Doctor of Education, Professor, European Graduate School (Switzerland); Professor Emerita and Founding Director of Expressive Arts Graduate Program, Appalachian State University (North Carolina, USA)
In a short essay, the renowned poetess and scientist Sally Atkins shares her perception of the Earth and a particular place on Earth as forming a poeticized image that plays a key role and sets a certain reference point in her relation to reality. She considers some systemic concepts that support the attitude to the Earth as a living entity, in particular, the Gaia theory, as well as the idea of J. Hillman about aesthetic sensitivity. Particular importance is attached to artistic and aesthetic ways of interacting with nature.
Keywords: anima mundi, Mother-Earth, the Gaia theory, image, metaphor
How do we think about the earth? What is the source of inspiration for our images of this planet? How do these images inform our daily lives? Are there images, old or new, that can expand our current scientific, sociocultural and historical perspectives and enlarge our understanding of how we are to live in relationship to the earth? What is our responsibility with regard to the earth in this time? Questions such as these live in my mind and in my heart.
The morning air is cold on my face and the sun is just cresting the ridge, just beginning to cast long shadows of trees, as I walk into the woods. My companion is a large, old and very gentle golden retriever. He is teaching about paying attention. When he stops and looks up the side of the mountain, I stop too and silently follow his gaze. I can see them clearly through the bare trees, three deer, two does and a buck. They stand still too, watching us. After awhile they lower their heads and continue eating. We do not move. They look again, then apparently deciding we pose no threat, they cavort playfully. We watch them for a long time. Finally, the deer disappear over the mountain, their tails waving like little white flags.
For the Cherokee, the native peoples of our land, the deer, like all animals, like everything, is a great teacher. Deer are associated with the north, the time of winter, and with gentleness, quiet and wisdom. On this day, just five days before the winter solstice, the teaching is strong for me. I carry the memory of this meeting with me for many days.
The poet, Mary Oliver, in her poem, “The Place I Want to Get Back To,” speaks of her own encounter with deer. She closes her poem with the following words:
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts bestowed,
cannot be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
Gratitude. [8, P. 36]
Photo: Sally Atkins in the woods.
I, too, go every day to the same woods. I, too, am filled with gratitude for this privilege, knowing also that one day this patch of woods near my house likely will be filled with houses and condominiums. I walk with my dog a trail through the forest along a ridge above the oldest river on the North American continent, a river older than the mountains themselves. Often, we walk down the mountain to follow the winding trail beside the river. We walk among remnants of the earth’s oldest forests, scarlet oak, white oak, chestnut oak, shagbark hickory, American beech, sycamore, sassafras, eastern hemlock, white pine and jack pine.
When I think about images of the earth, how these images inform our relationship with the earth and how they shape our daily lives, I come to believe that my experience of this landscape is the standpoint from which I perceive the world. I have travelled many places on the earth, to Africa, to China, to Central and South America, to other mountains, the Rockies, the Alps and the Andes. But it is these old and gentle mountains of the Blue Ridge that hold my roots. This landscape is how I know the earth.
Metaphors of Mother Earth
What shapes our collective thoughts and images of Earth? The Greeks were not the only ones to call the earth a divine mother. Throughout history, cultures all over the world have honored the earth as the source and sustainer of both human and non-human life. Before the Spanish conquerors, before the Greek gods and goddesses, the ancient peoples of Bolivia, the Quechua and Aymara, also saw the earth as female, her body ever present and ever changing, with the creative power to sustain life. They named her Pachamama, Mother Earth or Earth/time Mother.
Today images of Pachamama, the Earth Mother, are everywhere - in the old colonial city of Tarata, in the modern city of Lima, in the village of Cuzco and in the witches’ market in La Paz. Inside the cathedral on the Plaza Central in Cochabamba, our indigenous Bolivian guide explains that when the Spanish came, they built these great cathedrals, one in every village on the town square opposite the government buildings. Then he gestures reverently to the statue of the Madonna on the left side of the cathedral, “Do you see how she is standing on stone? And look there at that one on the right side. Do you see that she is carved of wood and that there are plants at her feet? This is how we know that the Virgin Mary of the Catholics actually is Pachamama, our Mother Earth.”
The Gaia Theory
I have read that it was the novelist William Golding, a neighbor of James Lovelock’s, who urged the British scientist to call his description of the earth as a self-regulating system the Gaia Hypothesis. Lovelock first presented his ideas, basically a biochemical explanation of the homeostasis of the earth, at a 1969 lecture at Princeton University. Gaia, the name of the ancient Greek earth goddess, he thought, would be perhaps more intriguing and evocative than “the biocybernetic universal system tendency, a more conventional scientific name, to describe the self-regulating system of the earth in which the land, the biota, the oceans and the atmosphere act together to maintain a dynamic equilibrium that supports life on earth . This dramatic image has had immediate and long-term popular appeal to deep ecologists and environmentalists.
