Turning to Earth

Turning to Earth cover

The idea in Turning to Earth is a simple but inspired one: we have to take care of our inner nature if we want to protect the world outside. Intelligently and engagingly, Schauffler guides us through the inner processes involved in living deeply in tune with the natural order. She gives us a soft-spoken, probing, insightful book that takes us step by step from self to world and back.
–Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul
A gem of a book! Marina Schauffler tells how and why some awaken to life and Earth through the experience of great writers. The result is a book full of insight, useful experience, and hope.
–David W. Orr, author of The Nature of Design

Turning to Earth offers a window into the heart of environmental change, moving beyond the culture’s traditional reliance on policy reforms and technological measures. It charts the course of “ecological conversion,” a dynamic inner process by which people come to ally themselves with the natural world and speak out on its behalf. Stories by ecological converts illuminate a critical realm long neglected by environmental scholars and activists–how the terrain of spirit, psyche and conscience shape our commitment to Earth.

This engaging exploration of “inner ecology” deftly weaves together numerous autobiographical accounts with insights from the fields of ecocriticism, ecopsychology, environmental philosophy and environmental education. An opening portrait of writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams traces her deepening devotion to Earth. Each subsequent chapter explores a key element of ecological conversion, drawing primarily on the personal testimony of Williams and five other pioneering writers–Rachel Carson, Alice Walker, Edward Abbey, Scott Russell Sanders and N. Scott Momaday. Turning to Earth extends the parameters of contemporary environmental discussion by illustrating how substantive change hinges not just on political and institutional reforms but on profound inner transformation. The compelling life narratives of ecological converts provide inspiration and direction for the growing number of activists, educators, scholars and citizens who are committed to changing the world from the inside out.

Turning to Earth appeals to a wide range of readers, including

  • scholars and students in religion, literature, philosophy, psychology and environmental studies;
  • general readers;
  • environmental educators and activists;
  • spiritual practitioners and faith communities;
  • conservationists;
  • and outdoor enthusiasts.

It is both a practical and inspirational text, offering ‘teaching stories’ that can transform perception and practice. Turning to Earth is well-suited for use in book discussion groups, undergraduate and graduate courses, and church study/religious youth groups (with high school age participants).

Table of Contents

Bedrock, the opening chapter, explores the ecological conversion of writer Terry Tempest Williams–demonstrating how key elements of the process manifest in one individual’s life story. A fifth-generation Mormon, Williams is devoted to her extended family and her home terrain in Utah. These bonds have shaped the path of her ecological turning through childhood experiences outdoors; familial mentors; revelatory encounters in the natural world; and a growing commitment to “re-story” the land through narrative and defend it through local activism. The detailed profile of Williams’s turn sets the context for subsequent chapters, each of which synthesizes material from numerous writers around a unifying theme.

Remembrance, the second chapter, cites commonalities in the formative experiences of the primary writers – all of whom shared a strong affinity for the natural world as children, found support for this bond through mentors, and gained inspiration from the words and lives of established nature writers. The marked parallels in their experience suggest that contact with the natural world and with mentors (both familial and literary) may set the stage for a subsequent turn to Earth.

Reflection, the third chapter, describes how periods of enforced introspection lead converts to reassess their place in the ecological whole. Times of psychic transformation can occur in response to experiences of loss, illness, estrangement or despair, as well as deliberate immersion in natural settings. While reflective periods can prove emotionally taxing, they may awaken a sense of compassion that deepens an ecological practice.

Revelation, the fourth chapter, illustrates how converts experience moments of insight that renew and reconstitute their lives. These profound glimpses into a larger mystery often affirm their sense of belonging to a sacred whole. Revelatory experiences can inspire fundamental changes in ecological belief and practice.

Reciprocity, the fifth chapter, demonstrates how converts consciously strengthen their identification with other members of the ecological community. Writers often cultivate empathic modes of relation, seeking to counter the cultural taboos and engrained fears that separate humans from the rest of nature. A recognition of reciprocity often fosters a stronger commitment to the ecological whole.

Resistance, the sixth chapter, discusses how ecological converts–motivated by their deep affinity for the natural world–devote themselves to responsible action on its behalf. Some bear witness to environmental degradation primarily through writing; others take direct action through ecological restoration, land conservation, or civil disobedience. Their actions testify to a deepening bond with Earth.

