«Annick Hedlund-de Witt Worldviews and the transformation to sustainable societies An exploration of the cultural and psychological dimensions of our ...»
Interviews were coded according to the grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2006). In this approach, analyzing and coding partially takes place during the interview itself, in order to identify themes as they emerge. This has the advantage that specific information can be explored in more depth, and that the analysis can be directly verified and clarified with the participant. The disadvantage can be that analytical processes become less transparent, and unconscious biases of the interviewer may influence the interview-process. I addressed these disadvantages by taking a course in interview-methodology, in order to gain interviewing skills and become more aware of my own potential biases. Furthermore, all the interviews were audio recorded, enabling me to hear the interview back with more distance. Lastly, all interviews were transcribed verbatim, and ‘member-checked.’ This permitted me to use personal quotations, making it possible to directly convey the expression and understanding of the individual without going through the filters and conceptualizations of the researcher.
I organized the data with Kwalitan 5.0, a computer program intended to support the analysis of qualitative data.56 The interviews were analyzed with the aim of categorizing content on the basis of (thematic) similarity. For each category, I selected representative quotations, labeling them according to the language and terms used by the participants themselves. In multiple coding cycles, I explored these different categories and how they related to each other, organization, asking from their members only a minimal fee to cover their costs.
56 For further information on this program see www.kwalitan.nl/engels/index.html.
5.4 Interview results In this section I describe the most significant interview results. While I used the grounded theory approach to code the data into key themes, in this section groups of key-themes are organized into different paragraphs. In order to give the reader an understanding of the background of participants’ experiences, I start with the general dynamics and context of nature experience (6.4.1).
Because I aim to provide insight into how participants experience and conceptualize the spiritual dimension of nature, I then analyze individual’s understanding and experience of nature (6.4.2), spirituality (6.4.3), and the phenomenological characteristics of their more profound (and spiritual) experiences in nature (6.4.4). In order to generate understanding into what the (self-described) potential of such experiences in nature is for developing a sense of environmental responsibility, I end by summarizing three potential pathways to a sense of environmental responsibility as found in the data (6.4.5).
157 5.4.1 General dynamics and context of nature experience Most participants’ relationship with nature started early. Many of them grew up in the countryside, often in an abundant presence of the natural environment.
Those who did grow up in the city generally remember getting out in nature on holidays, spending weekends at cottages, or going out for drives in the country.
Participants tended to display clear and fond memories of their experiences of nature as a child. Many explained the prominent role of parents, summer camps, holidays, and scouting in developing a relationship with nature. Participants also explained how nature became associated with positive experiences, since they encountered it on vacation or when busy parents finally had time and were relaxed. Many participants also reported their relationship with nature to continue to develop throughout their life, sometimes influenced by transformational experiences or major life-events. One woman, for example, explained how her pregnancy drastically influenced her relationship to nature.
For others, moving out to the city or being faced with environmental destruction made them appreciate nature more deeply.
Although every individual has a unique experience of nature and personal ways of expressing and interpreting that experience, common patterns were observed. Besides the variations among individuals, the intensity and depth of participants’ own nature experiences also varied—ranging from more mundane to more momentous, even spiritual, experiences.
Generally, participants praised nature for its beauty, variety, vastness, and perfection. From a grain of sand, the shape of a shell, to an overwhelming mountain landscape—they tended to see beauty in all of it. Some participants explained to be fascinated with the processes, cycles, and interconnections in nature, its resilience and capacity for renewal, and the creativity in its survival and evolution. Generally, the aesthetics of nature appeared to be a central theme in individuals’ appreciation of nature. Next to the aesthetic aspects, participants described the physical aspect to be determining for their experience. They explained to feel “challenged” and “empowered” by climbing mountains or hiking trails, which tended to go along with the pleasant feeling of staying active and healthy. One participant emphasized the physiological aspect, wondering whether “it is just the endorphins or something, kicking in?” Others highlighted the repetitive, meditative, soothing rhythm of hiking, which seemed to bring 158 them in a more peaceful and receptive state of mind. According to several participants, the fresh air and the vital life energy in nature give a sense of
invigoration, well-being, and even healing:
I feel energized. I know that if I go for a walk I feel better. It is my medicine. […] It unwinds me, it clears my head. If I've got a lot on my mind, going out in nature will do. It does wonders. It is good for you. It is good for the soul. [nature-lover] Participants also stressed the peace and space they tend to experience when they go out in nature. Many explain this by contrasting this peacefulness with the overload of stimuli of their daily lives in the city. Getting away from the phone, the obligations, the social expectations, and the noise of the city is frequently experienced as a relief. In nature, participants feel to finally have time and space for themselves. This seems to be related to a sense of freedom and joy that participants often experience in nature, sometimes described as “euphoria,” or “a high.” And even though getting out in nature often involves leaving the comforts of the city behind, most participants describe to generally feel at home, comfortable, and relaxed in nature.
Also an interest and fascination for the natural world appeared to be an important element in participants’ nature experience. For most of them this was largely physics, biology, and geography. Several participants explained how nature is an endless world to discover—from “micro study, […] digging in the dirt to see all sorts of little things, all the way up to the big picture.” Participants reported to be eager to explore the natural world: they were curious how ecosystems work and wondered about processes of evolution. As (scientific) knowledge gave them more understanding into what they encountered in their explorations in nature, many explained to appreciate nature even more. For others, their experience of nature awakened a curiosity in how different cultures and religions interact with nature. Many participants referred for instance to the Indigenous (or First Nations) people, whose culture and history is present in Victoria, and explained how this inspired them to explore their own relationship with nature in more depth.
