Sunday, September 9, 2012

Body, Mind, Spirit: the Intersectionality of Biophilia, and Where the Hell I'm Going With This.

Some classmates (who I also count as friends) and I attended the IIDA Annual Meeting at the Michael C. Carlos Museum back in June. We took a break from networking to go outside for a cigarette, when my friend Stewart up and asks, "So, what are you doing after you graduate?"*

I didn't hesitate, because I'd actually thought about it recently: "Aside from looking for a job? I'm going to write a book."

"Oh, yeah? What about?"

"I want to write about biophilic interior design for pagans. We've got books on feng shui, but there's nothing really out there for Westerners."

"Really? Why's that?"

I smiled. "Because that's what I am."

(*Conversation paraphrased due to poor memory, but this is as close to the actual conversation that took place as I recall.)

This is what happens when you get devoured in your Capstone project, or at least that's what happened to me: I became excited and pretty much obsessed with biophilia and the idea of biophilic design. I want to share it with everyone, but the first people I want to introduce to biophilic design are the people who will most identify with it and (currently) don't seem to be terribly aware of it.

You see, pagans (or Pagans, as you prefer) have a large variety of books on "decorating" the home in a mystical manner, which often rely on color theory and symbolism and don't typically go much deeper than that. Sometimes there is mention of ley lines or "dragon energy" and trying to orient homes and spaces to take advantage of them. But the most in-depth examination of "house energy" typically comes from a plethora of books on feng shui, not many of which I would personally put a lot of stock into simply because there's a lot of bandwagon and inappropriate appropriation going on in that area. I've done some study of feng shui, and there's a lot more to it than simply not putting a lot of red in your kitchen, or where you place your bed - it relies on a system of Occidental astrology and geomancy that's not always appropriate to a Western system of society or belief structure. That's not to say that it's bad or that you shouldn't use it, but that there needs to be more relateable and less appropriated alternatives (and that if you're going to use something like feng shui, please do so thoughtfully!).

What I want to do is pull together knowledge from a variety of sources into one book (or, if need be, a series of books) that helps Westerners of a pagan bent truly understand not only how their interiors work, but how to incorporate their belief systems thoughtfully into them to create something holistically harmonious and sustainable.

Part of that, I believe, necessitates biophilia and ecopsychology. Pagans, on some level, already know about these subjects but I don't think have been made aware of them and truly taught. I've noticed that people like Starhawk, for example, have gotten into permaculture - that, to me, is an example of walking the talk and something that needs sharing with the greater pagan community. We talk about living in harmony with our Mother, the Earth (even sing about it!), but I see many examples of where we don't always live that philosophy. I'm also seeing examples of where we are living it, and I want to encourage that to grow.

Biophilia and ecopsychology tie in together with our bodies, minds, and spirits. The body aspect can be easily understood: if we truly care for our natural environment, it will in turn take care of us. We eat more sustainably and make healthier food choices, and we go out into our natural environment more often, which means more exercise and fresh air. On a macro scale, the more people taking care of their local environments results eventually in better living environments and less climate change, the latter of which is not just good stewardship but also enlightened self-interest. Nature doesn't need us, but we need nature. That's just a fact.

Our minds need nature more than ever, and the burgeoning studies of biophilia and ecopsychology are making this ever clearer. The work of Dr. Howard Frumkin at Emory University, for example, has found some evidence that the presence of plants and animals in the design of hospitals reduces the need for hospital stays by approximately a day, as well as reducing the need for pain medication. This is because we find the presence of plants and animals reassuring and reduces our stress - we are soothed. Physical and mental ailments are reduced through interaction with nature. Children with ADHD, for example, are better able to focus in a natural setting. That is just one of many examples examined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.

I should hope that I wouldn't need to outline why spiritually biophilia makes sense for pagans, but I will definitely underscore one reason why: nature is part of our heritage. As Richard Rudgley noted in Episode 4 of the documentary series "Pagans", we made a bargain with Nature long ago. How we uphold it has changed, of course, but it is no less important today than it was long ago. We see care of our natural environment as part of our spiritual job as well as our physical job because we don't separate the physical from the spiritual: they are closely intertwined, if not one, and neglecting one for the other is foolish in our eyes. We need to care for ourselves and each other in a holistic manner to lead balanced, healthy lives. Biophilia should be part and parcel of what we teach and pass on to each other just as much as we talk of meditation or energy-raising.

So, back to this hypothetical book.

