4 May 2021
Over a number of years, I’ve come across various writers who have reported events they define as uplifting moments in their lives as a result of exposure to what I like to call grand nature. Their experiences, set out later, describe such poignant moments, which clearly for them were not just arresting delights, but also life changing.
I’d like to venture first into a field where I expect most of us are on familiar ground, that is, city and suburban life.
What of life in cities & suburbia?
Are there moments we find similarly uplifting, or are city dwellers fated to live where the mundane prevails and the growth ideologies of neoliberal, consumerist capitalism are left to fill our value senses and imaginations? Perhaps finding such moments are the biggest challenge for city and suburban dwellers, but who is not up for such a challenge, with some of the author’s experiences to awaken us?
One obvious place to start this search is with known nature landscapes around or within my home city of Melbourne:
Geoff Lacey: a local valley walker, and aspirants
While not adopting the specific terms ‘wonder’ and ‘enchantment’, Geoff Lacey speaks of reactions similar to this in describing his studies of ‘found’ walking places, especially along the boundaries of the Yarra River, which winds its way in and around Melbourne. In several books, Lacey fixes on the notion of ‘reading the land’, a sure way of having the wanderer take in and be moved by what s/he sees and passes.
His latest book, At Home in the Land – The Plenty-Yarra Corridor (Minuteman Press 2021), follows a succession of his books which take the reader into splendid nature settings (mainly in and around Melbourne). They could easily fill the bill of deep-seated nature experiences.
(The book is available at Readings at Carlton, or from the author at (03) 9489 4784, firstname.lastname@example.org for $25, including postage.)
Previous books by Lacey covering similar and related themes are …
- Still Glides the Stream – The natural history of the Yarra from Heidelberg to Yarra Bend (Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd 2004).
- Reading the Land (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008).
- For deep penetration of the issues which form his approach to living in the city – including his views on global warming, the changing face of technology, issues of sustainability and ecology for the city, ‘the good life’, and more – his short but arresting book Sufficient for the Day – Towards a Sustainable Culture (Yarra Institute Press, 2011).
- Occasional papers, including Towards an ecological conversion – Technoscience, nature, & the good life’ (Social Policy Connections, December 2015).
In comments and quotes which could fit Lacey’s thinking squarely in the ‘wonder’ space, he includes terms such as ‘magic’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘graceful’, ‘charming’, ‘beautiful’, and perhaps that most evocative of all nature descriptions, ‘wildness’. Referring to known Aboriginal presences in places, Lacey draws attention to ‘(the) profound cultural and spiritual history’ of particular sites.
Here is an example from Lacey’s earlier writing which easily fits the bill of ‘wonder’ writing, even though not characterised by him as such:
Raimond Gaita described an awakening experience when he was a boy on farmland near Cairn Curran Reservoir in Victoria: “I reached the hill in the mid-afternoon. For the first time in my life I was really alive to beauty, receiving a kind of shock from it… The landscape seemed to have a special beauty, disguised until I was ready for it.”
Lacey comments: “Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, more and more people than ever are coming to experience a growing sense of our relationship with the land. For some, like Gaita, the impact of the landscape comes all of a sudden. My experience, when I was about thirteen, had much in common with his. Over a period of a few months I discovered the wilderness, diversity and mystery of the Red River Gum forest, with its abundant bird life, along the Goulburn River at the edge of the town. For others, the awareness of nature develops gradually over the years.” (Reading the Land, pp. 1-2.)
It’s clear that Lacey enjoys nothing better than to be walking these nature environments, notebook in hand, jotting down tree-life and plant groupings, water pathways, soil conditions, animal and birdlife, and observing evidences of earlier aboriginal presences. In his just published book, At Home in the Land, Lacey sets down all this surrounding data in the landscapes he walks (briefly covering the Coliban Main Channel ecological corridor in Central Victoria) but mainly in ‘The Plenty-Yarra Corridor’.
At the same time he sets his ruminations in the broader cultures of, on the one hand, hi-tech preoccupations, about which he has severe reservations, and on the other hand, the prospects for deeply committed nature-based, suburban community lives. It’s not for Lacey to complain over ‘suburban sprawl’: rather for him, the challenge is to bring suburbanites into ecological networks, while seeing farmers adopt the regenerative systems of agriculture described in Charles Massy’s “remarkable book”, Call of the Reed Warbler: a new agriculture, a new earth.
