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There are no spirits in the new wilderness

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 4 March 2010

I would like you to imagine a scene. It is about two and a half centuries ago and it is mid-afternoon on a brilliantly sunny day. There are three indigenous girls walking and scrambling along the shores of Botany Bay. They are seeking something tasty to add the tribe’s dinner for that night.

What day, month or even year it was does not matter to anybody in the girls’ community. What matters to those people is what nature was doing on that day. What nature was doing on that day has also some effect on me, as about three kilometres inland, a eucalyptus seed was beginning to sprout.

The seed which became a great tree finished its life in the carpark of a shopping mall in the suburb of Miranda. It was one of the early and relatively small malls. The uncovered parking lot held between three and four dozen cars. I wonder who, besides myself, remembers the old giant which once lived there?


It is over 40 years now, but I still remember you each time I pass by your old place. For most of your life your environment was shaped by the random forces of nature - but gradually that all went until there was just you standing in the middle of the carpark of a shopping mall. You may have been the sole survivor of a forest that once covered this area of Sydney.

At first I gave you a respectful glance when I parked my car there, but with the passing of time, you seemed to draw me to you until I saw you as dominating everything around you. I imagined that in some abstract way you were communicating with me. As that is what friendship is all about, I feel that I was not being too eccentric to call you my friend - my poor friend surrounded by an alien world.

As my affection for you grew, my unease grew because you looked so out of place - almost like an intruder. Until one day I saw that you were gone. I was told that you had to go as your space was required for two extra cars.

From your great girth I suppose that that spot had been yours for maybe more than two centuries. I sensed that you felt the danger as when I looked at you, you seem to look back at me for help - but I was helpless. I was helpless because the species I belong to has a great momentum to invade the space of all other life. The social structure I am in has me trapped as I depend upon it for my survival. I am still shopping at malls and driving to them in a car.

Your removal was justified as every injustice must be. You could not think and feel as they could - and that was that. If only they could appreciate that you could communicate in another way. You radiated pure substance when all around you was purely superficial. Why had they not noticed this?

I could say that you were alive when Captain Cook sailed into the bay only a few kilometres from the car park. But, why should I link your worth to some event in human history? You can stand on your own dignity. The co-existence of man is not needed to dignify your existence. Indeed, it was undignified man who wantonly put you out of existence.

I would rather say that you experienced many, many magical days of peace when there was no man-made structure anywhere near your place. I imagine sunrises reflecting off your leaves, cold winds and balmy breezes swaying your branches, afternoon showers washing over your trunk - and when the rain stopped, your trunk glistening in the sunset.

They were all much the same, those days, just coming and going, and yet they were entirely different. Little things made them so. Wonderful little things like the movement of insects and shadows and the changing of colours.

Science says that my friendship with the tree then, and my lament now, are due to the more primitive part of my brain showering the cerebral part with emotion. My thinking was delusionary. There is even a word for my type of delusion. It is “anthropomorphism” and it means awarding human attributes to a lesser animal or even to an inanimate object.

A delusion is driven by an emotion. The delusion of feeling that there is a spirit in a tree or a rock is a reflection of an underlying unifying emotion in the delusional person. The more one sees oneself to be only part of a whole, the stronger is the unifying emotion.

It is also a delusion that unbridled consumption enhances the quality of life. It is an ultimately destructive delusion because it is based on a separating emotion. The more one sees oneself to be an individual, the stronger the desire to own and control, and the stronger the separating emotion. It was the separating emotions of the Europeans which introduced into the indigenous experience fences and private title to portions of land. Maybe they sensed then that this was the beginning of the end.

My friend once was not only surrounded by the flora and fauna of the forest, but by a different landscape. Over time the tops of hills have been knocked off and gullies filled in. The water courses which once ran crystal-clear over rocks are now toxic to animal life and mostly running underground in drains. The new environment is one dominated by concrete, glass, metal, plastic and bitumen. It is the environment the mass culture feels increasingly comfortable in. My friend could not have been killed without the compliance of the mass culture.

Those girls gathering food on the shore of the bay talked to the spirits in the rocks and the trees. We can imagine in today’s high-tech world that a song or a poem or a story has a spirit in it, but in the new wilderness of concrete, glass, metal, plastic and bitumen, there are no spirits because man cannot make anything material which has a spirit in it.


As we build up this new wilderness around us in an increasing spiritual vacuum, then our already spiritually impoverished selves, brainwashed into paying homage to market-forces and economic growth, are in danger of becoming empty shells.

Is there any hope?

What hope could there possibly be for a society which values parking space for two cars more than a magnificent creature still alive after more than two centuries? Would we now, more than 40 years later, be capable of such a callous act? Probably not, but the improvement in our attitude is too slight to be relevant. Until economic growth is downgraded from sainthood and what is left of our natural environment elevated up to that level, then I believe that there can be no hope.

In this paradise of economic growth, we believe that individuals have choice. But the “free” choices we make we have been mentally conditioned to make by those who create the market. Big business knows that it has to create addictions to create the consumers it needs.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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