Chris Maser

The shift from attempting to "manage" Nature through economics, science, and technology (which all too often assumes the attitude of pillaging) to the sacred act of gardening with Nature through spirituality and art is a shift from the intellectual pursuit of arrogance through coercion and control to the spiritual pursuit of humility through cooperation and coordination. To understand this shift, however, we must first have some concept of the meaning embodied in the words "spirituality" and "art."


"Spiritual" refers to the experience of being in touch with the Eternal Mystery of life, which transcends one's sense of self and gives meaning to one's life at a level beyond that of the intellect. In a spiritual experience, therefore, one encounters something larger or greater than oneself. We need not conceptualize the Eternal Mystery we encounter in any traditionally religious terms.

The Eternal Mystery or "transcendent other" may be seen as a supernatural deity, such as a God, or as a natural entity, such as the Earth. It may be something existing objectively "out there," like the process of evolution, or it may be a subjective, inner phenomenon like creative inspiration. It may originate independently of the human sphere, like wilderness, or it may be a product of human culture, like a community. For some people, the "other" may not even be a specific, definable entity but might instead be an indefinable sense of being "grounded" or "centered," a feeling that gives meaning to existence.

Regardless of the way this sense of the "transcendent other" is encountered and experienced, it's more than just a passing, casual occurrence. It gives meaning to one's life in some important way and helps define one's life in the greater context of the Universe. The experience is felt at some indefinable level of "knowing" that is far deeper than that of intellectual knowledge. It is usually difficult, if not impossible, for us to put such an experience into words, but we feel it in our hearts, where it may stir powerful emotions. Although we encounter experiences of this kind in many contexts and settings, we may find their primary setting to be Nature.

Nature is often more than a setting for a spiritual experience. She can conjure other images in our personal and social psyches. According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, our human psyche has different levels or layers, much as an onion has a number of different layers. Immediately below the level of our conscious awareness lies the personal unconscious, including our personal feelings, attitudes, and memories, which we have repressed and "cut off" from our conscious awareness. At a deeper level lies what Jung called the "collective unconscious," which contains the basic, intuitive patterns of behavior, emotions, and imagery common to all humans through time. These intuitive patterns, or "archetypes," not only guide but also give meaning to our interactions with other human beings and with the Universe as a whole.

Archetypes function like templates in the unconscious mind, where they give rise to the symbolic images that enter conscious expression through dreams, myths, spiritual experiences, and spontaneous fantasies. One of the most important ways in which archetypes express themselves is through both positive and negative "projection," a psychological phenomenon through which we experience the contents of the unconscious mind outside of ourselves as if they belonged to someone or something else. This is analogous to an image on film being projected or cast outward through the lens of the projector and viewed at some distance on a screen:  A person sitting in the audience is unaware of the projector and perceives only the "independent" image on the screen.

A classic example of a negative projection with which I think we can all identify is that of an "enemy." If I can identify an enemy, I can project (through my lens) the unconscious, repressed traits that I detest about myself and with which I refuse to deal (the film) onto someone or something else (the neutral, unaware screen). I can thus hate what I think my enemy stands for without having to acknowledge and deal with the fact that what I "see" in my enemy is my own repressed self-loathing. I think I can avoid dealing with my repressed self-loathing by projecting it onto the screen of an innocent person. In so doing, I think the unwanted reflection I see belongs to the other person rather than to my own inner self.

What, you might ask, has this got to do with spirituality and Nature? Consider that Nature is viewed by some as an enemy to be conquered, by others as a commodity to be converted into money, and by still others as a representation of spirituality. All of these perceptions can be thought of as projections of unconscious archetypes onto various elements of the environment or onto Nature as a whole. Here, one might ask what is being projected onto Nature, why it is being projected, and what implications these projections may have both for the individual and for the collective psyche.

Today people turn to the literature of mythology in order to understand the symbolic portrayals of the archetypes that are active in the collective psyche of human culture. From this vantage, one approach to understanding the spiritual significance of Nature is to study the gods and goddesses who have been associated throughout human history with the various aspects of Nature. In Greek mythology, for example, there is Demeter, the goddess of vegetation, fertility, and agriculture; Pan, the unrefined deity of woods and fields; and many others, some of which are not necessarily gods and goddesses but lesser spirits.

Mythological characters still inspire the imagination of contemporary people and are sometimes used to capture feelings and spiritual portents that defy definition. Artemis, the Moon Goddess of the forest and the hunt, for example, has been chosen as the "Goddess of Conservation," and Gaia, the Earth Goddess, has been adopted as the personification of the "deep-ecologist's" view of the Earth as a whole, living organism.