Let us turn to two more local authors, Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, and their book, Urban Awakenings – Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
As with Lacey’s books, these writers prompt the question, do you necessarily have to go into places of surrounding ‘grand nature’ to experience a sense of ‘enchantment’? Anyway, the authors describe how they have found moments and places, ones they were pleased to call ‘enchanting’. They’ve set out their inspiration-finding moments, learned as ‘urban tramps’ (as they call themselves) while they’ve wandered streets and activity settings in their home city of Melbourne.
Urban Awakenings comes behind their inspiring book of the previous year, Degrowth in the Suburbs – A Radical Urban Imaginary (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019) and together these two books offer a whole new story (‘imaginary’ as they call it) of how urban life can ‘enchant’ in the face of the crashing ‘disturbances’ overtaking our natural home.
Speaking generally, Alexander and Gleeson in Urban Awakenings write of helping to usher in ‘an ecological civilisation’. An era of ‘ecological civilisation’ is commonly described as one where humans and the rest of nature exist in a mutually enhancing way. Is there any sane alternative?
The authors build their wonder theme on the notion of ‘enchantment’, perhaps not as arresting a concept as ‘wonder or awe’, or dare we say, as the ‘the sacred or even ‘spiritual’, but nevertheless with a breadth of meanings that are capable of taking our hearts and minds beyond the mundane. (Furthermore, if someone has no fear of treading the waters of ‘the sacred’, she/he can venture into Carolyn W. Toben’s Recovering A Sense of the Sacred – Conversations with Thomas Berry, (Timberlake Earth Sanctuary Press, 2012), but that’s another topic.
Urban Awakenings needs to be read in full for the wealth of experiences it introduces readers into, including but not limited to places of historical interest as well as the no-holds-barred critique of our reigning consumerist capitalist agendas. Here are a couple of extracts and an example from the book that give a taste of the authors’ leading sources, methodology and vision:
Alexander and Gleeson state:
We were inspired and guided by the thesis set out in Jane Bennett’s 2001 book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, which urges a new and critical way of seeing contemporary modernity as a fractured, contradictory, unreasonable, and ultimately mortal dispensation. Far from accepting modernity’s dominant narrative of disenchantment, however, Bennett seeks to tell an alter-tale, one that recognises that the world still has the capacity to enchant in ways she maintains has ethical (and, we will argue, political) significance. We wanted to apply and extend her analysis to the urban landscape, by walking the city with eyes open to the possibility of enchantment – a methodology we describe as ‘urban tramping’.
In our case, a vague sense of urban disenchantment gave birth to an idea for a book, but the process of writing it (as we walked the city) somehow induced a more expansive and visionary mood, a new affective state, on account of what Bennett would call ‘the wonder of minor experiences’ [my emphasis].”
And as a highlight for the trampers:
This late afternoon we tramp to and through a place called CERES, a 10-acre ‘environmental park’ situated in Melbourne’s inner northern suburb of East Brunswick, located on Wurundjeri land that runs along the Merri Creek. This is, we feel, one of the most enchanting places in the city…
We dream that one day something like CERES through collective action, vibrates outwards and becomes the beating heart of our city, our collective mood, our urban soul. CERES is like a castle built in the air. Now we have to put the foundations under it.”
Extracts from Grand Nature wonder writers
The following extracts are meant to give a lead into experiences of the above-listed writers and should be read as just that – an invitation to hear their full stories as they expound them in the referenced books.
Haydn Washington (A Sense of Wonder Towards Nature, Ecosolution Consulting (Nullo Books), 2002)
“I opened my eyes to stare into deep black eyes a few metres away. Fascinated eyes. Eyes of otherness. There was no fear… none at all. We watched in mutual astonishment at the incredibility of our ‘being’… Someone else in the group moved and turned over, and the Superb Lyrebird ran off up the sand slope to vanish into the bush… I was just eighteen and the year was 1974. The four of us were bivouacking… We were camped on a sandbank at the junction of the Capertree River and Wollemi Creek where they formed the start of the Colo River, deep within a labyrinth of canyons and gorges. We were in the middle of the largest wilderness area in New South Wales… I didn’t wonder at my ‘sense of wonder’. My heart was too full. The sense of belonging and harmony was overwhelming. I didn’t know it then… but my life had just changed forevermore…
So… what is our sense of wonder at the natural world? Is it something innate that we are born with, or can anybody learn?
