Volume 2, Issue 1 Feature Article

Re-discovering our Ecological Self

Caroline Smith

As a child growing up in England in the 1950s, my friends and I delighted in the birds, trees, wild flowers and butterflies,  and we played outside whenever we could. In the school holidays we kids couldn’t wait to disappear into the countryside for the whole day, packet of sandwiches and bottle of ‘pop’ in our old school satchels and sixpence for an ice-cream. No-one knew where we were and no-one was worried. We’d roam the woods, wildflower meadows and hedgerows, we’d listen for the skylarks ascending into the sky with their joyous call. We’d paddle in rivers and ponds full of newts and stickleback fish.  We’d fish for tadpoles and put them in jars.  In spring we’d vie with each other to be the first to report the call of the cuckoo, and luxuriate in the heavenly scent and colour of the bluebell woods. We weren’t perfect – we’d pinch apples from orchards (known as ‘scrumping’) and even go bird-nesting. We didn’t know it was wrong then and loved to see the different coloured eggs and try to work out which bird had laid them. It was all part of our easy and natural relationship with the teeming abundant natural world on our doorstep.

At school we’d have a nature table where we’d place our treasures –a bird’s nest with eggs, flowers, mushrooms, pine cones, horse chestnuts (‘conkers’) – whatever was flourishing at the time. We looked forward to the first strawberries and raspberries of summer, and then wonderful tasting Coxes Orange Pippin apples.  On our summer holidays at the beach we’d roam the rock pools, spending hours marvelling at the wealth of life. Autumn was especially wonderful and bountiful. The garden would be full of tomatoes, runner beans and ripening fruit. The countryside would be groaning with rose hips, sloes and hawthorn berries. The swallows would be lining up in their thousands to fly south. My father would go out early on a Sunday morning and come back with a basketful of huge horse mushrooms for breakfast. We’d kick through the dead leaves of the oaks, horse chestnuts and beeches, collect wild hazelnuts and indulge in a game of conkers. You had to find the biggest conker you could, put a string through it and use it to hit your opponent’s conker. If you cracked it you’d won.  The more ruthless pickled their conkers in vinegar to make them harder.

These were idyllic, simple pleasures that bonded us to nature. Without realising it, we were developing our ecological selves, that sense of an expanded ego where you felt at one with the natural world. We were at home there, we got our pleasures there. We knew the names of plants and animals, we understood the turning of the seasons and we marked our days by them. Up in the north, at my grandparents’,  we’d look forward to the local farmer, Tommy,  with his great milk churns coming round on his horse and cart and run out with our jugs. With luck the horse would make a deposit which we could put on the roses. Tommy’s homemade ice-cream was the best I’ve ever tasted.  Small farms like Tommy’s provided eggs, cream, lamb, chicken, and vegetables.  They were microcosms of biodiversity, retaining woodland, flower meadows and clean water courses. They were the centres of local food production that had supplied the local area for centuries before the days of the supermarket. Most towns in those days were surrounded by these small farms, but that was not to last.

After World War 2, Britain lost much of her once abundant ecological biodiversity in a very short time. The global agribusiness juggernauts had moved in, planting vast monoculture deserts of beans, peas, broad beans, potatoes, wheat and canola. Destruction of the hedgerows, use of pesticides, inorganic fertilisers and mechanisation had done their awful job.  The legacy of industrial agriculture has been devastating; the conquering of nature was in full force and the small farms all but disappeared.

After living away from England for many years, I went back to my old haunts. What a difference. I walked through the lanes and woods of my childhood – mostly still there – but they were not the same. For me, the sense of loss was a profound shock.  It was as if part of me had been disconnected, diminished, killed.  You didn’t need the grim statistics to tell you.  You could feel it; the destruction was felt as a very personal grief.  Apart from the occasional call of the wood pigeon, the countryside was silent. The woods no longer hummed with insect life. The ponds had lost their newts and sticklebacks. The wildflower meadows had largely disappeared.   The hedgerows had gone and the rich soil was dead. The skylarks, ground-nesting plovers and partridges and the wonderful colourful butterflies had all but disappeared. Silent Spring had arrived.  The pattern was being repeated everywhere, including Australia.

