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Erik Steenburgh
IT 2109
February 2, 2018
Roots of Thought in Ecological Consciousness

During the first couple years of my college experience, I have begun to pay more

attention to the person I am and the person I am becoming in this developmental stage of my life.

One area that has attracted my thoughts the most is the environment and my connection to it. It

was not until recently that I discovered that most, or even all, aspects of who I am are derived in

my connection to the ecology of the place where I live. I have spent my whole life discovering

new places and adventures throughout Utah and the Wasatch especially, that I think define every

aspect of who I am, not just how I am perceived externally, but how I think, act, and interpret

knowledge. I have also learned how important the environment is as a spiritual guide. I find this

very fascinating as in our society, it seems that everything we are doing is trying to counteract or

to beat nature, when in fact, I believe it is potentially the driving force in everything we do. This

leads me to the question I want to investigate further which is: How does a sense of connection

with our ecological surroundings impact the ways we gain and interpret knowledge?

The first book I read in order to investigate this idea is An Ocean of the Mind. This book

is written by a professor at the University of Hawaii in the late twentieth century named Will

Kyselka. Throughout the book, he tells a story of a young man named Nainoa, who is of

Hawaiian descent and is very interested in his ancestry, particularly their navigation. After the

introduction, Kyselka begins the story with a narrative of the creation of the world from pacific

islander heritage. In the story, there are two parent gods, the sky, Wakea, and the Earth goddess,

Papa. They are the parents of many other young gods and goddesses who try, and eventually
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succeed, to separate them, bringing in light and life and everything that exists on Earth. I found

the use of this story as the beginning of the Nainoa’s story to be very interesting. It demonstrates

that at the heart of these peoples’ spirituality is the Earth and sky, and everything that comes

from them. This story also outlined a quality of intention in nature that was central to the life of

Pacific Islanders. It describes how the young gods placed the stars in the sky intentionally to

mark islands in the ocean, the brightest star being Tahiti. This trust in the stars allowed ancient

societies to navigate and to discover new islands across a massive ocean. This creation story

illuminates to me, the importance of the Earth and nature as a means of deriving spiritual

meaning. Everything in their society relied on and trusted the intention of nature, allowing them

to develop and impressive understanding of the Earth.

The rest of the book goes on to describe Nainoa’s journey, relating it to the journeys of

his ancestors. This section exhibits the impressive navigation abilities that this society had

without any technological assistance. Nainoa is always able to recognize not only exactly where

he is and which direction he is moving, but what season or month it is, based on an advanced

understanding of the positions of the stars in the sky and the phases and positions of the moon.

There is also a moment that suggests his navigational ability goes beyond that, “No stars tonight.

So far in these first five nights we’ve had only occasional glimpses of what lies beyond the

clouds. How ironic for Nainoa to base his wayfinding system on the stars and now they haven’t

appeared! Still he has a sense of where we are. Later when the stars do come out they simply

give him greater certainty.” (134). This moment stood out to me as it demonstrates that Nainoa

has an intangible sense of direction without needing even the guide of the stars. This shows that

through his connection with the natural environment that surrounds him, he is able to interpret

knowledge about his position without any guide.

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The most interesting aspect of this passage to me is how much I feel I am the same way

as Nainoa and ancient Polynesians. I believe I have always had a good sense of direction and

have always been obsessed with knowing where I am and understanding the geography of the

place. At home, I use mountains, canyons, and other variations in terrain for guidance in a way

that is similar to Nainoa’s use of the stars, evidence of this is the map below. I often feel like I

have a similar sense as well where sometimes even without and guides I know where I am when

I am in a familiar place. It is also interesting that when I am thrown into a foreign environment,

such as when I visit my grandmother in central Florida, I am often completely lost. It is

completely flat and there is no difference in terrain. My next instinct is to turn to roads to guide

me, however, the roads seem to go in random patterns that were dictated by the developer of the

community. This causes me to have to search for more natural means of navigation that I

wouldn’t need at home, such as wind direction and cloud development. I think this is a

continually dying skill as people in our society become increasingly reliant on GPS and phone

applications to figure out where they are. This is very disadvantageous as it teaches us to be

reliant on it and as soon as we lose it, we are lost. This is one example of how we gain

knowledge from our natural connections that is more significant than knowledge we gain from

technology. This demonstrates the importance of trusting in ecological guidance for gaining


The second book that I found that was An Ethics of Place by Mick Smith. In this book, he

takes a more educational and wholistic approach to the idea of a place and a connection to

nature. He examines different viewpoints about the environment including radical ecology and

tries to define an ethic by which the environment should be treated. He emphasizes the idea that

we must not think of everything selfishly but must think about everything as a community. The
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modern world is too focused on personal desires and therefore we use the natural world for

utilitarian purposes, often trying to combat it, while we should be living symbiotically with it.

