Towards a Poetics of Partnership




Spirit we understand as the recombinant power of the universe, forming, dissolving and reforming from the first instant of creation till now and into the deep future. Spirit is the creative flow which religion understands as the Spirit of Creation and Indigenous spiritual traditions as the ancestral and transformative relationships between people, animals, plants and spirits of the lands and waters . It is what life scientists call evolution and theologians and Aboriginal people understand as ongoing creation, as opposed to a onetime act (Keller 2003). This creative flow can also be conceived as the process of forming, deforming and reforming whereby the elemental particles of the universe develop into ever more complex forms (Mackey 2007).

Spirit manifests itself in evolution and all aspects of human endeavour and creativity. It is why a bird is not a fact, but a step between a dinosaur and something yet to be and a joy in itself. It is the root of ‘inspiration’—where one idea flows into another, emerging in art, what science calls discovery and theology calls revelation. It is the belief that drives the artist, scientist and mystic in all of us to ask new questions, to face down the border police (Caputo 1997; Neis 2011). It is recognition of the difference between 'you' and 'me' and the spark that jumps between: I: Thou rather than I: it (Buber 1937).

Figure 2: Tree symbol. Initial concept by Emily Haggan

English is a noun-based language, while some Aboriginal languages are verb-based (1998; Little Bear 2000; Gross 2014). Both 'noun' and 'verb' conjure up questions of agency, being or power, but the things or beings themselves arise from a matrix of relationships/possibilities that supports their existence, and in turn, enables them to support others. In the spirit of compassionate listening or epistemological pluralism, (Miller et al. 2008) and with no intent to pre-empt other luminous and powerful symbols that will emerge, we offer the initial symbol of a riverside tree, (Figure 1), where both the convergent roots and the confluent streams represent the meeting of different ways of understanding and being in the world.

The flow of water and nutrients from bedrock through soil to roots to the trunk, into branches, the birds and insects, is a quickening dance of spirit drawn by sunlight falling on the leaves. The roots are fractal, from individual people and creatures to families and ecologies through thickening roots of Aboriginal, religious and aesthetic traditions, natural and social science and the dedication of ordinary people. The roots of a riverside tree may shelter a salmon—an ancient symbol of wisdom in Aboriginal and Irish tradition.


Spirituality is the cycle of attention/practice/attention and of just being with—to linger with the object and process of thought in a ruminative space of not knowing (Gibson-Graham 2006) that socializes and attunes us to our place in intersecting trajectories of geology, ecology, natural variability and human desire. Spirituality is in large part, the application of an ethics of attention—the loving eye of relationship that constrains exploitative use. The spirituality of attention is fundamental to identify relationships that contribute to flourishing and to understanding and unravel those that do not. These relationships include the beings, connections, interstitial spaces and the fluids, resonances—music, human and non-human voices that are interwoven as in the confluent stream and trunk of a riverside tree, only to disperse in branches, lakes and oceans, to return as migrating birds to the branches and salmon to the river.

Religions so understood, are responses to spirit that are shaped and reshaped by their place of origin, their scriptures, prophets, travels and traditions. Religions are not monolithic, they contain many strands and interpretations, tho I will contend that the core message is care for the poor, downtrodden, marginalized, oppressed, imprisoned and forsaken . Yes they go horribly wrong, as Dawkins and Hitchens constantly remind us, but we should no more characterize religion by intolerance, beheadings, bombing in Gaza or junk science than we should characterize tradition as female genital mutilation, footbinding and slavery or science by Zyklon B, racial profiling software or biological and chemical weapons.

We suggest that spiritual practice is as integral to management and conservation science as it is to art and religion. Science is a faith based spiritual practice—faith in oneself, one’s colleagues, methods and that dedicated effort will lead to greater understanding. The attractor is the sacred understood as that which is awesome, mysterious and fascinating. The spiritual practice is of dedicated attention to relationships, self-sacrifice in terms of leisure/family time and other earning opportunities. The motivation is love (Wilson 1984; Sagoff 1991; Anderson 1996; Rosenblatt 1998; McCauley 2006; Cousteau and Schiefelbein 2010; Maathai 2010; Monbiot 2011).

The challenge is that expression of spirituality in the theatre of scientific research is associated with a loss of detachment, and can be treated with withering scorn. Projects which bring multiple voices together are (almost) invariably rewarding for all participants, but are still special cases with little effect on overall policy.

Five expressions of spirituality as particularly relevant to relationships with the environment:

Art as spiritual practice

• Art as a spiritual practice – Art is a spiritual practice of attention to the ongoing conversation between people and the natural/built environment or natures-cultures in their almost-infinite expression , an epistemology in its own right . Art is active participation in the process of forming, deforming and reforming to portray tension and complexity, beauty and ugliness in ways that scientific and bureaucratic language cannot. Music—all forms of great art invoke awe, mystery, fascination and beauty that scientists and theologians alike recognize as the presence of the sacred.

Indigenous spiritualities of belonging

• Indigenous spiritualities of belonging - young people learn from stories and ceremony that recapitulate how people learned how to live in harmony with non-human attributes of their lands and waters, being taken out on lands and waters to learn a cycle of deep listening—practice and attention. Spiritualities of belonging are often expressed in terms of ‘sacred land’ or ‘sacred ecology', where culture, identity and well-being are interwoven with lands, waters and other beings. Human and ecological diversity create significant different expressions of the spirituality of belonging both within and between eco-social-spiritual communities, even those that are quite close to each other.

Spirituality of science

• Spirituality of science - The practice of science is based on observation, hypothesis, theory, research and replicability. The spirituality of science stems, in many cases, from initial awe, fascination and mystery of a childhood encounter. Childhood attachments are however inseparable from the totality of experience, sun, wind, water, plants, animals, the love of parents. Scientific education translates the object of initial fascination into a formal ecological or physical system . Learning the language and method of science and proving the ability to contribute is a rite of passage from childhood attachment to membership. The ground is no less a spirituality of belonging, but the scientific stricture of objective reporting require that it be expressed as a spirituality of detachment.

Citizen conservation

• Citizen conservation - many people put time, effort and money into cherishing and protecting species and places to which they are deeply connected and committed. Indeed many people put time and effort into protecting species and places they never expect to see.

Work as spiritual practice

• Work as a spiritual practice Local and Indigenous knowledge are inseparable from making a living on the land. People involved in destructive activities retain spiritual connection and can be deeply conflicted. [Link here to literature on disconnect between personal and workplace values].

To conclude (for the time being at least), our preliminary symbol invites at least seven ways to look at the world—the individual beings; the connections beloved of ecological, climate and economic modellers, the spaces where unseen and unintended faunas and floras flourish, the generative flows that urge us to 'think with water' / defy all notions of sovereign ontology (Chandler and Neimanis 2013) the resonant voices of wind, waves, birds and people, the dance of branches and waves and the ceremony, music, dance and performance that humans hear, emulate and weave into complex, abstract and beautiful forms, the fungal internet that commnicates health or sickness between the trees, the human internet that carries the intents of conservation, legal and illegal logging, our project and much else.