Issue 4 Feature Article

Places for us, earth for us,
star, moon, tree, animal,
no-matter what sort of a animal, bird or snake…
all that animal same like us. Our friend that.
Bill Neitje

holding the gaze
Recently I encountered an eloquent messenger from the wild. Driving home on a late August afternoon,  I saw a swamp wallaby on the embankment ahead, very close to the road.  These shy forest creatures usually rush away at the approach of a human, and are especially wary of cars. But this wallaby just stood there staring intently at me as I drove slowly past. So compelling was her gaze, that twenty metres past her I stopped and  reversed the car back until I was face to face with her – me leaning out of my car window, her on the embankment, with only a metre and a half between us.  She held my gaze, standing very upright and still. Was this the same wallaby whom I  sometimes heard thumping away unseen through the forest as I walked up a nearby track, the one that two local dogs had been menacing?. She was a beautiful creature of mature years. I could see her  rich brown coat tinged with silver, and the lighter honey-coloured fur of her chest  moving gently with each breath.   Her eyes bespoke feeling  and intelligence; her body a coiled intensity of unusual stillness. We were two cousins in steady appraisal of each other.  Her gaze was willing me into her world. I could taste the grit of her life and hear the cry of her unborn children….She carried the rich nutty smells of the forest, and cradled its  secrets in her eyes…..

All  textures and sounds, all colour and air seemed caught  up in our mutual gaze. It was  a small miracle that our fragile eyes could hold and convey such intensity for a long long moment. ‘What about me? Don’t forget us!”  she seemed to say. “I will not forget you. I will take care of this land for you” I seemed to reply. Hers was a cry of the vulnerable native-born, expressing her own radiant being in response to this land. Mine was the response of a humble newcomer,  acutely aware of her heavy human footprint. No sound was uttered in any wallaby or human tongue: the messages passed between us as on gilded threads held aloft by an older language of Earth, a  language of soul and soil,  of stone and flesh.  I saw an ancient knowing, and a newer puzzlement in her eyes. I wonder what she saw in mine?

Months later wallaby’s gentle but potent face is still with me as I write this essay. On that day we touched the essence of each other in some osmotic way that continues to nurture and energise me. Wallaby’s timing was exquisite: she appeared as I was poised on the edge of a  decision that would have huge consequences for us both.

As I thought of wallaby, the phrase  HOLDING THE GAZE  kept surfacing in my mind, as if these words were the key to understanding our encounter  – as much as any such  graced mystery can ever be ‘understood’.  I eventually recalled the original significance of this phrase for me.  It was from an  experiential workshop run by Joanna Macy  more than a decade ago.

Her workshop was designed to deal creatively with our pain and despair over the state of the world, and to strengthen our feelings of  interconnectedness.  Many exercises involved  pairing up and looking unflinchingly  into the eyes of a partner. We were holding each other’s gaze under Joanna’s  sensitive guidance,  while sharing feelings  of  sorrow fear hope and compassion for present and future beings.    We experienced  a softening beyond our normal defences, an opening up to new feelings of compassion and kinship as we bore witness to each other’s  inner being,  and felt at a visceral level the pain and inner radiance of the other

My time with wallaby, though so brief in comparison, was of a similar quality, and evoked similar feelings and responses in me.  It was as authentic and rewarding an experience as anything I encountered with the various human partners in Joanna’s workshops – most of whom were as new to me as wallaby.

Wallaby  would have perceived and responded to our  communion moment in her own inner being and in her own unique way .  Was more of her potentiality revealed that day? Was she nudged ever so slightly into a deeper expression of herself ? I have no idea – unlike at the workshop, I coud not debrief with wallaby afterwards!  What I do know is that we shared a mutual psychic space, and psychic gifts were exchanged between my inner self and her inner self.

I  have no wish to impose my human perceptions and responses onto wallaby. Her experience is unique to wallaby consciousness and her own psyche. Wallaby knows her place in the scheme of things and  knows what she needs to express herself.  It is her ability to evoke deep changes in me that is significant here. More of this later.

