What is Learning how Land Speaks about?

I’m Peter Reason. I’m a retired University professor, for many years a leading theorist and practitioner of participatory action research in its various forms: research with, rather than on people. This approach to inquiry – I hate it called a methodology – is based on the premise that, since human persons as self-determining, it makes no sense to treat them as dumb objects in the process of research. It is also politically and ethically obnoxious. People must take the status of co-subjects and co-researchers in the inquiry process. Of course, to take this view undercuts the epistemological foundations espoused by science at least since Descartes.

This Western, Cartesian viewpoint channels our thinking and perception to tell us that the world is made of separate things, objects of nature composed of inert matter operating according to causal laws. These have no subjectivity, consciousness, or intelligence, no intrinsic purpose, value, and meaning. And it tells us that mind and physical reality are separate. Humans, and humans alone, have the capacity for rational thought and action and for understanding and giving meaning to the world. So alongside a participatory approach to research, I have argued we in the West need to develop and adopt participatory worldview.

I came to the practice of participative research through a humanistic perspective and have been particularly associated with co-operative inquiry. Over the years, in particular since the 1990s (as you will realize, I am writing as an old man) and the gathering ecological catastrophe the western worldview is wreaking on the planet, I have widened my view. I have come to realize that it is equally erroneous and offensive to approach the world and her beings as objects, as non-sentient. As writer Amitav Ghosh puts it,

… nonhumans can, do, and must speak. It is essential now, as the prospect of planetary catastrophe comes ever closer, that those nonhuman voices be restored to our stories. The fate of humans, and all our relatives, depends on it.[i] 

The world is alive; not only alive, the world is sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen. I can argue this philosophically, and I know this through experience.

As I have approached these questions over the past thirty year or more, in addition to the many theories of social science I have touched on many teachings, in particular from the Medicine Wheel and Ch’an Buddhism, which have led to direct experience of the sentient world. I have undertaken sailing pilgrimages around the western coasts of the British Isles. And I see writing about these experiences as an essential aspect of the inquiry. Most recently I have learned from four colleagues: Freya Mathews who articulates living cosmos panpsychism;[ii] biologist Andreas Weber whose poetic ecology regards feeling and expression as necessary dimensions of the existential reality of organisms and of life;[iii] ecologist Stephan Harding whose Gaia theory and Animate Earth provides us with a science-based understanding of Earth itself as a self-regulating complex system, a great planetary organism, essentially an animate being;[iv] and Sandra Wooltorton whose kinship ecology recognises all beings – living creatures and also rock, cloud, mountain and river – not as other but as kin, as family.[v]

Together, over the past four years, we have initiated a stream of co-operative inquiries I have been engaged in a series of co-operative inquiries asking questions of the kind:

What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world? And if we invoke such a world of sentient presence, calling to other-than-human beings as persons, might we elicit a response?

For a variety of reasons, in we have focussed on relationship with Rivers. At the time of writing, over sixty human persons and maybe seventy Rivers across the planet have participated in inquiries, some of which have lasted for six intensive weeks, one of which has continued with the same core membership for over three years.

My posts on SubStack offer my account of these inquiries as initiator, facilitator, and participant. My co-inquirers have kindly allowed me to draw on our collective experience and include quotes from their reports. We are hoping to publish a fuller account soon.

[i] Ghosh, A. (2021). The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a planet in crisis. London: John Murray:257, italics in original.

[ii] Mathews, F. (2003). For Love of Matter: A contemporary panpsychism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press; (2017). Panpsychism. In G. Oppy & N. Trakakis (Eds.), Interreligious Philosophical Dialogues: Volume 1 (pp. 45-71): Routledge; (2019). Living Cosmos Panpsychism. In W. Seager (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism. London: Routledge; (2023). The Dao of Civilization: A Letter to China. London and New York: Anthem Press.

[iii] Weber, A. (2016). The Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, feeling and the metamorphosis of science. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers; (2017). Matter and Desire: An erotic ecology (R. Bradley, Trans.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

[iv] Harding, S. P. (2009). Animate Earth. Foxhole, Dartington: Green Books;  (2022). Gaia Academy: The reuniting of science, psyche, and soul. Rochester VT: Bear & Company.

[v] Wooltorton, S., White, P., Palmer, M., & Collard, L. (2021). Learning cycles: Enriching ways of knowing place. Australian Journal of Environmental Education., 37(1), 1-18. doi:Doi: 10.1017/aee.2020.15

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Learning How Land Speaks explore the idea & experience of the world as alive; not just alive, the world is sentient & speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen. Posts are curated from a series of co-operative inquiries with Human and River persons


Peter Reason is engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? peterreason.net