“Can we rise to ourselves and see what is in the nature of the soul to see – that we exist on this common ground together?” – Susan Griffin
The ideology, discussed in Part One, that land that is not being cultivated, mined, lumbered, or otherwise used to create goods and capital is ‘waste” continues its devastating effects to this day in mountaintop removal, destruction of old growth forests, fracking and drilling and mining of once pristine lands, plowing the plains into dust and spreading herbicides and pesticides over the land. Devastate – from the Latin devastare, meaning to “lay waste, ravage, make desolate.” Devastate – to de-vast – is to destroy the vastness. And so has the vastness of lands around the world been plundered, laid waste, so as not to “waste” it.
But the devastation was not limited to the land, flora, and fauna. It extended to the peoples. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin argues that the Western paradigm and policies have led to the destitution, disease, and despair which “are always part of the devastation of a way of life. . . . In the name of progress, the West has reproduced an image of its own devastation. Poverty, alcoholism, a widespread feeling of nihilism, social disintegration, desperation, these are all common in the West.”[i]
The enclosures[ii], both Griffin and Vandana Shiva point out, were not just of the lands, but of our minds. It did not need to be this way. Coming upon a such vast lands with people holding such vastly different values, settler colonists had an immense opportunity to open their minds and learn. “What uncharted regions of the mind, what revolutionary possibilities, what chasms opened here!” Griffin posits. “And how quickly this vast territory was closed. The closure of mind was in truth so quick, so final, so aggressive, imagining it now, I cannot help but think that the European psyche was in some way afraid of what it saw.”[iii]
Indeed, it probably was. “Our default minds, so focused on independence and competitive advantage, are not well-suited to making sense of the vast,” explains psychologist Dacher Keltner. “So guided are we by prior knowledge and our need for certainty that we avoid or explain away the mysteries of life.”[iv] Perhaps not knowing how to make sense of such vastness, the settlers instead saw only ways to declare their independence from feudal lords, from one another, and the earth; regard each other as competitors rather than community; and enclose all that was vast and render it small, manageable. In doing so, they wasted a far more valuable opportunity – to experience, appreciate, and learn from the awe it inspires. How different a country, a people, a land might this be if they had merely been awestruck – and thereby become curious, more open to learning, better able to welcome difference, more willing to make sacrifices for others, more united in community with every and all sentient beings?[v] How different if they had listened and learned from those inhabitants of this land who already knew how to live in intimate relationship with the land in ways that preserved and respected its vastness?
Such an approach to the natural world can be found in what biologist Janine Benyus has named “biomimicry” – “a design discipline that takes the natural world as mentor and teacher”[vi] to solve complex human problems. “In a society accustomed to dominating or ‘improving’ nature, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really,” writes Benyus, though it is in fact an approach well-known to indigenous peoples. “The Biomimicry Revolution [re-]introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her.”[vii]
What’s more, “biomimics develop a high degree of awe.”[viii] In a recent interview, Benyus told of an epiphany of a desalination engineer in a mangrove swamp. “He said, ‘How is it that in my education . . . ? I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, 40 years. I’m a desalination expert. I filter salt from water. And this plant has its roots in saltwater, and it’s solar powered, and it’s desalinating.’ He said, ‘I’m crying because it’s beautiful and because no one ever told me.’”[ix] Tears, along with chills, and “Whoas” are universal responses to awe.
