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Countering the Extinction of Experience Countering the Extinction of Experience
by David Sparenberg
2013-03-03 11:28:01
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A book review by David Sparenberg

ECOMYSTICISM, The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide by Carl Von Essen, MD, Inner Traditions/Bear & Company, Vermont, 274 pp, $18.00

The author is not particularly eloquent. He appears to lack the poet’s touch to fashion “winged words.”  Notwithstanding, his book is solid, clear, honest and not without sensitivity.  All of which may be more than can be claimed for many a poet whose muse is sickly and obsessively introverted.

ecomys01_400Doc Von Essen starts us out referring to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, takes measure of Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, glances back across time to Tielhard de Chardin’s earlier identification of Earth as the Greek goddess of field-fertility Demeter, and still into his beginning gives us this under the subtitle Eros, page 25: “Around me, in a forest, in a handful of soil, in the rivers and ponds, are living cells...of various size and complexities—a throbbing pulse of life, all related to me through that common ancestor, the veritable Adam of Creation, a speck of protoplasm.”

Continuing onto page 26: “Contact with living beings is an obvious human need.... Now, however, there is a progressive ‘extinction of experience,’ a consequence of world population growth, ecological degradation, and urbanization.

“Are not many human conflicts generated in the crowded concrete beehives of urban life?  Human beings in such environments may funnel the aggressiveness that is part of our evolutionary survival mechanism into mutually destructive acts.  Even the substitution of domesticated animals for wild fauna in our everyday world, according to...ecologist Paul Shephard, impairs the respect and understanding of our spiritual place in the natural world. And the ecologist and philosopher David Abram asks whether our modern intellect is not rotted in our forgotten intimate association with all the sensory images of nature that surrounds us.”

For me this phrase “forgotten intimate association with...sensory images of nature is majorly important in seeking a “back to the future” turning point in human planetary history; as much as “extinction of experience” exposes the technological progression of an existential threat.  More on this point of view follows.

Next, on page 27, Essen sounds again his own personal note: “Most of us are oblivious to much of nature’s language.... With the specter of global urbanization threatening to deny whole generations any animal contact save with pigeons and pets, I have a foreboding feeling that the collective psyche will continue to fragment...a process that the psychologist Peter Kahn calls ‘environmental degradation’—a loss of experience, thus a progressive depletion of the memory of our connection with nature.”

With these quotations we are embarked on an immense and significant journey.  Before moving on, however, perhaps I should reconsider my opening comments on the missing poetic in the author’s vocabulary.  Instead, we might admit the poetry of natural Earth, of which Von Essen is a keen observer, and the anti-poetic of human alienation, anguish, despair, over which he worries.

Carl Von Essen’s book is divided into three parts, in which some chapters are entitled The Hunter, The Explorer, The Poet & the Artist, The Healer, The Psychobiology of Mystical Experience, Ecocrisis and The Future Rests with Us.  I introduce only three of those here.

Out of my own declaration it may be most appropriate to take up the journey with the chapter The Poet & the Artist.  There Dr. Essen presents several recognized poets, but includes among them the author of CIVIL DISOBEDIANCE and WALDEN, Henry David Thoreau.  This inclusion is explained thus, on pages 96-98: “Thoreau is little recognized as a poet, yet much that he wrote about nature is poetic...his prose in Walden...and especially in his journals, is laced throughout with the free and spontaneous qualities of poetic expression.

“This strange, solitary, yet all-too-human man broke through the constraints of 19th century conventions to become among the first to awaken the American spirit to honor its deep connection with its natural roots.  Whereas much of American society was focused on conquering the land (and its original inhabitants) voices such as Thoreau’s rang out, louder with each succeeding generation to reach, hopefully, the numbers now needed to make a significant turn away from ecological disaster.”

Essen continues: “Thoreau embraced wildness and drew it into his self. He perceived the world as a means and a symbol, and became, to the admiration of Emerson, a transcendentalist of simplicity and roughness.  His spiritual unity with nature went beyond physical proximity.  It was when nature presented a mystical mirror of himself that Thoreau created...the poetic writings that are recorded in his private journal.”

Our author next quotes Thoreau, the quiet, green man of Walden Pond, thus: “In one entry he described the function of the (nature) poet: ‘He must be more than natural—even supernatural.  Nature will not speak through but along with him.  His voice will not proceed from her midst, but, breathing on her, will make her the expression of his thought.  He then poeticizes when he takes a fact out of nature into spirit. He speaks without reference to time or place.  His thought is one world, her’s another.  He is another Nature—Nature’s brother.  Kindly offices do they perform for one another.  Each publishes the other’s truth.’

In the chapter Ecocrisis, Von Essen writes of Philosophic Reason and Nature’s Revenge, examining the thinking of many, including Arne Naess, Murray Bookchin, E.O. Wilson, David Suzuki and especially Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright.  Through von Wright in particular Dr. Essen explores various possible scenarios of humanity and Earth’s future.  Most of these are gloomy and a couple terrifying.  Notwithstanding, Von Essen is more a grounded realist than a pessimist.  Where it otherwise there would be no book here to review, the author having faced our sealed fate and resigned himself to dread silence.  In fact, Essen’s disposition brings to mind a line from Kierkegaard: “I am neither leniency nor severity: I am—a human honesty.”