Aldo Leopold in his landmark book ‘A Sand County Almanac’ wrote that within conventional ethics, the land itself was considered only as property, occupying a role analogous to slavery in earlier societies that permitted the ownership by people.  By comparison, a land ethic enlarges the boundary of moral concern to include soil, water, rocks, plants, and animals, or collectively “the land”. For Leopold, something is right when it preserves the integrity, stability, and beauty of the ecological community and it is wrong when it destroys it.

In his introduction to Edmund O’Sullivan’s excellent book on transformative learning, Thomas Berry reminds us that the missing element in education is the relation of humans to the other-than-human elements of the world we live in. Something is not functioning properly if multitudes of species are dying out. Something is very wrong if we are continuing to educate children to continue to ‘conquer’ nature. For Berry, our inner world is a response to the outer world. If our outer world is diminished of beauty, meaning, purpose, joy and relationship with the other-than-humans, we ourselves are diminished. We lose our imagination, we lose our intellectual development. Berry is convinced that we cannot survive in our human order of being without the entire range of natural phenomena around us. In other words, we need to develop our ecological selves.

The idea of the ‘ecological self’ is central to the philosophy of Deep Ecology, based on the work of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Naess believes that through the process of relating directly with the natural world, the ego can be transcended and the self arrives at a position of being deeply connected with and sensitive to the natural world. It is here that we not only understand the importance of biodiversity in retaining resilient ecosystems, but we feel it. We feel the loss of biodiversity as a deep grief, because it is part of who we are. We begin to understand our deep interdependence with the more-than-human world, not only as critical for our food, water and shelter, but as an intimate part of ourselves.  The new field of Ecopsychology believes that there is an intimate relation between the needs and well being of Earth and human needs and well being.

Ecological science teaches that well functioning, resilient ecosystems are very diverse, with many connected energy and matter pathways. Highly biodiverse ecosystems are able to withstand shocks; if one species is in decline others are able to take its place in the system. Ecological science principles can also apply to human systems; permaculture design is an excellent example of designing human settlement using the principles of ecology so that we can live by enhancing rather than destroying our natural systems.

What are some ways in which we can regain our ecological selves in a diminished world? How can today’s young people again experience the joy of growing up in the natural world that so many of us ‘oldies’ were privileged to do?  Fortunately there is plenty of evidence that we have recognised the diminishing splendour of our world and the reasons behind it. We are learning to build resilient systems again, through initiatives such as Transition Towns and permaculture.  Food gardening is more popular than it has been for years.

Very young children need to be able to explore the natural world once more. Most young children are fascinated by rather than fearful of nature and find in it small but exquisite moments of grace, enchantment, wonder and awe. Even though the days of running wild all day seem to be over, parents and teachers can provide a rich and supportive natural environment to enable this intense, intimate exploration to take place.

For older young people and adults, deep experiences such as the Council of all Beings and participating in programs on the New Story offered by EarthSong and the Ecology and Spirituality Centre at Glenburn, as well as the work of writers such as Joanna Macy, help us regain our expanded sense of who we are and our intimate place in the great web of life and the universe. We can slowly but surely re-establishing our ecological selves.


Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.

Macy, Joanna.  http://www.joannamacy.net/

O’Sullivan, E. (2001). Transformative Learning: Educational Vision for the 21st Century. London:  Zed Books.

Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming, P. & Naess, A. (1988). Thinking like a Mountain – Towards a Council of all Beings. Philadelphia:  New Society Publishers.

The Centre for Ecology and Spirituality, Glenburn, Victoria.  www.edmundrice.org/glenburn

Caroline has 35 years’ experience in the education sector and is widely published, She is also involved with teacher professional development and plant protection training in the Solomon Islands.. Caroline lives on an organic farm, and is involved locally with permaculture, the Transition network and local food production. She has recently joined the National Centre for Sustainability as a teacher in the new Vocational Graduate Certificate in Education and Training for Sustainability,