated passage (Einstein, 1949).

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science… the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature”.

Hinduism, whose adherents make up 15 percent of the global population, is not a single religion comparable to Abrahamic faiths, with a founder and canonical text. It is rather a framework of traditions that can be understood as a network of people joined together with related beliefs and practices rather than a formal religion.  Therefore Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism are general models for introducing spiritual thinking into Western education for conservation.  The aim is to encourage individuals to fulfill their own purpose within interconnected fields of existence, respecting all life, minimising harm to other creatures, and existing in appreciative harmony with the natural world. 

Spirituality is a perception of reality in a special state of consciousness and the characteristics of this experience is a feeling of belonging to a larger whole, connected with everything, independent of historical and cultural contexts. Also, early on in its development Hinduism recognised the need for humanity to have the opportunity to ‘hear’ the wisdom that is available in the universal field of intelligence for themselves.  This means stepping back from the noise and distraction of everyday life for a brief period and ‘tune in’ by engaging the senses and quieting the mind to ‘listen’ to things of the spirit.   

Religion is the organized attempt to understand spiritual experience, to interpret it with words and concepts, and to use this interpretation as the source of moral guidelines .  It is helpful to be able to experience Hinduism and Buddhism simply as ways of being rather than as doctrines of religious belief.  Knowing oneself to be interconnected, day by day, from atoms to galaxies is quite different to accepting anything in ‘Blind faith’.  

2 The Hindu Universe

In the Indic worldview every human being by virtue of being alive, and so having access to the world, is born into debt to family, culture and nature.  A lifetime duty to repay these debts occurs within a universe seen as an extended family of ‘Mother Earth’, where the self (Atman) exists in relation to powerful spiritual energies and is as one with them.  Hindu cosmology describes this universe and its states of matter, how it cycles within time and affects all living entities according to ancient Hindu texts.  These cultural and spiritual underpinnings of debt and the duty to repay it extend to environmental stewardship where ecosystem management can be a solid source of cultural strength as well as a benefit to society. One does not have to go too far into indic cosmology to locate such underpinnings, because India’s spiritual heritage can be used to provide new unique ways of valuing, thinking, and acting to nurture respect for nature and be prepared to avert future ecological disasters. What sets Hinduism apart is that it offers a vision of manifest existence in which, from the broadest perspective, there is no separation between the Creator and the created.  There is no essential separation between the species Homo sapiens and other species, both plant and animal  and indeed between humanity and the universe.  At the same time that the Hindu worldview recognizes this unity, it also celebrates, revels, and delights in the expressed diversity of all that we see all around us.

According to Hinduism, the purpose of life is four-fold: to achieve Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.

Dharma is a vital feature of Indian life. In Hinduism it means ‘duty’, ‘virtue’, ‘morality’, and refers to the spiritual power which upholds the universe and society.  Dharma, means to act virtuously and righteously throughout one’s life, believing that humankind is born in debt to the Gods for their blessings, debt to parents and teachers, debt to guests, debt to other human beings, and debt to all other living beings. One is obliged to Nature at large, so a person can expect to spend an entire lifetime repaying the debts. This is the essence of Dharma. 

The second meaning of life is Artha, which refers to the pursuit of wealth and prosperity. Importantly, one must not step outside moral and ethical grounds of Dharma in order to do so. 

The third purpose of life is to seek Kama.  Kama means “desire, wish, longing” in Hindu and Buddhist literature.  Broadly it refers to any desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, desire for, longing to and after, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love.

The fourth meaning of life is Moksha, defined as Enlightenment.  Hinduism assumes that most people rely on the guidance of others to make their way in life.  This is a sign of self-incurred immaturity and life’s goal is to develop one’s own understanding of the world, a process of mindful self-realisation, known as enlightenment. If done dutifully without expectations, one can liberate oneself from all debts. If dharma is done half-heartedly, or conditionally, one becomes caught in the web of Karma.  Karma is not the same as Kama.  It is a concept where beneficial effects are derived from past beneficial actions and harmful effects from past harmful actions.  It is a system of actions and reactions throughout an individual’s reincarnated lives forming an on going cycle of rebirth. Within this cycle Moksha may take an individual just one lifetime to accomplish enlightenment, or it may take several rebirths carrying the burden of debt.  However, Moksha is considered the most important meaning of life and offers such rewards as liberation from reincarnation, or unity with the ultimate deified cosmic energy.  

In Hinduism, enlightenment is a divine, transcendent experience. Sometimes it is described as a sudden, transformative moment of awakening and other times it is seen as a more gradual process of being liberated from bondage of the mind through creating a personal body of knowledge that unifies the self and the universe.  A mind absorbed in sense objects is the cause of bondage, and a mind detached from the sense objects is a liberated selfhood. A close connection between religion, ecology and ethical values embodied in Moksha are understood as a part of one’s duty in life. 

From prehistoric times, Hindu thinkers came to believe that the forces controlling the universe emanate from four all powerful spiritual energies. Three of these forces known as the trimurti are responsible for the creation (Brahman), upkeep (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva) of the world. These three Gods in the Hindu pantheon, when considered together, as a triumvirate, cover the three aspects of the life cycles in Nature, their development, maintenance and dissolution.  For Hindus, time and space are organized and conceived of as cyclical, where one era cycles into the next. Hindu mythology defines cycles of cosmic ages from a golden age (kitri yuga) to the dark age (kali yuga). We are currently in a degenerate dark age. When it ends, after several millennia, the universe will be destroyed and Brahma will create it anew. Just as the universe and time is conceived as being cyclical so is the progress of the individual’s selfhood. For Hindus,this is Samsara and the self is bound to the samsaric wheel, which symbolises a continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Hindus believe that the self passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived.  During this process the self, as a biochemical continuum, enters into many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths. Selfhood can be traced by its deeds.  This concept is summarily described in the following verse of the Bhagavad gita:

Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones.

The trimurti are celebrated in meditations as the network of all seamlessly interlocking natural laws creating an order of self maintenance that controls the Universe.  A fourth force driving the Hindu universe is Shakti.  This is the concept, or personification, of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as ‘The Great Divine Mother‘. On the earthly plane, Shakti most actively manifests through female embodiment and creativity/fertility, though it is also present in males in its potential, unmanifest form (Fig 3).  

Fig 3 The Hindu universe superimposed on the scientific model of the life cycle.

In 1970 Allan Sandage, a scientific cosmologist, published a paper entitled ‘Cosmology: A Search for Two Numbers’.  Until the 1990’s it was thought that those two numbers would, in fact, predict the ultimate future of our universe. Since 1998 this idea has changed. The first of the two numbers is the Hubble constant H0. It describes the expansion rate of our present universe. The second number is called the deceleration parameter q0. It describes how fast H0 changes in the future. There is now a third mysterious quantity referring to what is now called dark energy. 

The big surprise was that ordinary matter (about 4,4 ± 0,4 percent) and the still mysterious cold dark matter (23 ± 4 percent, together add up to only about a quarter of the total energy density; 73 ± 4 percent is made of what is now called dark energy. So if you imagine the universe as a cosmic cappuccino, the coffee stands for dark energy, the milk for dark matter, both of which we know almost nothing about.   Only the powdered chocolate would be what we are familiar with, namely ordinary matter made of protons, neutrons, electrons et cetera. Now we know what we don’t know, and this is more than 95 percent of what the universe is made of.  

One could say this is equivalent to the arts thinking about Hinduism which brought Shakti into the Hindo pantheon The current scientific model of the universe is structured around the concepts of dark energy and dark matter.  Together they present one of the great unsolved mysteries of scientific cosmology. Dark matter works like an attractive force; a kind of cosmic cement that holds the universe together. This is because dark matter does interact with gravity, but it doesn’t reflect, absorb, or emit light. Meanwhile, dark energy is a repulsive force; a sort of anti-gravity that drives the universe’s ever-accelerating expansion. Shakti plays a similar all pervasive role in the Hindu universe where it may be personified as the agent of change.

Shiva, the  “Destroyer”, is not an entirely negative force, but one that is expansive in its impact. In Hindu religious philosophy all things must come to a natural end so they can begin anew, and Shiva is the agent that brings about this end so that a new life cycle can begin.

This conceptualisation of Nature in Hindu philosophy and  the collective importance of the three aspects of the trimurti in creating a balance in the Universe, can influence the way we understand Nature and humankind’s place in the modern world. In this context, Vishnu preserves, protects and maintains. We could say, Vishnu makes sure the world is ‘sustainable’. Vishnu is most commonly known through the avatars, Rama and Krishna, but is also said to have taken several forms , from a fish to a boar to human forms, in order to protect Earth when it was most harassed.  In the current pursuit of the principle of sustainability, one could say that we are looking to the concept of Vishnu once again in the hope of finding a way of changing human behavior to preserve life and order on the planet.  For Hindus, Vishnu is found in every object and force in creation, and some Hindus recognize Vishnu as the divine being from which all order flows.  In this sense Vishnu can be positioned at the centre of spiritual education for sustainable development.  

So the trimurti manifests itself in many forms, human or animal, and each has its own family, giving the entire Hindu universe a network of natural laws embedded in an energy field called shakti.  Shakti is the primordial cosmic energy by which Brahman brought the universe into being and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe under the influence of the trimurti. Shakti, under the control of Brahman, is responsible for creation, as mothers are responsible for birth.  

From a religious perspective, Hindus recognise one supreme being, Brahman, who is the cause and foundation of all existence. The deities of the Hindu faith represent different expressions of Brahman which have given rise to  four principal sects: Vaishnavism, Saivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. For Vaishnavites, Vishnu is their God. For Saivites, their God is Siva. For Shaktas, the goddess Shakti is supreme. For Smartas, a sect of liberal Hindus, the choice of deity is left to the devotee. 

Each denomination has a multitude of guru lineages, religious leaders, priesthoods, sacred literature, monastic communities, schools, pilgrimage centers and tens of thousands of temples. They possess a wealth of art and architecture, philosophy and scholarship. These four sects hold such divergent beliefs that each can be regarded as a complete and independent religion, yet, they share millenia of common heritage supporting culture and belief.

Hindus often choose a single deity to worship as supreme and encompassing other divine forms. The Shaktas, for example, worship the goddess Devi who has her own shakti energy. Shakti can also be an agent of cultural change.  In this context, the Hindu tradition also considers women the vessels of shakti. This identification with shakti acknowledges women as the vessels of both creative and destructive power. Some feminists and scholars criticize this identification because they believe it has led society to label women either as saints or sinners, with little room in between. They argue that women, like benevolent goddesses, are expected to exhibit forgiveness, compassion, and tolerance of others’ transgressions. If they conform to this role, patriarchal society accepts them; if they do not, and attempt to exhibit independence and assertiveness, they are considered destructive, disrupting community and family social structures. However, others argue that the idea of shakti should be used to create education/training narratives to empower Indian women as situation leaders to resist patriarchy. 

Under the control of Visnu, shakti is often manifested to destroy demonic forces and restore balance. As a widespread vital cosmic force in its own right Shakti takes many forms and names, including ‘mother goddess’, ‘fierce warrior’, and the ‘dark goddess of destruction’. In Hinduism, every god has its own shakti, or energy force. This is one of the reasons why Shakti is worshipped by millions of people throughout India. The energy flow is personified as a goddess, commonly manifested as Lakshmi, Parvati, Sarasvati, Durga, or Kali.  

Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism are the most prevalent Hindu sects; among these, Vaishnavism is the largest. This is cultural ecology on a grand scale. It can be take an example of the application of arts reasoning to explain sustainability (AARTES), and provides a divine knowledge structure within which cosmic forces operate to maintain order in the universe.  

The Shaktas are so named because shakti, is the feminine power, capacity, or energy that is behind the universe, without which the male gods would be inert (Fig 4 & 5). Shaktas are not necessarily feminists, and past rulers sought to obtain Shakti for the sake of political dominion.  Shaktas may worship shakti as a goddess in her gentle forms, such as Lakshmi, Parvati, and Sarasvati, or in her ferocious manifestations, such as Durga and Kali.   As many as ten forms of shakti are worshipped during the festival of Navratri.

There are sophisticated philosophical schools and exotic cults associated with all deities. Followers often worship their favorite in conjunction with one, two or all three of the trimurti. 

Fig 4 Representations of Durga and Shakti from circa 200 BC at excavations at Chandraketugarh.  Weapons appear like a halo behind her head.

Fig 5 The energising of the Hindu pantheon: Siddhi Lakshmi; Nepal; dated by inscription 1796; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art.

As a tiny feature of a vast cosmic ecology humankind is not only subject to Shakti, we are part of it. Indeed religion and science come together in time because dark energy which comprises most of the scientific cosmologist’s universe is currently unknowable.  In particular, it is what forms the very basis of our body-mind system enabling us to mount a spiritual response to meditate on our surroundings. The spiritual response can be theistic or non-theistic. That is to say one may choose a known deity to meditate on (Shiva, Jesus, Buddha, etc.), or simply focus on the idea of the higher Self. The Higher Self is also known as the Transcendental Self, regarded by some as part of a person’s non-theistic cosmic consciousness, celebrating the network of social laws which turned nature into culture.  The Lower Self is the animal-like creature which is deeply rooted in our primate biology. Its main goal is to survive and feel good. The Higher Self is the evolved creature we call ‘sapiens’. It strives for progress and world peace. This is the order that has brought humankind into being.

This order is defined in the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts of religious teaching and ideas still revered in Hindu philosophical thought.  Their central theme is the relationship between humankind and the gods particularly between Brahman and Atman.  Atman is the  inner human self, that is to say the emotional and spiritual parts of someone.   The texts present a vision of an interconnected universe with a single, unifying principle behind the apparent diversity in the cosmos, any articulation of which is called Brahman. Within this context, the Upanishads teach that Brahman resides in the Atman and is firmly at the core of the human individual.

3 The  Buddhist Universe

Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.  Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Non-theism covers a range of both religious and nonreligious attitudes characterized by the absence of espoused belief in a God or gods. It is also considered a secular philosophy and a moral educational discipline.  Originating  in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Buddhism was founded by the sage Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha).    Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century. The essence of Zen is a route to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or mystical language.

According to Zen, the attempted control of nature by humankind is at once absurd and useless. The history of Western society and its technology has been the story of humanity’s long struggle to control nature. The Zen master merely says: act and don’t worry about it; what you do may be right or wrong, neither is bad. That is to say, from the universal point of view there is no right and wrong: these are values superimposed by society.  The universe makes no distinctions or categories. This raises the delicate question of moral responsibility, but it should be noted that the Zen adept strives to fulfill the “Four Great Vows” in which it is stated: “I vow to save all sentient beings.” Therefore, compassionate conservation management is also part of Zen. 

Spiritual experiences through Zen are non-ordinary events at moments when we feel intensely alive. The aliveness felt during such a ‘peak experience’, involves both body and mind. Buddhists refer to this heightened mental alertness as ‘mindfulness’.   The central awareness in these spiritual moments is said to be a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.  With respect to science they seem to be ‘eureka moments’.

Indian religions often see space and time as cyclical, such that world-systems come into being, survive for a time, are destroyed and then are remade. In Buddhism this happens naturally without the intervention of gods.  Buddhism has no creator god to explain the origin of the universe. Instead, it teaches that everything depends on everything else: present events are caused by past events and become the cause of future events.  The physical world as we know it, with all its imperfections and suffering, is the product of what the Buddha, a real person, called dependent origination.  The Buddha taught that this was a 12-stage process, a circular chain, not a straight path. Each stage gives rise to the one directly after it.  

The Buddhist wheel of life symbolises the endless cycle of human existence and suffering.  In the middle of the Wheel are the Three Fires of greed, ignorance and hatred, represented by a rooster, a pig and a snake. These are the cause of all human suffering and are shown linked together, biting each other’s tails, reinforcing each other (Fig 6).