Over the years I have had a few intense communion moments with an animal or a tree.  Meeting with wallaby reawakened the power of those earlier experiences.   Each one was unique, each was life-changing. I have mostly kept them to myself.  They were too personal and too sacred. Any  retelling  would risk diluting or trivialising them. But wallaby’s eyes tell me something different.   Her gaze impels me to speak out, though my thoughts on these issues are less assured than they used to be.   Before my encounter with wallaby  I had begun writing for Earthsong a rather cerebral essay about The Communion of Subjects, but ‘post-wallaby’, I am unable to continue in that vein. It is as if my thinking and perceptions must remain fluid and permeable at present,  to make room for other-than-human voices to blossom.  What follows are some personal and  still-evolving reflections on living in ‘a communion of subjects’,  with the unswerving gaze of  wallaby as my companion.

I am not alone here. Many of us have experiences of  communion with the  other than human world, when our small self cracks open and we glimpse the inner radiance of a wild creature who crosses our path, or feel a deep connection with a particular tree, a rock,  a river, or a whole landscape.  We can sit attentively and listen to these elder beings in a state of growing awe and humility. Such experiences may reveal a deep truth, or may so astonish us that we are catapaulted into a new level of awareness, a new revelation. We tend to keep these experiences of being addressed by  a ‘wild other’ to ourselves, through fear of being ridiculed , or accused of projection and anthropomorphising. It is time we collectively came out of the closet  and began sharing these experiences with each other as a natural and nourishing part of life, and as an important component of our ‘great work’ . Accepting and honouring the ‘ wild other’ is to honour and nurture the wild in ourselves. It is the mystery and challenge of the wild other that calls us forth into new becoming,  that energises us and shapes our visions, that guides us into our role as the self-reflective dimension of the universe. As Earth  reflecting on herself………

We depend on our fellow Earth beings, not just for ‘eco-system services’, but for psychic survival and soul strength. When we open  ourselves to communion with them, we feel parts of our inner selves unfurling, like delicate fern fronds reaching out to be nourished.  When we touch the wild other, it can be fearful and joyous and humbling. The more we allow wild nature into our emotional and psychic lives, the more she makes a claim on us, the more she energises us and pulls us into love.   The more she  offers us authenticity.

Holding the gaze unflinchingly with a wild creature can have as much power, poignancy  and  urgency as any human to human encounter. In some ways it demands more of us; it calls us  in an intensely personal way to  extend our compassion and ethical care beyond our own species  Wallaby asked this of me.  The whole Earth community asks this of we humans, as a species .

As this perilous century unfolds, our human pysche is spilling out all over the planet with a manic energy , and we are losing our intimate connection to a local, ensouled and embodied place. It becomes more important than ever for us to make room for the voices of the wild other – without compromising their integrity.  As the noise of human pain,  need and greed reaches a new crescendo, we must find ways to heighten our receptivity to the other than human voice.   Without the intimate presence of wild others,  we are gazing at our own reflections, or at our artefacts and technological  playthings, which are only extensions of ourselves.  We are  flattening the song of our lives to a shallow monotonous note, and distorting Earth’s song in the process.

a communion of subjects
Wallaby is not my only guide on this journey into a communion of subjects. There are many impressive human voices  – poets, nature writers and  scholars –  that illuminate our way.  None is more significant for me than Thomas Berry. It was his magnificent phrase: ‘The universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects’ that sparked off this essay, and provided its title until wallaby came along!.   Of all the ideas I have shared over many years of presenting the New Cosmology, these prophetic words of his had by far the most powerful and visceral effect on people: their bodies would  soften and their faces  light up, as if they were embracing something they had always intuitively known.

