The Forsaken Garden: Four Conversations on the Deep Meaning of Environmental Illness, by Nancy Ryley, Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL, 1998.
Amazing how the old myth holds in our time: Malaise afflicts the land. Air, water and soil are poisoned and weaken those who depend on them. Plants and animals are going extinct at a rate faster than the dinosaurs. Lacking vision, the world's leaders exploit more and more of our natural resources. People like Nancy Ryley are very sick, unable to breathe properly or digest their food. With immune systems compromised, fatigue settles like a black cloud without lifting. Living in areas where the toxins are thickest, they are about to expire. What must be done?
Consulting wisdom figures is one step, and in this case they are Sir Laurens van der Post, Marion Woodman, Ross Woodman, and Thomas Berry. Nancy Ryley, an award winning documentary film-maker in Canada, intelligent and articulate herself, constructs this book so that conversations with each person comprise several chapters. In between she does a fine job of explication as well as accounting for her own physical and spiritual changes. The net effect is that everyone, through discussing their most personal experiences, appears to be transformed in some way.
Although each interviewee holds different views, the neglect and exclusion in daily life of the "feminine" or soul is common to all. Marion Woodman, noted Jungian analyst and author (Coming Home to Myself, Conscious Femininity, The Pregnant Virgin, The Ravaged Bridegroom, among others), mentions how the deaths of Mother Theresa and Princess Diana brought about widespread awareness and mourning for this loss. She declares, "Diana carries mother, abandoned child, abandoned wife, adulteress, humanitarian, and a woman who has the courage to stand up for her beliefs" Through the urging of such events and dreams people are gathering new images of the feminine.
The Jungian jargon of van der Post and Woodman, wise and suggestive as it is, tends to glide over the mind, particularly if one is very familiar with it. It's refreshing to take in the less familiar styles of Ross Woodman, professor of Romantic Literature, and Thomas Berry, Catholic priest and author of The Dream of the Earth, co-author with cosmologist Brian Swimme of The Universe Story. Nevertheless, the way the complementary views of these individuals are organized enhances the ultimate meaning of the book.
Laurens van der Post, born and raised in Africa, was deeply impressed by the indigenous people's sense of "belonging" in nature. A prisoner of war, he faced sure execution (a numinous experience the night before of resounding thunder and lightning made him feel in the hands of a larger Power) but lived to make documentaries on the Kalahari and Bushmen. Knighted by the Queen of England, he was also a close friend of Carl Jung's. He introduces the idea of the "privilege of illness" to lead one to the gifts of inner transformation. Quoting Jung's words before he died, he says, "I cannot define for human beings what God is, but what I can say is that my scientific work has proved the pattern of God exists in every human being. And that this pattern has at its disposal the greatest transforming energies of which life is capable." Van der Post believes that the universe and the individual are in a co-creating process; thus the individual has a very important role in rescuing "the forsaken garden."
The prevailing sickness of spirit has come from lack of communion with nature in society's modern people: indigenous nature-based cultures are relegated to the poorest fringes, nature is regarded predominantly for its economic value. Love and comfort in nature have fallen by the wayside. Van der Post says, "We don't realize that if you love something it's not really love unless you also serve it; you don't just exploit it." To help facilitate this understanding, he was an advocate and practitioner of wilderness therapy programs. Sir Laurens van der Post, who died in 1996, also explored the myth of Chiron, who taught the art of healing to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. One of his gifts to Nancy Ryley was the use of Chiron as an inner healer. (I am grateful for having been in van der Post's presence once when he came to the U.S.).
Like many of us when sick, we go to the doctor and hope for a quick recovery so we can get back to our tasks. How often do we take time to explore the problem through meditation, movement, creative expression, or therapies that emphasize the wholeness of body/mind/spirit? How many of us think in terms of our body and the earth being on a continuum and that abuse of our bodies and the earth go hand in hand? Among Marion Woodman's many gifts to us is her demonstration that the body and its disorders are clear passageways to the soul.
She sees addiction as "perverted religion." "The lack of any connection to the feminine essence often creates a hole in the psyche, a yearning, an emptiness in the psyche that manifests as a compulsive drive for sweetness, or fullness, or nourishing of any kind." Instead of a having a positive spiritual mother within, many turn to a materialistic mother, the buying of things that ends up with negative effects. The masculine principle, which should be assertive, discerning, evaluating, and clarifying has become "a despicable power principle." And, she adds, we are knowingly degrading the earth and its systems and inhabitants. Some people play victim to the bullies and others numb out.
Finding the solution to personal and earth sickness is explored by each interviewee, and all agree that change must happen within each individual soul and that a new integrating image, much as Christianity sustained culture for centuries, must arise. (A shortcoming of the book is to ignore other religions, in particular Muslim, the largest of all). Marion Woodman first raises the point that the discoveries of quantum physics (I would add microbiology) about the relation of matter and energy are shaping that image. (She interestingly asserts that in its terminology words "like acausal, irrational, paradox, synchronicity are 'feminine'.") Thomas Berry develops this hypothesis, to be seen a bit later.