Fig 6  The Buddhist wheel of life

In his book ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’, the Dalai Lama presents Buddhism as an empirical tradition, akin to science.  He says “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by critical investigation: if scientific analysis were to conclusively demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the claims of science and abandon those claims.”  

Buddhists say that well being and happiness come when we realise that our noblest nature as an individual being is interconnectedness.  At any one time we can declare that we are humankind existing as the outcome of the flows of materials and energy through a global ecosystem.  We are a temporary biochemical microcosm composed of ancestral  elements drawn from an environmental macrocosm, swirling through the universe (Fig 7).  

Fig 7 A Buddhist autopoietic system of oneness

These elements defined as ‘we’ and ‘non-we’, support a flow of molecules and energy to produce the elemental components of oneness, which in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these elements.  It is not difficult to see how Buddhism is entangled in biological evolution and has become the faith system that is close to scientific thinking about the evolution of life. In the long run the biochemical elements of energy and materials circulate through the human ecosystem as non-we components in other microcosms, such as trees.

According to the World Buddhist University, Buddhism is about how to be at home in the universe structured as a cosmic ecosystem. The original meaning of ecology goes back to the Greeks who saw Earth and the gods and spirits who inhabited it, as the home of humankind. Thus we have Home Economics and Economics referring to activities and transactions in home and governance. Being at home for a Buddhist suggests a requirement for teachings about how our mental conditioning and the delusions of our impermanent self can be let go of, so we can be one, or at home, with the universe. The teachings also portray a total inter-connection with everything.  This state of oneness is called Nirvana or Enlightenment. 

4 The cosmic ecosystem

Without the workings of some kind of cosmic order, we would neither be nor would anything else in the Universe.  Science tells us that the chemical elements of the Universe are all around and within us.  They are the basic building materials of our physical selves. The composition of Earth, and the chemistry that governs the Earth and its biology are rooted in these chemical elements, which appeared as the first atoms after the Big Bang (Fig 8). 

Fig 8 Origin of the universe according to the ‘Big Bang’ theory

Further, different elements come from a variety of different events. So the elements that make up life itself reflect a variety of chemical events that took place in the universe. For example, the hydrogen found in water and in hydrocarbons was formed in the moments after the Big Bang. Carbon, the basis for all terrestrial life, was formed in small stars. Chemical elements of lower abundance in living organisms but essential to our biology, such as calcium and iron, were formed in large stars. Heavier elements important to our environment, such as gold, were formed in the explosive power of supernovae. The light elements used in our technology were formed via cosmic rays. The solar nebula, from which our solar system was formed, was seeded with these elements, and they were present at Earth’s formation. The existence of all life forms on Earth is connected to these elements, and to their cosmic origin. 

Prokaryotes are organisms made up of cells that lack a cell nucleus or any membrane encased organelles. Eukaryotes are organisms made up of cells that possess a membrane-bound nucleus that holds genetic material as well as membrane-bound organelles. Prokaryotic cells are the most primitive cells. They do not have a definite nucleus which includes bacteria and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). Their DNA is scattered inside the cytoplasm.

Earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old.  The earliest evidence for life on Earth comes from fossilized mats of cyanobacteria, called stromatolites, in Greenland.  They are about 3.7 billion years old. Ancient as their origins are, these bacteria (which are still alive today) are already biologically complex.  They have cell walls protecting their protein-producing DNA, so scientists think life must have begun much earlier. In fact, there are hints of life in even more primeval rocks: 4.1-billion-year-old zircons from Western Australia contain high amounts of a form of carbon typically used in biochemical processes.  

From the outset, all cells are potassium-based and the cytoplasm of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes contains substantially more potassium than sodium, and potassium cations are specifically required for many key cellular processes, including protein synthesis. This distinct ionic composition and requirements have been attributed to the emergence of the first cells in potassium-rich habitats. Different, albeit complementary, scenarios have been proposed for the primordial potassium-rich environments based on experimental data and theoretical considerations. Specifically, building on the observation that potassium prevails over sodium in the vapor of inland geothermal systems, it is argued that the first cells could emerge in the pools and puddles at the periphery of primordial oxygen-free geothermal fields, where the elementary composition of the condensed vapour would resemble the internal milieu of modern cells. 

Marine and freshwater environments generally contain more sodium than potassium. Therefore, to invade such environments, while maintaining excess of potassium over sodium in the cytoplasm, primordial cells needed means to extrude sodium ions. The foray into new, sodium-rich habitats was the likely driving force behind the evolution of sodium export pumps (Fig 9) and the increase of membrane tightness. Here we have a scenario that details how the interplay between several, initially independent sodium pumps might have triggered the evolution of sodium-dependent membrane bioenergetics, followed by the separate emergence of the proton-dependent bioenergetics in archaea and bacteria. Biochemical systems have evolved that utilize the sodium/potassium gradient across the cell membranes.

Fig 9 Cell membrane ion pumps

When trying to reconstruct the evolutionary trajectories during early eukaryogenesis, one is struck by clear differences in the developments of two organelles, the mitochondrion and the chloroplast. These are thought to have likely evolved from engulfed prokaryotes that once lived as independent organisms. At some point, a eukaryotic cell engulfed an aerobic prokaryote, which then formed an endosymbiotic relationship with the host eukaryote, gradually developing into a mitochondrion. Eukaryotic cells containing mitochondria then engulfed photosynthetic prokaryotes, which evolved to become specialized chloroplast organelles Fig 10.

Fig 10  evolution of eukaryotes

Oxygen is the third-most abundant element in the universe, forged in the superhot, superdense core of stars. That’s because oxygen can form compounds with nearly every other element on the periodic table. So how did Earth end up with an atmosphere made up of roughly 21 percent oxygen?  The answer is tiny organisms known as cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. These microbes conduct photosynthesis: using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. In fact, all the plants on Earth incorporate symbiotic cyanobacteria (known as chloroplasts) to do their photosynthesis for them down to this day.

For some untold eons prior to the evolution of these cyanobacteria, during the Archean eon, more primitive microbes lived on Earth without oxygen i.e. anaerobically. These ancient organisms—and their “extremophile” descendants today—thrived in the absence of oxygen, relying on sulfate for their energy needs.  But roughly 2.45 billion years ago, the isotopic ratio of sulfur transformed, indicating that for the first time oxygen was becoming a significant component of Earth’s atmosphere. At roughly the same time (and for eons thereafter), oxidized iron began to appear in ancient soils and bands of iron were deposited on the seafloor, a product of reactions with oxygen in the seawater.  

5  Life is like a candle flame

A special aspect of the chemical oneness of life is that all living things are in a biochemical steady state.  A burning candle is a chemical steady state (Fig 11).  Wax is drawn up into the flame, to match the wax combining with oxygen in the flame. The shape of the flame is maintained.  The formation of substances keeps pace with their destruction so that all volumes, concentrations, pressures, and flows remain constant.  In biochemistry, a steady state is the maintenance of constant internal concentrations of molecules and ions in the cells and organs of living systems.  A continuous flux of mass and energy results in the constant synthesis and breakdown of molecules via chemical reactions of biochemical pathways.  Cellular structures are being dismantled every minute and immediately replaced.

Fig 11  A candle flame as a chemical steady state.

The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, asks the question. Where Does a Flame Come From? 

“I can say to the flame, “Dear flame, please manifest yourself.” As I strike the match, the flame complies. But I would also like to ask her, “Where have you come from?” The flame would say this: “Dear Thay, I come from nowhere and I go nowhere. When conditions are sufficient, I manifest.” That is the truth of the nature of no coming, no going. Let us practice looking deeply into the nature of the flame of a candle. Is it the same flame as the flame of the match that lit it? Or is it a different flame? If we maintain this flame for one hour, the flame will burn lower on the candle. It may appear to be the same flame, but that is only our perception. In fact there are multitudes of flames suc-ceeding one another in every instant. They give the impres-sion that it is always the same flame, but it is not. The fuel is different, the oxygen is different. The room has changed, and so the conditions are different. Therefore the flame is not exactly the same. It does not take much time for the flame to change because in one second the flame is nourished by the wax and oxygen in the first part of the candle. The next moment, the oxygen and the wax are being burned away and new fuel, new wax and oxygen, are now burning. It is not the same fuel, so it is not the same flame. When the candle becomes shorter, you see that it has consumed this much wax and that much oxygen, so you know that the flame is changing all the time. Just like us, the flame does not remain the same in two con-secutive moments. Looking at just one flame you see already the nature of being neither the same nor different. Underneath our impres-sion of being the same, there is the nature of impermanence. Nothing can remain the same in two consecutive moments. This applies to a human being, a cloud, to everything. If you say that the flame burning on the candle ten minutes ago is the same as the flame you see now, this is not correct. If you say there are one thousand different flames succeeding each other, this is not correct either. The true nature of the flame is the nature of neither the same not different.  If we can move through the illusion of same and different, we can change a lot of suffering into joy”.

Thich Nhat Hanh goes further.  As you light the match with a Buddhist perspective, we can become aware that the flame does not need to be born. With the right conditions, it only has to manifest for us to see it. When we burn a sheet of paper, it is no longer in the form of paper. If we follow it with mindfulness, the sheet of paper continues in other forms. One of its forms will be smoke. 

The smoke from the piece of paper rises and will join one or two of the clouds already existing in the sky. It is now participating in a cloud.  Tomorrow, next month, there will be rain and a drop of water can fall on your forehead. That drop of water is your sheet of paper. Another form the paper takes on is ash. You can give the ash back to the soil. When it is returned to the soil, the earth becomes a continuation of the sheet of paper. Maybe next year you will see the continuation of the paper in a tiny flower or a blade of grass. That is the afterlife of a sheet of paper. During the process of being burned, the piece of paper also became heat. That heat penetrates into our bodies, even if you are not very close to the flame. Now you carry the sheet of paper in you. The heat penetrates deeply into the cosmos. You can measure the effects of that heat even in distant planets and stars. They then become a manifestation, a continuation of the little sheet of paper. We cannot know how far the sheet of paper will go. Scientists say that if you clap your hands it may have an impact on a distant star. What is happening with us can affect a galaxy far away. And the galaxy far away can affect us. Everything is under the influence of everything else. Nothing is lost from the universe. 

Arti Worship is one of the main Hindu flame-centred ceremonies. During worship, celebrants cup their hands over the flame and then over their heads and the head of companions.. Breathing in, and sharing the fundamental energies of the universe affirms humankind’s oneness with each other and with Nature.

6 Adaptive Buddhism 

One day, after growing up, marrying and having a child, The Buddha, alias Prince Siddhartha Gautama, went outside the royal enclosure where he lived for the first time.  There he saw old man, a sick man, a corpse and a wandering holy man. These encounters are called the ‘Four Sights of Buddhism’, and Siddhartha came to understand that sickness, age, and death were the inevitable fate of human beings; seemingly a fate no-one could avoid .   The holy man appeared happy in the midst of the suffering where he was looking to discover the truth about human existence.  It is this fourth Sight which awakens Prince Gautama to possibilities for humanity to escape suffering.   From that point, in human history Siddhartha knew that his own life path would be to seek the truth about why humankind faces poverty, old age, disease and death and what can be done to end suffering.  The Four Noble Truths comprise the prescription of Buddha’s teachings, though they leave much left unexplained. They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. 

The Fourth Noble truth charts the method for attaining the end of suffering, which is accepted by Buddhists as the Noble Eightfold Path.  In Buddhism, the path is meant as a guideline, to be considered, to be contemplated, and to be taken on when, and only when, each step is fully accepted as part of the life you seek. Buddhism never asks for blind faith, it seeks to promote learning as a process of self-discovery.  The eightfold path, although referred to as steps on a path, is not meant as a sequential learning process, but as eight aspects of life, all of which are to be integrated in everyday life. The eightfold path is Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Thus a lifestyle can be created to move closer to the Buddhist targets of self education. The eightfold path is at the heart of the middle way, which turns from extremes, and encourages us to seek the simple approach.

So,  the teachings of the man Siddhartha Gautama are aimed solely at liberating sentient beings from suffering.  This project is now the fundamental goal of what is called the ‘international community’ for everyone to live sustainably. The global perspective of human suffering in the 21st century views humankind as inhabiting two environments. One is Earth’s Sun-driven ecosystem, of microbes, plants and animals, of soils, atmosphere and waters, which preceded human evolution by billions of years and of which humans are now an integral and dominant part. The other environment is the culture-driven planetary ecosystem, which comprises the social institutions, artifacts and myths that humankind builds for itself, using tools, machines and mythological thinking. 

Thus, science and dreams fashion an environment obedient to human purpose and direction. This sentiment begins the 1972 report entitled ‘Only One Earth’, produced by an international collaboration of scientific and intellectual leaders from fifty-eight countries.  It’s standpoint is that we are simply one kind of being amongst many other life forms participating in a greater community of life and sharing a benign environment. Yet, humanity has created for itself, through labour and ingenuity, another more alien environment, namely an exploitative cultural ecology that is becoming more and more toxic to planet Earth adding to human suffering through injustice, poverty and ill health ( Fig 12).

Despite the increasing technology and knowledge at our command, we are more susceptible to depression, and other conflicts of mind inflicted on us by societal, personal and economic problems of our own creation. The negativity surrounding us gives way to numerous psychological problems. Peace of mind is essential for human beings to realise the importance of life and let go of the negativity that overshadows our thoughts and deprives us of the happiness that we are capable of.   

Fig 12 The ills of Mother Nature

Humanity now requires 1,5 Earths to satisfy its wants.  This gives rise to a paradoxical conception of Homo sapiens who, on the one hand, together with the rest of creation, is part of nature, completely subject to its ecological laws.  On the other hand, in his social capacity as knower and actor, humankind is composed of rational beings that transcend nature in the sense and are actually the authors of the cultural laws that are applied to Earth’s ecosystems to control their needs and wants.  But the social processes and institutions that currently promote and create the cultural ecosystem are at odds with the biophysical processes that sustain the wider community of life.   

Spiritual values are thought to be behind our feelings of planetary connectedness which drive nature conservation to care for and protect wildlife so that it can persist with future generations. Humanity now depends upon cultural rules to integrate with the greater community of life for ecological survival, applying cultural rules to relieve this planetary suffering through openness and kindness.  The objective is to work towards protecting others from mental and physical pain whilst bringing humanity’s demands on Earth within the planet’s capacity for regeneration.   

Much of our life is dictated by our needs and wants.  Buddha’s message has always been that it is time to take a step back and realize that excessive consumption is not delivering on its promise to provide happiness and fulfillment. Consumption is necessary, but excessive consumption is not, and life can be better lived by intentionally rejecting it. We must never believe that we have learned enough to live a good life. Learning is a lifelong goal.  To adapt these basic teachings of Siddhartha Gautama to the present we need look no further than the United Nations 2030 sustainable development goals.  These goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for humankind. They address the global challenges faced by secular Buddhism, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.  

Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, describes himself as an itinerant preacher of secular Buddhism.  He believes we have to release Siddhartha Gautama, from the elaborate theological and institutional structures built upon his teachings by generations of fallible monastic memories built up by his followers in Tibet, Korea and South-east Asia. Each of those inward looking agrarian cultures adapted the Buddha’s teaching to fit their own times and circumstances.  In our modern world we need an  imaginative adaptation of Buddhism that offers a philosophy, ethic, psychology and way of life that embraces all aspects of the current planetary crisis without the need to appeal to any supernatural order of being.   Batchelor sees the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path of Buddhism here on Earth. Addressing this modern synthesis the Dalai Lama has said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.”   Thus, Siddhartha Gautama, becomes a figurehead of education for conservation representing the whole of humankind.

