Do you believe that anything can be done about the current path of self-destruction our world appears to be on? If so, what?

Yes, I do believe something can be done — lots of things. I agree with ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, who refers to this century as the time of the Great Turning, the opportunity to progress from our current Industrial Growth Society to a Life-Sustaining Society. She says there are three sets of things we can do to make the Great Turning real. These are “holding actions” to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; analysis of structural causes and the creation of alternative institutions; and a fundamental shift in worldview and values. My work focuses on the second and third dimensions.

One of our essential gifts to the future is to redesign all major cultural institutions — education, governments, economies, and religions — to be in partnership with Earth systems. In Nature and the Human Soul, I explore what educational systems, especially, might look like if they were designed to help children, teens, and young adults grow whole in resonance with the cycles and qualities of the natural world into which we are born.

But even more essential is the shift in worldview and values that would allow each person to develop as nature and soul would have it. This shift requires us to re-conceive every stage of human life, including the psychospiritual tasks of each stage, tasks that must be addressed for a human being to progress toward maturity. In particular, we must learn to raise children in alignment with nature, preserving the innocence of early childhood and refashioning middle childhood as a time of wonder and free play in the natural world. We must assist teenagers to be as authentic and wildly creative as they can be. We must cultivate full societal support for young and middle-aged adults to explore and be transformed by the mysteries of nature and psyche — eventually taking their places as artisans of cultural change. We must do this for all people, in all socioeconomic classes, in all societies.

Nature & the Human Soul explores in detail how we might do these things, not only in America, but in any society, and how every person can contribute to the Great Turning of our time.


You write that Western culture is stuck in a “patho-adolescent” way of being. What does that mean?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with (healthy) adolescence, but our cultural resources have been so degraded over the centuries that the majority of humans in “developed” societies now never reach true adulthood. An adolescent world, being unnatural and unbalanced, inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, class-stratified, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive. These societal symptoms of patho-adolescence, which we see everywhere in the

industrialized world today, are not at the root of our human nature, but rather are an effect of egocentrism on our humanity. Egocentrism is living as if we are agents only for our individual selves and families and not primarily members of the more-than-human world.

The opportunity of the Great Turning is to create soulcentric societies — those that are imaginative, ecocentric, cooperation-based, just, compassionate, and sustainable.

The Great Turning cannot be accomplished as long as there are billions of people living a patho-adolescent lifestyle of conspicuous consumption — or aspiring to one — while billions of others live in abject poverty, or as long as there remains a majority of voter support for politicians (from either the right or left) with patho-adolescent ambitions and agendas, or as long as we live within political and corporate systems that suppress all alternatives to the Industrial Growth Society.

As soon as enough people in contemporary societies progress beyond adolescence, the entire consumer-driven economy and egocentric lifestyle will implode. Adolescent society is actually quite unstable due its incongruence with the primary patterns of living systems. Industrial Growth Society is simply incompatible with collective human maturity. No true adult wants to be a consumer, worker bee, or tycoon, or a soldier in an imperial war, and none would go through these motions if there were other options at hand. The enlivened soul and wild nature are deadly to industrial-growth economies — and vice versa.


How would a world that has embraced true adulthood look different than the world we are experiencing now?

One of the premises of Nature and the Human Soul is that every human being has a unique and mystical relationship to the wild world, and that the conscious discovery and cultivation of that relationship is at the core of true adulthood. In contemporary society, we think of maturity simply in terms of hard work and practical responsibilities. I believe, in contrast, that true adulthood is rooted in transpersonal experience — in a mystic affiliation with nature, experienced as a sacred calling — that is then embodied in soul-infused work and mature responsibilities. This mystical affiliation is the very core of maturity, and it is precisely what mainstream Western society has overlooked — or actively suppressed and expelled.

Although perhaps perceived by some as radical, this premise is not the least bit original. Western civilization has buried most traces of the mystical roots of maturity, yet this knowledge has been at the heart of every indigenous tradition known to us, past and present, including those from which our own societies have emerged. Our way into the future requires new cultural forms more than older ones, but there is at least one thread of the human story that I’m confident will continue, and this is the numinous or visionary calling at the core of the mature human heart.

Human maturation is essential to the Great Turning. The most potent seeds of cultural renaissance come from the uniquely creative work of authentic adults. All such adults are true artisans, visionaries, and leaders, whether they live and work quietly in small arenas, such as families, farms, and classrooms, or very publicly on grand stages. They are our most reliable agents of cultural change. Nature and the Human Soul offers a set of guidelines for restoring and refining the process of human maturation so that increasing numbers might grow into true twenty-first-century adults, into mature transformers of culture.

A society that has embraced true adulthood is, among other things, sustainable, just, and compassionate. It is sustainable because it is expressly organized as an integral component of the greater community of Earth; it establishes a niche for itself that benefits both its people and the greater geobiological community of which it is a member. It is a just society because it provides equal opportunities and benefits for all persons. It is compassionate because it shares its wealth with all other societies and with the greater web of life; it does not exploit other peoples or species. A mature society also embraces and celebrates our enchanted human senses, bodies, and emotions and encourages our imaginative exploration of the mysteries of psyche and nature.


What is the role of rites of passage in your model of human development?