The piece I found most interesting was a passage that spoke about John Muir and his experience

with the American wilderness. Smith takes from Muir’s journal, demonstrating the reaction that

Muir had upon viewing places like Yosemite. Smith defines this saying, “Muir sees the

wilderness as a timeless source of spiritual generation where we can lose our modern cares and

uncertainties.” (187). Muir’s perspective is portrayed as being very religious as he draws this

“spiritual generation” from the land that he sees. Smith sometimes seems to disagree with Muir’s

spiritual connection with nature, however he often shows his own as he speaks of a collective

soul. This can be related to the Hawaiian perspective of the Earth being at the center of all

spiritual beliefs.

Smith addresses many of the issues he presents ethically, showing that there are benefits

to each way of thinking. People who live in cities and want to build roads and new buildings

often do not understand the need for natural space, while radical ecologists may not understand

the need for a road. He often cites disadvantages to many positive ways of thinking. The

perspective that Muir has of the wilderness is very similar to the way many people in the modern

world see it. He views it as a place of enlightenment where we can live free of distractions.

However, he recognizes that while nature should be appreciated as a place of enlightenment and

peace, the natural beauty is ruined by the excessive number of visitors. This is a very important

point that makes me realize the importance of a separation between the natural world and cities.

Personally, I have seen that many of the places that I live such as the Wasatch and Zion National

Park are completely overrun with visitors that challenge the strength of the ecosystem.
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Therefore, it is important to understand that while the natural world is critical to the ways we

think and derive spiritual meaning, we cannot overuse it and must give it the space it needs.

The final book I read presented a similar perspective of nature in the postmodern world.

In The Nurture of Nature, Sharon Wall describes the history of summer camps and the

importance of outdoor recreation. The thing that struck me about this book is the way that urban

spaces are described. They are made out to be a disgusting and unlivable space that Wall even

refers to as being artificial, calling nature “real life.” She talks about the rise of “fresh air” camps

that were developed for the purpose of removing people from Toronto for a while in order to

regenerate their minds. She says, “contact with nature was considered a prerequisite for physical,

emotional, and spiritual health” (33). I think this book provides an interesting perspective on the

personal impact of nature in the modern world. It demonstrates how unhealthy it can be to never

go beyond the limits of the city. It also shows how important experiences in nature can be for

positive development as a child.

This approach to learning and development in the outdoors can be related to An Ethics of

Place as an appropriate use of the environment. I think the two authors’ ideas align including the

negativity that surrounds urbanism. They both feel that nature is an essential part of modern life

that not only provides a means of escape, but a foundation on which to learn and develop as a

person. It is interesting to compare these two books which take a modern analytical approach to

the concept of ecology to the first book which is more traditional and fluid. An Ocean of the

Mind demonstrates how effective and important nature is in developing knowledge about our

surroundings. It shows a quality that seems to be lost in modern society as we turn to technology

for all the answers we need. This leads to many questions about how our sense of ecological

community can or should be used in our lives in the modern world. The Nurture of Nature
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attempts to provide a solution. The use of summer camps and outdoor recreation is an important

source of experience in nature that is formative and enlightening is a positive movement that

allows people to have more of a sense of ecology.

The most fascinating connection that can be drawn between the three books is the

spiritual connection where Earth is viewed as a god like figure. In the case of the Pacific

Islanders, they viewed Earth literally as a goddess and everything in their spiritual lives was

derived from her. John Muir seemed to have a similar sense about the Earth, associating it with

his own spiritual enlightenment. Even in the third book, there was evidence of a deeper

connection with the Earth, as Sharon Wall referred to the Earth as “Mother Earth” once. I think

this connection illuminates the importance of ecology being at the center of our beings, in how

we think and live.

The question I sought to answer before examining each of these books was: How does a

sense of connection with our ecological surroundings impact the ways we gain and interpret

knowledge? I feel that it is obvious after reading, that many aspects of our personality are driven

by ecology. These books showed how ecology can be used to gain and interpret knowledge by a

sense of direction or enlightenment that is gain from experiences in recreation. However, reading

each one generated more questions that were more specific, or connections between the two

generated many more broad one’s. I think I would enjoy investigating further into our ecological

roots and comparing how they are perceived among varying cultures.
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I drew this map entirely by memory of all the trails that are meaningful to me in the winter. I

have always been obsessed with skiing and ski maps since I was little. I think this map is good evidence

of my connection to the geography in the Wasatch and my sense of direction that I mentioned earlier

being similar to that of Nainoa’s. These trails all have a very significant meaning to me as they are my

places of meditation and inspiration. The idea for this map came as I was skiing this weekend and

thinking of how meditative an experience it can be. I’ve included the full map of Alta and Snowbird as

well as many Nordic and backcountry skiing places. I labeled them all as arrows and loops because I feel

that they are guides for me not only physical, but mentally as well. This map fully exhibits why I find

place to be so important, because it has shaped who I am in every way.