Ecological Perception

Perceiving Relations, Contexts and Interfaces

Our culture is very materialistic. We have a propensity to identify, name and procure material objects in an effort to understand our world. Objective reality is seen as valid and verifiable while the realms of the spiritual and sensual have been separated out as subjective, less important and even degraded as demonic or evil. Humans tend to analyze systems into component parts as a method of scientific inquiry. The result of this orientation is that we readily perceive objects but are inept in our ability to understand the relationships between them. We have difficulty seeing the “interface between media and forces, context, or processes as well as “reading the signs”. We also find it hard to recognize the depth of our relationship with nature and tend to look for meaning chiefly from our cognitive frameworks.

I would like to make the above concept more accessible by way of analogy. If we think of light and the way it interacts with the various surfaces and objects on the Earth, we can be aware of many different possible perceptions. Light illuminates the landscape, creates shadows, allows us to see color in objects, changes the color of things given its particular wavelength at different times of the day, reveals different light intensities, helps us to distinguish form, shape, size and texture, and creates beautiful phenomenon such as the northern lights and the unlimited pallets of color of sunrises and sunsets. Being aware of all these attributes of light at the perceptual level before cognition distracts us to quantify it is the gift of pure experience.

Visual contrast is another aspect of perception that refers to the meeting place of things and reveals the interface or location where blending and interdependence occur. It also portrays change and influence. Contrast is a common and prevalent function of relatedness visually speaking. Things viewed in isolation will appear different than things seen in contrast to each other. Analogous to the effects of visual contrast is the formation of a relational worldview as opposed to one formed from objective data. The relational view exposes us to a world that is vibrant, dynamic and alive. Such a process promotes interaction and commitment and a sense of belonging to the earth. 

Participation in the world is what visual perception fosters. To participate means to imbue consciousness into our interactions with all aspects of reality. This process allows for the construction of meaning and metaphor. It allows us to experience our animal nature and covenant with nature. The human condition can also be seen as a storied existence within the evolution of the cosmos. “Reading the signs” is the process of observing, attributing meaning and believing in the environment as the origin from which we have come and belong. Conscious perception can then be regarded as the context in which meaning is created.

The visible world when viewed from a perspective of beauty, sensuality and meaning, can create a real sense of love and connection that can be deeply felt in our physical bodies. Thus, the sensory world becomes embodied in us as a function of our interconnectedness.

Perceptual Flexibility

Perceptual flexibility is a skill that allows us to see familiar patterns within seeming disorder or being able to reorganize sense data that allows a different image to arise. It is a process that goes beyond what is expected or allows us to see the unexpected, such as a pattern or metaphor. This could manifest itself in the shape of a mountain resembling a geometric form such as a pyramid, K-2 in the Himalayas being a good example, or some other element of nature that might resemble a human face, the shape of a heart, an arrowhead or a spiritual symbol. What is required is an openness to see newly and without any particular point of view or bias. In effect, the landscape can speak to us and draw us to its sensual and graphic qualities.

Another aspect of perceptual flexibility is the perceptual ability to understand the concept of spatial scales (a term for the relative lengths, areas, distances or sizes of a place). This means recognizing self-similar patterns in different contexts that can lead to new ideas about the relationships those contexts have to each other. An example of this might be coming across a tree that has been struck by lightning and that image leading to the memory of a careless camper who set a forest on fire. Time can be related to this concept as well in the sense that environmental concerns have past, present and future implications that require attention and ongoing intervention.

Re-perceiving Depth

Perceiving depth is not concerned with our visual perception of depth of field but of our values and attitudes or worldview and how we define ourselves in context with our habitat. A depth relationship implies being within the biosphere, dependent and interrelated with it, as opposed to being externally on it and uninvolved or independent of it. The “within the biosphere” leads to an attitude of concern and environmental responsibility.

The notion of being within also exposes us to the dichotomy of being both vulnerable and liberated. We are vulnerable in that the forces of nature are understandably beyond our control but there is also a freedom of not having to be in control as well. This state of being totally dependent upon the Earth can be likened to the kind of emotional relatedness lovers experience when they feel a deep sense of connection and a merging into each other.

An experience of this, depth within, can be attained by hiking into a large canyon, such as the Grand Canyon in the United States and to experience the verticality of the space that is not a common situation to be in. As one goes deeper, he or she is confronted with increased verticalness that conveys being among or within, as well as a feeling of vulnerability and receptiveness. The beauty of the sensuous landscape provokes deep feelings and emotions that beckon one to explore and participate in the wildness that both excites and comforts simultaneously. These feelings and perceptions help us identify with nature, help us to see ourselves embedded in the elements and recognize the vastness and wonder of something we are part of, but that is greater in scope than our consciousness can even fathom.

If we consider ourselves to be a part of the communication system within the biosphere, then perception is a viable way to attain a state of non-verbal communion with the natural world and could also be considered as a spiritual practice.

The Intentional Use of Imagination

The last element of ecological perception to be discussed is imagination or the practice of visual imagery. Utilizing visual imagery allows us to understand how our belief systems determine the perceptions by which we create our reality. Imagination also allows us to change our reality by re-inventing it to a preferred one.

In the larger context, our visions, intuitions, desires, goals, hopes and dreams become significant factors that influence our subjective reality and the choices we make. They also act as guides or templates for unconscious decision-making and for desires and priorities that have already been formulated in our psyches. All the choices and decisions we make collectively impact on the way we create our future as a species as well. 

The pervasiveness of television, the media, psychic numbing, and widespread disempowerment have tended to act as replacements for the use of our imaginations as well as the fact that we have also relinquished, to a large degree, our creative tendencies to imagine and create, as healthy and self-actualizing endeavors. A return to this practice would require setting aside time to be with oneself away from the distractions of the technological world, and to look inward at one’s personal visions, desires and ambitions. These might include a vision for our lives, for the lives of our children, for the prosperity of humanity and for the respect and sustainability of the elements and all the creatures of the Earth.


Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books,1995, isbn 0-87156-499-406-8, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, Allen D. Kanner. The Skill of Ecological Perception by Laura Sewall, pp. 201-214

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