Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2010.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for your insight and imagination There are times when I fall into deep despair when I read about the latest something that is bringing death to what remains of life here on Earth. I felt a passionate loving heart in your writing. It uplifts mine in this moment.
    Cheers,
    Mike Daniel

    Reply
    • I too struggle with the despair of the Earth’s suffering and find that when I can channel it through the imaginal process, instead of denying or trying to suppress, that is when the greatest creativity can be born. I am glad you have been uplifted.

      Reply
  2. Hey there! I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the good job!

    Reply
  1. Toward An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar | Becca Psyche Tarnas
  2. Towards An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar | Becca Psyche Tarnas

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