“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Gaian Consciousness

For all ancient cultures, the earth was an all encompassing reality. Hesiod writes that the heavens themselves were birthed out of Gaia, “the steadfast base of all things,” providing her with a sacred canopy spotted with stars. But the moon landings made a reality what had already been true for much of the modern period: the earth was no longer experienced as being wrapped in the sheltering blanket of the sky, but was floating in space with the barren moon as its only nearby companion.


Sean argues that the only appropriate response to our ecological crisis is one that takes the planet as a whole into consideration, but I know he would agree that the planetary must become personal.

As the essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry writes,

“The planetary versions–the heroic versions–of our problems have attracted great intelligence. But these problems, as they are caused and suffered in our lives, our households, and our communities, have attracted very little intelligence…The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of it’s millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence–that is, that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods. What can accomplish this reduction? I will say, without overweening hope but with certainty nonetheless, that only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organizations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done… Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded. The older love becomes, the more clearly it understands its involvement in partiality, imperfection, suffering, and mortality. Even so, it longs for incarnation. It can live no longer by thinking.” -What are People For? (1990), p. 198-200

My short experience with the Schumacher community thus far has been a direct encounter with the sort of humble household intelligence that Berry wants to direct our attention toward. The planet is suffering because our species has become lost in abstraction, whether it be because of the influence of the general-purpose money of the global economy, or the fragmented growth of specialized scientific disciplines, or any number of the other alienating side-effects of industrial growth society. Ecology is, after all, the study of the home.

An integral component of our learning experience at Schumacher includes joining with the residents in various chores, like cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Participating in these responsibilities really fosters a sense of equality and partnership that would otherwise be missing.

The planetary element of the course is reflected in the diverse group of students who have come for the two week session. Every continent aside from Africa is represented. From Bangalore, India comes the poet and dancer Deepti, whose enthusiasm is almost overwhelming! She’ll often be the first to answer Stephan’s or Sean’s questions to the class. Then there is Tony from Galway, Ireland. He’s a psychologist who has worked with troubled teens for many years. He’s quite the story-teller. Just last night (Wednesday), he, myself, and several others walked ten minutes down the road to the oldest surviving pub in England called Cott. It was supposedly opened in 1320, but Dick, a Totnes resident, told us that there are at least two dozen pubs in England that make similar claims! Dick has children who attend a local Waldorf school, and he is quite familiar with Rudolf Steiner, which has made for interesting conversation. Elias, an architect from Mexico City, also joined us at the bar and shared a bit about his shamanically-inspired spirituality. He works his indigenous sensibilities into his designs, which are among the most eco-friendly (and beautiful!) in Mexico City.

I said every continent was represented, and that even includes Australia. David, who teaches biology and chemistry to aboriginal children, has shared a tremendous amount of wisdom with me about what that kind of intercultural exchange is like. He’s not got much patience for the notion that modern people should somehow return to an indigenous mindset; he witnesses ethical and environmental atrocities on a regular basis in the community he serves. An example is the disregard the natives seem to have for a protected species of turtle, which they catch out at sea in motor boats and drag back to shore, where they flip it over, throw it into a fire, and cook it alive in its own shell.

Another Floridian, Hal, is on sabbatical here. He teaches law at the University of West Florida and is working with Stephan to develop a future course on earth jurisprudence at Schumacher. We’ve spoken quite a bit about the Gulf oil spill and have some advice for Obama should he come looking for any. Hal’s convinced that only a sort of metanoia will allow human beings to include the rights of various members of the earth community into our legal system.

From Norway, there’s an charming woman named Cecil who is absolutely enthralled by the spiritual implications of quantum physics. I’m always a but uneasy with talk of consciousness creating material reality, especially when a very complex field of mathematical science is used (or misused) as support, but I attempted to describe Brian Swimme’s enchanted cosmology to her at lunch this afternoon, and she seemed to resonate quite deeply with it. She also gave me permission to marry her 21 year old daughter, but unfortunately Oslo is a bit far afield from my planned route through Europe.

I decided to give a talk to the group this evening on Jean Gebser and consciousness, which I should probably start preparing for!

More soon…







5 responses to “Gaian Consciousness”

  1. Bart Segall Avatar

    I know you are OK by your posts

  2. Leslie Avatar

    Matt you are a Son after his own Mother’s past aspirations! You are happy and I am blessed! Carry on! Mom

  3. mary macrina Avatar
    mary macrina

    You may be interested to know that Wendell Berry announced this week that he’s pulling all his papers from the University of Kentucky library archives to protest the university’s unremorseful support for the coal industry and the unwillingness to partake in extensive environmental impact studies regarding destruction of habitat and groundwater pollution from mountaintop removal. The University has refused to give support to the EPA in its move to apply water quality standards in at least the six states where coal in mined. He is incarnating everything he has written about the hypocrisy of environmental ethics classes being taught at an institution heavily funded by destructive corporations. As Wendell would say, ..sounds like the fox guarding the hen house to me…… so.. as you quote his thinkng, he’s in Kentucky, in among his neighbors, doing.
    your adventure sounds wonderful!

    1. matthewdsegall Avatar

      Wow, thanks for that bit of information, Mary. He seems to be a man of great integrity. He’s got a certain matter-of-fact way of reminding us intellectuals to bring our ideas down to earth which I’ve always appreciated. Thanks for helping make this adventure possible, Mary! Many blessings.

  4. Ales-Gaia Avatar

    Hey, Matt! Even later I read your posts and could remember our moments in Gaia’s course. I was sad because I loose your talk, but now after read your blog I’m heartbroken… you are very good with words!
    Well, I’m home now and trying to meet Schumacher friends on the internet… keep in touch.
    Miss you


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