Ritual, the seventh chapter, portrays how creative and ritual arts support the conversion process. Through writing and sharing narratives and performing ceremonial rites, writers often affirm their sense of belonging within nature. Imaginative and sacred rituals become a means of simultaneously celebrating and reinforcing connections within the ecological community.


Book Review:

Like many Mainers, Marina Schauffler participated in coastal cleanup days year after year…only to find the coast littered again shortly after the cleanup. Like many, she adopted “earth-saving tips” but found that they did not address the root causes of environmental abuses. “Instead of advising people to reduce their use of lawn chemicals and to keep their cars well tuned, I wanted to suggest that they rethink grass monocultures altogether and that they bicycle instead of driving,” she writes in Turning to Earth. This desire led her to investigate the lives and writings of six people who have looked for and responded to those root causes. “By drawing together personal stories of ecological awakening, I hoped to uncover dynamics of inner ecology that might help to renew the outer world,” says Schauffler. Probing those stories also helped Schauffler earn her doctorate in ecological ethics and spiritual values.

Schauffler chose six 20th-century, U.S. “ecological writers”–Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, N. Scott Momaday, Scott Russell Sanders, Alice Walker and Terry Tempest Williams–and looked for common traits in their lives that encouraged them to write so deeply and ardently about the earth. She found, for example, that all six had parents who were concerned with the welfare of their children, and freedom to explore untamed natural areas in their youth. Churches may have influenced these writers when they were young, as well, although they tended to move away from churches ultimately.

The opening chapter of the book is based on the writings of and personal interviews with Terry Tempest Williams, who was raised in a strict Mormon family in Utah, whose family was exposed to radioactive fallout from atomic bomb testing, who subsequently lost many of her family members to cancer, and who has been told by her oncologist, “It is not if you get cancer, but when.” The following chapters follow various themes, all starting with the letter R: Remembrance (commonalities in formative experiences); Reflection (periods of introspection); Revelation (moments of insight); Reciprocity (strengthening ties with the ecological community); Resistance (taking action on behalf of nature); and Ritual (creative and ritual arts that support the conversion process). Each of these “R” chapters ends with Schauffler’s interesting introspections into her own life and how remembrance, reflection, etc., have shaped her commitment to nature.

Turning to Earth is an intelligent, thoughtful, probing book that serves as an excellent introduction to the emerging field of ecopsychology. Schauffler tells how Williams “strives to model her inner ecology after the desert ecosystem, letting go of old habits and assumptions and attending carefully to what she terms the ‘bedrock self.’” She notes Edward Abbey’s conclusion that trees have a “conscious presence.” The author explains that society’s apparent incapacity to deal with ecological problems may be due to what psychologists call “psychic numbing” resulting from the magnitude of those problems. She quotes Scott Russell Sanders’ observation that in trying to live ecologically, “The choice is not between innocence and guilt, the choice is between more and less complicity.” She says that art can help connect people to the ecological whole; and that acts of civil disobedience, legislative actions, adopting simple lifestyles, and advocating for animal welfare are among the steps that people take to help save the natural world. She notes the irony of environmental professionals who commute long distances, fly to many meetings, and routinely use disposable products–and tells how she chose a simpler, close-to-home lifestyle to counter these problems. “This domestic approach to resistance pales beside more dramatic and large-scale protests,” writes Schauffler, “yet I remain convinced of its importance. Ecology, as its Greek roots confirm, begins in our households.”

Reading a chapter of Turning to Earth each morning renewed my ecological spirit and reinforced my belief that ecopsychology defines the next, essential, big step that the environmental movement has to take. The book left me with some weighty questions, too. If the freedom to explore untamed wilderness during youth is so important to one’s respect for nature, what will become of the increasing number of children who are denied this experience–and of the world in which they live? Do occasional, structured class trips to environmental centers satisfy this need? (My own children would answer with a firm “No.”) And if people like Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson are considered “converts,” what would it take to convert unethical politicians and heads of polluting corporations? How can we get these people to revival meetings of “born again pagans,” as Alice Walker calls herself? Scenes of eco-terrorism from Carl Hiaasen’s fictional Sick Puppy (a fun, vicariously pleasurable read, by the way) flash to mind, but what about real life? Can ecopsychology go beyond diagnosis and on to successful treatment? Reading Turning to Earth could comprise the first sessions of this treatment.

Copyright 2003 by Jean English. Originally published in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Dec. 2003-Feb. 2004; a quarterly publication of The Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, PO Box 170, Unity ME 04988; 207-568-4142; mofga@mofga.org; www.mofga.org.