As a young child, I lived in the city. And in WW2 my city, Plymouth, was one of the most heavily-bombed in the UK. So my early experiences were almost totally shaped by war – as I chronicled for the BBC WW2 History Archive. But the one thing that for me was not affected by the war in any way was my fascination with the natural world. I used to spend hours in our little garden, watching the birds and the beetles. I scooped up frog spawn from a pond in the park and put it in an enamel dish that I made into a mini-pond with stones and moss so that I could watch the eggs hatch into tadpoles and slowly become frogs. Most of all, I loved those very occasional times when my mother took me walking on Dartmoor or my great-aunt took me blackberrying along the Devon hedges.
I can remember walking along the street and commiserating with the shrubs in people’s front gardens. “I know you would rather live in the country” I used to say to them. “So would I.” At that time I had no idea where my passion for Nature came from but later, when the war was over and my soldier father finally returned from his five years fighting overseas, I discovered that he, too, harboured a similar passion. So in 1946 my dream – and his – came true and we moved to the countryside.
My family were all High Church Anglicans. Church attendance was a normal part of my life that I accepted without giving it much thought. The only part of it that felt special for me was the story of St Francis and his love of all the wild creatures and I had a picture of him in my bedroom. (I still do.)
At around the age of eleven, I had my first ‘peak experience’. I remember it vividly. We were living on a hill near the Hampshire village of Swanmore and I was standing in the front garden of our house with my right arm around a flowering cherry tree, staring across to the Isle of Wight on the far horizon.
I had no words for this sublime experience and I didn’t connect it with religion in any way until a year or more later when the time came for me to attend confirmation classes and the priest started to explain the symbolism of Holy Communion. I was already familiar with the physical paraphernalia of that ceremony, as my grandmother and great-aunts all took turns laundering the purificators (the little linen cloths that were used to wipe the chalice). How, I wondered, could all these mundane objects – the wafers, the wine etc. – somehow become almost magical? What was the nature of this alchemy? According to the priest, there was an outer aspect and an inner aspect. The ritual was, in his words: “An outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.”
I liked that phrase. It suggested to me that the practice of Holy Communion would surely yield an inner experience that felt like the one I’d had standing with the cherry tree. Likewise, with the ceremony of my confirmation. I fully expected that when the Bishop of Portsmouth placed his hands on my head I would feel something spiritually significant happen inside me. But it didn’t. It was just some old, bored-looking guy with his hands on my head. And Holy Communion for me turned out to be just a wafer and a sip of not very nice wine – plus a shudder because the words that went with it about eating Christ’s body and drinking His blood felt gruesomely cannibalistic.
For several years I tried hard to find some sort of meaning in church practices. But whatever spiritual experiences I had were always connected with being outdoors and doing such things as cantering on horseback through a beech wood, seeing the first swallows arrive in Spring or coming upon a nest in the hedge with eggs in it. In my introduction to the book GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness I told the story of the Sunday morning that I refused to go to church and sat under a tree instead.
It was early summer. The sun was shining, the campions and foxgloves were blooming pink against the green of the meadow grass and there were bumblebees buzzing around me as I snuggled into a hollow amongst the tree’s roots and leaned my back against its knobbly trunk. From somewhere nearby came the scent of honeysuckle.
Across the fields, I could see the squat, stone tower of the church and I thought of my family sitting inside, on those wooden pews, singing hymns to the God in whom they had tried to persuade me to believe: a God who sat on a tall throne, somewhere above the clouds, surrounded by angels in white robes. And suddenly I knew, with a deep, inner conviction, that there was indeed a God. But it was a nameless, formless God; a God who caressed me with the dappled sunlight that filtered through the leaves, who charmed me with the scents and sounds of summer and who lived in every molecule of everything.
Whatever that God energy was, I knew that I was breathing it. And it was breathing me. It was within me and around me, in the air, the grass, the hedgerows, the birds, the clouds, my blood. It was in everything and it was everything, including me.
After that, I never went to the church again.
As an adult I spent many years exploring various Eastern religions and spiritual traditions, plus philosophy, metaphysics, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Wicca, Goddess religion, Sufism, you-name-it, even Scientology. And I learned something from all of them. But the most intensely spiritual experiences in my life were always connected with those moments when I felt myself to be either in communion with the more-than-human world or deeply in tune with my own instinctual, mammalian self, such as when giving birth and breastfeeding my children.
In the 1980s I encountered Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis about the Earth as one big, self-regulating, living organism and that rang huge bells for me. Along with that came Koestler’s concept of holarchies and I totally ‘got it’ that everything in the Universe is arranged that way. From electrons to atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to planets to galaxies… and so on. It is holons, all the way up and all the way down. Everything is a thing in its own right and also a part of something bigger. So my body is made of cells and I, in turn, am a cell in the body of the living Earth. Here at last was the theory behind what I had deeply felt while sitting under that tree at age 15 and behind the ‘green’ consciousness that had inspired my many years of passionate, environmental activism.
While living in Melbourne in the early1990s, I was contacted by a colleague who had been inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme and was calling together a group of people to discuss it and to explore green spirituality and the sacred in everyday life. We formed an organization and named it The Climbing River Foundation. I realized that I had at last found my congregation, my ‘sangha’, my spiritual tribe. Later I had the opportunity to sit in class with Brian Swimme at my alma mater, CIIS in San Francisco, and to meet Thomas Berry.
When I finally returned to my native England after 39 years abroad and, to my delight, discovered (via a leaflet in the porch of St James’s Piccadilly) an organization called GreenSpirit I realized that my greenspiritual tribe is in fact worldwide.
I have truly come home, in more ways than one.