Each person will have to face tasks that take one into deep despair and confusion before a new reconfiguration of the individual psyche can take place. Regarding her own fierce bout with cancer, Marion Woodman says it "saved her life." She of course worked with it daily in dreams, movement, meditation, journaling and realized as she surrendered to it, that it had been long due for her to make a new life-transition. Her description of the ego-stuff that was burned off is one of the most moving aspects of the book. The intensity is underscored when one reads how much her experience affected Ross Woodman, her husband.
In her words: "Once we're in connection with that Love coming through our own cells, then we can feel the suffering in the cells of the tree, in other people, in the planet. We recognize Oneness. Then we simply cannot violate the Earth."
"We're all little sparks of One Soul," Marion Woodman states, a view that was also put forth by the Romantic poets in the 19th century in response to the estrangement from nature that had occurred because of mechanistic scientific theories and industrialization. William Blake, Ross Woodman reminds us, coined the term "bodysoul," and his dialogue sparks Nancy Ryley to develop the wonderful construct of the "global bodysoul."
Ross Woodman, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, has authored many articles on Canadian art, religion, and world civilization, as well as books on James Reaney and The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley. In his chapters he gives fascinating insights into Romantic literature and his marriage with Marion.
He believes that the modern soul feels threatened with extinction and so has gone into hiding, but that like a perennial plant that dies off in winter's cold, it will re-emerge in spring conditions. An example of modern suffering is how the Vietnam war ended traditional heroism. The men who fought were tormented by conflict over their orders to kill and their compassion for others. Many of these men are still in trauma.
On solving the crises of the bodysoul and its global counterpart, he believes creative expression is a must for repressed energy. Also, it is necessary to see nature as a "thou" rather than an "it," having a relationship from within the whole fabric of nature. He asserts that ultimately the individual cannot "save" the planet but that "saving" is in the hands of the God and Goddess in charge. That doesn't let us off the hook; we are still used as instruments.
Thomas Berry, in his section, echoes the others but expresses himself differently. Yes, we've sold our souls to technology and corporate control (his abhorrence drove him at age 20 to a monastery), are obsessed with accelerating growth, overworking the soil, and putting ourselves first (getting rid of all wildlife in the way and not ever recognizing their rights to thrive too). He decries the loss of reciprocity between humans and nonhumans, the lack of reverence and ethical concern for the created universe. In short, the pillars of society economic, political, intellectual, and religious "are either supporting the forces that cause environmental illness, or accepting them" and can't be trusted.
He and Nancy go over how this state came about at some length. Interestingly, for Christians he thinks that the Black Death of Europe made people fear the natural world and turn to seeking redemption in the afterworld. More secular people promoted defense against nature by learning to control it. Thus the way was paved for a mechanistic world that saw no soul in nature. Then in more recent times came the invention of the automobile and digging for oil, both of which have contributed so enormously to contamination and sprawling development. Berry rightly blames scientists for not taking a stronger role in warning us what would happen.
To counter the pull of soulless materialism, Berry would like children (adults need it too!) to be given a strong orientation to the seas, stars, all the flora and fauna. I would add, and I am sure he'd agree, an understanding of ecology, which is all about how the parts relate to one another and are in constant change. He notes that scientists such as Hubble, Planck and Einstein have shown how the universe transforms itself, a process that has shaped every animate being along the way.
"Every atom is immediately influencing every other atom of the universe. Every particle is connected to every other particle, every galaxy to every other galaxy." And he emphasizes that the curvature of space (a metaphor for the container the Great Mother) enables the universe to keep expanding but also within bounds, wherein all is balanced in "creative disequilibrium." He makes a beautiful statement, "The curvature of space enables things to be present to each other." It forms the basis for his concept of bonding and love in the universe.
Sacrifice and compassion are experienced by the universe, not just individuals. The universe's compassion lies in the way it provides for our needs and solaces our pain. The careful intelligence behind the fashioning of all, past and present. Yet countless species have been sacrificed as it has gone through its crises. Berry's examples are a gift to be underscored in this book.
To change the state of the world, we must see the earth as the "primary healer, primary economic reality, primary religious reality." We must commune with this force and power in order to see how we are to live.
One doesn't need a therapist to realize this vision but a number who call themselves eco-psychologists are working to help individuals see the connection between their personal ails and the larger world. So widespread is environmental illness that the American Psychological Association has officially recognized it.
"Bodysoul" work, "marriage of the mind to nature," attuning with the divine Will and the needs of the earth, absorbing the story of the cosmos and our oneness with all around us are a few of the messages of this book. Many more are to be found therein. Moreover, this book is a supportive companion to the journey that fate currently has set each of us on in order to refind the "garden" and relieve it of our sad neglect.
Valerie Harms is the author of eight books, a longtime Jungian scholar, and on the board of Montana Friends of Jung- Bozeman. See her website at http://www.valerieharms.com./