There are many areas I want to research and address, and I've begun compiling sources. Among them are topics and experts I've cited above - just yesterday, I bought Mr. Louv's book. Last week, I found another of E.O. Wilson's books, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which I've begun reading and found deeply moving and quotable thus far. I'm also picking up any books that relate to this - yesterday, I also found a college text on Environmental Science (Principles of Environmental Science: Inquiry and Applications by William and Mary Cunningham) that talks about systems, species populations, human populations, biodiversity, and agriculture, among many other topics.

But aside from the specific ecological angle, I'm looking at the Western pagan angle as well. What did we do in the past with our homes? How was this shown in myths and stories? How do we know this from a historical perspective: what has history and archaeology taught us, and more importantly, how successful were their strategies and what of those can we use in our own homes? What are we as pagans doing now that is, or can be, successful?

What are we doing as a society that is successful? What does interior design teach that isn't commonly known, and how can we marry all of these ideas together into happier, healthier, more holistic interiors (and buildings!) for Western pagans?

These are the questions I am asking. I hope to answer some in this blog, which I want to become the foundation of my book. I will be looking at the past, present, and future. I will be looking at materials, sources for them, and their wise use. I will be, ultimately, addressing residential design as a possible curative for our society, beginning with education, and specifically of the people who will most understand it because it is you - us - who can be the example and carry the message:

Caring for the Earth may be a dirty, hippie job, but it isn't crazy. It's imperative, it's everyone's job, and it's nowhere as onerous as others may try to make you believe.


  1. My mother in law, Gardener Extraordinaire, would love reading this. I am going to forward it to her. I am surprised that more pagans are not proponents of biophilic environments, though I suspect many are creating them without knowing the term.

    1. The latter is what I suspect as well. In doing some preliminary research on the 'net, there are some knowledgeable pagans on the subject. The vast majority, though, from what I can tell just aren't aware. I think marrying knowledge with practice and belief will make for more informed and strengthened pagans, not to mention help get the message out to more people.

    2. Thank you for the compliment and relating this to me. Although interior design is certainly not a strong point for me, I do pride myself in wanting nature and flowers and "life" all around me, both inside and outside. It brings such peace, joy, harmony, solitude and pride when things grow, change, bloom and propogate to the point I can share them with so many others. I've always known (since a child) that plants help to clean the air in your indoor environment (besides looking pretty) and provide habitat, shelter (shade in the summer and warmth in the winter)and food for our beautiful creatures we share this Earth with. Having a pond with fish, frogs, snails and tons of birdhouses, watching them build their nests, hatch their eggs, feed their young and seeing the babies grow and take their first flight, and watch the entire cycle again brings such amazement to me. Seeing the seasonal changes in the trees and gardens, the return of bright color and life in the spring and summer after the dormancy of winter, the calming change of palette in the fall as the plants and trees begin their season of rest, and waiting for the cycle of life to return is something I would desperately miss if we didn't live in an area with constant change. It brings hope and renewal to me every year of what still lies ahead. To take a complex flower (a lily, a magnolia, or a passion flower) and study their growth and structure never ceases to amaze my simple mind. On a personal and spiritual note, I can't imagine any of these miracles of life surrounding us, including our own reproduction, existing without having come from a Supreme Being or Creator. But that is just me!
      Our Earth and environment is suffering and we will consequently pay a huge price if we don't continue and expand our efforts to save it and ourselves. I was a "recycler" long before it became popular. I drive my friends crazy by constantly reminding them to follow my path and always spout to people, "Love Your Earth"! People have called me "hippie", "tree hugger", etc. I am flattered by those titles.
      Whether inside your home, on a small apartment balcony, or a modest back yard, there is no better therapy for the mind and soul than to get your hands dirty in the soil, plant something, nurture and care for it, watch it grow and it will reward you ten times over.

  2. Thank god for design that isn't just concrete, steel and glass. ;) (plus congrats on graduating; yes I know I'm late, sorry.)

    1. Thanks! We haven't talked for a long time, so I'm glad to know you're still around. I appreciate it. :)

      There's a lot of really great design that's outside the realm of concrete, steel, and glass as we conceive of it, and there's also some great design that uses those materials in thoughtful, innovative ways - we as Westerners tend to think of architecture and interior spaces as boxes (because this is what we grew up with and see around us every day), and one of the things stressed to me many times over is that we should literally as well as figuratively think outside the box. Shape, material, construction, etc. are components that need to be used in ways that make sense for each project and not as strict delimiters.

  3. Great post Elissa- very interesting topic. I urge you to pursue this Pagan + biophilia It really seems to be an untapped area for design and I would definitely buy it!

    1. Thank you - it's leading me in places that I think have great potential for exploration for everyone. I'm resuming research and am formulating some hypotheses that I think will bear some tremendous fruit.