Thomas Berry would see my wallaby encounter as simply a fundamental dynamic of  the universe and Earth at work and at play: a mutual entrancement through which the universe expresses its limitless capacity and yearning for intimate presence. Here is a flavour of his thinking:
‘To think of the universe as a communion of subjects’ and not a collection of objects, means that nothing has value without everything else. It also means that the universe has a single destiny in the fulfilment each mode of being finds in all the others and that the universe itself is fulfilled somehow within each mode of being….To be as a subject also means that there is an inner spontaneity as a unifying center in each being, that enables each being to experience itself intimately present to itself.  … It is this self that is honoured by other beings…. .In this manner the universe becomes a comprehensive community of members resonant with each other, each giving and receiving.  For every being exists by what it receives from other beings. We are given our lives from moment to moment. So too we bestow life from moment to moment on other modes of being’ . footnote8 :Thomas Berry, Unpublished Essay: The Animals 14, 23, 31)

When Berry  talks of every being existing in intimate relation with other beings and in a constant exchange of gifts with each other, he means more than the vital physical exchanges  (of nutrients in biological systems for example, including the predator-prey relationship).  The interchange  always involves psyche and spirit. Berry repeatedly asserts that the psychic-spiritual gifts we receive from the other-than-human –  be it wind, rain, river, flower, forest, mountain ,insect or animal – are as vital  and life giving as the more obvious ones of physical nourishment.  We moderns are stranded like fish out of water when we distance ourselves psychically and spiritually from the other than human world. Our innermost being shrivels as Earth’s wild beauty and diversity crumbles around us. Our innermost being has been shaped by Earth as surely as our outer form, and can only be nourished and fulfilled  by Earth and her community of life

barriers to communion
What does it mean  for us to live in a  communion of subjects,  in a world of  intimacy,  extending beyond the human?  The idea beckons us,  but it is hard to enflesh this truth within our psyches, and  integrate it into our daily lives . For our modern sense of self has been built upon our profound discontinuity with and superiority to the other-than-human world, and our culture has a lot at stake in blocking off  an intimate relationship with this ‘Earth world’.  For it challenges not just some traditional beliefs (that we humans are the pinnacle of creation, the measure of all things),  but the actual way we live and relate to our fellow Earth beings and to Earth herself. How can we continue relentlessly exploiting the other-than-human world  if it is all subject, all sacred, and has an ethical claim on us? Our comfortable lifestyle is built, not only on the back of the ‘third world’,  but upon the destruction of much of our Earth community. We live inside a shocking paradox, divided  within our  selves. Divided between our feelings of awe, gratitude, and sense of joy that the natural world brings us,  and the juggernaut of destructive ‘progress’  we are all in.

Collectively we have acquired many cultural taboos against recognising  subjectivity in the other than human world. The ‘sin’ of anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to animals) is  one potent defense our culture has provided to keep these taboos intact. Thankfully this taboo is begining to lose its power, as we increasingly question our rampant anthropocentrism (human-centredness).   Within the scientific community, especially in the growing science of ethology, changes are afoot. The more animal studies that are done, the higher degree of intelligence, psyche and sentience is “granted” them, as our  arrogant blinkers begin to crumble. But there is still a sense that we are bestowing something on a few species from our lofty height above them, ready to pounce on anyone who starts talking of animal personality, intelligence and feelings. But why do we arrogantly assume that we are imposing human feelings and attributes on them?  Are we not also acknowledging animal feelings and attributes in ourselves?  We too are animals, and aspects of our psyches and our intelligence, have been bequeathed to us by our animal forbears.

In thinking about subjectivity, we  tend to start with ourselves and move the subjectivity line outwards and downwards along a continuum from pets and higher primates, some mammals, maybe birds and some others in the animal world. Insects? Fish? Plants? How far do we go?….Better to shift from this self-referental thinking, to a cosmological perspective, and start at the beginning.  The Universe is the sentient-consciousness-producing process out of which Earth and all her beings emerge. We are living inside a numinous reality, moving within this psychic -spiritual -physical matrix . All beings  (animate and inanimate) have ‘an inner centre that influences and organises their environment towards their own flourishing…all have agency or intentionality, sensitivity and intelligence’. All beings speak to us.