Regarding individualism, you can think about yourself as a unique person (i.e. be self conscious).  You also know you can be aware to think clearly and objectively about yourself in a wider scheme of things through reflection on your surroundings (i.e. be self-aware).  Self-awareness becomes self-reliance when you recognize from social feedback the things you are not good at, and that you have the confidence to empower others to do these things.  Thereby you become so exceptionally adept at the basics of what you are good at that this skill becomes your power base. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.  One of the most significant influences on Emerson’s transcendental ideals was Buddhism. Although there is evidence of Emerson studying Indian Buddhism, many of his philosophies seem to parallel with the school of Zen Buddhism.  In his essay, “Self Reliance,” Emerson defined the ‘sole purpose of being’ as the want for people to avoid conformity. Emerson believed that in order for you to truly be yourself, you have to follow your own conscience and concentrate on doing what you are good at.  Essentially, his message is do what you believe is right instead of blindly following society’s norm.  In “Self-Reliance” Emerson defines this individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Embracing this view of individualism, he asserts, can revolutionize society, not through a sweeping mass movement, but through the educational transformation of one life at a time and through the creation of leaders capable of greatness.  Self-reliant leadership is synonymous with knowing which questions to ask yourself and having the courage to answer them and act. Situational leadership (Fig 13) is the practical outcome of self-reliant leadership.  It is based on the premise that there is no best style of leadership, and it all depends on the situation. What is now called situational leadership represents adaptive Buddhism in action.

Fig 13 Situational leadership

The situational leader evaluates their team or organization by simply asking about the current situation of the organization.  Leaders understand their strengths and short-comings and how those traits affect their ability to create willing followers.  They need to have a steadfast passion for serving others, and that requires putting others first and they need to be out front trailblazers who believe in leading by example to develop followers who have initiative, persistence and determination

7  Discovering by looking

Conservation seeks the sustainable use of Earth by humankind for activities such as urbanisation, hunting, logging, and mining, while protecting nature from human exploitation.  How do we create a common educational ground that promotes the sharing of resources equitably, between people and nature?  The educational problem is that we don’t see the world “as is,” but only as our minds organize it for us. In this connection, humanism has emerged as a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives and the planetary ecosystem. In humanism, democracy and ethics stand for the building of a more humane society based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. In this respect we need look no further than Buddhism to provide a moral spiritual compass and enrich a humanist pedagogy.  It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.   So the two ‘isms’, humanism and classical Buddhism, occupy common ground. Buddhism is different from other faith traditions in that it is not centered on the relationship between humans and a personal creator God. It has a strong educational tradition with a secular pedagogy that focuses on personal spiritual development. To many, humanistic Buddhism is a way of life summed up as adopting moral leadership; being aware of one’s thoughts and actions; and developing wisdom, compassion and understanding in one’s dealings with other people and other life forms.   

The three general truths of Buddhism that are applicable to managing a sustainable culture within the global ecosystem by situational leadership are are;

Actions have consequences. 

The consequences will affect the doer of the action at some future time.

Impermanence permeates all aspects of life. 

An understanding of impermanence motivates Buddhists to improve their quality of life to achieve enlightenment.

Everything that seems to be outside you is actually part of you. 

This is the principle of oneness through cosmic interconnectedness and ecological, interdependence on one to another;

Cultural ecology is the ideational link between the Sun-driven and culture-driven worlds and provides the educational framework of spiritual values and arts thinking to underpin the creative ecological management of planet Earth.

From a Buddhist perspective creativity can be enhanced by the development of an open non-discriminatory mode of awareness (mindfulness) and a disinterested attention to most of what arises in the meditating mind (a non-centred awareness). In this way, the creative stream of human awareness can flow unimpeded until it stops before a burst of interested attention.  An important feature of mindfulness is ‘discovering by looking’.  This occurs when humans draw attention to certain visual information for more scrupulous analysis but discard other visual information.  Understanding what we have seen and selected comes from our imagination which sparks new ideas and helps us visualize ourselves achieving that next goal. We depend on the interaction between seeing and imagining every day (Fig 14). 

Fig 14  Discovering by looking

Buddhists say that well being and happiness come when we realise that our noblest nature as an individual being is grounded in cosmic interconnectedness and interdependence.  At any one time we can declare that we are humankind existing as the outcome of the flows of materials and energy through a cosmic ecosystem.  Indeed, Buddhism situates humankind in a dynamic biochemical equilibrium with all other kinds of life which are microcosms composed of ancestral  elements drawn from a common environmental macrocosm. 

Everything in existence has certain qualities that are uniquely its own, and can be described as its “oneness.” Oneness arises from the common building blocks of all life, at all levels of chemistry, cell biology and physiology (Fig 15).

Fig 15 Oneness as a combination of inscapes and instress (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

8 Outsidedness Inside

Vedanta is one of the world’s most ancient spiritual philosophies and one of its broadest, based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India. It is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds. This makes Vedanta a ubiquitous platform for thinking about how to live in harmony with Nature.

In 2012, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, called for a debate between scientists, philosophers and theologians to find common ground between science and religion over how the universe began.  Explanations found in the texts of the world’s spiritual traditions are admittedly not exhaustive in the details referring to the origin of the universe.  But they do outline key concepts which are important to  the philosophy for spiritual development that they present.  The Vedic cosmology of ancient India is incredibly rich and has many points of tangency with modern cosmology, which may help in the construction of that common ground between science and religion that CERN is seeking.

Anthropologists tell us that in virtually all traditional cultures, a cosmology is what gives its members their fundamental sense of where they come from, who they are, and what their personal role in life’s larger picture might be. Cosmology is whatever picture of the universe a culture agrees on.  Scientific cosmology is the study of the universe through astronomy and physics. However, cosmology also has a significant cultural impact. People construct anthropological cosmologies i.e. notions about the way the world works, drawing in scientific theories in order to construct models for activities in disciplines, such as politics and psychology. In addition, the arts (literature, film and painting, for example) comment on cosmological ideas and use them to develop plot lines and content.  Buddhism is a cultural cosmology which has its modern expression in the writings of the Buddhist monk, Zen Master and global spiritual leader, Thich Nhat Hanh.   His cosmology comes close to making a seamless connection between scientific and cultural ideas about the cosmos.  

Life within the cosmos depends on two processes: the passage of an encoded molecule from parents to offspring to explain heritable characteristics, and the spontaneous emergence of self-organized order. Emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.  If you were some hypothetical observer who met only one human, you would never infer the global economy from that meeting. However, put enough people together, and these systems start to form, as economies, religions, states, nations, etc.  The complex emerges from the simple. 

The Hindu cosmology is the oldest description of the universe and its states of matter and effects on living entities according to Hindu spiritual textsThe Vedas are a collection of these sacred texts gathered in four fundamental collections (Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva- Veda).  These preserve the millenary religious wisdom of the Aryans, a population settled in north-western India around the 20th century BC. The oldest part, the Rigveda Samhita, dates back to an age between 1500 and 1200 BC. These are hymns, poems, mantras, and mythological tales written in Vedic Sanskrit. Despite being counted among the oldest texts of mankind, these present extremely interesting concepts for physicists and mathematicians. 

The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teachings and ideas still revered in Hinduism.  The Upanishads provide a conception of reality and a universe based on observation and reasoning to elucidate its natural laws.  According to the Advaita Vedanta God is the totality of all natural laws and the perfect interplay inherent in them. In this context  The Indian Advaita Vedanta calls this natural order Ishvara and for a person of faith or no faith, Ishvara is God.  

To meditate means to be invited on a journey of looking deeply in order to touch our true nature and to recognize that nothing is lost. Because of this we can overcome fear. Non-fear is the greatest gift of meditation. With it we can overcome grief and our sorrow. Only nothing can come from nothing. Something cannot come from nothing and nothing cannot come from some-thing. If something is already there, it does not need to be born. The moment of birth is only a moment of continuation. You can be perceived as a baby the day of your so-called birth and everyone thinks of you as now existing. But you already existed before that day. To die in our notion of death means that from some-thing you suddenly become nothing. From someone.

9 Routines

The Dalai Lama was once asked, ‘If you had only one word to describe the secret of happiness, and of living a fulfilling life, what would that word be?’ Without hesitating the Dalai Lama replied, “Routines.”  A routine is something that we do regularly, without questioning. Once established, routines require little effort, tracking, or decision making.  By definition they become a consistent part of our lives.   Viewed this way, routines reduce stress and help our lives move more smoothly.  

There’s a motto in the Japanese tea ceremony: Ichigo ichie, which means “one time, one encounter.”  The ceremony began as a Zen Buddhist routine practice that came to Japan from China.  Though all the intricate movements of the tea ceremony are prescribed by tradition, they are never quite the same. For the Japanese, each moment is unrepeatable and special in its own right.  Each moment in the ever-repeated pattern is, by virtue of the repetition, always new; whatever comes around again in the great cycle of things is always fresh. It is important therefore to explore the spiritual value of repetition and routine in one’s domestic and professional lives.  

Zen is about managing an everyday routine working steadily to a planned schedule to achieve a definite outcome.  Adopt the Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Single-task, don’t multitask. Focus solely on that one thing you are doing and do it slowly and deliberately. Take time, move slowly and focus on the task completely. Stay with this task until it is completed, before moving on to the next thing. Make sure you don’t have an endless task list each day, have goals you can complete that day and complete them fully with care. Leave space between tasks in case one takes longer than expected.  Manage your schedule so that you can achieve this.  For example, the Buddhist monk  Thích Nhất Hạnh, says, “If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” 

“What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”  As an old Asian proverb goes, “The careful foot can tread anywhere.

The Zen of ecological management is sticking to a  routine logic of looking and acting (Fig 16).  First decide on the feature to be managed, then define its condition by measuring one of its attributes and decide whether the condition is favourable i.e. it falls within the limits set by the management plan.  If the condition is unfavourable i.e. its condition falls outside the set limits, select a factor that can be manipulated to bring it into a favourable condition.  This Zen routine involves a sequence of the following three steps of mindfulness

1 Choose a feature of the ecosystem that is to be conserved (e.g. a plant or animal) and a factor in the environment that affects it (e.g. a predator).  Manipulate the factor and measure an attribute of the feature ( a performance indicator) to see what effect your manipulation of the factor has produced. 

2  If the feature is not in a favourable condition continue to manipulate the factor until the condition of the feature  becomes favourable. 

3 Then, keep the condition of the feature under surveillance, manipulating the factor, or a new factor, if the feature becomes unfavourable. 

This is the routine of a management cycle.  The routine is the same whether the feature is in a national nature reserve, a domestic garden or a plant pot. The logic is also the basis of any kind of management system at the operational level.

Fig 16  A Zen routine for conservation management

Each moment of daily life is an opportunity to capture the present moment. Gathas are short Zen verses that we can recite during daily activities to help us grasp the present moment in mindfulness.  The following is a gatha for maintaining an ecosystem.

I know that I do not have 

A separate self.

By maintaining this ecological feature 

In a favourable state

So my being is also maintained 

In a more favourable condition.

10 Internet References

Teaching Hinduism

Deep Engagement With Place

Caring For The World In Communities

Applying Arts Reasoning to Explain Sustainability

February 10th, 2021

“The chaos of the contemporary world makes it extremely difficult for people to survive and live in peace. We all need an escape from the prevailing violence and the pain in the world. To solve the purpose, many people are ascribing to spirituality for one reason or the other. Divine enlightenment runs deep into our conscience and goes beyond our mind and ego to help attain some peace. A spiritual mind experiences bliss amid the darkness”. (Pramila Srivastava)

Spirituality …is the essential potentiality for addressing the ultimate questions that are intrinsic to the experience of being human. (Roehlkepartain et al., 2006) 

1 Transcendentalism

In the late 1820s, a philosophical movement emerged in the United States that was rooted in the recently flourishing European movements of Romanticism and Skepticism, and joined by the emerging Christian Unitarian movement, Transcendentalism appeared, carrying with it new perspectives on justice, spirituality, and the environment. Transcendentalism focused on defining individualism within a deeper understanding of the universe (Fig 1).  This had profound social, political, and economic impacts; eventually developing into the civil rights movement and modern environmentalism. The founding fathers of this environmental transcendental philosophy, among whom are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, had a great impact on others including the life and work of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fig 1 Main ideas of environmental transcendentalism

.Because he possessed these leadership qualities, Emerson became known as the central figure of a literary and philosophical group, now known as the American Transcendentalists. These writers shared a key belief that each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. In this New England school of Christian unitarian thought, God was not remote and unknowable; believers came to understand God and themselves by looking into their own selfhood and by feeling their own connection to nature.  The Transcendentalists believed that we can understand truth through intuition. That is, we don’t only arrive at truth by conducting a scientific experiment. They believed that there’s a whole realm of experience that is beyond logical or rational deduction.  We may not have any proof that God exists, for example, but we may feel that He, or She, or They, or We, does (/do). Today’s  secular transcendentalists see the only way to access that realm of experience and knowledge is to trust in our intuition; our inner voice; our gut feeling.  

Transcendental and transcend come from the Latin word transcendere, to climb over or go beyond. Transcendental describes anything that has to do with the spiritual, non-physical world. You could describe the time spent walking through a woodland as both a physical and a transcendental experience.  However, when something is transcendental, it’s beyond ordinary, everyday experience. It might be religious, spiritual in a secular sense, or otherworldly, but if it’s transcendental, it transcends or goes beyond the regular physical realm. The adjective transcendental is used to describe a particular kind of meditation, a specific school of philosophy, and even a type of number in mathematics.  Compared with Emerson’s original group, transcendentalism now leads people to adopt a oneness in Nature without the mediation of a deity. 

The first transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul (the individual) and nature (Earth’s ecosystems).  Henry Thoreau defined nature as: “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.”  Soul, in religion and philosophy, is the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, which confers individuality and humanity.  It is often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self.  Seeking practical experience, Thoreau used nature as a tool for learning, making wilderness his role model and reference point.  His essay entitled ‘Walden’ promotes a philosophy of simplicity, derived from Emerson’s philosophy of “self-reliance”, that could inspire people to live in better connection with nature.  If followed today it could help to save our planetary ecosystem. It is imperative for people to form an individual bond with nature in order to have respect and love for their environment. Many feel we must put Thoreau’s ideals into action in order to understand his message better.  His experience at Walden Pond fostered his love for nature and reaffirmed the importance of preserving the wilderness to live in harmony with nature. His later essays reiterate and reinforce Walden, drawing inspiration from experiencing the simple life himself.

The universe itself and everything it is, from the smallest grain of sand to the wide expanse of space and each and every human in between, can be considered nature. As humans, we tend to separate nature in our minds, creating some distinction between the outside world and our inner worlds. Human nature has always been inherently disconnected with nature in this sense: we form communities for protection, shelter from the elements, and to share our emotions and experiences. There is a fear embedded deep into the human consciousness; a fear of nature and an inherent need to establish a boundary between the self and nature. Thoreau, inspired by Emerson, attemped to deconstruct this stigma in an effort to influence people to be “self-reliant,” to embrace their connection to nature, and to create harmony between the outside and inner worlds. Throughout the collected essays in Walden, Thoreau invites us to transcend into a unity with nature and find a sense of meaning, direction and purpose in life through immediate contact with the ecosystem of which we are a seamless part by embracing cultural ecology as the main thread of selfhood. 

We experience transcendentalism today in many ways and could benefit as a society by collectively learning more about it and practicing it’s ideas.  We should spend more time in nature espoused by Thoreau and Emerson, in ‘Nature’ and ‘Walden Pond’, improving the structure of the education system as presented by Emerson in the ‘American Scholar’, and implementing some of Thoreau’s views from ‘Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Self Reliance’.