Also the natural setting itself and whether participants see wildlife were 159 often described as potentially determining aspects of their experience. Some participants described being specifically receptive to certain landscapes—for instance the sea or the mountains, dense lush forests or open, spacious fields.
Many explained to have vivid memories of seeing wildlife, which was experienced as precious and special. Participants also explained how being alone or with others affects their experience. Since for many the peace and the silence were particularly important, they preferred to be by themselves or with likeminded ‘silent’ people. Others particularly enjoyed spending time in nature with friends and family, because that enabled them to share their experience with loved ones.
5.4.2 Conceptualizations of nature and the human-nature relationship Most participants appeared to have different layers in their conceptualization of nature. When people spoke about nature they generally referred to places (seemingly) not or less influenced by human beings—wild nature. This definition corresponds with the colloquial use of the word nature, and positions humanity and nature in polar relationship to each other. Re-occurring polarities in this respect included the “natural” versus the “artificial,” the “spontaneous” or “wild” versus the “planned” and “managed,” the “alive” versus the “dead,” and the “selfmanifesting” versus the “built.” However, most people recognized that this strong human-nature dichotomy creates an untenable contradiction, as they also tended to hold that “we are part of nature” and that “ultimately everything is nature.” As one participant put it: “My first impulse would be to say that everything is nature. But, I don’t know, I feel that we have removed ourselves so much from nature that you cannot really count for instance a city as nature.” This notion seemed to be widespread among participants. While humans are explicitly conceptualized to be part of nature, they were also perceived as being “alienated” or “removed” from nature. As one participant uttered, “we’re part of the natural cycle, and we can't escape from that, but many people try.” And as
another participant articulated it:
It’s a huge and ongoing misconception that humanity is somehow separate from the natural world, and that our role is to dominate and control and make it subservient to our needs. And that’s been
Many participants reported to feel that humanity is nature. That is, humanity is “made” of nature, emerges out of nature, and is the “self-conscious” part of nature. Although basically all participants stated that humans are part of nature, many of them also articulated that humans have a special place in the natural order, which therefore, so it is generally understood, gives them a particular responsibility. Some participants spoke in this context of the human being as “care-taker,” “parent-figure,” “steward” or “co-creator:” I see how all the animals and the earth are really in a very definite web or structure of life, and we're the only beings that […] have a mind and also the intelligence to do things incredibly differently—that animals just can't do. […] So that shows what an incredible responsibility we have. [Humanity is] that part of nature, which reflects, and becomes aware, conscious, of what IS.
Of what exists. […] Nature is spirit in form. And humans are that part of spirit, therefore that part of nature, which can reflect on what it sees, which observes and comments. Not only that, but can also help create, since we are meant to be co-creators with the creator. The bible actually says, we're asked to have wise dominion—not domination, but wise dominion. To be steward.
[spiritual practitioner] As this last quote exemplifies, participants frequently conceptualized nature in a more profound or spiritual way. According to some, nature is “God’s creation,’ “God’s body” or “spirit in form.” Simultaneously, nature is seen as the creative and intelligent force behind all that; it is life and the principle of life at the same time. Some people understood it as a spiritual dimension pervading all of reality, that is, nature as “the inner essence of something”—since “everything has its own essence, its own spiritual essence.” In that understanding, nature refers both to the deeper source, principle, or intelligence behind nature, as well 161 as to its manifestation in or as nature. More generally speaking, nature seemed to be viewed by most, if not all, participants as alive and animated, that is, as having (some degree of) consciousness and intelligence. Frequently, participants spoke about nature in an explicitly relational and reciprocal way, describing nature as friend, guide, or companion, who helped them to resolve problems, get inspiration, find wisdom, or ease their solitude. Rather than seeing it as a onesided arrangement or “a commodity for consumption,” people feel that they “participate” in nature and “commune with nature.” As this participant
explained, she feels she can communicate with nature:
It's an internal thing. I go to nature and then I get answers. I share my life with it. And, when I'm there, I feel stronger; I feel that what I believe is right—and that I get these answers back. It is communicating, which is kind of strange. [environmentalist] Broadly, these results indicate that these participants generally characterized the human-nature relationship by a vision that human beings are both part of as well as responsible for nature—a conclusion that is consistent with earlier research into public visions on the interrelationship between humans and nature (M. De Groot & Van den Born, 2007; Van den Born, 2008). Generally, the interviews also show that these individuals tended to understand nature in a fairly meaningful, sentient, and spiritual way, frequently referring to it in an explicitly relational and reciprocal way.
5.4.3 Participants’ understanding and experience of spirituality For most participants, the first association with the concept of spirituality was religion. Many of them described their spiritual development as having started with their religious upbringing. Participants often explained having gone through periods of taking distance from their religious roots in order to explore different ways of looking at life. Some of them described a “spiritual search.” Participants generally demonstrated to both actively reflect on their worldviews and their God-image, as well as to be informed by an eclectic combination of sources of knowledge and wisdom—in both their own and other religions, in philosophy and science, and in their personal experience, notably their 162 experiences in nature (see also B. Taylor, 2010).