The powers of the universe have coalesced and ignited in the human psyche in a particular form of self-reflexive consciousness,  giving us a unique role to fulfil.   But these are not self generated powers. They are granted to us, upheld and sustained in us, by  the universe, and by a constant exchange of gifts with our fellow Earth beings.   It is through the unique voice of each being – gathered into a community of the whole – that  the beauty and sacred meaning of the universe is revealed.  Thomas Berry sums it up beautifully: “That the greatest diversity should be caught up in the most intimate unity seems to be the ultimate magnificence of the universe”  footnote.
We may have left the Cartesian view of animals as machines behind us, but the legacy of earlier beliefs are embedded in our language. Writing about subjectivity in the other than human world is thereby fraught with difficulty.  Our language seems unequal to the task , for it has been painted with a human -centred  and dualistic brush.    We have appropriated all  meaning and value, claiming  sentience, spirit, psyche, and intelligence  mostly for ourselves. By implication other beings are inferior, and defined and judged primarily by their USE to us.

In reaching for non-judgemental language, we (still) face a dilemma. Our language on subjectivity will always be human-referent, in the sense that we can only  know humans from the inside. We cannot get inside the consciousness  or interiority of any  being or species other than our own. We cannot know from the inside what it is to be a tree, a goanna, a wallaby, a microbe. Nor can we simply do it from the outside as we try to do in scientific discourse.  We are on the inside, swimming in a sea of sentience and consciousness.   We have to use human-derived analogies and metaphors  to describe other subjective presences.  Herein lies the power of imagination. Our metaphors and analogies are part of the ‘imaginative umbilical cord  that connects us to Earth’.  We need all our powers of intuition and ingenuity to sing up the experience of  living among subjective presences.

wallaby’s gifts
I face these barriers of culture and language when  writing about my experience with wallaby . Her messages are scribbled over my inner landscape, but can any words convey these meanings onto the page?  Were I a gifted poet, perhaps I could write a beautiful poem and leave it at that.  Alas, I  can only mull over the issue here, in the hope of encouraging others to sing up their own experiences and join in the conversation

As noted earlier, the psychic gifts  I received from wallaby –  or more accurately from our communion experience –  mirrored those I had encountered in Joanna Macy’s week long workshop. In this workshop we moved  through experiences of gratitude, love and despair, through owning and honouring the pain of the world, into seeing our personal pain and power as rooted in our radical interconnectedness with all earthbeings, past present and future.

The elemental themes  of Joanna Macy’s workshop swirled around me in my wallaby encounter and its prolonged aftermath. In that searing moment of intimacy I was struck by her beauty and fragility, and painfully aware of her ultimate dependence on our human sagacity. I felt sorrow over the impending loss of  so many wild lives like wallaby, and a surge of compassion for her and her kind. I am still swimming in the current of psychic energy I received that day.

It may take me the rest of my life to absorb  the gifts mediated to me through wallaby. What speaks to me most at present are issues of identity, loss and authenticity. As Loren Eisely so eloquently put it ‘we do not know ourselves until we catch the reflection from an eye other than human’. To be fully and authentically human, to know who I am,  I need the wild other.  For my sake and for wallaby’s sake. For me,  to live more authentically; for wallaby, in that my work for the planet now   indelibly embraces her and her kin and their habitat . To the extent that wallaby has entered my psyche, that her essence is woven into my thinking and perceiving: to that extent my work edges closer to Earth wisdom.