Images of Earth from Outer Space
The emergence of the Gaia Hypothesis as a full-fledged theory by 1981 was accompanied by the stunning visual images of earth from outer space taken by astronauts. Uniformly, their response to what they saw was awe. Rollo May  in My Quest for Beauty documents his own response to those images. In the final pages of the book, May turns to the photograph of the earth from space taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 and speaks of how he saw it as a symbol for new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. He writes about how the image reached deeply into his own soul, how it seemed that nations, usually so noisy, were suddenly silent and serene.
The image of the earth from outer space, although trivialized later as an icon for advertising or the inspiration for simplistic notions of “saving the planet,” still evokes awe today. And if considered more deeply, this image conjures the idea of the earth as a super organism, not merely a life support system for humans, but an interacting, self-regulating geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and magnetosphere. Yet, as awe-inspiring as this image is, our perspective remains separate and distant from, not a part of, this great blues sphere.
The Metaphor of Systems Theory
Lovelock’s ideas of the earth as a system was closely related to the ideas of the biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, generally considered the father of general systems theory and to those of Gregory Bateson , who spoke of “the pattern that connects,” systems theory as a new epistemological science of mind to overcome the reductionist, materialist and dualistic thinking of classical science.
The Anima Mundi and the Metaphor of Dialogue
Rollo May’s experience of being deeply touched in his soul by the image of Earth from space seems exactly what James Hillman (1998) calls for as an aesthetic response to the world in his essay, “The Soul of the World.” Here is the idea of the anima mundi, the world ensouled, a new/old sense of psychic reality. This is closer, says Hillman, to an animal sense of the world, giving attention to the particular qualities of things. It is a move from cognitive understanding to aesthetic sensitivity, a call to participate in an enduring intimate conversation with the world. Thus, the metaphor of dialogue is proposed as a way of relating to the earth.
The Gifts and Limitations of Language
While the earth images from science are stunningly powerful, for me it is often from the poets that the most evocative images come. Annie Dillard  echoes Hillman’s ideas of aesthetic sensitivity. She says that we don’t learn from a wild animal how to live in particular. “ …shall I such warm blood, hold my tail high…,” but we might learn something about being in the purity of the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.
The Limitations of Metaphor
The gift and limitation of metaphor is that it does not explain, but points toward something more. Here the suggestions of earth as a living system, of earth as mother goddess or earth as dialogue offer intriguing perspectives on the questions of the earth and our relationship to her.
Photo: View of the Appalachian Mountains
When I look for some guidance on the question of how we are to live in relationship with the earth, I return to the words of Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life: “Pay attention, Be astonished. Tell about it.” [7, p. 37].
I return again to my own place. I try to pay attention, to be surprised and touched by what I experience and to respond. Here is one response:
This morning again
I respond to the terrible
beauty of the natural world with awe and humility…
Owl poem or flood
“Especially in Spring”
The world resists
Our best designs.
What is alive
Blooms in white stars
On a green carpet.
What is alive
Dissolves the flatness
Of our language.
What is alive
Of the little boxes
We have made
Forest still, ground soft and damp
After rain, first light casting
Long shadows over
The slow river rippling
Softly, hemlocks shimmering
Above thickets of laurel,
Remnants of Earth’s oldest forests:
White oak, black walnut, yellow buckeye
Sycamore. Sassafras, scarlet oak
Black gum, red maple, American beech
Dogwood, black locust, table mountain pine
Redbud, red cedar, wild persimmon
Sourwood, sweet gum, shagbark hickory
White pine, tupelo, tulip poplar
Wild cherry, mulberry, chestnut oak.
Becoming the oak, food of deer,
Food of cougar, raven, the sentinel
Waiting to pick clean the bones;
Tracks of deer, scent of bear
Awakening the shape
Shifting truth of the senses,
Feeling pulse and pace
Something still wild in me,
Seeing how life feeds on life,
Like insects, ingested, rewoven
Into the web of the spider,
Remembering it is all right
To break open, scattering
Seeds of myself to the wind.
Knowing I belong
To stories of stones, the pattern
Of bones, the dialogue of trees,
Seeing and seen in the ways
Of old magic, embodied, ensouled
In the round dance of seasons.
Bateson, G. (1971). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York; Ballantine.
Dillard, A. (1982). Teaching a stone to talk. New York: Harper & Row.
Hillman, J. (1998). The thought of the heart and the soul of the world. – Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications.
Kriz, J. (2006). Self-actualization. Herstellung und Verlag: Books on Demand.
Lovelock, J. (1979). Gaia: A new look at life on earth. New York: Oxford University.
May, R. (1985). My quest for beauty. Michigan: Saybrook.
Oliver, M. (2004). Long life. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.
Oliver, M. (2006). Thirst. Boston: Beacon.
Reference for citations
Atkisn, S. (2020). Why I walk in the woods. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(2). – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru.