In some respects it is quite surprising that Sir Alister Hardy (1896-1985) the founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, was a biologist. We might expect such a centre to have been established by a psychologist, sociologist or anthropologist, perhaps, or some other researcher from the ‘soft’ social sciences, but not from the so-called ‘hard sciences’ (though admittedly biology is the softest and squishiest of the hard sciences). In other ways, however, it is also quite unsurprising. Historian of Religion Bron Taylor, for instance, has convincingly shown how a form of spirituality, which he terms ‘Dark Green Religion,’ often arises from participatory interaction with the natural world, whether as a scientist, as an ecological activist, or in the pursuit of other activities in the great outdoors, such as hunting, hiking or surfing. Taylor explains that this form of spirituality, which emerges from the land itself, is ‘generally deep ecological, biocentric, or ecocentric, considering all species to be intrinsically valuable…apart from their usefulness to human beings’ (Taylor, 2010, p. 13).
Many (though by no means all) of those who Taylor gathers together in his book Dark Green Religion (2010) came to their respective moral, ethical and spiritual positions through what could be described as peak, mystical, religious or paranormal experiences in nature. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), for example, widely regarded as the father of modern wildlife conservation, experienced a radical transformation of perspective following an encounter with a wolf he had shot while working as a wilderness warden. Leopold had been responsible for culling wolves and bears in national parks in the U.S., a task he had not thought twice about until he eventually came face to face with one of his victims. He relates:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (Leopold, 1949).
Leopold’s cognitive shift – from an anthropocentric to an eco-centric perspective – echoes one of William James’ (1842-1910) criteria for genuine Religious Experience – that it should produce ‘moral fruits’ in the experiencer (James, 2004). Leopold’s encounter with the wolf and the green fire transformed his consciousness. Alister Hardy’s own transformative experience occurred much earlier in his life, when he was a young boy exploring the Nottinghamshire countryside. In his autobiographical notes, Hardy wrote:
There is no doubt that as a boy I was becoming what might be described as a nature mystic. Somehow, I felt the presence of something which was beyond and yet in a way part of all the things that thrilled me – the wildflowers, and indeed the insects too. I will now record something…[that] I have never told anyone before, but now that I am in my 88th year I think I can admit it. Just occasionally when I was sure that no one could see me, I became so overcome with the glory of the natural scene, that for a moment or two I fell on my knees in prayer – not prayer asking for anything, but thanking God, who felt very real to me, for the glories of his Kingdom and for allowing me to feel them. It was always by the running waterside that I did this, perhaps in front of a great foam of meadowsweet or purple loosestrife (Alister Hardy, as cited in Hay, 2013).
A connection between transformative religious and mystical experience and the natural world has long been recognised in the scholarly literature on religion (Marshall, 2005). Indeed, one of the major categories of mystical experience proposed by the scholar of mysticism W.T. Stace (1886-1967) – extrovertive mystical experience (familiar to every A-Level Religious Studies student no doubt) – specifically refers to mystical experiences that are either initiated by, or which transfigure, the natural landscape, revealing an underlying unity and the interconnectedness of all phenomena:
The extrovertive mystic with his physical senses continues to perceive the same world of trees and hills and tables and chairs as the rest of us. But he sees these objects transfigured in such manner that the Unity shines through them…the extrovertive experience is sensory-intellectual in so far as it still perceives physical objects but is nonsensuous and nonintellectual in so far as it perceives them as “all one” (Stace, 1960, p. 15).
The archives of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC), housed at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter, contain over 6,000 accounts of self-submitted religious experiences. Many of these accounts refer to ‘extrovertive’ experiences of transcendence and connection to the natural world. The following are just a few particularly vivid descriptions of self-reported religious experiences initiated through interaction with landscape and ecology that I have selected from the archive:
As I watched, suddenly the whole countryside changed and everything in it, without exception, simply glowed with numinous light – it seemed no longer to be lit by the sun but by its own internal radiance. Sunlight was not reflected from it, but I myself and everything else seemed to have become light – which now inter-penetrated and shone through our previously dense physical forms…The whole scene shone with an extraordinary golden glow, which included the sky and the atmosphere itself. – RERC Reference: 10003, Male, no details.
As we conversed the situation became unreal. The plants and shrubs and the three pine trees in a copse…became unreal. And yet they were more real than I had ever seen them in the 3 1/2 years I had lived there. Instead of merging into a general familiar pattern, each item of plant, shrub and tree, stood out singularly, vivid, vibrant…The whole area became something on its own, apart from the rest. The whole area became something I had never seen before. I became filled with a feeling of elation and well-being such as I have never before or since experienced…I felt that I had seen Nature as it really is. – RERC Reference: 002780, Male, 1941.
My mother and I were walking on a stretch of land…known locally as ‘the moors.’ As the sun declined and the slight chill of evening came on, a pearly mist formed over the ground…Here and there just the very tallest harebells appeared above the mist. I had a great love of these exquisitely formed flowers, and stood lost in wonder at the sight. Suddenly I seemed to see the mist as a shimmering gossamer tissue and the harebells, appearing here and there, seemed to shine with a brilliant fire. Somehow I understood that this was the living tissue of life itself, in which that which we call consciousness was embedded, appearing here and there as a shining focus of energy in the more diffused whole. In that moment I knew that I had my own special place, as had all other things, animate and so-called inanimate, and that we were all part of this universal tissue which was both fragile yet immensely strong, and utterly good and beneficent. The vision has never left me. It is as clear today as fifty years ago, and with it the same intense feeling of love of the world and the certainty of ultimate good. It gave me then a strong, clear sense of identity which has withstood many vicissitudes, and an affinity with plants, birds, animals, even insects, and people too, which has often been commented upon. – RERC Reference: 003039, Female, 1922.
For more on mystical experiences in nature, and different frameworks for understanding them, see Paul Marshall’s work for a comprehensive survey of the field (2005). Religious Experiences in nature may also take the form of a ‘sudden flash’ of animistic insight. Graham Harvey defines animism as the recognition that ‘the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others’ (Harvey, 2005, p. xi). The following example took place in April 1917, during the First World War, while the author was serving in the army:
While spending an afternoon hour alone in my hilltop wood, a mood of depression had come down. We were due to move in a few days…After supper in the mess I felt restless. I wondered if the full moon shining down from a cloudless sky had anything to do with my mood. A walk by the canal might make it easier to sleep. I walked eastward for about two miles along the towpath and then turned about. The nearer I drew to the village, the more alive the surroundings seemed to become. It was as if something which had been dormant when I was in the wood were coming alive. I must have drifted into an exalted state. The moon, when I looked up at it, seemed to have become personalised and observant, as if it were aware of my presence on the towpath. A sweet scent pervaded the air. Early shoots were breaking from the sticky buds of the balsam poplars which bordered the canal; their pleasant resinous odour conveyed good-will. The slowly moving waters of the canal, which was winding its unhurried way from the battlefields to the sea, acquired a ‘numen’ which endorsed the intimations of the burgeoning trees. The river conveyed that it had seen me before in other places and knew something about me. It was now concerned with my return to the village…A feeling that I was being absorbed into the living surroundings gained in intensity and was working up to a climax. Something was going to happen. Then it happened. The experience lasted, I should say, about thirty seconds and seemed to come out of the sky in which were resounding majestic harmonies. The thought, ‘that is the music of the spheres’ was immediately followed by a glimpse of luminous bodies – meteors or stars – circulating in predestined courses emitting both light and music. – RERC Reference: 000035, Male, 1917.
Other accounts further demonstrate an overlap between Religious Experience and elements of shamanistic communication, especially in relation to the issue of interspecies communication. The following account from the archive suggests a form of therapeutic communication between humans and Elm trees:
Some 12 years ago I used to have four tall Elm Trees on our garden lawn; they grew forming a square. I was strongly drawn to these trees and used to stroke the trunks and talk to them especially when I felt depressed or ill. I always felt their response through a strong vibration through my hands then through my whole body. This convinced me that I am One with All Beings; the same life force which flows through my body flows through all vegetation, animals, birds, fish, minerals, under the ground or sea, even the very stones we walk on. Every animate and inanimate thing is held together with atoms which are of the whole ‘Divine Being’. – RERC Reference: 002384, Female, 1960.