2 Artistic processing of transcendence

In his 1841 essay ‘Thoughts on Art’ Emerson struck a great chord with the Hudson River painters who were influenced by ideas about the divine essence of nature and its expression in the vast sweeping American landscape.  The Hudson River painters strongly believed that art was an agent of moral and spiritual transformation and agreed that painting should become a vehicle through which the mind could extend its understanding of the Universe by applying arts reasoning to explain sustainability (ARRTES).   Paintings of the Hudson River School reflect three dominant themes of cultural ecology in America in the 19th century: ‘discovery’, ‘exploration’, and ‘settlement’.  They also depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully on a small ecological scale. Hudson River landscape paintings are characterized by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature.  They often juxtaposed peaceful agriculture and the remaining wilderness which was fast disappearing from the Hudson Valley just as it was coming to be appreciated for its qualities of ruggedness and sublimity.   In general, Hudson River artists believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was a reflection of God, though they varied in the depth of their religious conviction. Technically they were inspired by European masters of landscape painting such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.

The various forms of theosophical speculation that have emerged from the New England transcendentalists have certain common characteristics. The first is an emphasis on mystical experience expressed in theosophy. Theosophical writers hold that there is a deeper spiritual reality and that direct contact with that hidden reality can be established through intuition, meditation, revelation, or some other state transcending normal human consciousness. In art theosophy was a stimulus for pure abstraction. Indeed,  abstract art was underwritten by an occult spiritualist movement actually called ‘Theosophy’. Many early European abstractionists, including Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and František Kupka, cited Theosophy as a direct source for their ideas and works.  Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society and lived briefly in the quarters of the French Theosophical Society in Paris. He said he ‘‘got everything from the Secret Doctrine’‘ of Theosophy, which was an attempt by its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to do nothing less than read, digest and synthesize all religions. Much of Mondrian’s symbolism, including the ubiquitous vertical and horizontal lines and much of his utopianism was shaped by Theosophical doctrine. In his 1910-11 painting ”Evolution,” (Fig 2).  The The painting represents three fundamental stages in the spiritual evolution of a human being.  The figure seems to be a woman but is in actual fact devoid of any female characteristics and should more probably be seen as a symbol of the human being, i.e. both male and female. he defines the ascending stages in a Theosophical journey through which he later hoped to guide the public in his abstract art.

Fig 2 Ascending stages in theosophy

All art is an abstraction from reality. The difference between art movements is simply how much abstraction is taking place.  The Mexican painter. Diego Rivera, said in 1931, on the occasion of an exhibition of Kandinsky’s abstract work in San Francisco (Fig 3): 

Fig 3 ‘Standing’, Kandinsky, 1939

“I know of nothing more real than the painting of Kandinsky – nor anything more true and nothing more beautiful. A painting by Kandinsky gives no image of earthly life – it is life itself. If one painter deserves the name ‘creator’, it is he. He organises matter as matter was organised, otherwise the Universe would not exist. He opened a window to look inside the All. Someday, Kandinsky will be the best known and best loved of men.” 

To become one with nature, the British painter Graham Sutherland urges us to be aware of the details of our surroundings.  He described this as developing our ‘outsidedness’.  Artists have the mindset to bring the outside into their mind’s consciousness, where it is processed  to make an image that transcends the original landscape element that first captured their attention. Sutherland’s poetic vis­ion has been likened to that of the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Transcendentalism: in words

For Sutherland this creativity was the outcome of his childhood experiences in the countryside, where he cultivated the habit of looking at things very closely. In this respect his visual response to nature went way beyond the superficial and penetrated deeply into a fertile, prepared imagination.  He described this inside reaction as a poetic response; an ecstatic experience; the sudden hair-tingling recognition of an unadulterated truth pre-existing within a landscape element, which no other person had ‘seen’ before.  For example, a narrow lane leading down to the beach, with overarching wind-pruned vegetation was an invitation for him to tunnel into a transcendental, botanical microcosm (Figs 5-9).  However, it is not necessary for the viewer to know Sutherand’s starting point because the work is simply a personnel offering to mull over a non- representational or object-free composition. To know its origins is a distraction and restricts the viewer’s mental options. In this context, Vered Aviv claims that abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality, enabling it to activate its inner states, create new emotional and cognitive associations, and open up brain-states that are otherwise harder to access.  

Abstract art is a very recent invention of the human brain. Its success in attracting the brains of so many of us suggests that it has an important cognitive/emotional role. Supported by recent experimental studies, Avid suggests that abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality.  This process is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain.   Abstract art may therefore encourage our brain to respond in a less restrictive and stereotypical manner, exploring new associations, activating alternative paths for emotions, and forming new possibly creative, mental links. It also enables viewers to access early visual processes (dealing with simple features like dots, lines and simple objects) that are otherwise harder to access when a whole “gestalt” image is analyzed, as is the case with representational art.

Fig 5 Photograph of a Pembrokeshire lane to the seashore

Fig 6 ‘Study of landscape’: Graham Sutherland (1940)

In research on human relationships to the natural world, spirituality is key to understanding people’s emotions and the meaning of nature to them. It is maintained that spiritual thinking is a central element of environmental experience. Spirituality can be defined as “an individual’s inner experience and/or belief system that gives meaning to existence, and subsequently allows one to transcend beyond the present context,  In recent years, spirituality research has peaked in association with research on transcendent experiences in relation to wellbeing, health, and other aspects. It has, further, opened up a specific line of research on feelings of awe, which researchers have undertaken experimentally as well as phenomenologically

Recent interest in transcendent emotions has built on important historical contributions from psychological science. Spiritual identity is a sense of oneness with all things, and connects it to a mystical experience.  A mystical experience is a sort of spiritual, religious experience that is typically ineffable, true, transitory, passive, and brought about by a perceived higher power. Nature evokes these feelings because it seems to have a peculiar power of awakening such mystical moods. Mystical experiences provoked by nature are cited in works of art, including and especially Walt Whitman’s poetry, which conveys a sense of interconnectedness and oneness between the entire universe and the personal, private sphere.

Fig 7 Transcendental processing of what you see to what you imagine

Sutherland carried this transcendental manipulation of nature forms to Coventry Cathedral, where elements of Pembrokeshire’s ecological microcosms were incorporated into his design for the Great Altar Tapestry depicting Christ in Majesty.   Sutherland says of his portrayal of Christ: “I wanted the figure to be real, yet not real. I wanted it to be something slightly ambiguous: a human form, but with overtones of a nature form”  In Pembrokeshire it could be said that Sutherland wanted his landscapes to be very ambiguous: a nature form, but with overtones of a human form.  People entering a Sutherland mental landscape move into a unique notional space. Once inside, our every thought is initiated and reflected from surfaces and objects created from spiritual ideas turned into transcendental blueprints for craft and art. What makes such spaces sacred and ageless is that the material structures have been designed to help us make sense of questions about being human which still haunt people today. Walls and woodlands become a kind of ‘elemental ‘tape’ for us to replay answers from the past to questions such as:-

What is life all about?

What are we here for?

Where is it all leading?

What happens after death?

Fig 8 ‘Untitled’; Graham Sutherland, lithograph (1979).

When we think about these questions in church, temple mosque, art gallery, woodland or observe a stone in a stoneless landscape,  we are meditating. The outcome may simply be to reinforce answers we have already discovered. But sometimes ideas seem to bubble up from nowhere. These inner voices are the language of meditation. They are the mental processes of spiritual revelation. As far as we know, these are also the same mental processes, which, when focused on practical problems, power both artistic creativity and scientific invention. Religiosity and secular spiritualism come together before Graham Sutherland’s Great Coventry Tapestry

Fig 9  ‘Christ in Majesty’: Graham Sutherland, Coventry Cathedral

Poetry is based on the power of imagery and language. Poetry is suggestive, and it allowed transcendentalist writers to suggest the nature of the “truths” and insights that they tried to explicate in their essays, but which went beyond the rational mind.  In this connection, writing poetry is akin to the process of spiritual appraisal  we call meditation.  They both take a world view that is rooted in the imagination and passes beyond the limits of ordinary life. Meditations start from the postulate that the material cosmos in some way manifests a deeper spiritual reality, expressed through human self awareness. We can actually meditate anywhere that offers space for thinking off the mainstream of everyday life. Some people in busy offices are finding that ‘spiritual websites’ give them space for contemplation. It is not necessary to have physical prompts. 

Prayer is an activity where words can clear a mental space, no matter where we are. A physical space provided in a purpose-built sacred building is often more effective because it contains objects which have been specially designed, not only to focus the questions, but provide encoded messages which may give convincing answers.  Because most people today are ignorant of the biblical codes at the core of religious stories and objects of Christianity, it cannot be expected that very much will sink in without providing some kind of interpretation to get them started. In this sense an educator has to start from where people are. They are perhaps seeing an object for the first time, and not as part of the complex doctrine of which it may form only a tiny part. The part then becomes a point of reference from which more signposts may lead to an appreciation of the greater whole.

3  The abstract desert transcendentalists

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky asserts that pure abstraction obtains sublime transcendence. Spirituality in the twentyfirst century art tends to attach itself to the modern artist’s aspiration to achieve transcendent expression through the act of creation. 

The artist Agnes Pelton (1881–1961) was a visionary symbolist who depicted the spiritual she experienced in moments of meditative stillness. Art for her was a discipline through which she gave form to her vision of a higher consciousness within the universe. Using an abstract vocabulary of curvilinear, biomorphic forms and delicate, shimmering veils of light, she portrayed her awareness of a mental world that lay behind physical appearances—a world of benevolent, disembodied energies animating and protecting life.  For most of her career, Pelton chose to live away from the distractions of a major art center, first in Water Mill, Long Island, from 1921 to 1932, and subsequently in Cathedral City, a small community near Palm Springs, California.  She painted conventional desert landscapes to make a living, but it was her abstract studies of earth and light, biomorphic compositions of delicate veils, shimmering stars, and atmospheric horizon lines, that distinguished her work (Fig 10).  A believer in numerology, astrology, and faith healing, Pelton’s abstract compositions propelled her into an esoteric world epitomized by the Transcendental Painting Group (1938-1942), a short-lived group that promoted abstract, non-objective art.  Agnes Pelton strove to portray a spiritual realm beyond material appearances. Her artistic breakthrough came in the mid-1920s in a series of abstract paintings depicting incorporeal subject matter such as air, light, water, and sound. In the decades that followed, as she began to immerse herself in the study of esoteric and occult philosophies, her imagery evolved. She paired the emotive power of ethereal abstract forms with delicate, shimmering veils of color and mystical symbols such as stars, mountains, and fire to represent the union with “Divine Reality” that she experienced in dreams and meditation. She once described her process of meticulously applying thin layers of pigment to create subtle, luminous hues as “painting with a moth’s wing and with music instead of paint.

Fig 10. Sea Change: Agnes Pelton, 1931

Georgia O’Keefe is also classed as a desert transcendentalist.  In 1929, seeking solitude and an escape from urbanisation she traveled to New Mexico and began an inspirational love affair with the visual scenery of the state. For 20 years she spent part of every year working in New Mexico, becoming increasingly interested in the forms of animal skulls and the southwest landscapes.

There, O’Keeffe found new subjects to paint in the sun-bleached animal bones and the rugged mountains that dominate the terrain. Two of her earliest and most celebrated Southwestern paintings—Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (52.203) and Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (Art Institute of Chicago) from 1931—exquisitely reproduce a skull’s weathered surfaces, jagged edges, and irregular openings. Rather than signifying death, O’Keeffe said that the bones symbolized the eternal beauty of the desert. Later, she painted fanciful canvases that combined skeletal objects and landscape imagery in the same composition (59.204.2). The results were provocative and unsettling, and the odd juxtapositions and discrepancies in size and scale led some to call these works surreal. Between 1943 and 1945, she also explored another variation on the bone theme in her large series of Pelvis pictures, which focused on the contrasts between convex and concave surfaces, and solid and open spaces (61.565.36).

Although the desert bones of New Mexico had initially sparked O’Keeffe’s imagination, it was painted the rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up, just as she had done with her flower subjects. One of her favorite settings was a site she nicknamed the “Black Place” the region’s majestic landscape, with its unusual geological formations, vivid colors, clarity of light, and exotic vegetation, that held her attention for more than four decades. Often she (59.204.1), which she interpreted both panoramically and in tight views emphasizing the ragged juncture of two hills.

O’Keeffe explained her idea behind Blue and Green Music (Fig 11) that “music could be translated into something for the eye.” Many painters have been attracted to the idea of ‘painting music’.  The critic Walter Pater wrote in 1877: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  One interpretation of Pater’s observation is that music is the only art whose form and content are  the same. This makes music fundamentally different from traditional Western painting, in which the same content can take hundreds of forms. The reason painting and music differ, Pater went on to argue, is that painting is mimetic (i.e., it tries to approximate the appearance of the physical world), and music is not.  O’Keefe and Pelton were strongly influenced by the Symbolist creed which proclaimed that art should be atmospheric not realistic, symbolic rather than literal in meaning. This takes their presentations into the realm of theosophy

Fig 11. Blue and Green Music: Georgia O’Keefe, 1921

People often misunderstand abstract art because they are looking for something real and concrete with which they can identify. It is natural to try to name and make sense of what we experience and perceive in the world, so pure abstract art, with its unrecognizable subject matter and unpredictable shapes, colorurs, and lines can prove challenging.  The arts in traditional cultures transmit the central beliefs and values of those cultures, and those beliefs and values have a strong religious or spiritual dimension.  Abstract images, such as a works of art, are a powerful means of eliciting individualized emotional reactions and general impressions in the observer. In this respect, abstract art is an ideal vehicle for communicating spiritual realities for several reasons. It removes viewers from the world they think they know and allows them to focus their contemplation on symbols, the experience of a work, or its meditative character. Polly Castor saya of her abstract works, “ My ultimate motive is to aid the viewer into deeper contemplation and understanding of the subject depicted. I want to be clear that I am making a visual statement of a more metaphysical idea or concept, and not just noodling around in a pleasing way”.  A title guides the viewer along this pathway.(Fig 12)

Fig 12 Buddha Tree: Corixus, 2020

We experience transcendentalism today in many ways and could benefit as a society by collectively learning more about it and practicing it’s ideas such as spending more time in nature espoused by Thoreau and Emerson, in ‘Nature’ and ‘Walden Pond’, improving the structure of the education system as presented by Emerson in the ‘American Scholar’, and implementing some of Thoreau’s views from ‘Civil Disobedience and Self Reliance’.

4  Internet References

Wonderful things

Notions About Nature

January 27th, 2021

Buddhism: An Educational Model In Cultural Ecology

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge. It seeks to answer the questions “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?”, What kind of knowledge is there?, and How do people come to know things?

1  Place-based mindfulness

“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this “something” cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory. The census doesn’t count it. Nothing counts without it.” Robert Fulghum

In 2015 two papers were published in the Journal of Buddhist Studies on the cultural ecology of Buddhism.  One dealt with cultural ecology on a cosmic scale as reflected in the classical stone carvings of the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Central Java.  The other was a case study of adaptations of the Jade Buddhist temple in Shanghai to socialist society, delivering local community services and promoting care for planet Earth. Both papers were manifestations of the extremes of Buddhist teachings regarding the place of humanity in the universe and community.   

In Buddhism, right mindfulness controls your mental state so you see things clearly.  Right concentration removes barriers to understanding how you can affect the world around you. Right concentration also frees you from the delusion of being a separate self by substituting the experience of Oneness.  When we experience Oneness, we feel a connection with everything in existence on every level. In other words, we feel ‘at one’ with all things, living and nonliving..  In Buddhism oneness is a cultural synthesis of ecology with humankind extrapolated on a cosmic scale.  Meditation is seen as an adaptation of self education to feel ‘at one’ to improve the experience of living a happy life based on the three precepts of Buddhist education; cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others. 