The most compelling example is the archetype of the Great Mother, a powerful, psychological complex that can have either a positive, nurturing effect or a negative, destructive effect on the psychological development of an individual. The concept of "Mother Nature" or "Mother Earth" in her benevolent and malevolent moods is a personification of this archetype, which is a recurrent and increasing projection onto Nature.

Unconscious archetypes have powerful effects on the way people experience, relate to, and behave in the world. It's therefore important for the conscious mind to be able to relate in a constructive way to the material of the unconscious archetypes. This conscious relation to the archetypes has traditionally been the function of mythological symbols, rites, and rituals of a religious nature.

Myths provide balance between self-expression and self-restraint, between self-protection and self-restriction. Myths limit human cultures so that nonhuman beings can also find homes in the body of the Earth. Because wisdom cannot depend on perfect knowledge, which is nonexistent, myths are the bridge between imperfect knowledge and the perfect knowing that reaches beyond knowledge, for which there is no expression.

But in our modern Western culture we have lost the spiritual meaning of and the cultural guidance from most of our ancient symbols and rituals. So in this era of spiritual bankruptcy and symbolic illiteracy, people are beginning to turn back to Nature to give expression to the archetypal experiences that are no longer evoked by traditional religious images and rituals.

When archetypes are projected onto Nature's unaltered environments, these environments evoke powerful emotions of profound significance to the individual. Experiences of this kind are critical to spiritual/psychological health because they draw people, individually and collectively, toward both a connection with Nature in the greater context of the Universe and a relationship with the transcendent archetypes that underlie their individual and their collective cultural personalities.

As long as the archetypal projections remain unconscious, there will be severe problems in our society, because we do not realize that our experiences come from within our psyches. Instead, we will believe that our experiences are due entirely to something "out there." Thus, a person who is projecting an archetype tends to perceive the world in terms of subjective opposites, ideals, and absolutes, a projection that blinds the person to the objective nature of the "other" onto which the archetype is being projected. This blindness causes people to disregard objective information, to hold unrealistic expectations, and to behave in rigid, even fanatical ways.

Healthy relationships with both people and things require one to become conscious of the archetypal projections in one's own perceptions and behavior and to see the difference between the inner archetype and the outer object or person onto which it is being projected. Withdrawing unwanted projections through conscious awareness is a frightening and painful process, one that involves feelings of loss and disillusionment. Ultimately, however, it leads to a balanced, free, and realistic appreciation of both the inner subjective and the outer objective aspects of the Universe, and to what may be termed "Cosmic Consciousness. "

As we become aware of the way we project archetypes onto Nature, we acquire a sort of "double vision," and experiencing Nature becomes like peering out of a house through a pane of window glass. Through the window we see objects that lie outside the house, and simultaneously we see reflections of things that lie inside the house. Similarly, we can observe the workings of the outer world of Nature through physics and biology while at the same time Nature reflects back to us the inner workings and images of our own psychological world. This phenomenon is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the night sky, where stars and constellations bear names and images of our mythological heritage, while concurrently serving as an entry into the scientific understanding of the physical universe. And it is through art that this "double vision" of the inner and the outer are expressed simultaneously.


Art is not only the expression of this "double vision" but also a window into our souls. In this sense, art, poetry, and mythology are one. They embody an inner experience expressed in an outer, symbolic manner through the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a way that affects the sense of beauty, the sense of Self. Although most people probably think of art specifically as the production of beauty in a graphic or plastic medium, art also encompasses the sheer enjoyment of beauty for its own sake.

The historic foundations of much of our contemporary American sense of aesthetics in landscapes are found in European and American art and literature. The works of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century painters and critics concerned with the beauty of the fine arts both depicted and evoked images of neat, tidy landscapes. Although they bore a resemblance to Nature's landscapes, they had been cleansed of Nature's seemingly untidy aspects, including Nature's perpetual novelty.

These stylized, English landscapes became the nineteenth-century models of American parks, private gardens, and valued landscape scenes, much as they are today. To me, this British notion of tidiness equates with a compulsive sense of having to control the environment. It's a translocation of European myth from the "Old World" in which it evolved to the "New World," where it was out of place, where it was forcibly superimposed on an environment totally different from that of Europe.