With these extraordinary experiences we are entering the territory that German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) called the numinous – the non-dogmatic, non-rational, experiential, essence of religion (Otto, 1958). Famously, Otto made a distinction between two polarities of the numinous – the mysterium fascinans – the element of the numinous that is fascinating, beautiful, and draws us in – and the mysterium tremendum – the terrifying, repulsive and yet awe-inspiring end of the numinous spectrum. The accounts of mystical experiences recounted above would certainly fall into the category of the mysterium fascinans, but many people also report darker and/or stranger experiences that, in the Western idiom, are often referred to as ‘paranormal.’
Examples of such stranger, though undoubtedly related, experiences can be found in their multitudes in the recently published Fairy Census 2014-2017 (Young, 2018). The census collects together 500 contemporary self-submitted accounts of encounters with fairies collected between November 2014 and November 2017. It is of interest to note that of these 500 accounts 97 reportedly took place ‘in the garden’ and 94 took place ‘in woodland.’ This is not quite the place to explore the connection between gardening and fairy encounters in detail (though I do intend to explore this at a later date), but suffice to say that such experiences share similarities with the RERC experiences recounted above. See for example:
I was sitting underneath the willow tree in the back garden and felt an electrical tingle. Turning to look over my shoulder I saw five small figures, very human like but much smaller…They were dressed in brown to dark green clothes – somewhat like tights with sturdy boots and smock like tops, their faces were more angular than human faces and very sun weathered in appearance. We looked at each other for a short period of time – there was an unspoken exchange of understanding (very hard to articulate) and then they marched off underneath a bush. – Fairy Census, §78, England (Lincolnshire). Male; 1980s (Young, 2018, p. 64).
…one afternoon in May, I was sitting out in my garden. The rhododendrons were in flower and it was a hot bright sunny day. I was very comfortable and content to listen to the birds and just relax. Unexpectedly I became aware of the golden outline of a figure down at the bottom of my garden. I say outline because it was not solid, but looked as though just its outline had been drawn with golden ink. The figure shimmered and had tall wings, but mostly it was transparent, like a rough sketch. It was about three foot tall and rose up in the air a little way before descending; it did this several times. Then I saw a second winged figure, very much smaller. This was also golden, but I remember seeing a flash of blue and green. My first thought was that it was a dragonfly, but on closer observation I saw that it flew quite differently and its shape was not that of an insect but a small human-like figure. – Fairy Census, §190, Wales (Rhondda). Female; 2000s (Young, 2018, p. 143).
It is commonly reported that the kinds of ecstatic and paranormal experiences collected in the RERC archives, and in documents such as the Fairy Census, as well as other forms of extraordinary experience often give rise to a renewed vision of the Earth and an enhanced sense of connection to the natural world, both physically and spiritually. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack’s (1929-2004) work on the alien abduction phenomenon, for example, highlighted the frequent centrality of the eco-crisis theme in many abduction experience narratives. Summarising the prevalence of ecological themes in the abduction narratives he investigated, Mack writes:
It seems impossible to avoid the observation that the alien abduction phenomenon is occurring in the context of a planetary ecological crisis that is reaching critical proportions and that information about this situation is often powerfully conveyed by the alien beings to the experiencers (Mack, 1995, pp. 434-435).
Individuals who claim to have had contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, therefore, may go on to develop a closer relationship to their terrestrial ecology, and to develop a new sense of their place in the cosmos following their experience. Again, this echoes William James’ emphasis on the ‘moral fruits’ of religious experience. Similarly, Ring & Valarino (2006) have noted parallel effects amongst Near-Death Experiencers, who often develop a ‘heightened sensitivity to the ecological health of the planet’ (p. 125) following their experience. Changing patterns of behaviour and worldview have also been noted following other forms of extraordinary experience, for example: ‘lifetime experience with psychedelics in particular may…contribute to people’s pro-environmental behavior by changing their self-construal in terms of an incorporation of the natural world’ (Forstmann & Sagioglou, 2017). At face value, then, there appears to be a connection between anomalous and extraordinary experiences of various kinds and the development of ecological consciousness that warrants further investigation, especially in this time of ecological collapse and climate change.
