Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World

Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World

by Bill Plotkin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781577315513
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 12/28/2007
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 240,241
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Bill Plotkin, PhD, founder of Animas Valley Institute, describes himself as a “psychologist gone wild.” A cultural visionary, author, and guide to the entwined mysteries of wilderness and psyche, he’s been blazing new trails for decades. His ecocentric re-visioning of psychology invites us into a conscious and embodied relationship with soul and with the more-than-human world. His other books are Soulcraft and Wild Mind . He lives in southwestern Colorado.

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Nature and the Human Soul

Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World

By Bill Plotkin

New World Library

Copyright © 2008 Bill Plotkin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-551-3



The Wheel of Life and the Great Turning

We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture. We must go back to the genetic imperative from which human cultures emerge originally and from which they can never be separated without losing their integrity and their survival capacity. None of our existing cultures can deal with this situation out of its own resources. We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources. Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted. What is needed is not transcendence but "inscendence," not the brain but the gene.


it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
knew? ...



In our moment of history, perhaps the most sweeping and radical transformation ever to occur on Earth is under way. This "moment" is the twenty-first century, a lifetime from a human perspective, yet a mere dust mote of duration within our planet's 4.5 billion years of exuberant evolution.

As is so often the case, the opportunity at the heart of this moment arises from a great crisis. Over the past two hundred years, industrial civilization has been relentlessly undermining Earth's chemistry, water cycles, atmosphere, soils, oceans, and thermal balance. Plainly said, we have been shutting down the major life systems of our planet.

Compounding the ecological crisis are decaying economies, ethnic and class conflict, and worldwide warfare. Entwined with, and perhaps underlying, these devastations are epidemic failures in individual human development.

True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arrested personal development, and perhaps inseparable from it, our everyday lives have drifted vast distances from our species' original intimacy with the natural world and from our own uniquely individual natures, our souls.

But if we know where to look, we uncover great opportunities spawned by these crises. All over the world, we are witnessing a collective human response to exigency, an immensely creative renewal, addressing all dimensions of human activity on Earth — from the ecological, political, and economic to the educational and spiritual. This book is my contribution to the global effort to create a viable human-Earth partnership.

My beginning premise is that a more mature human society requires more mature human individuals. For twenty-five years, I have been asking how we might raise children, support teenagers, and ripen ourselves so we might engender a sustainable human culture.

My second premise is that nature (including our own deeper nature, soul) has always provided and still provides the best template for human maturation.

In these pages, you'll find a narrative of how we might grow whole, one life stage at a time, by embracing nature and soul as our wisest and most trustworthy guides. This model for individual human development ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation, a way of progressing from our current egocentric societies (materialistic, anthropocentric, competition based, class stratified, violence prone, and unsustainable) to soul centric ones (imaginative, ecocentric, cooperation based, just, compassionate, and sustainable).

In contrast to those presented in most other developmental models, the stages of life portrayed here are essentially independent of chronological age, biological development, cognitive ability, and social role. Rather, the progression from one stage to the next is spurred by the individual's progress with the specific psychological and spiritual tasks encountered at each stage.

This, then, is an ecopsychology of human maturation, a developmental psychology with a unique angle: it's a portrayal not of typical or "average" human development but of exemplary development as it occurs in the healthiest contemporary people — and as it could occur for everyone.

A third premise is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transpersonal experience — in a mystic affiliation with nature, experienced as a sacred calling — that is then embodied in soul-infused work and mature responsibilities. This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked — or actively suppressed and expelled.

Although perhaps perceived by some as radical, this third premise is not the least bit original. Western civilization has buried most traces of the mystical roots of maturity, yet this knowledge has been at the heart of every indigenous tradition known to us, past and present, including those from which our own societies have emerged. Our way into the future requires new cultural forms more than older ones, but there is at least one thread of the human story that I'm confident will continue, and this is the numinous or visionary calling at the core of the mature human heart.


What shape or pattern will the human story take in the future?

As of this writing, we cannot predict with any certainty the outcome of our current planetary cataclysm. In this tiny interval of the twenty-first century, we, the human species, will either learn to become a life-enhancing element within the greater Earth community ... or we will not. If we fail, humanity will be reduced to a small number, we will have forsaken our potential as a species (this time around, at least) and we will have perpetrated the extinction of many thousands of species, perhaps millions — beyond those that have already perished at our hands.

And yet we now behold the possibility of a radical and foundational shift in human culture — from a suicidal, life-destroying element to a way of life worthy of our unique human potential and of Earth's dream for itself. What lies before us is the opportunity and imperative for a thorough cultural transformation — what ecophilosopher Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning, the transition from an egocentric "Industrial Growth Society" to a soulcentric "Life-sustaining Society," or what economist David Korten in The Great Turning calls the transition "from Empire to Earth Community." The cultural historian Thomas Berry refers to this vital endeavor as the Great Work of our time. It is every person's responsibility and privilege to contribute to this metamorphosis.