During the eighteenth century, however, writers and painters began to see beauty in the apparently chaotic, clearly wild images of a continent with greater physical and biological diversity than that of Europe. Baron Fredrich von Humboldt of Germany was one of these people. As a founding father of modern geography, he was acutely aware of the effect beautiful landscapes had on the human imagination and of the relationship landscapes forged between our inner world of ideas and feelings and our outer world of physical things. Humboldt recognized the different quality of enjoyment and feelings evoked by viewing a forest or a meadow as opposed to those conjured by dissecting a plant.

John Ruskin, the English art critic, although not a geographer by title, advanced many of Humbolt's ideas. For him, the individual elements of the late-eighteenth-century landscape were to be dissected for description and observation and then synthesized for an understanding of the whole. Ruskin found such understanding to hinge on the knowledge of the relationships among geological processes, climate, and other physical processes. Within these relationships, said Ruskin, were the essential components necessary to give expression to a landscape's innate beauty, unity, and harmony, should one wish to express them. In other words, Ruskin saw that a landscape was a matter of characterizing the whole in terms of its pieces and its pieces in terms of the whole.

Despite advances in viewing landscapes with an eye toward their artistic beauty, Americans needed to evolve a landscape myth of place in time, a myth that would be unique to North America. Americans become increasingly convinced that transferring a sense of European landscape myth to the North American continent was no longer tenable. But it wasn't until the 1930s and 1940s that Aldo Leopold, the father of American ecology, gave voice to the need for a conscious "land aesthetic." Such an aesthetic, wrote Leopold, must deal not only with Nature's landscapes but also with humanity's cultural landscapes. It must be a land aesthetic grounded in ecological awareness and sensitivity, as well as in sound landscape husbandry.

Leopold valued the historical aspects of a landscape in that its history gave him an intimate knowledge of the how it came to be as it was. He valued its non-visual characteristics in the sense of its ability to act as a "soundscape" of Nature's music--such characteristics as the songs of birds, insects, trees, and of the wind; as a "touchscape" of such textures as the physical feel of a tree's bark, the prick of a rose's thorn, and the coolness of flowing water; as a "smellscape" of such odors as the perfume of flowers in spring and the tang of ozone after a thunderstorm. He valued the possibilities the land offered for myriad intimate interactions between himself and Nature in a particular area for which he could evolve a particular sense of place and of well-being.

Today there are two approaches to landscape, the objective and the subjective. The objective approach focuses on the visual aspects, which are composed of form and elements, and views human beings as separate from the landscape. The landscape can affect people and people can affect it through manipulation, but there is no "communication" between them—something that makes irrelevant a search for meaning in a landscape. This view allows for the concentration on and exploitation of specific elements of a landscape as commodities (e.g. timber or whales) at the expense of the long-term health of the whole.

The subjective approach, on the other hand, offers insight into values and meanings. It attends to the structural and functional characteristics of a particular place, as well as human responses to them. It can be thought of as the result of people projecting their archetypal emotions, feelings, and ideas onto their surroundings in such a way that a knowledge of the landscape is gained through personal interaction with it.

People "communicate" with the landscape. In so doing they change the landscape and are changed by it, because the conversation is not limited to a discourse between humans, or even to the present. And to converse with any part of Nature is to be in unity with it, whatever part it is—even with the stars. So, our communication with our respective landscapes is critical, both to the well-being of human society and to the long-term health of the landscapes themselves. This sort of communication brings me to the notion of gardening.


Gardening is the act in which spirituality and art merge into the context of Nature's landscape. It is where we use the form and function of Universal Laws to transpose, in graphic form, the cultural beauty and spiritual harmony of our inner landscape to the fluid medium of Nature's outer landscape. Gardening is the conscious marriage of cultural myth and Universal Laws of Being. To garden is to bring Nature, art, and our souls into harmony with one another in such a way that one cannot tell where Nature ends and art begins, and vice versa.

To garden the Earth, be it a tiny garden in a backyard, a city park, a prairie, or a forest, we must begin by gardening our minds and our souls. British philosopher James Allen, states this beautifully:

A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seed will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.

