Spiritual Ecology of the New Planet: Seeing Nature as More Than a Resource

Spiritual ecology calls us to dismantle the powerful defense mechanisms we have developed against our impulse to listen to the sacred in our world.

  • Wilderness
    Awe and mystery are so vital to the human experience of the natural world that without them we are doomed to treat nature as little more than a resource, a science or a playground for recreation alone.
    Photo by Fotolia/Irochka
  • An Altar in the Wilderness
    An Altar in the Wilderness, by Kaleeg Hainsworth (Rocky Mountain Books, 2014), lays forth a spiritual ecology that acknowledges our natural surroundings as sacred and communicative and questions our self-appointed role as stewards and destroyers of natural beauty.
    Cover courtesy of Rocky Mountain Books

  • Wilderness
  • An Altar in the Wilderness

An Altar in the Wilderness, by Kaleeg Hainsworth (Rocky Mountain Books, 2014) is grounded in the literary, philosophical, mystical and historical teachings of the spiritual masters of both East and West, outlining the human experience of the sacred in nature. The spiritual ecology described here is fully engaged with the wilderness beyond our backyard. It is an ecology that takes in nature as “red in tooth and claw” and offers a way forward in the face of accelerating climate change. This manifesto also challenges our modern self-conception as dominators or stewards of the natural world, claiming these roles emerged from Western industrial history and are directly responsible for the environmental damage and alienation from nature we see today.

Sacrament and Ecology

The first time I realized that the universe had something to say to me, I was 12 years old and hiking in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains. My family and I had spent a long weekend trekking to a remote lake high in the alpine, reached only by a steep shale traverse up a mountain pass. The pass presented itself only at the end of an already long day of hiking and climbing it seemed to take forever. When the trail levelled, however, and the view opened, my eyes widened at the sight waiting for us. An alpine meadow stretched as far as I could see, flanked by two snowy peaks and crammed with red paintbrushes, purple crocuses, blue forget-me-nots and shooting stars. The wildflowers were bright with sun under a wide blue sky and swaying this way and that in the haphazard breezes from the slopes. There are moments in life that are different from any other; they seem fixed in time and history, like waypoints in a journey. We arrive at them without warning, stumbling, and depart a different person with new purpose, with transformed vision and self-revelation. I had seen such beauty before, but in this moment I suddenly felt like Keats’s “Watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

What I had stumbled into as a dorky pre-teen boy was indeed a new planet, not a different one, but I saw this planet through eyes of wonder and awe. I remembered a quote I saw on a greeting card as a boy that claimed, “If we would see this world as the angels do, we would be ravished and enraptured as the angels are.” I was seeing like his angels and wondering how I could have missed until now the radiant inner world around me. I say inner world, but perhaps inter-world would be a better spatial designation. This world, of which I had known only the natural part until now, was as much a revelation of individual elements as one of a complex network of relatedness. Each flower seemed to proclaim itself, but in relation to all the other flowers and the scenery in general. Everything around me was communicating and I felt invited to join the conversation. “It is a blessed thing,” observed John Muir, “to go free in the light of this beautiful world, to see God playing upon everything as on an instrument, His fingers upon the lightning and torrent, on every wave of sea and sky, and every living thing, making all together sing and shine in sweet accord, the one love-harmony of the Universe.”

This “see[ing] God playing upon everything as on an instrument” is essentially seeing the world as sacramental and is vital to spiritual ecology. I know well that the word “sacrament” is most often associated with Christianity and it certainly has a lot of baggage that goes with it. But spiritual ecology, indeed spirituality in general, is nothing without it. Simply put, a sacrament is something that reveals the sacred. The alpine flowers I witnessed in the Kananaskis were a sacrament, as was the wind in that valley. Perhaps to the flowers and the wind I was a sacrament too. Everything was communicating something of itself, and that something was inherently sacred.

If We Listen, We Thrive

The key message here is that nature is communicating constantly. The genius of Indigenous spirituality is that it understands this and listens. The “voices” of the great bear or the caribou, the salmon or the eagle, are vitally important to survival; indeed, these voices speak to us and can even help reveal our identities to us. In Eric Collier’s classic memoir Three Against the Wilderness, about being a pioneering family in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia, there is a description of a wise old First Nations woman with whom he converses about where to settle and how. In this wonderful piece of reportage, we have a first-hand picture of the kind of wisdom these Native peoples, so much a part of the land, possess:

Tucked away within the recesses of Lala’s wise old mind was a veritable storehouse of knowledge concerning the land as it was when the white man first came to it. Though she knew nothing of biology as printed in any book, the everyday chores of an era when she and the others of her tribe were entirely reliant upon the wildlife resources of the land had brought her into almost daily contact with the complex laws of Nature. Lala knew well of the seven kind years and the seven lean years, and her knowledge was not gleaned from a Bible. The interplay of the cycles that have such paramount bearing upon the fortunes of all wildlife communities was as familiar to Lala as the letters of the alphabet to a child of civilization. If Lala’s biological knowledge came to her from the campus of the wilderness itself, she could not perhaps have attended a better school of learning.

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