Oneness is an experience that transcends the mind.  Other names for Oneness include Non-Dual Awareness, Unity, Buddha-Nature, and Enlightenment.  It is the central takeaway of Buddhist education because to understand it requires the learner to adopt right mindedness and right concentration as educational outcomes of Buddhism’s eight-fold path to avoid dissatisfaction with life. 

In education generally, mind mapping provides a meditative framework to achieve right mindedness and right thinking within place-based education. Therefore, how do we speak of place? Are lineage and place geographical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual?  Adopting Oneness brings recognition of the intrinsic value of all life forms, while also promoting self-realization through the self-discovery of interconnectedness with a larger whole.  Importantly, oneness supports a belief in biocentric equality, a concept giving all forms of life intrinsic value and equal importance in the fullness of time. Therefore, a learner, when faced with a state of emotional vulnerability and total receptiveness, is taught how to enter into a deep, meditative, mindful, relationship with the universe.  This relationship can be visualized as a mind map to reframe reality more accurately rather than allowing anxieties to spiral out of control. In this context, producing a mind map is really a process of enlightenment whereby the mapper gains wisdom by becoming educated about a particular body of knowledge driven by personal need and reason.

The idea of Buddhist place-based education may be fairly new, but the philosophical underpinnings of place-based education are not, they come from thinkers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and many other curricular innovators.  For example, John Dewey advocated for many of the same educational philosophies that are the foundation of meditative place-based education.  Dewey believed that education and the experience of living were not separate, “…education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living”. Dewey’s idea that education is necessarily integrated with the experience of daily living is a foundational element of place-based education everywhere and was discussed at length in Dewey’s book Experience and Education in 1938.  In practical terms mind mapping generates mindfulness and attention to detail and helps make connections between ideas.  In a learning environment this will reveal connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge. Also, mind mapping breaks complex ideas down into smaller points of view, making things easier to understand. 

In his web page entitled ‘A Practice of 61-Points to Sharpen Concentration’ Michael Grady says: 

We are trained from birth to attend almost exclusively to the external world. Steeped in the concept of linear time and the law of cause and effect, we develop the habit of turning our minds outward and allowing our attention to be directed by our senses. So it is only natural that when we sit for meditation, our minds wander, drawn away by sense stimuli or by memories of past sensory experiences”  

This spontaneous process of disorderly mindfulness is the launchpad for place-based meditation.  The aim is to turn our thoughts inwards to connect with the bigger scheme of things that surrounds us.  Described as ‘Point to Point Place-Based Mindfulness’ the mind mapping process offers enough “movement” to capture the attention of a roving mind and guide it to become inward and orderly so following the map.  The objective is to produce a wholesome state of Buddhist interconnectedness in space-time.  To achieve the objective it is necessary to narrow down the inner mental panorama.  This is done by including only the points of intensified concentration required to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness of the past in the meditator’s present.  Because meditation is the process of maintaining an unwavering, inward focus on one point of view at a time, preparing for meditation entails perfecting our ability to concentrate. If the mind can be made one-pointed, it may later be directed effectively to connect with other points of view.   ‘Point to Point Space-Time Mindfulness’ invites you to step from the present moment, unplug from your everyday concerns, and focus deeply on the map before you, whilst following a meditative route towards a manageable wholesome state of mind. This is the aim of mind mapping, which may be regarded as a practical outcome of Buddist thoughts about how to achieve enlightenment as an educational goal (Figs 1 and 2).

Fig 1  Five point mind map for guiding point to point place-based mindfulness on thinking like a Buddhist

Buddha articulated his first mind map in a deer park at Sarnath, now on the outskirts of Varanesi, to his five companions, with whom he had practiced austere asceticism before his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.  Iconographically, this event is often depicted as two deer, one on either side of a wheel. The wheel represents Buddist teachings (dharma), its pedagogy, and the cosmos, its universal dimension. The deer park symbolises the time and place when the historical Buddha delivered his First Sermon, which set in motion the Wheel of the Law’. This is one of the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life. Its exposition of the “Middle Way”, ”The Four Noble Truths” and the “Noble Eightfold Path” contains the fundamental educational principles of Buddhism.  They are encapsulated in the cultural ecology of ‘the deer park’

Fig 2 Multipoint mind map for guiding point to point place-based mindfulness on thinking about impermanence in the cultural ecology of three communities.

2  Oneness as a system of thought

 Anatta is a central doctrine of Buddhism.  According to anatta, at the core of all beings there is no eternal, essential and absolute something called a self.   Buddhism, from its earliest days, has denied the existence of the “self” in its main texts, which define nirvana as that blissful state when a person realizes that he or she has “no self and is as one with all elements of the Universe.  What we call “me,” or “myself,”  is likened to a ‘flower’ in the cosmic garden and each ‘flower’ is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-we elements drawn from a common pool and shared with others. If we remove all these non-we elements, we cannot continue because there is no ‘we’ left.  Buddha, as a concept, is made of non-Buddha elements. Nothing can exist by itself alone. On a spiritual plane, everything has to ‘inter-be’ with everything else in the cosmos, and in particular humankind is subordinate to other beings. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes this non-me oneness as follows: 

We humans think we are smart, but an orchid, for example, knows how to produce noble, symmetrical flowers, and a snail knows how to make a beautiful, well-proportioned shell. Compared with their knowledge, ours is not worth much at all. We should bow deeply before the orchid and the snail and join our palms reverently before the monarch butterfly and the magnolia tree. The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves is the pool of biochemical resources that we share” with other beings: men, women, children, old people, animals of every species, trees, plants, and food minerals”. 

Buddhists say that well being and happiness come when we realise that our noblest nature as an individual being is interconnectedness.  At any one time we can declare that we are humankind existing as the outcome of the flows of materials and energy through a global ecosystem.  We are a temporary biochemical microcosm composed of ancestral  elements drawn from an environmental macrocosm (Fig 3).  

Fig 3 A Buddhist autopoietic system of oneness

These elements defined as ‘we’ and ‘non-we’, support a flow of molecules and energy to produce the elements of oneness (components), which in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these elements.  It is not difficult to see how Buddhism is entangled in biological evolution and has become the faith system that is close to scientific thinking about the evolution of life. In the long run the biochemical elements of energy and materials circulate through the human ecosystem as non-we components in other microcosms, such as trees.

Our structural unity with plants and animals is evident at the cellular level.  No matter what the life form, we have a fundamental unity with respect to possessing  biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various intracellular organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton.Our biochemical unity with other life forms, including plants, is also evident at the chemical level where energy is released from food in the citric acid cycle (Fig 4).  

Fig 4 The citric acid cycle

Food enters the cycle having been processed to acetyl-CoA ( a one carbon compound) by combining with oxaloacetic acid (a 2-carbon compound) to make citric acid (a 3-carbon compound). Citric acid is then converted in 3 steps to succinyl-CoA (a 2-carbon compound) releasing carbon dioxide (C02).  Succinyl-CoA is next converted to oxaloacetic acid in 4 steps, which is then available to run the cycle again.  For every turn of the cycle acetyl-CoA is converted to CO2 and the energy that held the atoms of succinylCoA together is made available to support the body’s cellular structure and power its growth and movement.

This dynamic, all embracing oneness system, prompts the Jataka Tales, which are stories about the lives the Buddha lived before he became enlightened. In those stories we hear how the Buddha was a tree, a bird, a tortoise, a rock, a cloud before he was a human. We too, before our chemical components manifested in human form, were part of these same elements flowing through  trees, one-celled animals, large predators, clouds, forests rocks and galaxies.  In this respect, a Buddhism oneness can be expressed dynamically in the cellular structure of our bodies.  Standing alongside a tree, or walking through a forest, we are biochemically as one with treekind.  

Regarding sharing common pool resources a symbiotic relationship exists between trees and humans.  Humankind breathes in oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide, while treekind breathes in carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.  When we stand before a tree this exchange reinforces the dynamic biochemical interaction when it is remembered that every six days, due to the phenomena of steady state biochemistry, up to 6% of the carbon in our body will be replaced without any net loss or gain in biomass.  The principle of the steady state is illustrated in the science of a candle flame (Fig 5).  As the candle burns, its flame maintains a constant size and shape.  Solid wax becomes liquid and then evaporates to become a gas. The gaseous wax combines with oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide, heat and light.  The burning candle also produces carbon, in the form of soot.  It is glowing soot that causes the candle to give out light. 

Fig 5 Science of candle flame

What of the self? The Buddha taught that there is no soul or self, and he used the metaphor of the cart. If you take away the wheels and axles, the floorboards and sides, the shafts, and all the other parts of the cart, what remains? Nothing but the conception of a cart, which will be the same when a new cart is built. So the uninterrupted process of psychophysical phenomena moves from life to life. The chemistry of each life is available instantaneously in death to a new life, and the new life is the effect of the causes in the old life. A candle flame at this instant is different from the flame that burned an instant ago, yet the flame is continuous.  The maintenance of the cellular structure of our bodies and a candle flame are examples of autopoietic systems.

An autopoietic system may be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system is extended from the factory to include components in the factory’s “environment”, such as supply chains, plant / equipment, workers, dealerships, customers, contracts, competitors, cars, spare parts, and so on, then as a total viable system it could be considered to be autopoietic.  

3 Zen mindscapes

Buddhism operates in three reality modes: physical reality, social reality and inner reality. The wider and deeper inner macrocosm of humankind is a mindscape encompassing the range of a person’s thoughts and imagination.  A mindscape is a system of essentially individual values, judgements, feelings and meanings that are related to the environment. Mindscapes are assembled from non-we elements.  Each element differs from others according to its environment and its ancestry.  So, a mindscape is a panorama capable of being compiled and contemplated by another person as a mental landscape or inner Zen vision.  Zen is a school of  Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, and later developed into various schools. It is not a philosophy or a religion. In its essence Zen is the art of seeing into the organisation of one’s own being. Zen is meditation, past to present, and Zen practice is to realise that thoughts are a natural faculty of mind and should not be stopped, ignored, or rejected.  The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive feature. In our western relationship with time we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project our findings into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied.  Zen compresses the present moment to a tiny sliver on the cosmic clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment when we are doing something practical or contemplating an object such as a tree or a picture. In this connection, a study published in the journal Mindfulness suggests that washing dishes can be a form of meditation, promoting a positive state of attention on the emotions and thoughts in the present moment. “Mindful dishwashers” experienced benefits over a control group, reporting a decrease in nervousness of 27 percent, and a boost in mental inspiration of 25 percent.

Therefore, Zen has much to offer practically regarding interconnectedness. Furthermore, it teaches that not only can we address the well-being of people and nature in tandem, but that we must, for they are inextricably linked.  The term zen is shortened from mushin no shin, a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. That is, zen is a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. It is translated by D.T. Suzuki as “being free from mind-attachment”, which is achieved by letting go because the world is in a state of impermanence and things change  (Fig 6). The Dalai Lama summarises the need for Zen, saying, “Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.

Fig 6 Letting go because things change

There are plenty of examples of spirituality where people experience and express their spirituality for different reasons and in different ways.  Meditation is the practice of taking a moment to withhold judgement, explore the curiosities of your own mind with a loving, gentle approach.  Mindfulness refers to ‘being present’ and bringing things to mind.  This is the opposite of absent-mindedness. It can be thought of as having a ‘presence of mind’. This supports its function of recollection, such as recalling a teaching or remembering what one is supposed to be doing. In Buddhist practice this could mean remembering that one is trying to focus on the breath, doing which helps one remember that one is meditating, which helps one to remember that one is a Buddhist practitioner, which in turn helps one to recall that one is trying to overcome greed, hatred and spiritual ignorance in order to gain enlightenment. 

To summarise, spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. It has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose and feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. It typically involves a search for meaning in life by meditation.  At its most simple, meditation augments our awareness of now.  The next moment will be different because we do not know what is coming round the next corner.  

Making a connection between our response to impressionist paintings, says  Sarah Rudell Beach, illustrates how a seemingly permanent and stable object appears completely different, depending on the lighting, atmospheric conditions, and time of day.

“The Impressionists used small strokes of unmixed paint to create vibrant colors and a sense of movement in their works. From far away, a Monet landscape looks like what we might see in reality — shimmering leaves, blurred outlines of shadows or clouds — but when we get close it indeed looks like “a big old messThe Buddha taught much the same thing about the self. From far away, before we’ve examined it, it looks like a coherent, solid, permanent entity. But once we look carefully, we see that the being we take to be “self” is simply a collection of elements — body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness (knowing). All of which are, of course, constantly changing and shifting”.

This collection of environmental elements is the background against which Buddhism is working but also augments the self into a wider world of places and people.  And the Buddha, with his several excursions into the heart of human experience, basically came to the conclusion that selfhood is an entirely imagined concept.  Taking Rudell Beach’s analogy of self as an impressionist painting, trees and people are the brush strokes and their interactions through time comprise the big picture. The claim of stability articulated in these traditions is really just an idea that we project onto our world; it is not to be found in actual experience. So one of the principal insights of the whole Buddhist tradition is that the entire world of our experience, whether the macrocosmic material world (e.g.treekind) or the microcosmic world of our personal, inner experience (e.g.humankind) is fundamentally not per­manent, not unchanging. Everything is in flux. As an example, landscaped parkland can be a meditative resource to transform how we view ourselves and our world by incorporating ourselves into it through meditation on the people who made, managed and depicted it in words and pictures and thereby we can all have ownership of it. In other words, seeing the parkland in the Lincolnshire village of Grainsby, and the ruined mansion of the Suffolk village of Flixton can provoke life-long meditations on impermanence (Fig 2).

4  Happiness in parkland

Deva is the Buddhist and Hindu term for deity; however, devata is a smaller, more focused deva associated with landscape features such as, river crossings, caves, mountains, and so on.  Buddha was born in the 6th century B.C., or possibly as early as 624 B.C and in his time trees were already being venerated as devata and cutting trees was prohibited. Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts define Buddist country as being centred on urban Madhyadeśa.  Also known as The Middle Country it is part of the Ganges river basin with towns and cities, parks and gardens, lakes and rivers that have been mentioned time and again. It seems, therefore, that the Middle Country was exclusively the world in which the early Buddhists confined themselves. It was in an eastern district of the Madhyadeśa that the Gotama prince became the Buddha, and the drama of his whole life was staged on the plains of the Middle Country. He travelled independently, or with his disciples, from city to city, and village to village, moving as it were within a circumscribed area. The demand for his teachings near home was so great and insistent that he had no occasion during his lifetime to stir outside the limits of the Middle Country. On a modern map Middle Country is situated east of the AH1 Grand Trunk  Road (Fig 7).  In Buddha’s time the countryside theeabouts is described as being park-like; a rolling open grassland, scattered with shrubs and isolated trees, grazed by cattle and deer. Meetings held outdoors under trees were commonplace in towns and villages.  

Fig 7 Buddist Middle Country

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as exceptional living things worthy of recognition and protection. The terms ‘savannha parkland’ and ‘park savannah’ or ‘parklike savanna’ are sometimes used by biogeographers to describe the biome which can be found between tropical rainforest and desert in Africa and India. Not enough rain falls on a savanna to support forests. Savannas are also known as tropical grasslands. In the dry season only an average of about 4 inches of rain falls. Specifically, Monica M. Cole, in a savanna classification first proposed in 1963, defined savanna parklands as tall grassland (grasses 40–80 cm high) with scattered deciduous trees (less than 8 m high)”.  Human settlement in grassland brought farmed herbivores. 

 Some ecologists see savannahs as open grasslands, while others see a mosaic of environments from woodlands to grasslands.  The savannah hypothesis states that human bipedalism evolved as a direct result of human ancestors transitioning from a closed arboreal lifestyle to one on the open savannas. As humans increasingly dominate the Earth system, four anthropogenic drivers caused rapid vegetation change across savannas, threatening biodiversity and ecosystem services. These are: change and transformation of land cover, human-induced changes to fire, browsing and grazing regimes, climate change and now rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.  

