Diving into the environment, enlivening phenomenological landscapes

In today’s blog, Luz Gonçalves Brito (UFRGS, Brazil) and Gustavo Chiesa (Unipampa) introduce their new article in Environmental Values, ‘Learning to Walk with Turtles: Steps Towards a Sacred Perception of the Environment’

Phenomenology has always been concerned with experience and perception. This branch of the philosophical tree has provided enormous challenges to us, as thinkers, in the multiple fields of human knowledge. 

‘Pacific Ocean inspires the heart . Esalen before the wildfires’ – Big Sur, California, 2019 (Luz Gonçalves Brito)

Although some would find it difficult to understand the nature of its problems and the roots from which phenomenology stems, we would dare to say that there is a way of considering its principles in the research practice, starting from a simple assumption: everything we can perceive in the world depends on the existence of someone by which it could be known. 

‘The spirit of Limekiln Creek’ – Big Sur, California, 2019 (Luz Gonçalves Brito)

The sound of the tree falling amidst the dense forest is known to the extent that there is someone who is attentive, with ears attuned to listen to the rumours of its fall. The existence of an outer world necessarily implies the existence of someone who can perceive the existent world reflected from within. The world is at the same time the perceptual field in which we live and the enormous Other to which we can look at as an external reality. Phenomenology offers a relevant exit from the ontological predicament of any researcher who has at least once questioned the conditions of knowledge: what exists in the world exists because we can know it, even if this process requires time, tools and skills for us to fully achieve the most complete knowledge. Phenomenology is not solipsist. It enables us to acknowledge the influence and relevance of the perceptual experience of the researcher/scientist and, at the same time, allows us to recognise the limitations of our human knowledge, while enabling us to go beyond them. 

Phenomenology enables us to be enthusiastic about the potentialities of our human intellect and, at the same time, to cultivate an epistemological humility before the mind of nature.

Nevertheless – and this is the intricate aspect of phenomenology in general – the perception of a thing or being in the world includes not only an immediate experience, but also a mediate one. We can experience some landscapes of the world without being in direct contact with them. We can know them mediately, accessing them through the narratives, photographs, poems and different artistic expressions of others who have been there, and who have experienced the features and textures of the places. That’s how we know the existence of the deforestation of Amazon, for example, even if we have never seen the phenomenon closely. The noise of the deforestation and the horror of the fascist politics of death exist, as well as the suffering of the birds and mammals in the burning forests of Pantanal, in Brazil. Even if we have never felt them. 

We firmly believe that we need to find different modes of researching, constructing scientific knowledge and recreating our writing. Poetry is one of them. The inability is apparent of some orthodox forms of scientific communication to instigate people into action towards sustainable practices in their daily lives. Climate change and other environmental issues are too big for the common mind to grasp. Environmental education worldwide is crucial. And it may improve societal and political responses before the choices of leaders of the national states. We think that humans’ attitudes have been extremely immature. That’s why we argue for a renewal of the mind, renewing the way we perceive the world and ourselves – towards the perception of the connection between humans and nature. Nature now seen, understood, touched, loved and experienced not as an external entity, but the real matrix of existence with which we are entangled. The disjunction of people and environment – this fundamental cognitive process that has allowed the reckless capitalist exploitation of nature – was not established quickly. It was a long epistemological process whose effects took decades to be manifested and whose results are now becoming more and more unbearable. Hopefully, before it is too late, many of us will notice the catastrophic effects of our human action on the surface and depths and surrounding spaces of the earth.

‘From the lateral window, the head rose from the bed, while the sky bled’ – Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2020 (Luz Gonçalves Brito)

There is a paradox here: we need an urgent collective consciousness, albeit it is more realistic to assume that the transformation of some parts of human awareness and attention will only be possible with years and years of construction of transformative knowledge.

The turtle is the perfect metaphor for the phenomenological exercise we are proposing: an accurate knowledge of the world comes from the practice of perceptual immersion in its contexts. Like the turtle diving into the depths of an ocean, mingling with the world implies being attentive to the continuities and entanglements of humans and nonhumans, and to the connections between everything that is alive in the world.

I am profoundly entire

And aware

I do exist

And dive into the immanent deep

Ocean of the world

Returning to a short shore surface

Just to know I breathe.

I am learning how to be 

Comfortable about living here


This house I carry, thee. 

Like a turtle

I take my bodily shell with me.

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