Transformational progress is already under way through the creative initiatives of countless ecocentric people and groups the world over. The Great Work has been launched in all realms of society, including technology, science, the arts, economics, education, government, and religion. A few examples: Major technological breakthroughs in clean, safe, local, renewable energy (wind, solar, small hydroelectric, and biofuels) and innovations in energy conservation methods. The science-rooted "new cosmology" — the sacred telling of the evolution of the universe and life on Earth. Local, human-scale economies and food systems that honor the "triple bottom line": people, planet, and profits. Primary and secondary education curricula rooted in ecoliteracy — the study of our relationship to nature, our first and foremost membership. The popular recent movements in South America that suggest the emergence of true Western democracies. The widespread longing for a more intimate relationship to the inscrutable mysteries of life as evidenced, for example, in the huge wave of renewed interest in nature-based and alternative spiritualities, from Celtic, goddess-oriented, and shamanic to Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism. The burgeoning popularity and power of the environmental movement (the one movement that is surely not a "special interest"), the creation and widespread adoption of the Earth Charter (an international declaration of interdependence of all species and habitats), and the appearance of new laws (the "wild laws" of the new Earth jurisprudence) that grant essential rights to noncorporate nonhumans.

These efforts and many others are unfolding largely outside the interest and coverage of mainstream media. Yet there are numberless groups, organizations, and communities around the globe creating the infrastructure of not only a new society but also a fundamentally new mode of being human. If we succeed, this century might be known in the future as the time Earth shifted from the geological epoch of the Cenozoic (now some 65 million years old, having begun at the time of the mass extinction that ended the reign of the dinosaurs) to what Thomas Berry calls the Ecozoic Era.

Will the twenty-first century turn out to be the Great Ending or the Great Turning? Will we succeed at the Great Work? It's up to us ... you and me and all others who are waking up to the extraordinary challenge, opportunity, and imperative before us. As poet Drew Dellinger asks, "What did you do ... when the seasons started failing?"


In this book you'll find a model of human development that is both ecocentric and soulcentric — that is, a nature-based model that fully honors the deeply imaginative potentials of the human psyche. I think of this model as a new natural history of the soul, a description of the organic, indigenous process by which a human child grows into a soul-initiated adult. Other times I've overheard myself say that this is a field guide for growing a genuine elder, starting, that is, at birth. This book asks the question, What do the stages of modern human development look like when we grow, in each stage, with nature and soul as our primary guides?

Twenty-five years in the making, this eight-stage model shows us how we can take root in a childhood of innocence and wonder; sprout into an adolescence of creative fire and mystery-probing adventures; blossom into an authentic adulthood of cultural artistry and visionary leadership; and finally ripen into a seed-scattering elderhood of wisdom, grace, and the holistic tending of what cultural ecologist David Abram calls the more-than-human world.

The model, which I call the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, the Wheel of Life, or simply the Wheel, is ecocentric in two respects. First, the eight life stages are arrayed around a nature-based circle (as opposed to the familiar Western linear timeline). Beginning and ending in the east and proceeding clockwise (which is sunwise), the stages and their attributes are based primarily on the qualities of nature found in the four seasons (east-spring, south-summer, and so on) or, alternatively, the four times of day (sunrise, midday, sunset, and midnight).

Second, the developmental task that characterizes each stage has a nature-oriented dimension as well as a more familiar (to Westerners) culture-oriented dimension. Healthy human development requires a constant balancing of the influences and demands of both nature and culture. For example, in middle childhood, the nature task is learning the enchantment of the natural world through experiential outdoor immersion, while the culture task is learning the social practices, values, knowledge, history, mythology, and cosmology of our family and culture.

In industrial growth society, however, we have for centuries minimized, suppressed, or entirely ignored the nature task in the first three stages of human development, infancy through early adolescence. This results in an adolescence so out of sync with nature that most people never mature further.

Arrested personal growth serves industrial "growth." By suppressing the nature dimension of human development (through educational systems, social values, advertising, nature-eclipsing vocations and pastimes, city and suburb design, denatured medical and psychological practices, and other means), industrial growth society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.

This neglect of our human nature constitutes an even greater impediment to personal maturation than our modern loss of effective rites of passage, and it has led to the tragedy we face today: most humans are alienated from their vital individuality — their souls — and humanity as a whole is largely alienated from the natural world that evolved us and sustains us. Soul has been demoted to a new-age spiritual fantasy or a missionary's booty, and nature has been treated, at best, as a postcard or a vacation backdrop or, more commonly, as a hardware store or refuse heap. Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world and with our souls, and consequently we are doing untold damage to both.

But it is not too late to change. This book suggests how we might embrace the nature task in each stage of human development and how we can address the culture task much more thoroughly and fruitfully than we do in industrial growth society. By devoting ourselves to both tasks, we can reclaim our full membership in this flowering planet and animated universe, and become more fully human, both as individuals and as societies. We can grow unimpeded into adulthood and, eventually, elderhood, and create twenty-first century life- sustaining societies.


Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown explain that the Great Turning is happening simultaneously in three areas or dimensions that are mutually reinforcing and equally necessary. They identify these as

• "holding actions" to slow the damage to Earth and its beings;

• analysis of structural causes and the creation of alternative institutions; and

• a fundamental shift in worldview and values.