A grove is a small group of trees with little or no undergrowth beneath the canopies.  The grove is therefore accessible to people. When managed through grazing beneath the trees with sheep, deer or cattle, groves blend into wood pasture and rural parkland. In India, some large groves started as medieval hunting forests or wooded community commons, and others are part of landscapes designed to beautify large estates (Fig 8).

Fig 8  Cultural ecology of parkland

A sacred grove is any small group of trees that is of special religious importance to a particular community or culture.  There are Buddhist grove-monks who have a long association with, and dependence upon, the extended community. While the laity provide the material support for their renunciant life, such as almsfood and cloth for robes, the monastic community serves as a resource for spiritual inspiration and guidance. The conduct of grove or forest monks is governed by over 200 protocols, which include total celibacy, eating only between dawn and noon and abstaining from handling money.  They also commonly engage in a practice known as ‘tudong’ in which they wander on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of groves for solitary retreat amongst trees. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by laypeople along the way.  This community dimension of Buddhism is strikingly illustrated by Thai Buddhist monks who wrap orange clerical robes around trees to protect forests. “Ordaining” a tree in this way is a provocative ritual that has become the symbol of a small but influential monastic movement aimed at reversing environmental degradation and the unsustainable economic development and consumerism that fuel it.  

Groves appear in all aspects of Buddhist art, including scenes of the Buddhist paradises in which they are depicted laden with jewels, representing the spiritual wealth of those progressing towards enlightenment. There is also a tree, the Rose-Apple Tree, on the summit of Mount Meru at the very center of the Buddhist cosmos. This symbolic tree serves as a cosmic pillar connecting Heaven and Earth. Considering the central role of trees in the Buddhist cosmos, it is not surprising that treekind is central in the life and legends of the Buddha and his enlightenment and that they connect his material existence to his spiritual one. Buddhist mythology says that when the Buddha was born, he assumed his human, material form; when he attained enlightenment, he achieved a higher spiritual level; when he died, he shed his physical form and fully entered the spiritual realm. A tree was present at each of these moments, serving as an arboreal bridge to enlightenment and mindful living.  

So, grazed parklands and their arboreal bridges are therefore key concepts in Buddhism. Buddha gave his first sermon on the outskirts of the city of Varanasi at a deer park called Sarnath.  Commemorating this event a doe and buck flanking a wheel is the universal symbol of Buddhism.  The wheel symbolizes the Buddha’s most essential teachings, known as the Dharma.  The parkland tradition was continued to this day when The Deer Park Monastery was established by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to share the practice of mindful living.  This 400-acre sanctuary is situated in the Chaparral Mountains of southern California, within a grove of oak trees in a natural landscape (Fig 9).

Fig 9 Parkland of the ‘Deer Park Monastery’.

5 Aligning treekind with humankind

Dead people belong to the live people who claim them most obsessively.


The truth which the Buddhists see when they look at the world that surrounds themvis the truth of cause and effect. Every action, no matter how insignificant, produces an effect; every effect in its turn becomes a cause and produces still further effects. It is meaningless to inquire for a First Cause. A First Cause is inconceivable; rather, cause and effect are cyclical, and this universe when it dies and falls apart will give rise to another universe, just as this one was formed from the dispersed matter of a previous universe. The origin of the universe, like that of every individual person or thing in it, is dependent on the chain of previous causes, which goes on and on in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This is the Buddhist principle of dependent origination. The dynamic oneness with trees spanning human generations is also expressed mentally.  For example, Forestry England has strong scientific evidence that visiting a woodland can improve mood and attention span, and even enhance psychological stress recovery.   The European body, Forest Europe, agrees there is evidence that forests boost mental health wellbeing.  But the evidence on the effect of forests on psychological health is not yet good enough to say when, where, and for whom given effects will occur or how long they will last. Positive effects may not be experienced equally by different groups of people and not all types and sizes of forests might be equally effective.”   

Lauren Krauze tells of her meditation teacher who once advised her to look to the example trees set as steady, observant beings. “They are excellent meditators. They sit in one spot for decades, watching all that goes by.” In his book The Island Within, anthropologist Richard Nelson described trees in a similar manner. “The dark boughs reach out above me and encircle me like arms. I feel the assurance of being recognized, as if something powerful and protective is aware of my presence . . .  I am never alone in this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.

Bowing to a tree in Buddhism is to acknowledge its presence in the mind by pledging allegiance to it, especially in a reverential manner. 

The extreme diversity of response is represented by the television presenter of countryside  affairs Kate Humble, who has described how she often finds comfort in sylvan settings.  

She said: “We all have moments of anxiety or stress or confusion or sadness. Sometimes it can be really hard to articulate that to another person. You can talk to a tree: they feel old and wise and at times you need an old and wise thing that isn’t going to judge you.

Humble said she had a particular 600-year-old tree she turned to, named Old Man Oak. “He is so stately. There have been many occasions when I have gone and sought the solace of Old Man Oak. We live this very ephemeral life. There is something about the solidity of a tree that can give you a sense of security.” Humble also said she thought it was fine to sometimes feel a little nervous in woodland. “It’s a lovely feeling to almost be lost, but not quite, and to feel you are being led down mysterious paths.

Regarding a mass cultural response to life with trees, the spring leaf burst and flower bloom represent a celebration of life, without ignoring its complexities. It brings the losses and gains of an individual’s life to a focus. In Japan, the spring celebration of the flowering of cherry blossom has been passed across generations as a symbol of something deeper than a biological clock, that not only celebrates and unites people to each other, but also reminds them of their transience. These days of environmental crises calls out our selfish affluence and challenges us to reflect on our destruction of the environmental services that sustain us.   At the same time, nature’s calendar is a reminder of all the things lost as a result of our selfish gains. Trees challenge us to see our prosperity and its inherent disproportion across the globe.

The awakening of trees from their winter dormancy restarts their energy metabolism, which during a tree’s lifespan has been absorbing carbon diligently.  When it passes its peak and declines in health it begins to leach its stored carbon back into the atmosphere.  While it seems counterintuitive, proper modern sustainable management of the forest begins with the felling of the trees closest to their peak life, when they have basically stored all of the carbon they will store in their lifetime.  Sunlight gets to the forest floor, thereby encouraging fresh growth.  Tree carbon is transformed into various wood products and the only way the stored carbon in hardwood products will ever be released is through fire.

6 Spiritual and sacred

Frese and Gray summarise the importance of treekind to humankind when they write: 

“Trees are a form of nature that represent life and the sacred continuity of the spiritual, cosmic, and physical worlds. A tree is often used to symbolize a deity or other sacred beings, or it may stand for what is sacred in general… Trees represent certain deities or ancestors, serve as mediators or as a link to the religious realm, and are associated with cultural beliefs in heaven or the afterlife”.

Spirituality is clearly not always religious in any formal sense; spirituality has been sought and experienced in a number of non- and a-religious contexts such as nature, and meditation on the inner self.  In particular, there is a rising popularity of the “spiritual but not religious” category of experiencing the environment, Those who call themselves ‘spiritual and not religious’ like to assert the difference because spirituality is all-encompassing and neutral, whereas organised religion is associated with a set of beliefs that are interpreted as being exclusive to a certain category of people who are seen as a community of believers.  Afterall, over time, in the name of religion, bloody wars have been fought, lives have been lost and misunderstanding has been perpetrated. On the other hand, spirituality with no religion is free of these belligerent actions, only seeking love and transcendence, forging what gives and nurtures life across the board, focusing on the individual’s spiritual journey rather than on the compliance of a community with the laws of a religious order or sect.

Regarding the category of ‘spiritual but not religious, Maria Popova takes the view that since the dawn of time, trees,  the oldest living things in our world, have been our silent companions.  We have transmuted them into the myths and metaphors through which we make sense of the world, from their deity-like role in ancient Indian legends to their long history as the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge, to their symbolic representation of the cycle of life. Perhaps because they are so strong and so silent, bearing steadfast witness to our earthly lives and while reaching up toward the heavens, we’ve long projected our spiritual longings onto trees and turned to them to open our minds for answers to our existential questions. In this context, the idea of spiritual landscapes provides a worthwhile avenue towards new understandings of how faith and belief can open up a way of thinking about ourselves as individuals. Instead of asking about what we really are, the idea of sacred landscapes focuses on phenomena. These are experiences that we get from the senses, what we see, taste, smell, touch, hear, and feel, which can illuminate the notion of being at one with the world. Spiritual landscapes are not just about religion, but open out spaces that can be inhabited, or dwelt, in different spiritual registers. 

By ‘landscapes’ we refer to embodied practices of being in the world, including ways of seeing but extending beyond sight to both a sense of being that includes all senses and an openness to being affected. By ‘spiritual’, we refer to that part of the virtual in which faith forms a significant part of the move beyond rationality and of the possibility of other-worldly dispositions. Even for the most sceptical, the spiritual can suggest a performative presencing of some sense of spirit.  Through association with particular historical events, an individual tree or species of tree acquires the symbolic significance of the events as part of its meaning. 

A society’s spiritual beliefs about the kinds of trees that generate a sense of spirit generally depend on the nature and density of trees. If trees are plentiful, the forest as a whole will also be an important part of a community’s spiritual beliefs and ritual. Trees and landscapes thereby become sacred, where sacred describes something that is considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspires awe or reverence among believers. The property is often ascribed to objects,  A “sacred artifact” is venerated and blessed, so a place may be described as “a sacred landscape”.

Many ancient cults focus on individual sites, deities or cult places. Why did people choose a particular geographical location? What makes a geographical feature ‘sacred’ and how was this sacred space demarcated from the profane? The sacred landscape is not simply what we see, but a way of registering what we see with our eyes but interpreting what we see  with our mind. Landscape is therefore a cultural construct which gives meaning to places and reflects human memory that carries the meaning from generation to generation. Religious signs, rituals, etiological myths, theonyms and epithets, as well as human physical constructions together create a web of ciphers and symbols that define a sacred landscape to make a text or narrative of a place invested with cultural meaning.  Sacred groves are parts of the forest that are left untouched by locals and even given complete protection by them. In many cultures, large areas of forest were set aside as a spiritual resource.  Forceful examples of sacred groves in India are the Khasi and Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya and the Aravalli Hills of Rajasthan.  All these are now under threat from mining and loss of the spiritual connection.

In his compilation of essays ‘Landscape and Power’, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that landscape representation has always been “an instrument of cultural power.”  He identifies various historical approaches, such as Dutch landscape painting, English landscape drawing, architecture, and nineteenth-century American photography of the West. He highlights these as ideological instruments based on a complex network of cultural, political, economic, and class codes.  The depiction of trees plays an important role in drawing meditators before a landscape painting.

Regarding tree-ed landscapes, few designers have left behind a body of work as monumental or as enduring as that of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83). Under his direction, hundreds of square miles of countryside across England and Wales were transformed to conform to a naturalistic aesthetic that still shapes the way the British evaluate landscape design today. Out went the formal, well-ordered gardens that had gone before. Hills were raised, valleys drugs, rivers channelled, woods planted, and, in some cases, entire communities displaced. But for all this effort, the desired result was to create parkland that looked as artless as nature itself, as though it had always been there. This quickly became the dominant style for large country estates in England and abroad. The writer and connoisseur Horace Walpole wrote, ‘We have given the true model of gardening to the world: let other countries mimic or corrupt our taste, but let it reign here on its verdant throne.’  

Brown’s agrarian model was the cultured landscape of pastoralism and the economic services derived from it (Fig 10), in which animals grazed bushes and lower limbs of trees and cropped the grass.  This economic system of livestock production created open areas of standing trees and grass, the progenitors of parks. The cultural ecology of the deer park was expressed in the pastoral ideal of a Golden Age of youth and of antique man. It formed the basis of dramas of Arcadia, and generations of poets and writers referred to the pastoral landscape in philosophy, theology and allegory. It was a place in which to discuss, to think spiritually, to make music, to dance and to make love. These are the activities that come to mind when contemplating a rural parkland. Cultural ecosystem services are commonly defined as the ‘nonmaterial benefits that people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, and cognitive understanding.  In particular, landscape painting was animated to provide trees for contemplation (Fig 11).

Fig 10 Cultural ecology of the deer park


Fig 11   Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682), Claude Lorrain, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The following description of our oneness with trees is taken from the writings if Tich Nhat Hanh’, Buddhist monk, activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, in which he describes the ideas behind the meditation known as ‘touching the Earth’.

“When we look at a tree we may think that the tree is outside of us. But if we look more deeply we shall see that the tree is also within us. The trees are your lungs because without the trees you could not breathe. The trees create the oxygen, which is now part of my body, and I create the carbon dioxide, which is now part of the tree. We have lungs in our body, but the trees breathe for us too and can also be called our lungs. Our own lungs are working with the trees to help us breathe.change into energy, and energy can change back into matter, but it won’t be destroyed. We have always been a part of everything else, and every-thing else has always been a part of us. We have all been trees, roses and animals. We still are trees at this moment. Look deeply at yourself and you see the tree, the cloud, the rose and the squirrel in you. You cannot take them out of yourself. You cannot take the cloud out of you because you are made of seventy percent water. The continuation of the cloud is rain. The continuation of rain is the river. The continuation of the river is the water you drink in order to survive. If you take the continuation of the cloud out of you, you cannot continue” (Fig 12)

Fig 12 Cultural ecology of the Sacred Grove

Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and while Hinduism adopted the Buddha in its mythology, Buddhism adopted the Hindu god Krishna in its own mythology. The story of Krishna occurs in the Jataka tales in Buddhism, for example.  Buddhism also adopted the parkland landscapes of Hindu culture, to enact the life of the Buddha; landscapes which were the outcome of India’s prehistoric pastoral cultural ecology. 

“Krishna brought forward the cows and played on His flute through the forest of Vrindavan, which was full of flowers, vegetables and pasturing grass. The Vrindavan forest was as sanctified as the clear mind of a devotee and was full of bees, flowers and fruits. There were chirping birds and clear water lakes with waters that could relieve one of all fatigues. Sweet flavoured breezes blew always, refreshing the mind and body.”  Srimad Bhagavatam.

Vrindavan lies at the focus of Vraj, the region where Lord Krishna lived. The whole region has been sacred to its inhabitants for thousands of years. It falls just inside the ‘golden triangle’, stretching from Delhi south to Agra and west to Jaipur in Rajasthan, and was the setting for many of the events recorded in the Mahabharata, the epic history of ancient India. Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace seven miles south-west of Vrindavan, is one of India’s oldest cities.  About 20,000 people live in Vrindavan, but two million pilgrims visit each year. They want to see His river, the Yamuna, and bathe in her; they want to see his hill, Govardhana Hill which he lifted as a child, and walk round it in prayer; they want to see the place where he danced through the night with the gopis, the cowherd girls of Vrindavan, in the forest groves amongst the blossoming Kadamba trees (Fig 13).

Fig 13 Lord Krishna and the cowgirl Radha meet each other secretly on Govardhan Hill

7 Internet References


CPR Education Centre

The fig ecosystem

Buddhist Gardens

Forest and trees associated with Lord Buddha.

Cardiff Parks

Urban Green Spaces

Pilgrim in the Deer Park

Sarnath Deer Park

Live Like A Buddhist

Sacred groves of Meghalaya

Sacred groves of Rajasthan

Digital landmarking of cultural vitality

August 18th, 2020

“That museum exhibit stimulated my imagination. It broadened my world from my everyday life in a small town and encouraged me to think about how people lived in other places, not only in the past but also in the present. I realize now that what I was doing in that museum was the spiritual practice of imagination”. Mary Ann Brussat

1 Culture 21

Culture 21, also known as ‘The Agenda 21 For Culture’, was approved in May 2004 by cities and local governments of the world. Signatories are committed to promoting and maintaining cultural vitality expressed in human rights, cultural diversity, sustainability, participatory democracy and the creation of the conditions for peace. Cultural vitality is the evidence of creating, disseminating, validating, and supporting the integration of arts and culture.  It is then seen as a valued dimension of everyday life in communities. As a strategy, Culture 21 in an overcrowded world is not an option but an imperative to guide human survival.  