As I discovered in Joanna Macy’s workshops, there is healing and an upsurge of energy when we face up to the loss and pain of the world in the company of others. When we hold the gaze.  Wallaby reminds me that to live authentically and be fully  awake, we must hold the gaze  with more than our own kind.  We must not shut out the loss and pain of the wild other. No longer  can we focus so exclusively on human suffering. We need to bring the other than human world into our sacred community of care.
Somehow we must hold the gaze  – with humans and other Earth beings  – amidst all the loss, pain and confusion of our present moment, without being overwhelmed by it. We must bear witness,  in the belief and hope that  this honouring and mourning  will be part of a healing in this century and beyond.  In the belief that nothing is lost if  sung up into the present and future, even though we cannot yet see how this ecologically sustainable – ecozoic –  future we long and strive for, can come about.

earth cry
Earth speaks to us through wallaby’s plea: ‘What about us? Don’t forget us!’  Earth is reaching out to us everywhere, in  her wild beauty and  in the midst of our cities. She is  willing us to approach her with honour, to cease our efforts to control  her.  She is speaking so urgently now, through dying eco-systems, ruined soils, choking rivers, poisonous air.  Earth speaks through the  weakening cries of a starving mammal deprived of his habitat: a bandicoot in Australia, a tiger cub in India, a human baby in Africa. Earth speaks through many human voices. She speaks though artists, activists,  scientists, and through religious people who are increasingly alarmed about the desecration of God’s Earth. She is warning us through her chaotically swinging weather (global warming?)  to attend to her as a whole integral being , as one ‘organsim’ who cannot be carved up in isolated fragments.

Our human cry is also a cry of Earth, but ours is the  cry of a creature adrift, whose habitat is everywhere and nowhere. And we have so intrusively inserted ourselves into the habitat of every Earth creature, that the way we choose to live will impact on  the future of almost every being on the planet.  We need to attend to these wild voices with all the richness and nuances we can absorb. We need to open ourselves to their presence, their potency. As the self-reflective dimension of the Earth , we are called to capture the inner depths, not just of ourselves, but of the myriad voices around us. To celebrate the beauty, to honour our Earth and bear witnesss to the pain, for the whole Earth community.    Here in Australia we are blessed with many unique voices of ancient lineage, but the rate of extinctions since white settlement has been alarmingly high. The loss of biodiversity seems unstoppable and  at times we feel helpless against the tide. Ironically, we are learning more about these wild beings and loving them more dearly, just as many are slipping away. We are  waking up to an avalanche of loss. Painful though it is, we must continue to hold their gaze, even  when we lose hold of hope.  Perhaps especially during those times we lose sight of hope.

living  ‘as if’
We often move around encased in the thick bubble of our human-built worlds, even when walking in natural landscapes. We act like a mobile lighthouse, our noisy psyches (with so much human baggage and inner noise) beaming outwards, shining the beacon of our intelligence and our perception onto a  ‘passive’ external world. Are we aware that we are always being  observed and responded to by other subjective presences? Let us switch off our lighthouse beam and see what is shimmering around us.

We can nurture our capacity for communion by simply living as if   we are among sentient beings whom we honour and respect.  We can do it by cultivating the art of attentive listening, and by respectfully conversing with them as if it a natural thing to do. Living ‘as if’, we will become more open to the possibility of graced encounters,  of synchronicities and serendipitous moments with wild others. We will  learn when to address them from the innermost regions of our heart, and when to stand silently before them in gratitude. As we open ourselves to Earth as a sentient planet,  Earth and her beings (will) respond.  Even the simple act of walking – in city suburb or bush – is a time of communion with Earth. Earth comes up to greet our foot as our foot moves down to greet Earth in the mutual embrace of gravity. We can live ‘as if’ wherever we are:  in our homes and gardens, our streets and parks. We can encourage and welcome wild others back into our cities, as creek restoration projects are doing with wonderful results. We can honour the interiority, the animating principle in all matter, including our built environments.  We can begin holding the gaze anywhere.

For wallaby and others
Nurturing our communion experiences with wild others is about more than our spiritual enrichment and psychological health.  Any  genuine experience will inform our ethics and spill over into action on behalf of those others. We will work towards a future in which our fellow Earth beings can continue expressing and fulfilling their own role in the mystery of existence, a role that arises out of their own unique unfolding in Earth’s story, their own unique  voice in Earth’s symphony.  To become ecologically  sustainable, we need a collective ethical base  grounded in our new understanding of the universe as a communion of subjects. Romantic notions of ‘communing’ with nature without ecologically grounded and knowledge-based praxis is of little worth.  But unless we have the inner voice, the inner presence of the wild other sung  up and woven into into our human discourse, dialogues of sustainability will be ephemeral and off centre, and will not hold into the future.