The first dimension includes a great variety of endeavors to defend life on Earth, including campaigns for progressive legislation and regulations, political actions and lawsuits that slow down the destruction of Earth's life systems, and direct actions such as boycotts, blockades, whistle-blowing, protesting, and civil disobedience. This is the more immediate, short-term work that provides time for the other two dimensions of building a life-sustaining society.

The second dimension asks us to deeply understand and demystify the dynamics of the industrial growth society so that we truly know how it works and why it is both seductive and destructive, and then to create alternative structures and practices in all our major cultural establishments, including economics, food and energy systems, government, and education. This book highlights some of these alternatives, especially in the realms of parenting and education.

The primary focus of this book, however, is on the third dimension of the Great Turning, which Joanna and Molly deem "the most basic." They note that, in order to take root and survive, the alternative institutions created as part of the second dimension must be sourced in a worldview profoundly different from the one that created the industrial growth society. They see such a shift in human consciousness emerging in the grief that so many of us are feeling for a plundered world; in our new understandings from ecology, physics, ecopsychology, and other fields about what it means to be human on an animate planet; and in our deepening embrace of the mystical traditions of both indigenous and Western peoples.

The Wheel of Life provides a means to support and quicken this foundational shift in worldview and values; it offers a set of guidelines for actualizing our greater human potential. As Thomas Berry tells us in this chapter's epigraph, "We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture.... None of our existing cultures can deal with [our current world] situation out of its own resources." In addition to creating new cultural establishments, we must enable our very mode of being human to evolve.


Excerpted from Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin. Copyright © 2008 Bill Plotkin. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 CIRCLE AND ARC The Wheel of Life and the Great Turning,
CHAPTER 4 THE INNOCENT IN THE NEST Early Childhood (Stage 1),
CHAPTER 5 THE EXPLORER IN THE GARDEN Middle Childhood (Stage 2),
CHAPTER 6 THE THESPIAN AT THE OASIS Early Adolescence (Stage 3),
CHAPTER 7 THE WANDERER IN THE COCOON Late Adolescence (Stage 4),
Appendix: Summary of Eco-Soulcentric Development,
Resources for Parents, Teachers, Teenagers, and Visionaries,
Permission Acknowledgments,
About the Author,
Animas Valley Institute,

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Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As with Plotkins first book (Soulcraft), I found Nature and the Human Soul to be an incredible map but better than that, more like a constellation of stars that allowed me to see/feel/experience a forgotten story that is our own. It is a glimpse of a great and wild ecological pattern. In fact, I can say that he has succeeded yet again in creating a cocoon on a collective level, one that serves humanity in its full maturation. I think it is a book that will have profound impact and is critical to the 21st Century and all its dangers...I've certainly been sending it to all my friends. As important as it is to both Depth Psychologies and Eco- Psychologies, this book is also fresh and readable, poetic in its imaging and easily accessible to everyone. The weaving of interviews into the text with elders Joanna Macey and Thomas Berry are startling and poignant as we get to experience their far reaching wisdom. As well, Plotkins own storytelling masterfully draws one into the natural world showing us how nature can teach us and mirror our own humanity. He brings the soul's logic into view. The confluence of this organic developmental model of being fully human (the soul-centric developmental wheel) with ones own personal world is not constraining but rather frees us into our full imagination, expression and potential. It is a message that is highly original, vastly unique, and mysteriously familiar in its deep truth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ever wonder, as I have, why Holden Caulfield is still passing judgment on adult behavior, pointing out, more than fifty years since J. D. Salinger wrote 'The Catcher in the Rye,' that your average adult is only pretending to be an adult and therefore cannot be relied upon as a guide to lead someone like Holden into a deeper understanding of life? Holden, for all his outward cynicism and irreverence, is hurting inside and deserves a mature response. Bill Plotkin, in his new book 'Nature and the Human Soul,' offers, in quite an unprecedented way, a competent and compassionate response to the Holden Caulfields of the world. Holden is everyone of us who has ever gone looking for guidance from a mature adult, someone with the capacity to lead another into a deeply rooted sense of purpose and belonging, a need we hunger for so deeply that it leaves us feeling orphaned in the only world we have come to know, a world too small, too trivial, and too everyday even to acknowledge this longing, let alone respond to it with competency and compassion. 'Nature and the Human Soul' speaks plainly and directly to what ails us as human beings in our process of maturing and evolving, and to what ails this fragile earth, our island home. Bill Plotkin recognizes so clearly that the will required to alter our destructive treatment of the natural world will only come, if at all, by seeing the natural world as priceless in its own right surely, but also as that which alone can speak to our persistent longing to inhabit a place and a purpose uniquely ours in this universe, part of an infinitely complex, interrelated web of relationships and conversations. 'Nature and the Human Soul' is a beautiful thing to behold for its symmetry, honesty, poetry, scholarship, and humility--a practical resource and basis for hope given to us as the fruit of a life lived very deeply and very boldly. The book makes you feel heard and confident that there is indeed a way forward that is authentic and noble and comes as a kindly blessing to the natural world.
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Yes. Yes you are
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