UNESCO takes the view that culture is transmitted between generations encoded as heritage and so culture humanises the past to be a platform for creating a future culture of sustainability. Heritage encompasses a broad and overarching term: “it” is something that someone or a collective considers to be worthy of being valued, preserved, catalogued, exhibited, restored, admired and passed on to future generations  Heritage is everywhere, and an understanding of our past is increasingly critical to the understanding of our contemporary cultural context and place in global society.  From this perspective cultural heritage is a powerful catalyst for the future.  It also offers solutions to the challenges the world faces in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic.  In times of health emergencies, cultural heritage plays, and will continue to play, an essential role for the physical and mental wellbeing of every individual and of our societies as a whole. As evidenced by a rich body of literature and increasingly recognised in public decision-making, wellbeing is a holistic concept.  It encompasses emotional, social, cultural, spiritual and economic needs, which allow individuals to realise their full potential and engage in society to their fullest capacity. Therefore, investing in cultural heritage means investing in public health, wellbeing, and improving the quality of people’s lives. The rest of this section is an adaptation of the 2020 Europe Day Manifesto for communities, which presents cultural heritage as a powerful resource for their future development.

Sharing heritage. At a time when the whole world is facing a profound socio economic transformation, a community’s shared cultural heritage and values constitute a much-needed anchor and compass. They can indeed provide a sense of direction and inspiration to make the right choices ahead of us. Cultural heritage ensures the link between our roots, identities, and traditions and the wider global picture. 

Access to heritage.  The COVID-19 outbreak has underlined the critical importance of digital access to cultural heritage. Now communities must work together to accelerate and further improve access. At the same time, we must narrow the divide between institutions that are digitally equipped, and those that are not. We need to democratise access to our heritage to support diversity, inclusivity, creativity, and critical engagement in education and knowledge sharing. We need to promote collaborations and experimentations that strengthen our capacity for innovation. And we need to promote the use of digital technology and expertise, to strengthen the role of cultural institutions.  The raw data for digital landmarking, comprises a picture, a comment with a reference URL.  These can be gathered together to build a personal body of knowledge.

Heritage in Green Deals.  Countries around the world are working on Green Deals for creating a sustainable future.   We must ensure that the cultural dimension of the greening of our society and economy is fully taken on board. Our cultural heritage, including cultural landscapes, is severely threatened by climate change. But the cultural world, with its wealth of traditional knowledge and skills, can also be used to further expand on mitigation and adaptation practices, which can help achieve the 2030 UN objectives. This calls for communities to build back better after the pandemic and be convinced of the immense potential of cultural heritage to help achieve it.

Heritage-led regeneration.  The landmark study Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe provides robust evidence of the clear benefits of heritage investment for the regeneration of cities and regions, both on individual and community levels. Given the prospect of dramatic job losses, community leaders should invest in heritage-led regeneration of urban and rural areas, enabling and amplifying social and economic recovery. This will not only preserve many existing jobs and related skills but also create new rewarding jobs, ranging from specialised crafts to the sophisticated use of digital and other new technologies. Such a “New Deal for Cultural Heritage” will in turn drive social and economic innovation, and contribute to a major improvement of our living environment. The huge potential of heritage-led regeneration in historic cities, villages and the countryside can indeed become a real ‘game-changer’ towards a greener and more sustainable future.

Tourism rescue.  Faced with the catastrophic impact of the Covid19 pandemic on the tourism industry due to travel and mobility limitations, which puts millions of jobs at risk, communities should fully support the appeal for a major “tourism rescue plan”. This plan should include special measures for the revival of cultural tourism, one of the largest and fastest growing tourism segments worldwide.  Tourism needs cultural heritage and cultural heritage needs tourism. But we recover from this crisis by using it as an opportunity to promote more innovative and sustainable forms of tourism, including virtual tourism. In doing so, we will deliver lasting benefits for public and private owners of heritage sites and the communities that surround them, generating higher quality experiences and greater enjoyment for visitors.

Cultural citizenship.  Finally, as the current crisis has shown, the clear interconnection and fragility of humanity provides us with a unique opportunity to enhance its positive and constructive role in the world. Culture and cultural heritage are key drivers for enhancing respect, understanding, and trust as the prerequisites for global solidarity and cooperation. To summarize, we need to urgently and collectively mobilise the transformational power of culture and cultural heritage to provide meaning and inspiration for a global green and inclusive recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic.  This is the UNESCO prescription set out in ‘Thematic Indicators for Culture in the 2030 Agenda.  Its purpose is to measure and monitor the progress of culture’s enabling contribution to the national and local implementation of the ‘Goals and Targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.  The latter is a framework to help people build a local process for taking up cultural citizenship set out in the following sections.

2  Cyberspace as a Global Commons

Culture develops within public spaces as packages of collective goods belonging to all citizens. No individual or group can be deprived of free use of them, providing they respect the rules adopted by each community, which broadly are: 

  • to promote the existence of the public spaces and foster their use as cultural places for interaction and coexistence.;
  • to foster concern for the aesthetics of public spaces and collective amenities; 
  • to protect, valorize and popularize the local documentary heritage generated in the public local/regional sphere, providing incentives for the creation of municipal and regional systems for that purpose;
  • to encourage the free exploration of cultural heritage by all citizens in all parts of the world; 
  • to promote the UNESCO Thematic Indicators for Culture in the 2030 Agenda (Culture|2030 Indicators, Fig 9) to measure and monitor the progress of culture’s enabling contribution to the Goals and Targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Tourism;
  • to promote real and virtual tourism that respects the cultures and customs of the localities and territories visited.
  • to use art reasoning rather than scientific reasoning to explain sustainability.

The term ‘Global Commons’ refers to resource domains or areas that lie outside the political reach of any one nation State. The Global commons have been traditionally defined as those parts of the planet that fall outside national jurisdictions and to which all nations have access. International law identifies four global commons, namely the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Antarctica and Outer Space. From this point of view, a Global Commons contains an infinite potential with regard to the understanding and advancement of all life, e.g. forests, oceans, land mass and cultural identity, and hence requires absolute protection.  

Cyberspace is now regarded as a global commons.  It consists of computer networks, computer resources, and all the fixed and mobile devices connected to the global internet. A nation’s cyberspace is part of the global cyberspace; it cannot be isolated to define its boundaries.  Cyberspace is borderless, unlike the physical world-land, sea, river waters, and air that is limited by geographical boundaries.  In operational terms, cyberspace refers to the virtual computer world, and more specifically, to an electronic medium used to form a global computer network for facilitating online communication. It is a vast gathering of computers made up of many worldwide networks that employ TCP/IP protocol to aid in communication and data exchange activities.  Cyberspace’s core feature is an interactive virtual environment for a broad range of participants.  Therefore It has a powerful influence on the establishment and spread of a global culture.   It is the sharing of knowledge that gives cultural purpose to the use of cyberspace as a common good upon which to base cultural citizenship as a way of life.   This envisions a political-economic structure involving participatory governance within an economic system that guarantees equal shares of Earth’s natural resources and wealth for all of humankind.  It is a vision of egalitarian communalism driven by cultural citizenship (Table 1).

Table 1 Cultural citizenship

Cultural citizenship is a way of life:

The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the language you speak in and the God you worship all are aspects of culture. In very simple terms, we can say that culture is the embodiment of the way in which we think and do things. It is also the things that we have inherited as members of society. All the achievements of human beings as members of social groups can be called culture. Art, music, literature, architecture, sculpture, philosophy, religion and science can be seen as aspects of culture. However, culture also includes the customs, traditions, festivals, ways of living and one’s outlook on various issues of life.

Cultural citizenship is learned and acquired: 

Culture is acquired in the sense that there are certain behaviours which are acquired through heredity. Individuals inherit certain qualities from their parents but socio-cultural patterns are not inherited. These are learnt from family members, from the group and the society in which they live. It is thus apparent that the culture of human beings is influenced by the physical and social environment through which they operate as cultural citizens.  There is an awareness of what they have inherited from the past that can be a foundation for the future. Therefore cultural citizenship is shared by a group of people.  A thought or action may be called culture if it is shared and believed or practiced by the group. 

Cultural citizenship is cumulative: 

Different knowledge embodied in culture can be passed from one generation to another. More and more knowledge is added in a particular culture as time passes by. Each may work out solutions to problems in life that pass from one generation to another. This cycle remains as the particular culture moves through time and space. 

Cultural citizenship changes: 

There is knowledge, thoughts or traditions that are lost as new cultural traits are added. There are possibilities of cultural changes within a particular culture as time passes. 

Cultural citizenship provides a range of permissible behaviour patterns: 

It specifies how an activity should be conducted, and how an individual should act appropriately. 

Cultural citizenship is diverse: 

It is a system that has several mutually interdependent parts. Although these parts are separate, they are interdependent with one another forming culture as whole. 

Cultural citizenship is ideational: 

Often it lays down an ideal pattern of behaviour that is expected to be followed by individuals so as to gain social acceptance from the people with the same culture.

Culture 21 aims at fostering cultural development by promoting cultural citizenship.  The aim of this blog is to explore some examples of the intersections between notions of ‘cultural citizenship’ and the evolving role of the Internet as a site of cultural agency. In basic terms, debates around ‘cultural citizenship’ focus attention on issues of social membership across national and local boundaries.  Belonging and its cultural expressions shape, and are shaped, by the opportunities citizens enjoy to partake of cyberspace and to participate in society at various levels (local, national and global).  Participation and inclusivity usefully distinguish the concerns of cultural citizenship (‘the right to know and speak’) from those of political citizenship (‘the right to reside and vote’) and economic citizenship (‘the right to work and prosper’).  It is a formulation that accords ‘culture’ and its evolution a distinctive dimension in cyberspace.  Importantly, anyone who communicates about a place actually owns it because it becomes a property of the imagination of the presenter and the audience.  

Cultural citizenship is now synonymous with digital citizenship.  People become digital citizens by the process of digital landmarking (Fig 1 ).  This means individuals encode local heritage in a database of words and pictures, and/or using data to produce a body of knowledge which expresses their feelings about a place.  This is expressed by Theresa Hubel as staking their claim to ownership of it  ”.. by the very act of writing about it”.   In the context of open commons the authors of data and knowledge are using social media to exercise their right to know and speak about past, present and future cultures.

Fig 1 The process of digital landmarking  

3 Digital citizenship in action: Grimsby

On 7 May 2019 a group of four youths were caught on a surveillance camera throwing stones at the Grimsby Heritage Centre.  This was but one incident in a town where endemic vandalism has arisen with social exclusion.  Out on a patrol, a police officer is quoted as saying: “We are working with Young People’s Support Services in relation to anti-social behaviour within the area of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. It is a question of engaging with the kids and seeing what they are doing and what they are up to and reduce the calls to anti-social behaviour in the area”’  Is there a planned and funded prescription for inclusivity?

Many european cities and towns are exhibiting rising levels of social exclusion and the concept of ‘social innovation’ in urban development, focuses on the processes aimed at countering it.  The term ‘social innovation’ has three core dimensions: the satisfaction of human needs (content dimension); changes in social relations, especially with regard to governance (process dimension); and an increase in the socio-political capability and access to resources (empowerment dimension).   At a grassroots level, cyberspace allows social innovation as an interactive form of communication, where any digital citizen can use social media to communicate with the world in realtime and can actually receive a response, can have a dialogue and have a chat room as a public space to organise a response.  Ironically, the young people who attacked the Heritage Centre gathered there because a nearby McDonalds offers free WiFi!  This points to a potential route for young people to assemble their own knowledge base from which to become digital literate.  Digital literacy in education encompasses specific skills when reading online text that may contain embedded resources such as hyperlinks, audio clips, graphs, or charts.  The aim is to engage young people on line in social innovation  that requires them to make choices to communicate their knowledge about what is good and bad about where they live.  It is important that they present their plans for improving the bad things.  This blog provides an educational framework of cultural and social heritage for them to do this.

Grimsby is a large coastal English seaport and administrative centre in the North East corner of Lincolnshire, on the South Bank of the Humber Estuary, close to where it reaches the North Sea. The town has had several cultural makeovers as it has developed from a small isolated community of self contained fisherfolk.  Over about three generations it became the greatest global example of industrial marine fishing.  Now, facing ‘life without fish’ it designates itself as the Food Capital of Europe.  These cultural changes have been unsympathetic to its built heritage. 

By the mid-20th century Grimsby was the home port for the largest fishing fleet in the world.  Fishing declined dramatically after the Cod Wars of the 1970s had denied the United Kingdom access to Iceland’s prolific fishing grounds.  Also, in line with its Common Fisheries Policy, the European Union parcelled out fishing quotas in waters within a 200-nautical-mile limit of the UK coast to other European countries,. Since then Grimsby has suffered post-industrial decline, although expansion of the food business has been encouraged since the 1990s.  For about a century the community was an example of an ecumene, a collection of families dependent on the North Sea’s fish stocks for its livelihood.  Its economy, from the fishing fleet to the home braiding of fishing nets, was built around an industry that does not exist any more. The social deficit was depicted in a 2018 article in the Guardian newspaper as skills shortages, long-term jobless families, deprivation, drugs, homelessness, empty homes, fly-tipping, and children in care. The government’s indices of deprivation in 2015 ranked the town’s East Marsh Ward as the fourth worst place in the UK for employment, the second for crime and the worst for education, skills and training.  Grimsby is therefore a prime case history of post industrial cultural change.  Local efforts to develop and deploy effective solutions to challenge systemic social and environmental issues of belonging, place and change are expressed in the town’s visual culture. Visual culture refers to aspects of culture that are expressed in visual images of public spaces. Art and visual culture are intertwined and for most people they come into view together in public spaces. 

This blog is a development of one published in 2017 entitled Networking in Common.  That blog was introduced with the following quote from Culture 21.

“Public space is a place of social interaction as well as key for the identity and landscape of the city. As a common good, it belongs to all inhabitants and it has a systemic relation with other common goods such as culture or education”.

Thus, art and visual culture are bound up with everything that one sees in day-to-day life, i.e. advertising, landscape, buildings, photographs, movies, and paintings.  In fact, visual culture is expressed in anything in public space that captures a person’s attention and begins a process of communication from past to present through visual means.  Visual culture is studied using art history, humanities, sciences, and social sciences, When analysing visual expressions of culture, one must focus on production, reception, and intention, as well as economical, social, and ideological aspects in order to produce a digital landmark.

A good example of digital landmarking is a local history forum about Grimsby and its surroundings of North Lincolnshire.  It was established by a private individual, Rod Collins, born and bred in Grimsby, who described himself and his site thus:

“Photography is something of a passion although I wish I spent as much time creatively photographing people as I do angling !  Also, art and all things artistic is a great draw and I derive a great deal of pleasure visiting as many galleries and exhibitions in Lincolnshire as possible.  Used to work in engineering after serving an apprenticeship.  Then became a full-time book dealer selling rare & collectable books.  Got involved in building websites, affiliate search engine marketing and contextual ads.  Called it a day and went all but retired at the age of 39.  Which sees me where I am today – living life simply and only for my own pleasure really.  

This means I shouldn’t complain – but frequently do on this site.