Intense communion experiences outside our own species are heightened events that come to us as gift, as grace. We cannot live at that level of intensity on a daily basis, just  as we do not attend workshops every week. But these moments of grace with wild others permanently alter the configuration of our  world.  They serve as potent reminders of the powers and potential of subjective presences all around us.

I will never know what psychic ‘gifts’, wallaby took away from our actual encounter.  I offer her the gift of my renewed energy and commitment to work on her behalf, and a desire to learn more about her and her habitat. And as I bring my voice into any human forum – speaking or writing –  will it carry more conviction and credibility because traces of wallaby are seared into my soul? I would like to think so. I would like to keep holding her gaze.

Wendy Chew
December 2005.

Wendy Chew
Wendy is a writer, teacher and passionate advocate for the integrity and well being of our planet. Thomas Berry has been her mentor and teacher for the past ten years. Wendy teaches the New Cosmology and earth-based spirituality in a variety of contexts in Melbourne and beyond and is an enthusiastic supporter of the EarthSong Project.

Wendy is currently engaged in writing a collection of essays on the story of the Australian continent and its life community within  the context of the new cosmology and Berry’s vision for a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

Bill Neidjie ‘Story About Feeling’ Magabala Books, W.A., 1989. p.19. I begin with these  words of the late Bill Neidje (indigenous leader from Kakadu region) to honour the indigeneous custodians of this land, who have lived for millenia in a sacred communion relationship with this continent and its life community.
Swamp Wallaby (Wallabia bicolor)  has an ancient lineage. Their genetic, reproductive, dental and behavioural traits  are so different from other wallabies that they are classified as the sole surviving member of the genus Wallabia.
Joanna Macy is an internationally renowned speaker and workshop leader on Buddhist philosophy, systems theory and deep ecology, who has strong links with Australia. One of her recent books is the highly acclaimed : ‘Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World’, New Society Publishers, Canada,  1998. (co-author Molly Young Brown).
‘Great Work’ is Thomas Berry’s phrase for our collective task of working towards a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.
I am grateful to Deborah Bird Rose for the phrase ‘nature pulls us into love’: ‘Wild Country’ UNSW Press, 2004, p.212
for instance: Australian poet Judith Wright;  Freya Matthews, ‘For Love of Matter’ SUNY, New York, 2003 & ‘Reinhabiting Reality’, UNSW Press, 2005;  David Abrams, ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’, Pantheon Books, New York, 1996;  Sally McFague, ‘Super, Natural Christians’, Fortress Press,  Minneapolis, 1997;  Thomas Berry, ‘The Dream of the Earth’, and The Great Work.
Award winning biologist Edward O. Wilson has termed this innate emotional affinity for other creatures ‘Biophilia’, and suggests that it may be strongly encoded in humans. See his ‘Biophilia’, Harvard, USA, 1984  and  Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson (ed),‘The Biophilia Hypothesis’, Island Press, USA,  1993.
Thomas Berry ‘The Animals’ unpublished essay pp14, 23, 31
Every living being survives by the sacrifice of some other mode of being. The  daily act of eating is a holy sacrament; how can technologically engineered and over-processed food be truly nourishing?
Sally McFague, op cit. p 109-10
‘The Animals’, p.23
see Brenda Peterson in: Joanne Elizabeth Lauck, ‘The Voice of the Infinite in the Small’, SwanRaven & Co., U.S.A.,1998, p.41.
Loren Eisely, ‘The Unexpected Universe’, HBJ, New York, London, 1969, p. 24
see Freya Matthews, ‘Becoming Native to the City’ in:  John Cameron (ed), ‘Changing Places’ Longueville Books’ NSW, 2003, PP 197-201.