Robert Howell, Canberra Regional Meeting.


A few years ago when I was in Indonesia as part of the project on introducing non-violent conflict resolution training for the Indonesian Police [1], I was introduced to a Dutchman, a senior official working for the European Union. He wanted to know why I was doing what I was doing. I said “I am a Quaker”. “Oh” he said, “I understand –say no more”.

He knew that for Quakers, peacemaking is part of our history. Peace is part of Quaker ‘DNA’. We have a long history of working to prevent war and the threats of war, to resolve conflict non-violently, and to ameliorate the consequences of violence. It goes back to George Fox’s time and there is a steady stream of stories in every century since. They appear in all the Quaker histories, in the stories of our role models such as John Woolman, in the academic literature (examples: Kenneth and Elise Boulding), Advices and Queries, in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. My EU official in Indonesia knew enough about this to open his door and offer to do what he could to help. I was able to draw on the efforts of many Quakers before me to give me credibility and status because that is what Quakers are and do.

If I had been on a project to do with earthcare rather than peacemaking, what would have my EU official have said? Most probably something like “Well that’s interesting, I didn’t know Quakers were into that sort of thing”. Quakers are not known for their concerns for earthcare. Anne Adams in introducing an anthology of Friends’ writing on earthcare stated that:


There is a huge gap in Quaker writing about the earth between the seventeenth and late twentieth centuries (apart from the remarkable John Woolman in the eighteenth)[2].

So if we believe that the crisis of energy, climate warming, and ecological degradation generally is at heart a spiritual one, what can Quakers bring to the efforts to deal with this crisis that is inherently spiritual and Quaker?

Ninian Smart in his book The World’s Religions describes seven dimensions of religion [3]. One of those is an experiential or emotional dimension. This dimension deals with what Smart calls “the perception of the invisible world” and involves personal experiences often containing heightened feelings. An oft quoted example of such an experience is described by Wordsworth in his poem, Tintern Abbey[4]:

And I have felt       
A presence that disturbs me with the joy       
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime       
Of something far more deeply interfused. …       
A motion and a spirit, that impels                            
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,       
And rolls through all things.
… well pleased to recognise       
In nature and the language of the sense,       
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,       
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul                       
Of all my moral being.

John Woolman stated:


There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names; it is however pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

In his career as a tailor, he refused to use or wear dyed fabrics, because he had learned that many workers in the dye industry were poisoned by some of the noxious substances used. He was concerned about treatment of animals. In later life, he avoided riding in stagecoaches, as he felt their operation was too often cruel and injurious to the teams of horses. Yet for many years Quakers had similar spiritual experiences that did not necessarily (or often) lead to a recognition of pollution or the pain experienced by animals (like Woolman), or respect or reverence for nature where the oneness of the world becomes a spiritual anchor (like Wordsworth).

Rex Ambler has written:


We learn to sense God’s reality by paying attention to what happens within us, by listening for a voice or becoming aware of a light that can lead us to what is ultimate for us because it is the source of all life and all being. But having sensed that and having learnt to respond to it we can then discover it in other people also. Taking that further, but with a slightly different sensibility, we can learn to sense it in our fellow creatures, in animals and plants, but also in mountains and seas and the whole vast universe. What we can sense here – when we are open enough in ourselves to do so – is not the voice or presence of an invisible person, but the mysterious reality indescribable in itself, which sustains all life and all being as we know it. …


We seek to realise in practice the deep bond that we can dimly perceive holding us all together. In the new situation of environmental crisis we can surely perceive another bond between ourselves and the earth. The life of the earth, because it is now vulnerable to our power, is part of our life. Our life therefore can be realised and fulfilled only if we commit ourselves to the care of the earth. Making peace with the earth is now, or should be, part of our spirituality [5].

For Ursula Goodenough, a scientist, it is the mystery of why there is anything at all, the mystery of where the laws of physics came from, the mystery of why the universe is so strange, that generate wonder, and wonder generates awe [6].

Our Earthcare Statement of 2008 said that we must listen to the call of creation, recognise and respect the profound wisdom of indigenous peoples [7]. Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe in their wonderful book Treading Lightly [8] tell the Nhunggabarra stories and their lessons for sustainability. Max Dulumunmun Harrison (Uncle Max) in his book My People’s Dreaming writes:


I am trying to raise awareness of Aboriginal spirituality and to explain how we connect to the land. I am trying to capture in words the beauty of the land I see around me. And seeing is so important … really seeing what the land is telling you. Seeing what the land is offering for you to take [9].

Gael and I recently joined a group with Uncle Max on a bush-walk near poet Judith Wright’s former home near Braidwood. He encouraged us to look and listen and observe what was happening over time to the land, and to reconnect.

We also need to draw on Quaker stories about earthcare spiritual experiences. I have told one of mine called The Lighthouse and the Tree [10]. It is not a Wordsworth experience. I did not come away feeling an inter-relationship with and dependence on all life, both seen and unseen. So I have more questions that answers about how to evoke the bond recommended by Ambler between ourselves and the earth.

§ Does a spiritual experience that evokes a reverence for the earth have to come from a realisation from within us first, then others, and then the earth?

§ Does a reverence for the earth depend on having a spiritual experience? If not what are some other paths?

§ Can we facilitate a spiritual experience or does it just happen?

§ Is an earthcare spiritual experience more likely to be mystical than transcendental?

§ Do earthcare spiritual experiences have to happen in rural and wilderness settings, or are built environments also able to evoke reverence for nature?

§ Have we understood our peace tradition too narrowly and excluded peace with the earth from part of our peace leadings?

§ Where does our leading on simplicity fit in?

§ What can we learn from Australian Aborigines?

§ Do you have any personal stories that you can share?


[2] Adams, A. 1996. The Creation Was Open To Me. Quaker Green Concern. Suffolk: Lavenham Press.

[3] The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations. 1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[5] Written in 1995. Quoted in Adams, A. 1996. The Creation Was Open To Me. Quaker Green Concern. Suffolk: Lavenham Press.

[6] The Sacred Depths of Nature. 1998. Oxford University Press.



[9] Harrison, M D.2009. My People’s Dreaming. Sydney: Finch Publishing.


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