Yet it is in The Future Rests with Us, the volume’s final chapter, that author Von Essen sets forth his alternative to hopelessness and resignation.  Therein are subtitles Finding the Road and Needed: The Moral Equivalent of War.   In the first of these sections, Essen lays out a central intention, writing on page 202: “I seek to bridge the gap of perception between the rationality of science and nature mysticism.  Both concern the relationship of humanity with nature; both need to be closer in humankind’s thinking in order to increase the understanding and true love of our coexistence with all life.  There need be no conflict between the scientific and the mystical connection with nature. When guided by mystical consciousness scientific knowledge can be a road to reach a deeper understanding of our place in the universe.”

Next on page 204 he adds the following: “The mystic love of nature, according to the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, arises from merging the narcissistic love of self with a new erotic relationship with nature.  The mystical feeling from nature in all the many forms and degrees is, simply said, love...

“The love of nature is a fundamental requirement for humanity’s passage toward reversing the destructive and soon irreversible path of environment disaster.  To put it in a more down-to-earth way, the environmental ethic will not come through the ‘logical elucidation of new philosophical principles and logistic strictures but through a rejuvenation ofour carnal, sensory empathy with the living land that sustains us,’ according to David Abram.  Although it’s the feeling part of us that will ultimately make that necessary, life-saving step toward preservation of the biosphere, rationality must enter the equation. Together they constitute common sense”

Then, invoking spiritual connectivity through “magical moments surrounded by the quiet vastness of the wild,” on page 205, Dr. Von Essen cites Roger Gottlieb (A Spirituality of Resistance). “The ecologist Roger Gottlieb urges that this spiritual connection should not just affect us, but should ‘inhabit and shape us.’  An ‘enzyme of consciousness’ could expand environmental awareness in many ways—translating theory into strategy, shifting the focus from physical to biological priorities, exploring the means of Nature’s divinity as a forum of eco-theology, which could expand the boundaries of what modern humanity has considered as sacred.”

Here once more we recur to the perspective of a feeling philosophy that is both deep and radical, heroically looking into a level of experience that stimulates rejuvenation of carnal, sensory empathy in our feeling parts to inhabit and shape in us an enzyme of consciousness.  From the merest speck of attentiveness, the fuller comprehensive of possibility in such recovery becomes monumental!  It may well be that we will not so much think our way out of the quickening ecocrisis as breathe and ever sweat our way into an intuitive solution. This may be on continuum with what shaman-dancer Gabriella Roth intents when she calls upon us to sweat our prayers.

At top of the section Needed: A Moral Equivalent to War, on page 211, as much as anywhere throughout the volume, is the passionate core of Carl Von Essen’s message. 

“The message of hope that this book seeks to convey is the recovery of our universal innate spiritual connection with nature.

“This (the recovery) is a key to opening the gates of love for nature, the biophilia that is shared, often unknowingly, by all humanity.  That love, in turn, is a key to the perception that nurturing the life and resources of this small planet is our main responsibility.  The love affair with nature is like a love affair with the most beautiful woman... The heart throbs—the ecstasy is the same, the need to nurture and protect exceeds all else.

“Humanity’s materialistic treatment of our biosphere has gone on long enough.  Our collective head and heart need to be reunited to achieve an ethic of our relationship with the biosphere.  Environmental thinkers are raising their voices to be heard. Thomas Berry, among the most respected, writes, ‘In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries.’ He urges that ‘we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage...that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe’.”

On his final two pages, the trumpet call of cautious-hope is sounded over battlefield Earth. “A moral battle is needed, one that involves the virtues associated with war: selflessness, heroism and energy... That battle is wholly compatible with our spiritual selves, within which we preserve the deep-rooted feeling for our nourishing wilderness—the life, water, air and soil from where we emerge and to where we will return.

...It is still day, and there is still time to change course, to renew the emotional bond between nature and ourselves, that fragile bridge in danger of collapse.  Let us act to save it now, for when night comes it will be too late.”


David Sparenberg's new book, "THE GREEN TROUBADOUR SOURCE BOOK" Eco-Shamanic Writing for Actor Training & Public Performance is online and you can download it HERE!


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Leah Sellers2013-03-03 22:41:18
Thank you for the review, Mr. David.
There is nothing new in his book. However, it is a Man's point-of-view toward his Mistress Nature and the Love Affair he is having or should have with her.
Speaking from a Woman's point-of-view. In my Love for Nature, Planet Earth and the Wonders of the Cosmos, I am aware of my Energetic Connectedness to and Shared Static/Dynamic Energies with her and All Living Creatures.(and the aforementioned). I am also Aware and Respectful of the perpetuated Energies of Creation and Destruction that Connect, Move, Stymy, Direct/ReDirect and Confound Us All.
He's also right about Humanity's Autism. Having worked with Autistic Children, it is almost impossible to ignore the similarites in Our Collective (and Individual) treatment of Mother Earth and Nature.
Also, what many tend to forget is that We are destroying the things about Nature that keep Us Alive. If She has to destroy Us in order to Re-Establish her Energetic Health and Balance -She will do so with a series of calamitous shrugs and tearfilled, watery fare-the-wells.

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