I find hope in the ways that principles of biomimicry are being used by engineers, architects, builders, farmers, to find better, more sustainable ways to create the products we use in our everyday lives – from the food we eat, to the ways we heal, to “gathering energy like a leaf,” “weaving fibers like a spider,” and “conducting business like a redwood forest”[x] “For too long,” Benyus writes, “we have judged our innovations by whether they are good for us, which has increasingly come to mean whether they are profitable. Now we have to put what is good for life first.”[xi] She continues, “We can decide as a culture to listen to life, echo what we hear, to not be a cancer. . . . we can make the conscious choice to follow nature’s lead in living our lives.”[xii]
To do so will require changing the way we think, removing the enclosures of our mind – paradigm shift. We have a choice. “By what and how we think,” writes Griffin, “we coerce, confine, distort, and damage or sustain, encourage, create, coax ourselves and otherness into a fuller realization of being.”[xiii] Perhaps the way to coax ourselves into this fuller realization, into removing the enclosures of our minds, begins with restoring our appreciation for vastness — to re-vastate. Regularly taking time for awe we become more open to new ideas, to difference, to our generous natures.
Whether it be through the epiphanies of biomimicry, the experience of wild waterfalls, the “moral beauty” of the kindness of others, the wonder of mystical experiences, the “collective effervescence” of the spiral dance, we can appreciate the vastness, let our boundaries dissolve, and connect to the earth, each other, and the universe in awe. In answer to Griffin’s query, thus might we “rise to ourselves and see what is in the nature of the soul to see – that we exist on this common ground together.”[xiv]
Benyus, Janine M. 1997. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: HarperCollins.
Griffin, Susan. 1995. The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society. New York: Anchor Books.
Keltner, Dacher. 2023. Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.” New York: Penguin.
Shiva, Vandana. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.
Tippett, Krista. (host). (2023, March 23). Janine M. Benyus: Biomimicry: An Operating Manual for Earthlings. http://podcast. Retrieved from Janine Benyus — Biomimicry, an Operating Manual for Earthlings | The On Being Project.
[i] Griffin, 140.
[ii] See Part One.
[iii] Ibid., 101.
[iv] Keltner, 178.
[v] As noted in Part One, the experience of awe makes us better. To repeat, people who experience awe are more open to new ideas, curious, thoughtful, generous, kind, willing to put aside self-interest in favor of others, less prone to political polarization, less likely to experience anxiety and depression, and more likely to experience joy.
[vii] Benyus, 2. Insertion mine.
[viii] Benyus, 7.
[x] Ibid., Table of Contents.
[xi] Ibid., 291.
[xii] Ibid., 297.
[xiii] Griffin, 153. Emphasis mine.
[xiv] Griffin, 154.
7 thoughts on “Common Ground: Part Two: On Enclosure, the Commons, and Awe by Beth Bartlett”
As I am spending precious time with my grandchildren and reading your post, it strikes me that awe and wonderment is a natural human feeling. It takes great violence to body and soul to separate ourselves from nature and the awe it inspires. I hope I can guide my young grandchildren (and others as well) to holding that deep connection in their hearts as they grow.
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I completely agree. I’m glad you’ve had this time with your grandchildren. I just returned from a day with mine. When they are little, it seems most of their lives are filled with awe, especially when outside. They have so much to teach us — or remind us of what we once knew.
Of course we can change our present attitude but we have not – overall everything is much much worse – Griffin’s query has already been answered has it not?we refuse to make that shift collectively – taking refuge in small pockets of like -minded folks is no longer enough – we must unite globally – I’ll be saying this forever apparently.
I’d love to make a special show about these 2 essays on VSF to teach this important information…what say you? Email me
Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring second part! It makes me think of how I am finding awe in nature not from vast landscapes, but from really seeing the wild around me in my own garden. I am trying to learn how to do nature drawing – wildflowers, birds, bees, small animals – from the life that is right outside my house and I am amazed at how much I missed until I really started to look. Each flower petal (I’m starting with flowers) has shading of colors and designs I had no idea of even though I had been growing them for decades, but not really paying attention. Every tiny element of nature is a masterpiece if we will just see it, and everything changes every day. If I miss one day going outside, I will have missed beauty that will never exist again. Thank you for putting words to this experience.
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I seem to remember this coming up in Dacher Keltner’s interview with Krista Tippett — that there is so much wonder to be found in focusing in on the tiniest details. Thanks for writing about it.