Samuel Alexander Entropia – Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (Simplicity Institute, Melbourne, 2013)
This is the kind of freedom we had on the Isle. Whenever someone needed space and solitude, one only needed to walk away, into the wild, whenever and for however long one desired. It was an immense spiritual privilege, one that I understand distinguishes us from most of civilised humankind that went before us…
The universe was waking up and as it did so I found myself awakening with it. A cosmological wind strengthened within me, blowing new energy onto the embers of my soul and casting renewed light upon my world. I felt infinitely grateful to be alive and present to this extraordinary scene. Standing there I experienced an ecstatic moment of rapture, through which, for a moment, at least, I felt in perfect unity with the universe. I felt perfectly safe, blessed to be in a world radiating such beauty, grandeur, power, mystery. It may have been fleeting, but such moments of mystical madness are so intense that one is never the same again. They shape the soul in ways that cannot be undone. (p 133-147).
Paul Collins Judgment Day – The struggle for life on earth (UNSW Press, 2010)
In early 1971, I joined a group walking into Lake Pedder, a then pristine glacial lake in the wilderness of southwest Tasmania…
Pedder was a magnificent place, a cathedral of nature. During my time there I experienced something that put me in touch with a presence far removed beyond myself, something I had never encountered before. At Pedder my awareness was heightened and I felt that my vision of the world around me was clarified. When I was on my own, away from the group, I began to feel that I had entered a kind of time beyond time…
what I remember vividly from that day was facing out towards a transcendent and mysterious presence that touched me deeply and influenced the rest of my life. (p 223-224).
Jeff Vandermeer, ‘Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment’ (in Orion Magazine, 9 April 2021):
Birds have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and hummingbirds have held a special place in my heart for the simple reason that they, early on, became personal to me.
(While confined to bed as a child with a serious illness) Two hummingbirds had appeared in the window… Iridescent flames, feathered in red and gold and black and emerald, hovering there. The most unexpected thing I could have imagined, and I was transfixed, unsure if it could be unreal…
When I am very lucky, a humming bird will come to me when I pause on the walkway. Emerald and ruby, the bird will hover just a few feet away, at eye level, considering me. Wondering about me. Taking my measure. We know each other now, a little. And so I am revealed, staring back, and I don’t mind.
Because I know another world is possible when I see a hummingbird – and that it is this world. Our world, now.”
Heather Eaton, ‘The Human Quest to Live in a Cosmos’ – an essay in Living Earth Community-Multiple Ways of Being and Knowing, edited by Sam Mickey, Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim. (Open Book Publishers, 2020):
The quest to live in a cosmos is more than knowledge: It is an orientation to living within Earth now. It represents many journeys: an outward journey to the boundaries of the universe, Earth’s journey, the human journey, and the interior journey of integrating these together… (p 217).
It is my view, and experience, that becoming aware of the extraordinary dynamics of evolution can open up the possibility of profound depth or religious experiences. Such experiences allow a glimpse into a world of stunning elegance, of mysteries and adventure, of vistas beyond our knowing. The natural world inspires wonder and awe: a kind of power available to all who attend carefully to the natural world. The movement of the stars, the presence of mountains, the invigorating quality of ocean waves fills us with feelings of celebration and reverence. (p 223).
Thomas Berry, The Meadow across the Creek, from Ch2 in The Great Work – Our Way into the Future
My own understanding of the great work began when I was quite young. At the time, I was some eleven years old. My family was moving from a more settled part of a small southern town out to the edge of town where the new house was being built. The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in late May when I first wandered down the incline, crossed the creek, and looked out over the scene.
The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. Magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember. It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in a clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do.
Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet as the years pass this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes to which I have given my efforts, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life…
Intimacy with the planet in its wonder and beauty and the full depth of its meaning is what enables an integral human relationship with the planet to function. It is the only possibility for humans to attain their true flourishing while honouring the other modes of earthly being…
All the writers quoted above, the local valley walker or aspirants, the urban trampers, and the ‘grand nature’ ones, lead the reader into a very different ethos of life than prevails in today’s consumer capitalist world. Their stories are not the final word on where our imaginations and moments of deep reflection, and even surprise encounters, might take us. But they’re sure worth mulling over and expanding out with other noted moments of our own edification.
As a final comment, I suggest this lead from producers of the film Journey of the Universe, a film that takes its viewers into deeply wondrous – but also spiritual, sacred, and rarely captured religious – places in the Universe and on Earth.
Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, on its tenth anniversary: Wonder will guide us…
Now retired, Len is a former urban planner with State and local government planning bodies, and writes with a focus on the advancement of the case for ‘an ecological civilisation’, where humans and the rest of nature live together in a mutually enhancing way.
Photo Child playing in the Yarra, Brian Yap, flickr cc.