One possible line of enquiry could be to conduct ethnographic research on spirituality and religious experience amongst practitioners of ecological regeneration. As an in-road into this arena, I conducted an informal online survey of permaculture practitioners to uncover possible connections between practical engagement with ecology and extraordinary experience. This is not the place to go into a full examination of what the survey found (see Hunter, 2018), but suffice to say here that the perceived connections between permaculture – a design process inspired by observations of natural systems – and extraordinary experience recounted by my survey respondents point towards an interesting correlation between interacting with the natural world (whether through observation of ecosystems, the practical tending of gardens, and so on) and extraordinary experiences (feelings of connectedness to nature, communication with plants and animals, etc.). Through fostering a closer relationship with our ecology through community gardening projects, or other forms of hands-on engagement with the living world, we may, then, also open ourselves up to extraordinary experiences in nature, thus reinforcing our desire to interact with the natural world. The work of Botelho et al. (2016) would seem to support this suggestion. In their study of Brazilian agroforestry (which is a combination of agriculture and forestry techniques to promote biodiversity while also generating large crop yields) they found that:
…through the adoption and collaborative development of the agroforestry system, farmers have begun to conduct intense observations of the environment in relation to plants, animals, water, and soil and to shape and renew the use of traditional knowledge in their production methods. Furthermore, because the farmers now verbalize their reflections and exchange their observations and knowledge with others, they are internalizing the idea that a profound change is occurring in their conceptions of nature. This process is similar to the process that deep ecologists describe as a metaphysical reconfiguration of the self and the ecosystem (Botelho et al., 2016, p. 218).
One of the most exciting aspects of this line of research – of trying to understand the spiritual and experiential motivations of those engaged in ecological regeneration – is the potential for practical application to real-world problems. Climate change, ecological collapse, species loss, pollution, and so on, are among the biggest problems facing contemporary societies. They are also most commonly thought of as problems for the ‘hard sciences’ to tackle, usually with technology. The ‘soft’ and social sciences, on the other hand, are often thought to have little to offer in terms of practical responses. But, if we can learn more about the role of human interaction with the natural world in the modulation of extraordinary experiences – which themselves, as a feedback loop, also lead to a desire to re-engage with nature – then perhaps we can develop new approaches to rebuilding a more sustainable relationship with our natural environment based on experiential and empathetic engagement with nature. The ‘soft’ study of religious experience may have an important role to play in shaping humanity’s response to the ecological crisis. In this way we might begin to reverse some of the damage caused by our perceived detachment from nature and develop what Mark A. Schroll has called ‘transpersonal ecosophical consciousness’ – ‘an ecstatic visionary philosophy of ecological harmony’ (Schroll, 2018, p. 37).
Botelho, M.I.V. & Cardoso, I.M. & Otsuki, K. (2016). ‘ “I made a pact with God, with nature, and with myself”: exploring deep agroecology.’ Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 116-131.
Forstmann, M., & Sagioglou, C. (2017). ‘Lifetime experience with (classic) psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behaviour through an increase in nature relatedness.’ Journal of Psychopharmacology, 31(8), 975-988.
Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Company.
Hay, D. (2013). ‘Zoology and Religion.’ Available Online: https://metanexus.net/zoology-and-/religion-work-alister-hardy/ [Accessed: 15/07/2019].
Hunter, J. (2018). ‘Preliminary Report on Extraordinary Experience in Permaculture: Collapsing the Natural/Supernatural Divide.’ Journal of Exceptional Experiences and Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 12-22.
James, W. (2004). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Mack, J.E. (1995). Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. New York: Ballantine Books.
Marshall, P. (2005). Mystical Encounters with the Natural World: Experiences and Explanations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Otto, R. (1958) The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ring, K. & Valarino, E. (2006). Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience. Needham: Moment Point Press.
Schroll, M.A. (2018). Ecology, Cosmos and Consciousness: Myths, Comicbook Lore, Dreams and Inquiries Into Various Other Radical Transpersonal Ecosophical States. Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant: Psychoid Books.
Young, S. (2018). The Fairy Census, 2014-2017. Available Online: http://www.fairyist.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/The-Fairy-Census-2014-2017-1.pdf [Accessed 22/07/2019].