That giant of contemporary nature writing, Richard Mabey, has reportedly said - “I really don’t understand what the word ‘spiritual’ means. I am deeply a materialist; I don’t want to have a metaphorical relationship with something beyond its reality.” That surprised me, because, as an avid reader of Mr. Mabey’s words, I have always thought of him as ‘spiritual’. Is my understanding of what ‘spiritual’ means incorrect, or is it that I am just out of synch with the great wordsmith?

Spiritual. According to one of the many available dictionaries, it can be defined as:

‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.’

I readily identify with the idea of spirituality, which, coming from an unquestioning atheist, possibly suggests that I would be very much at home with the druids and pagans. I do see, and feel, the wonder in our natural world (and, of course, the unfathomable cosmos beyond it), but can also be moved by places that show the scars of human endeavour, particularly if I have a link to that place. So how would I define ‘spiritual’? What does it mean to me?

Basically, any object - or place - or event - that reaches into me, beyond my senses of sight, sound and smell is spiritual. It is something that moves my inner self in positive and mysterious ways. It induces feelings of wonderment, contentment, peacefulness and a sense of being a part of some great, mystical, world. This is, to me at least, not the work of a God or creator, but the wonder of science. So if the origins of my definition of 'spirituality' is down to the random workings of chemical elements, how can I attach any 'other-worldly' feelings to them? This is where the human mind comes into play. We have independent thought that allows us to think beyond responding to basic animal instincts such as 'food', 'sex' and 'shelter'. We don't just look at an approaching storm and respond to it by immediately seeking somewhere to get out of the wind and rain, we study the cloud formations, take in the colours before us, and somewhere, buried deep down within us, awaken a primordial instinct that elicits fear, excitement and an acceptance that there are forces at work that we cannot control. That, to me, is a basic spirituality.

The two images used in this post speak to me spiritually in differing ways. At the top is Dungeness. I first visited the shingle in April 1976 and have been a regular visitor ever since. Over the years this place has buried itself deep into my soul. It is no longer just a place where I can 'go birding', it means more than that. I chase shadows whenever I am there (one of them being me as a 16-year old, full of wide-eyed wonder) and ghosts (departed birding friends, the teachers and pupils from the abandoned school, fishermen from the early 20th-century). Those railway sleepers that march across the photograph, remnants from the railway line that used to run up to the old lighthouse - who erected them? In what year? What birds have perched on them? What storms have they survived? Such objects, such thoughts, are strewn across the shingle. I cannot take two steps without being exposed to them. They are not just questions born of curiosity, they run deeper than that.

The bottom picture is of Pewsey Downs. It looks out onto the Vale of Pewsey and the villages of Alton Barnes and All Cannings. This is my ancestral home, abandoned by the Gale family at the end of the 19th century to set up home in south London. My Father was sent back there as an evacuee during the Second World War and it made such an impression on him that he went back to live there in retirement. I got to know it then. I would go up onto the hills in search of the fine plant and insect assemblage, but then something took over. It was a subtle transition, but my walks became almost like pilgrimages. I would look down upon the farmland and be assailed by.... what? A sense of belonging? A state of inner calm? An appreciation and awareness of those who had come before? I'd call that spiritual.

Maybe an admission to something being 'spiritual' or feeling that way has been unfairly likened to anything that is 'caring', smacking of new-ageism and hippiedom. But back before such concepts, there did exist attachments and feeling, not just to nature, but also to the idea of belonging. In our fast-paced 21st-century, the need to step back and take stock has never been more desirable. For me, to wallow in 'the spiritual' is a necessity in combating what can, at times, be a challenging age.


Unknown said…
Lovely Steve I know exactly how you feel and Dungeness with my first visit in 1964.Having lost Sheila in 2018 I have become more spiritual but not religious and having the natural world as my interest I can lose myself I that world. Anyway I hope you and your family are well.
Have a great Xmas Nd a happy New Year
Regards and best wishes Peter

Unknown said…
Hi Steve
I think the comment by Richard Mabey is perhaps a little confusing. A materialist is a person
who believes that all there is matter and that all mental states and consciousness is the interaction of material processes. But when he says 'I dont want to have a metaphorical relation with something beyond its reality' then surely he is when he starts speaking poetically . I suspect what he is really saying is that he wants to consider the material and the spirit as a whole that in fact you cant have one without the other. After all we always see , in my opinion, the
spirit embodied as it were at least in this life.Saint Paul talks about a spiritual body relating to the resurrection of Christ.So in Christianity the after life consists of an embodied spirit. I doubt if Mabey is strictly a materialist in the meaning given above. Does he not want to keep the integrity of the human and not want to separate spirit from body?

Best Wishes
I don't feel "spiritual" but I have a connection with the outside world I find hard to define
Steve Gale said…
Peter: our natural world is a great way of ‘renewing’ our emotions, especially when they have been rocked. A peaceful Christmas to you too, and all the best for 2022.

Bob: you’ve obviously got a much firmer grasp on the terminology than I have. Most interesting.

Simon: that ‘hard to define’ something is maybe best left unidentified. It makes it more special.
Ric said…
Steve, I believe that those of us who are on the natural wavelength are essentially spiritual. Names and labels aren't a required part of that, just the awareness of it and where we fit in. Look, breath and experience the space around you without analysis. Just be.

The sort of people who say go out into the countryside wearing headphones and staring into a smartphone are in the spiritual sense, dead!

We're part of the Universe. We're billions of years old. Every element of our bodies came out of an exploding star. It was always the sort of thing that made me wonder why having to go to school and do homework so bizarre. I mean, why?
Steve Gale said…
Ric: well said (or written)…
Stewart said…
I agree Steve. I too find the whole, well maybe not the whole, of outdoors quite spiritual in a pagan sort of way. I genuinely love and feel it is part of me...

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