Just as a gardener cultivates his plot, keeping it free from weeds, and growing the flowers and fruits which he requires, so may a man tend the garden of his mind, weeding out all the wrong, useless, and impure thoughts, and cultivating toward perfection the flowers and fruits of right, useful, and pure thoughts. By pursuing this process, a man sooner of later discovers that he is the master gardener of his soul, the director of his life. He also reveals, within himself, the laws of thought, and understanding, with ever-increasing accuracy, how the thought forces and mind elements operate in the shaping of his character, circumstances, and destiny.¹

Only when we have the discipline to garden the inner landscape of our minds and our souls, weeding out all inharmonious thoughts, will our inner harmony be consummated in the outer landscape. Whether we wish to admit it on not, says ecological restorationist William Jordan, the world really is a garden that invites, even requires, our constant participation and habitation. In this sense, gardening the Earth means to negotiate a new reality with Nature, one that is based on Universal Laws and on our spiritual evolution, because the patterns created on the landscape by a society are a true "pictorial" reflection of its collective spiritual attainment and ecological understanding as well as the economics of its "management." Note that the root word for both "ecology" and "economy" is based on the Greek word oikos, which means "house." Ecology is the study of the house, and economics is the management of the house—and it's the same house.

I say "spiritual attainment," because gardening is an act born out of our love for the Earth. Love creates an openness to experience, an unfolding without judgment. It expands awareness of and compassion for oneself and others in relationship, and its intimacy permits connectivity of distance—even unto the generations of the future. Love personalizes the Universe while keeping it intrinsically free unto itself.

It was from this sense of a personalized, loving relationship with the Earth that Aldo Leopold wrote:  "The average dolled-up estate merely proves what we will some day learn to acknowledge:  that bread and beauty grow best together. Their harmonious integration can make farming not only a business but an art; the land not only a food-factory but an instrument for self-expression, on which each can play music of his own choosing." It is hard for us, said Leopold, to visualize that creating an artistically-beautiful landscape is not the prerogative of "esthetic priests" but of "dirt farmers." A farmer designs fields with plowshare and seed. A farmer not only wields spade and pruning shears but also determines the presence or absence of plants and animals in a particular place and time. In this sweep of human thought are the seeds of change, "including, perhaps, a rebirth of that social dignity which ought to inhere in land-ownership."²

I would today change the notion of "land-ownership" and "land-stewardship" to land-trusteeship, because we "own" nothing but our thoughts and our behavior. Everything else we merely borrow both from Nature and from our children, and their children, and their children's children into the blue haze of the future's horizon. In addition, ownership connotes the present in the present for the present, whereas trusteeship connotes the maintenance and protection of the principle, held in trust by adults (the trustees) in the present for the benefit of the future—the children, the beneficiaries.

I feel a sense of trusteeship when nature writer Wendell Berry writes about farming, which, he says, "cannot take place except in nature; therefore, if nature does not thrive, farming cannot thrive." We know, too, says Berry, that we are an inseparable part of Nature and that we do not stand safely outside of Her. We are in Nature and of Nature simply because we exist, and beyond that, we are Nature while we use Her. If Nature cannot thrive as and while we use Her, human society cannot thrive. Therefore, "the appropriate measure of farming [gardening] is the world's health and our health, and these are inescapably one measure."

If, says Berry, all farmers on all farms would accept the responsibility of knowing where they are—in whose garden—and of consulting the "genius of the place," they would ask Nature what She would be doing with that place if no one were farming it. They would ask what Nature would permit them to do there and how they best could do it with the least harm to the place and its nonhuman and human neighbors. And they would ask what Nature would help them to do. Then, after each question, knowing that Nature will respond, they would attend carefully to Her response.³

Farming is therefore "gardening" when it is done by Nature's measure, which is predicated on the answers Nature has given to a farmer's questions about his or her particular place. This means that "farmers must tend farms that they know and love, farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods that they know and love, in the company of neighbors that they know and love."³

Gardening is giving to the Earth and all its inhabitants, including ourselves, the only things of value that we each have to give:  our love, our trust, our respect, and the benefit of our experience— while understanding that all we do as human being is practice relationships. The very process of gardening is thus the process (the practice of relationship) through which we become attuned with Nature and, through Nature, with ourselves. To engage in the act of gardening is to commune with and to know the Spirit—the Eternal Mystery—in within us, in one another, and in all of Nature. To treat the Earth in the sacred manner of gardening as a vehicle to touch and be touched by the Eternal, Transcendent Mystery of the universe is our global imperative if we want to coexist as truly equitable and peaceful human societies.


This essay is excerpted from my 1992 book "Global Imperative:  Harmonizing Culture and Nature," which includes the following references:

1. James Allen. 1981. As a man thinketh. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY.

2. Aldo Leopold. 1933. The conservation ethic. Journal of Forestry 31:634-643.

3. Wendell Berry. 1990. Taking nature's measure. Harper's Magazine March 1990:20-22. Top

©chris maser 2005. All rights reserved.

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