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  • Léna Lewis-King

Transcription of 'Gaia Alchemy' Podcast, Camden Arts Center

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Gaia Alchemy with Dr Stephan Harding, July 2nd 2020, Camden Art Centre - Podcast transcribed by Léna Lewis-King (as a part of unofficial research). My personal thought/disclaimer before listening - How do some of the perspectives and use of language relate to a colonial British view of nature? How does class come into play when considering the luxuries of getting to live close to nature, to have the time to spend connecting with it in depth? Could his criticism of science and the Cartesian split go further? How does his relation to Western religion effect his descriptions of 'Gaia Mythology' alongside the assigning of specific genders to the planet and cosmos - 'She' for the Earth, 'it' for the cosmos?

"About 400 years ago, during the scientific revolution, science and soul were drastically separated, propelling humanity into four centuries of scientific exploration based on empiricism and rationality. Although the huge development of science has given us many benefits, its predominance has made us into detached observers fundamentally disconnected from each other and from nature. And yet, in our own time, science has given us detailed knowledge about the evolution of our Earth – Gaia - whilst depth psychology in the guise of alchemy provides us with profound insights about the workings of the human psyche. Dr Stephan Harding explains how Gaia Alchemy integrates the sciences of the Earth with alchemical approaches to psyche so we can live harmoniously within the limits of our planet.

Dr Stephan Harding holds a doctorate in ecology from the University of Oxford and is the Resident Ecologist and Deep Ecology Research Fellow at Schumacher College, where he co-founded (with Professor Brian Goodwin) and co-ordinated the MSc in Holistic Science for the last two decades. Stephan was co-holder with James Lovelock of the first Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, his first book. His forthcoming book is called Gaia Alchemy."



Introduction to the show

00:00:55 - 00:01:18

In this episode, we’re going to hear from Dr. Stephan Harding. A leading scientist and a research fellow in deep ecology at Schumacher College in Devon. Stephan is a longtime friend, associate, and collaborator of James Lovelock who in the 1960s developed one of the most important and influential ecological theories of the last 60 years: The Gaia Hypothesis.


Stephan’s work extends this thinking into what he calls Gaia Alchemy an attempt to bring together science and psyche in a balance with nature.


When I was about 7, I’d already arrived in England from Venezuela, and I went with my family on a picnic to outside London to a Woodland somewhere. And I remember they had their picnic and I ran off somewhere into the woods, I was only 7 years old, and I remember entering a completely wonderful world of greenness and vegetation and so many organisms interacting, I could feel all of that, the intelligence of that place And I’ll never forget that feeling of intense amazement and wonder


And it was such a powerful experience that I decided I’d dedicate the rest of my life to ecology and to nature, I mean I didn’t decide it just found me.


I suppose a really good image for Gaia is a cat, like a cat, you know how you can kind of very gently pick your cat up and sometimes when they’re little you tumble them over right and you let them go onto a nice soft cushion or something, and see how when they’re in the air they start spinning round and their legs splay out and they just become aerodynamic and they land gracefully and beautifully on the carpet. In other words they’re self regulating.. the planet is like that.


Gaia’s a living being, I mean it’s quite an idea to take onboard you know, it’s not easy. We’re so used to thinking of the Earth as something dead. That’s the pathology of our culture, that’s our problem.


Gaia theory is the scientific idea that the Earth is one great planet sized self regulating system. I would prefer to extend that and say it’s a living organism, that’s the size of a planet, and so the idea is that the self regulation emerges out of all the interactions between the living beings on the one side, you know the plants the animals the bacteria etcetera, on the one side, and fungi of course, and on the other side there are rocks, atmosphere and water the so-called non-living aspects they’re so intimately connected through really complex interactions, ecological interactions, geological interactions, and out of all those interactions emerges this extraordinary ability of the planet as a whole to regulate its surface conditions. I came to Gaia through science, there’s no doubt about it, it took a while for me to get to Gaia theory, I mean to the depths of Gaia theory. But I suppose it first happened when I came here to Schumacher college, to my amazement the first person to teach here was James Lovelock. Now James Lovelock, who’s very important to me because he’s a brilliant scientist, tremendous, but also tremendously intuitive. Thats a very rare combination. And in 1965 he had the idea that the earth is a self-regulating organism basically.


You could say, and he said it in the early days, that the earth is alive, and he came to that through science, I mean, through working at NASA on missions to Mars. The living organisms like us and the plants and like all the other living beings, they have a massive influence on the planet, on the rocks, on the atmosphere and on the water. Massive! And then those feed back to effect the organisms I mean you can see that Gaia is a living being.


The myth of Gaia is a long one, you know, it goes off and it tells you all about the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece and the humans, and its a long story but it starts with this concept of chaos, this vast darkness, I mean we can’t imagine what this is, it’s like a incredible intelligence that’s vast and dark. There’s no time, there’s no space, we don’t know, we can’t imagine what it’s like, but it’s really intelligent.


