That the Earth reflects the body is an idea many have written about, and it’s an idea I particularly like. I’ve always held a deep reverence for the Earth, and I have never thought about life in the same way as the dominant Western culture that positions nature as inferior and humans as superior. I’m more drawn to indigenous beliefs about land and nature, and the idea that if we damage the environment, we damage ourselves. Here we explore Indigenous Australian concepts of body and land, the Gaia Hypothesis, and the connection between Earth, body and the current environmental crisis.
I wrote a paper for a university subject called Aboriginal Land, Law and Philosophy, where I explored Indigenous Australian ideas about land, home and body, through the framework of the contemporary art of Western Desert women artists. I want to share some ideas discussed in that paper.
Indigenous Australian concepts of body and land
In Australian Aboriginal creation myths, the ancestral creator beings gave birth to humans. Indigenous Australians believe they are the living descendants or reincarnations of these ancestral creator beings. This is how they derive a sense of belonging to the land.
The ancestral creator beings travelled through the landscape, and eventually transformed into geographical features of the Earth – the stones, rocks, lakes and trees that ‘house’ their spirits. Indigenous Australians see the land as ‘home’, as ‘mother’, as the source of life, survival and nourishment, and as an extension of their own bodies.
The role of language
The following definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary of English:
A body is the physical structure, including the bones, flesh, and organs, of a person or an animal or the physical and mortal aspect of a person as opposed to the soul or spirit. Our bodies are physical structures that provide a ‘house’ for our spiritual energy; the space our soul inhabits. A house is the physical structure our bodies live in. A house is a dwelling; the place we call home.
To embody is to give a tangible or visible form to (an idea, quality, or feeling) or provide (a spirit) with a physical form. We recognize a geographical feature as a body when we refer to a lake as a ‘body of water’. To embody is to provide (a spirit) [ancestral creator being] with a physical form [lake, stone].
Aboriginal language recognizes a connection between body and land. In Warlpiri, the word used to describe marks on the body is the same word used to describe marks on the land. We talk of hands becoming ‘gnarled’ as we age; the same word we use to describe the twisted branches of a tree.
The Gaia theory
In James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, the Earth’s organic and inorganic elements have evolved together as a single, living system that self-regulates through various mechanisms including global temperature, atmospheric content and ocean salinity. This system includes all living organisms (including humans and their cultural environment), and the biological, physical and chemical processes that maintain conditions suitable for survival of life on Earth and of the Earth itself.
The processes of this living system are thought analogous to the inner physiological processes of individual living organisms, including regulation of body temperature and blood salinity. The forests of the Earth (particularly the Amazon rainforest) are known as the ‘lungs of the planet’, acting as the respiratory system for the Earth, cycling oxygen and carbon dioxide through the atmosphere. The water systems of the Earth are the circulatory system; the rivers representing the veins and arteries in the human body.
Water, psyche and emotion
In mythology, water is analogous to our emotional, psychic and spiritual energy. Water is fertile, feminine and spiritual. It’s interesting to note the oceans cover approximately 70% of the Earth’s surface and the human body contains approximately 70% water. If our planet is nearly three-quarters water, and the element of water is feminine, is this why we refer to our water planet as Mother Earth? Life evolved out of the oceans, and while in utero, we spend the first nine months of our life in a watery environment.
In Jungian psychology, water is the most common symbol used to represent the unconscious mind. In The I and the Not I, Jungian psychologist M. Esther Harding says: “The ocean is a particularly apt symbol for the collective unconscious, for both are fluid, no one part being really separate or distinct from any other part. A drop of water evaporates from the Indian Ocean, becomes a part of a cloud or water vapor that is borne about by the air currents, and finally descends to the Earth once more as a drop of rain that may fall into the river or sea anywhere on the Earth”.
The carbon connection
As water is recycled through the Earth’s living system, so are the carbon atoms in our bodies. Our bodies decompose into the Earth when we die, and we become part of the Earth again. We transform back into the stones, rocks, lakes and trees as the Indigenous Australians have always known. Every single atom in our bodies, and those of all living and man-made things (calcium, carbon, iron and gold, etc. with the exception of hydrogen and other lighter elements) were created in a star that existed billions of years ago.
As Carl Sagan said: “We are made of stardust” (he wasn’t being metaphorical!).
Earth, body and the environmental crisis
There’s a role play workshop on the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project website that uses the human body as a metaphor for the current environmental crisis. It’s a valuable exercise to help us understand how our actions have impact on the Earth.
When we have a fever, our temperature is higher than normal and we require medical intervention. An increase in the Earth’s temperature of a couple of degrees will lead to global warming and climate change.
Our arterial blood has a pH of 7.41. Blood is acidic if pH falls below this value. Possible consequences of blood acidosis include organ dysfunction, respiratory failure, kidney failure, shock and even death.
The pH of seawater ranges between 7.5 and 8.4. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater. Ocean acidification occurs when levels of dissolved carbon dioxide are increased, the concentration of carbonate ions is reduced, and the seawater pH is lowered. Absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean regulates the atmosphere. Anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions are so high the ocean is becoming more acidic, and this will have catastrophic consequences for marine animals and coral reefs that require calcium carbonate to build their skeletons.
Human beings do not exist as an outside force with no influence on the living Earth system. We are a part of this living system. Whatever happens to the Earth will impact us. These ideas can help us develop an understanding that we are not separate from nature, we are part of a greater whole, and we need to care more about looking after the Earth and our own bodies. If we perceive ourselves as separate from nature, it is difficult to care for it. If we feel a connection to nature, we may be more likely to treat the Earth with respect.