Rites of passage from any one of the eight stages to the next are potent means for human communities to mark, celebrate, and support life-stage transitions recently experienced by its individual members. But a rite of passage doesn’t catalyze a stage transition that was not already set to unfold. What enables a passage to occur is daily progress, over years, with the developmental tasks of the individual’s stage — this along with the numinous and unpredictable intervention of that same Mystery that causes us to be born. A rite of passage marks a transition that has already occurred, thereby helping the individual (and, often, his family and/or community) adjust to the loss of his old status and to the demands and opportunities of his new one.

This perspective contrasts with the view, increasingly popular over the past thirty years, that rites of passage actively shift people from one stage to the next — from childhood to adulthood, for example — as if the rite does the work of maturation for us. I have come to see such a perspective as too simplistic. A rite of passage “works” only for those individuals who have prepared themselves for developmental progress through years of success at the unavoidable, daily labor of becoming fully human.


What are the life passages that nature has designed us to experience in a full human life span?

I believe we are designed to undergo nine major life passages. These include birth and death. Of the seven remaining passages, only two are experienced by most people in Western and Westernized societies. These are what I call Naming and what everyone knows as Puberty. Only about 25% of Westerners ever mature beyond early adolescence.

Naming occurs around the beginning of the fourth year of life. This is when a human being becomes conscious of him or herself as an individual — the moment when conscious self-awareness first appears, along with autobiographical memory. In essence, Naming is the psychological birth of a human being. Psychosocial Puberty — something more complex and encompassing than just the physiological changes of sexual flowering — is when a young person’s center of gravity shifts from family and neighborhood to a life centered in peer group, sex, and the wider human society. Most people cross that threshold between ages eleven and thirteen.

The next passage, which I call Confirmation, occurs when we have adequately completed our adolescent personality. At that time, we begin to feel our center of gravity shifting toward a deep wondering about the mysteries of nature and psyche. Confirmation has become relatively rare in the Westernized world due to the extensive developmental deficits so many people accrue during the first three life stages. These deficits are the result of contemporary practices in parenting, education, entertainment, advertisement, media, business, and religion. For people who do reach Confirmation, personal interests naturally turn away from a primary focus on socioeconomic status and turn toward questions of meaning, purpose, the great romance with the world, and the search for our unique gift of soul to bring to our more-than-human community.

Adolescence ends with the passage of Soul Initiation, when we commit ourselves to living the gift we found in our explorations of the mysteries. Soul Initiation entails a radical transformation in life orientation in which we shift from a focus on social belonging and soul discovery to the active embodiment in our community of our unique soul mysteries. We achieve that embodiment through an established cultural form such as those found within the realms of healing, teaching, parenting, or creating through the arts, architecture, religion, or governance.

But there comes a day when we realize that established forms can no longer adequately deliver the deep creatively welling up from our depths. This is when we begin to create never-before-seen means for the embodiment our soul gifts. This moment is the passage of Induction. We are inducted into the life of the Artisan, the stage of late adulthood.

True adulthood ends with the passage of Crowning, when we turn away from our longstanding focus upon individual soulwork. With its implication of royalty, Crowning announces our entrance into the highest social status, true elderhood. Crowning poignantly contrasts with retirement, which, in an adolescent culture, means the commencement of the social status considered to be, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the lowest — “senior citizen.” In this first half of elderhood, our primary life focus shifts from the embodiment of our individual gift to caring for the soul of the more-than-human community. We do this, in part, by mentoring and initiating the youth, and by helping to maintain the delicate balance between the human and more-than-human worlds.

The eighth passage, Surrender, marks the release of the goal-oriented ego, opening the way to the final stage of life in which our impulse turns toward the mysterious tending of the evolving universe itself.

Although I believe that the majority of Westerners are stalled in early adolescence, I am nevertheless confident that everyone can catalyze their own maturation toward full humanity by addressing the most incomplete psychospiritual tasks of their current life stage. Those tasks and how to address them constitute the major focus of Nature and the Human Soul.


Why is free play in nature important for children, and why is time in nature so essential for human development at all ages and stages?

In order to grow into healthy, vibrant, creative human beings, children must come to belong fully to the world into which they were born — and from which they were born — namely the natural world. Children get to know their world by immersing themselves in it. Nature itself has brilliantly equipped them to do just this. The way a child naturally explores her environment is what we call play — unsupervised time alone and with her peers in field and forest. There she can make things with mud and stones and sticks, and she can observe the animals and birds and flowers, the wind and snow and stars. Just as the human species learned to be human through its interactions with the other creatures of Earth, the human child learns her particular way of being human by imitating the sounds, postures, and gestures she discovers in nature. Nature fires her deepest imagination, brings alive the full range of her emotions, tutors her senses in the art of perception, and educates her mind about the possible and actual.

But for all these unfoldings to occur, the child must be allowed to explore the natural world in her own way. She must be allowed plenty of free-play time in environments that are as natural as can be found near her home. This is every bit as important to her development as classroom time learning to read, write, and count, and studying her people’s history, mythology, and sciences. It’s quite a bit more important than organized sports.

Absent adequate amounts of free-play in nature, children are at great risk of developing modern maladies such as depression, hyperactivity/ attention deficit disorder, and obesity. Conversely, children exhibiting such symptoms have been shown to improve rapidly when allowed adequate time in the wild world.

But nature immersion is not merely a therapy for the unwell. It is an essential dimension of human development for the healthy child, every one of which is destined to become an imaginative contributor of cultural artistry, an authentic adult whose creativity is rooted in her deep belonging to the Earth community.


Nature & The Human Soul

by Bill Plotkin

2008 • 528 pages • Price: $17.95

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