But its more than intelligent, it sort of has a consciousness of some sort and it feels lonely, this is my version of it right, it feels lonely and it thinks oh god it’s great being like this but I’m all alone and there’s no one to relate to.


So it thinks to itself, ok so I’ll make something, I’ll make a companion and it forms or moulds something within itself and *pop* somehow out pops Gaia, the deep breasted earth


She is the first born of primordial chaos, I mean what an amazing idea. Then it goes through a series of transformations, that happen in the myth, where one kind of god supplants another kind of god, in other words consciousness starts to develop. It’s a message that maybe this whole thing is about developing a more Gaian understanding of things.


And why is Gaia theory so important, for ecology? Well its the biggest idea we’ve had I’d say, in ecology, since ecology was invented. I mean the idea that the planet is one great self regulating organism, and expands our ecological boundaries even to include all places, you feel the presence of these wonderful ecosystems all over the planet. And this leads on to Gaia Alchemy, because as soon as you start to feel those ecosystems everywhere, then you’re in your own subjectivity, you’re in psyche, which up till now has been excluded, mostly from the Gaia theory. So alchemy is about psyche and alchemy is a way of cultivating psyche so she can come and meet with the science to create an even more beautiful brew of life giving energy and life giving insight and happiness for everybody. It’s a very simple life, lived very ecologically with your neighbours taking care of each other and taking care of nature. Thats a Gaia Alchemy life.


The thing that comes to my mind, straight away, about how to move Gaia beyond the science into something else, and one way I found of doing that is to have a Gaia place. Somewhere where you can just really be with nature.


Well every day I try to go to my Gaia spot, some days I don’t make it, but most days I do - I go out of my kitchen window and Im confronted with the most wonderful wild tangle of English jungle - wild brambles, nettles, elder bushes, and this sort-of beautiful peace depends on me you know its lovely.


There are some moments where the whole of my little jungle as I call it really comes alive in the most interesting way


This practice of bringing my consciousness into this place, begins to wake you up in an interesting way, very ecological dimension, I would call that deep ecology. It's very fulfilling I tell you, I mean, I think it is what every human being is longing for.


What I’ve come to realise is that, if we can reestablish that really indigenous connection with nature, that we used to have, but in our own modern way, if we can do that then we’ll be ok. Then we’ll be able to live well in the planet but not before. Inner discovery and inner transformation but inner and outer simultaneously, that’s what alchemy does you see, this is what Jung discovered. I mean we used to think alchemy was a complete load of absolute nonsense, which it is scientifically, mostly, but as psyche god! It’s a goldmine. It's a goldmine. Because what’s happening is that all the alchemical images are coming from nature. Nature makes images, nature is a soul, a kind of soul that makes images I mean it’s extraordinary. And if we work with those images, if we receive them in that light, they start to transform you in a more Gaian direction. And what I’m trying to do in my own way is to heal myself of the damage I felt when being trained as a scientist. Which is nothing against science because I love science, you know, it’s because I came to realise how damaged I’d be by the split in our culture, we call it the cartesian split between dead nature, out there, and this sort of isolated psyche, in here.


We were all unconscious of the damage which we were doing by teaching science in that way, you know, about a de-animated world. A world without a soul. What we need to do now is to heal it, that’s all. And we can’t heal it without soul, because what we banished from our consciousness of nature with Descartes and the scientific revolution - was soul.


I suppose with Gaia Alchemy I’m exploring a symbiosis between science and soul.


We-our culture has forgotten how to love nature. That feeling, that love has to spread really, really, really fast. And people have to fall in love with Gaia really quick. It’s getting close to the point, very very close to the point, this is from the science ok, we’re getting really close to the edge, if not already past the edge. If we get close to the edge and manage to stop before we go over the edge, into unstoppable climate change, totally unstoppable. If we’re close to the edge, and if we move fast, we can recover. We can move away from that edge. We’re going to have to re-wild or agri-wild a lot of land, we’re going to have to localise, we’re going to have to live more locally - we’re going to have to have less air travel, less car travel, less .. less less less is more more more. In other words we don’t need to consume so much, because we’re so connected with our local community, our local people that that gives much more nourishment than buying more stuff does.


The quatra is this one, do you want me to play you some music from Venezuela? ok. One of my Gaia places when I was about 22, 23 was in the plains of Venezuela, the Llanos, and the people who live down there are called the Llaneros, and I learnt this music from them.


- song - We need to cultivate the local and change the economy I mean it’s a huge enterprise, and the only way for that to happen is for people to fall en-mass, somehow fall in love with Gaia, they feel something about this earth that’s alive, it has a soul. I’m not gonna try and sing - I’ll give it a go, maybe -

00:14:03-00:15:15 (end)

On the other hand if we’re over the edge, then there’s nothing we can do. We need to see the earth as alive. And if we don’t find that view, and very soon, we haven’t got much hope as a culture. - song -


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