The site mixes, hopefully, both humour and, dare I say it, some depth.  Historical based stuff is clearly more serious though not too ‘dry’ I hope.  Other articles are done somewhat tongue in cheek, there’s a lot of irony, some obvious, some more subtle – generally it’s self-deprecating, the joke’s on me even if sometimes, superficially, it may not appear so.  The site has grown and grown over the years and last year it averaged 1.8 million hits a month!  At our height we were experiencing 3 million hits a month but it was unsustainable so I deleted a lot of ’stuff’ and steered the site in another direction.  It takes quite a bit of managing at times.

If you see me out-and-about or at an event then please do say hello.  It’s always a pleasure to meet anybody who visits the site.  Do leave a comment and take part, it’s a friendly place and you don’t need to be an expert . . .Which is just as well because I’m not!”

Unfortunately the Rod Collins’ site is no longer available, which highlights the fragility of such ‘man-in-the street’ enterprises in digital citizenship.

Nevertheless, social media is now the logical place for the meeting of genealogy and cultural history.  This gives public libraries and heritage centres an important long term role in promoting and servicing digital landmarking to support a local visual culture.  In this respect, Grimsby Public Library has a sustainable platform for engaging citizens in its FaceBook page entitled Streets and Their Stories.

Grimsby’s Wellow Abbey is an illustration of one of Collins’ digital landmarks; a cultural  Internet placement, which between 2010-15 elicited 129 comments and serves as a case history of how digital citizens, mobilising their own resources, can assemble a dedicated cultural dimension of a virtual place within cyberspace.

Wellow Abbey probably had an important role in the economy and cultural ecology of medieval Grimsby.  But, there is very little archival material available about its local impact, which no doubt adds to the allure of the topic to amateur historians.  Although the geographical site of the abbey, close to the town centre  is well known, it is now occupied by a small housing estate, known as the Abbot’s Way Development, built over it in the late 1960s. One of these houses (Fig 2) is on the edge of a tiny hill, probably a small glacial moraine, which attracted the monks of Wellow to set their abbey outside the town, above the surrounding poorly drained fens, riddled with natural artesian wells, called blow wells.   Indeed, this particular house may mark the site of the abbey church.  With an OS bench mark of about 20 ft above sea level it is one of the highest spots in Grimsby!  Remnants of carved stones have been found in the garden.

Fig 2  Abbot’s Way (circa 1990) 

The Abbot’s Way Development is the latest landmark charting the cultural developments associated with the port of Grimsby expanding rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century.  This began with the development of an entrepreneurial culture of family businesses thriving on the economics of industrial scale fishing in the North Sea.  Coincidentally it triggered the mass import of Baltic timber and the export of Midland’s coal. Alongside this there was a change from a dominant local aristocratic landowning culture (e.g. the Pelham earls of Yarborough and the Heneage barons of Riby) engaged with local government, to the emergence of the middle classes in a rapidly expanding urban context.  In her book, ‘Grimsby Streets’, Emma Lingard points out that the streets created around the site of the abbey in the second half of the 19th century, namely Abbey Road, Abbey Park Road, Abbey Drive East/West, and Abbey Walk, more or less define the home domain of the abbey. This small network of new roads, only a mile from the town centre, indicate the urban spread of upper middle class families into the marshes and pastures of the surrounding countryside (Figs 3 & 4).

Fig 3 Beginning of development of the abbey estate (1856)

Fig 4 Street Map of modern Wellow community (2020)

The Abbey Road ‘entrepreneurial culture’ is exemplified by Ernest and Millie Bellamy.  They moved from King Edward St. in the densely packed terraces of Grimsby’s dockland as second generation urbanites to set up a fashion business, named ‘Madam Bellamy’, in Abbey Road. This was in response to a growing local demand for middle class haute couture (Fig 5).  

Fig 5  A digital landmark of a home-based entrepreneurial culture: Madam Bellamy’s workshop, 51 Abbey Rd. Grimsby, (2020).  Number 51 is the third house with the large south-facing upstairs window, which was enlarged so that Millie’s team of seamstress could work in daylight

Ernest was a second generation of Bellamys, descended from a farm labourer, Fred Bellamy, an economic migrant  from the fenlands on the Lincolnshire Cambridgeshire border.  He began his family in the tightly packed terraces built to house newly recruited dock workers in the West Marsh.  These terraces are today exemplified by their current remains in Armstrong St. (Fig 6).   This brings to the fore the fact that Grimsby was built on the backs of migrants and most migrants made good within the economic limits of the fishing ecumene!

Fig 6 A digital landmark: the remains of Armstrong St. ‘Over the Marsh’, (2020).

Ernest Bellamy was born in 1888 within a new housing development for dock workers in the West Marsh (Ravenspurn St).  From here the growing family moved across the Alexandra Dock to King Edward St, a similar development commemorating Edward VII who was crowned 22 Jan 1901.  Most of Armstrong Street and the whole of King Edward St were demolished, after being classified as slums in the 1960s, to create industrial estates (Fig 7).

Fig 7 136 King Edward St (2020).  Site of Ernest Bellamy’s second family home.

At that time Grimsby was a world leader in science applied to create the UK fishing industry.  Armstrong St celebrates the engineering innovations of William George Armstrong.  It was his idea to build Grimsby’s iconic Dock Tower to provide water pressure to power the dock machinery. The tower was built to carry a tank 200ft above the ground with a direct feed into the machinery. Small pumps topped up the tank as the hydraulic machinery drew off water. The tower system was brought into use in 1852 working the machinery of the lock gates, dry-docks and fifteen quayside cranes, and also to supply fresh water to ships and the dwelling houses on the dock premises.

4  Digital culture: a resource for development

Through people accessing a local digital commons, Grimsby’s Wellow Abbey and its monks live on in a virtual place visualised in the minds of the online visitors who added their comments to Rod Collins’ forum.  New imaginings have been set in motion giving the web participants and readers a sense of place without depending on ancient documents and a pictorial archive.  There is nothing to see on the ground.  Nevertheless, the digital arena of the abbey was expanded by some contributors to the forum to include personal reminiscences of their real life experiences that were associated with the abbey.   So it is that digital memories of place become embedded with imagination in virtual reality.  Now, Grimsby, like so many post industrial towns suffering repeated bouts of regeneration, is topographically placeless.  For its inhabitants any sense of place comes from within their consciousness.  Perhaps we should call this kind of mental visualisation a spirit of place because it is the combination of characteristics that gives some locations a special ‘feel’ or personality.  There is a spirit of mystery in a name like Wellow Abbey emanating from a locus in the overbuilt environment.  In this situation, the environment is not external and the feeling is internal.  How is this virtual culture handled as an educational experience?

‘Culture’ has been defined in many ways.  The 2005 Convention refers to culture in two distinct but related senses which draw inspiration from the 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity: 

First, its functional meaning is an organized sector of activity dealing with the diverse manifestations – past and present – of human intellectual and artistic creativity.  Culture comprises individuals, organizations and institutions responsible for their transmission and renewal. The arts and cultural expressions, together with these individuals and institutions constitute what is commonly regarded as the “cultural sector”, a demarcated policy domain, concerned mainly with heritage and creativity. Culture as a sector of activity includes, but not exclusively, cultural workers, artists and other creative professionals; commercial (for-profit) businesses; not-for-profit firms in the arts and culture; public cultural institutions, such as museums and galleries, heritage sites, libraries etc.; education and training institutions in the arts; government agencies and ministries responsible for arts and cultural affairs; NGOs and civil society involved in cultural activity. 

A functional digital citizen is a person using information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government. Digital citizens are “those who use the internet regularly and effectively.” They also have a comprehensive understanding of digital citizenship, which is the appropriate and responsible behavior when using technology. Since digital citizenship evaluates the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a digital community, it often requires the participation of all community members, both visible and those who are less visible.  A large part in being a responsible digital citizen encompasses digital literacy, etiquette, online safety, and an acknowledgement of private versus public information.

People characterizing themselves as digital citizens often use IT extensively, creating blogs, using social networks, and participating in online journalism.  Digital citizenship begins when any child, teen, and/or adult signs up for an email address, posts pictures online, uses e-commerce to buy merchandise online, and/or participates in any electronic function.  But the process of becoming a digital citizen goes beyond simple internet activity. According to Thomas Humphrey Marshall, a British sociologist known for his work on social citizenship, a primary framework of citizenship comprises three different traditions: liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptive hierarchy. Within this framework, the digital citizen needs to exist in order to promote equal economic opportunities and increase political participation.  In this way, digital technology helps to lower the barriers to entry for participation as a citizen within a society.

Holistically, digital citizenship covers both a social and political point of view, utilized at a local level in school and other educational systems while also being debated upon on a national level. There are many means of participating as a digital citizen to advocate for causes or specific issues that are controversial, and being a digital citizen encompasses a level of responsibility that includes universal goals that should be followed.  These goals emphasize equality and equal treatment across gender, religion, economic status, and political beliefs. The focus is on income inequality and distribution, which are ideas that influenced the development of various economic and political systems.  This defines egalitarianism as a philosophical perspective that promotes participatory citizenship in governance of an economic system for inclusivity.

Second, culture in its anthropological sense, refers to the people’s way of life – the different values, norms, knowledge, skills, individual and collective beliefs – that guide individual and collective action. In this sense of values and norms, culture is understood as a stock of intangible renewable resources upon which people draw inspiration and through which they express the meaning they give to their existence and its development.

The 2005 Convention contains two distinct approaches to bridge culture and sustainable development.  The first approach is reflected in Article 13 and refers to culture integrated in sustainable development, while the second approach is reflected in Article 14 and refers to culture as an instrument or a means to development. They say that parties shall endeavour to integrate culture in their development policies at all levels.  This is to create conditions conducive to sustainable development and, within this framework, foster aspects relating to the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. (Article 13 of the Convention; Fig 8) 

Fig 8 Indicators for checking progress in seven dimensions of ‘culture for development’

Shared link to interactive map

Three distinct, but not mutually exclusive notions of development, are present in documents that frame the link between culture and development at the international level.  These are included in the 2005 Convention: development as economic growth in line with neo-classical economics; development as human capacity expansion, in line with the human development approach; and development in relation to present and future generations, in line with notions of sustainable development.  It is crucial to understand these differences, because the Convention uses them interchangeably, and they can be contradictory.

Development continues globally through increased urbanisation as ever more people from the countryside move to live in towns and cities.  It is a process associated with a decrease in the proportion of people living in rural areas, and the ways in which societies adapt to this change. Above all, as towns and cities become larger more people adopt different patterns of behaviour that define informal social relations.  These adaptations underpin everyday life for various social groups and the processes of social organisation and disorganisation which they promote are typical of modern urban cultures. 

The urbanisation of Grimsby resulted from the discovery of untapped fish stocks of the North Sea’s Dogger Bank and the invention of mass-catching trawlers to exploit them.  Expansion of the small town was paid for by scouring these fishing grounds creating a fishing culture with a narrow set of understandings or meanings shared by a group of people that are largely understood among members.  These understandings and meanings are clearly relevant and distinctive to survival of particular groups and are passed on to new members.  French geographers describe such a community bound to a local ecosystem for its survival as an ecumene (Fig 9).  When the ecosystem is no longer sustainable the idea of progress implies that changes in culture lie ahead.  Since the 1960s, Grimsby’s citizens have been asking themselves how they might bring forth knowledge from their past mindfully into the present.  Past cultures are relevant to envision the future when we recognize that every past thought-form, emotion and action taken by every single human being who has ever lived has shaped our present reality.  In other words, the question for educators who wish to import values of heritage into a future culture of sustainability is how do we understand the power and responsibility we have inherited?  This question is also relevant to the future of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, two fishing ecumenes based on the North Sea fishing grounds, who are also trying to adapt to life after fish with one foot in the past.

Fig 9 The marine fishing ecumene

Shareable link to interactive map

5 The spiritual practice of imagination

Some would say that peoples’ vision of the future of humankind is becoming more subjective and increasingly bound up with the transition from religion to a godless culture of spirituality.  Drawing on this visionary framework, spirituality is identified as bound up with the subjective life of intellectual freedom, while religion is seen as subordinating subjective life to an external authority of transcendent meaning, goodness, and truth. It is the subjective shift of modern culture that directs people away from religion and toward spirituality. In this respect, the idea that the essence of reality is a non-material spiritual quality is one of the most-common cross-cultural concepts in the history of the world.  Almost every indigenous group in the world has a term that describes a spiritual force or power of imagination that pervades all things, and constitutes the essence of all things.  For Frederic and Mary Ann Bussat living a spiritual life, imagination has two meanings. First, it is a human faculty.  It is the part of us that traffics in images, symbols, myths, and stories. It is the capacity we all have for innovative thinking and creative expression. Second, the imagination is an inner reality, a boundless realm not defined by our senses or reason.  We know from our dreams and an inner reality can enter via certain activities while awake. The practice of imagination encourages us to use this faculty and enables us to explore the world. To heighten the imagination you have to learn the language of imagination. Contemplate art and see yourself as part of the picture. Read myths and tell stories. Apply arts reasoning, known as abductive reasoning to explain sustainability (#aartes). Abductive reasoning starts with an observation or set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely conclusion from the observations. This process yields a plausible conclusion but does not positively verify it. Abductive conclusions are thus qualified as having a remnant of uncertainty or doubt, which is expressed in retreat terms such as “best available” or “most likely”.

Such ideas brought about a photographic exhibition in Milan (2016) entitled “Cathedrals of Energy’.  It contained over a hundred images by photographer Francesco Radino spanning architecture, industry and landscape. Together, they illustrated the iconic buildings of the Italian power utility, Azienda Energetica Municipale, all dedicated to the production of energy in Italy from north to south, with power plants and ancillary machinery ranging from the early twentieth century to today.  The exhibition tells about a visual culture of energy production and describes the buildings, places and architectures of AEM.  The images are all structures very different in appearance that combine the useful with the aesthetic and present new balances with the surrounding natural environment. Consequently, the four elements, earth, air, water and fire, become of essential importance, because they are not only linked to the processes of mass energy production, but also illustrate the union across several different professional domains of history, art, environment, mechanical engineering, architecture and the economics of an age of plenty. 

A similar cross curricular exhibition of cultural icons can be assembled for the shifting cultural ecology of Grimsby as a ruined temple of plenty (Appendix).  Appropriate spiritual icons for the historical journey would be its long-gone Corn Exchange, a cultural icon of life before fish; the great dock’s ice-making machine, ensuring that fresh fish could be marketed long after it was caught, now lying redundant in dockland.  Then there are the remains of the dockside fish market that secured Grimsby’s weekly wages and Armstrong’s masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, focused on the Dock Tower, which energised the whole cultural enterprise of deep sea fishing.  In the context of digital landmarking a culture we need to remember that through the ages spiritual pilgrims have found that, faced with a suitable icon, it is possible to step with ease into the inner realm of imagination.  Therefore, it is important to begin training young people to become digital citizens by pointing this out.  For example, downloaded census forms from the past become spiritual resources, using the spiritual practice of imagination to define families  immersed in a culture of srvival at the deepest level of the heart. (Fig 10).

Fig 10 Idea for a multiagency education project in Grimsby, with possible funders, for training digital citizens to value cultural heritage in relation to planning for a sustainable future

6 Appendix: icons of visual culture

Gasometro “Cutler” dell’Officina del gas alla Bovisa, Milano.

The Grimsby Ice Factory

Dock Tower

7 Internet References

East Marsh: a liberal’s view

Growing up in East Marsh

Lincs Inspire

Make Grimsby Great Again


Heneage 2

Old Grimsby


UNESCO: culture and development

UNESCO Culture for Development Indicators


Photo Gallery

Culture Magic

Theresa Hubel, Whose India?

Cultural vitality

Street view

Grimsby Local History Library

One foot in the Past 

Grimsby’s heritage assets

North Sea: overfishing

Impoverishment of the sea

History of corn exchanges