What is Spiritual Ecology?

“It is, perhaps, for now, a practice.
A practice of remembering.
A practice of presence.
Language, with time, will follow suit.”

May 28th,


By Chelsea Steinhauer-Scudder

Image by Jennifer Battis

The attempt to define Spiritual Ecology—a similar effort to defining any of the most deeply important concepts and understandings—must first and immediately run us smack into the barriers of language. 

For here are two words that should never have become separated from one another, parsed into two distinct ideas that exist independently, not only in our spoken and written language, but in our very minds and hearts.

And so, we must begin here in the uncomfortable and frustratingly common position of trying to pin down the indefinable. But…we also begin, therefore, on the edge of wonder! For if we could so readily explain such things, perhaps they would not have so much to say to us after all. (This is another way of saying that I won’t offer you any particularly useful definitions, either).


Image by Terésa Gardner

Let us then take these two words: Spiritual and Ecology. Spiritual is defined as “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Already I have difficulty with this. Not only is this a somewhat bland definition that does little to affect the spirit, as it were, but it points at precisely the problem with how we have come to understand this word, for it immediately limits the spirit to the human being and sets spirit apart from the physical world. Nothing could be less true!

However, let’s look instead at the origins of the word spirit, rather than the way our modern culture has come to define spirituality. And we will end up somewhere very different.

Our breath is fundamentally and literally inseparable from the breath of trees and plants…

Spirit is from the Latin word spirare: breathe, and spiritus: breath. Ah…we are getting somewhere.

Ecology is “the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” This, too, does little to move me. It speaks to relationship, yes, and that is at the crux of our present definitional efforts. But it does so in a very cold and mechanical sort of way. Relationships ought to move us.

Here again we return to origin. The etymology of eco derives from the Latin word oikos, meaning “house.” Nothing could be warmer and more essential than the idea of home.

Breath is, of course, the very essence of life. Material and immaterial. Invisible and profoundly felt. Our breath is fundamentally and literally inseparable from the breath of trees and plants, who could not breathe if not for water and atmosphere, soil and bacteria, sunlight and worms and fungi and woodpeckers and deer and foxes and black bears and toads. A shared home of breath. An understanding that that which is most essential to us defies the boundaries of ourselves. That we are not individuals, but living, breathing beings, made up of the same elements and atoms and soil and sky that make up everything else! We are all of the same house: earth.

Spiritual Ecology is, ultimately, beyond any language, and certainly beyond the limited language of a modern age that has forgotten such a fundamental truth. We are not separate. Breath and home are essential, the same, so deeply intertwined that there is no understanding of one without the other.

Spiritual Ecology is the moment when you feel this to be true, and then strive to make it truer and truer all the time. It is losing yourself in a gust of wind that takes your mind into a whirl of leaves and scatters you through the trees. It is the prairie catching you in a moment of forgetting that you are a you, a glimpse of startling recognition that extends into millennia. The gasp of the mountaintop vista, the demanding attention of falling snow, the rattling, endless call of cranes landing along the Platte River.

It is, perhaps, for now, a practice. A practice of remembering. A practice of presence. Language, with time, will follow suit.

Chelsea is staff writer for Emergence Magazine, a publication which explores the connections between culture, ecology, and spirituality. 


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