Episode #58  The Ocean is Alive: Ocean-shaman Glenn Edney speaks of the living waters of the Earth

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What if the Ocean were a living thing, in the way that the earth breathes as Gaia? The Maori say that if the Ocean is healthy, so, too, will the people be healthy. And we are not healthy – nor is the Ocean. But we are intimately linked and Glenn Edney explains how – and what  – we can do to heal ourselves and the waters of the Earth.

Glenn is a Deep Ecologist, an Ocean explorer, diver, sailor, an activist for the living Ocean – and a deeply thoughtful visionary, following in the footsteps of his hero, Jacques Cousteau.

He’s the author of three books, the most recent, published in 2016, is The Ocean is Alive. He wrote this as his way to help those of us more land bound to understand that, like Gaia, the Ocean is a living entity with its own hyper-complex physiology – that everything from the chemical composition of the water, through the lives of the plankton and microbiomes to the majesty – and super consciousness – of the great whales, is part of a single Being. The detail of how the Ocean lives and breathes is fascinating and glorious, but it’s the stories of connection, heart-to-heart, with the living elements of the Ocean that stay with us long after we’ve put the book down.

In the podcast, Glenn shares his complete connection with the Ocean – and the ways we can – and must – open to this magnificent part of our planet.

Mena kei te hauora te moana ka pera ano te hauora o te iwi

If the ocean is healthy so too will the people be healthy – Maori saying

In Conversation

Manda: So, Glenn Edney, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast on what is for you, a bright and sunny morning in New Zealand. And for us, this is January in Shropshire. So it’s not still minus three, but it’s pretty cold and wet. How are you? And you’re also Covid free in New Zealand, as far as I can tell. We’re back in Lockdown Three.

Glenn: Exactly. Kia ora Manda, it’s lovely to be here. Yes, it’s beautiful. Sunny, warm, it’s summer. And you’re right, we are having a very, very different experience with this virus than the rest of the world probably, actually.

Manda: Yes, yes. Although I read something yesterday that Thailand apparently has pretty much the same population as the UK, and they’ve had, I think, 64 deaths total and we had over 1000 yesterday. So quite a lot of the world is having a different experience to us except the U.S., of course. Leaving aside the politics, and we will come back to the fact that New Zealand is a shining beacon, I think, of how we can make the transition from late stage capitalism to wherever we go next. But before we get there: I have read your book, The Ocean is Alive now, I think three times, and each time something new leaps out to hit me. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. And I totally encourage anyone listening to this podcast: please go and read it. We’re not going to rehearse the book page by page because we want to talk about new stuff. We will talk a little bit about the book, but really do yourself a favour, if you want to understand the wonder of the Ocean, please read Glenn’s book. And so assuming that people have taken that on board, Glenn, tell us a bit about who you are and how you came to write something so moving and so heartfelt.

Glenn: Well, that’s very nice of you to say. And growing up in here in Aotearoa, New Zealand, you know, it’s very hard to be very far away from the Ocean. And I was lucky enough to get exposure to the Ocean at a very young age. And so the Ocean has always been part of my life. And I was also exposed for the very first time to television when I was about five years old, black and white. And my very first thing that I saw on television was Jacques Cousteau, a documentary about sharks. And I fell in love with sharks. I fell in love with the idea of being an Ocean explorer. And my long life-held dream at that stage, of course, was to become a diver and crew member on the Calypso with Captain Jacques Cousteau. There was a slight generational problem, and I didn’t get to do that. But nevertheless, I find myself now, some five decades later, having lived pretty much all of my adult life as an Ocean explorer. Thanks to being here in this beautiful land, and also the times that we live in, with all of that great exploration that was going on in the 20th century with some of the technology such as scuba, and being able to film underwater, inspirational for young people like me. At that time, it just opened up a whole new world. And so that’s that’s how it started for me. And once you are an Ocean being, you’re always an Ocean being.

Manda: That’s interesting. Do you think for people that once they have begun to immerse themselves in the Ocean that they never stop?

Glenn: That is definitely my experience. And of course, I meet a lot of other Ocean people, and, it seems to be a really universal experience. And of course, you know, now we have this great body of psychological research that shows just how much we are affected by even just being near the shore, or even watching a film about the Ocean has a psychological impact on us. And so we have this whole idea of ‘blue mind’. And, you know, there’s no surprise for me in that, because the Ocean is the largest manifestation of the most fundamental aspect of life, which is water. We ourselves are basically 99 per cent water, as in 99 percent of all of the molecules in every single cell of our body, are water molecules. So we may be 70 percent by weight of water, but in real terms we are 99 percent water, as is every other life form. And so there’s no coincidence that we are drawn to water.

Manda: Right. I learnt so much in this book, and really just learning our evolutionary history, which I kind of thought I knew, and hadn’t really taken on board the extent to which quite a lot of the water on the planet is of extraterrestrial origin. Did I understand that right, that quite a lot came from meteors? Just tell us a little bit about that just because I find it fascinating. Therefore, I assume our listeners will also useful.

Glenn: And, you know, this is also… we’re still not exactly sure where all of the water on our planet came from, but we’re pretty sure that a really large percentage of it was extra-terrestrial, if you like. So when our solar system was formed, it was formed with a huge amount of water already here. And so, as all of the rocks and all of the particles, the dust particles were accreting together, forming our little rocks and then planetismals and eventually our planets, a lot of water was embedded within those rocks. And so a good percentage of the. That we that we see on the surface of the planet is water that’s out-gassed, over five billion years of the history of our planet, particularly in the early years when things were very, very hot. However, that doesn’t really account for all of it. And neither does that water account for the specific isotopes of some of the water that we find on our planet. And the only explanation for that water is that it has come from outside of the solar system. And at some point, now it might have been within our solar system for a long time, but it has origins that are outside of our solar system. So comets and meteors are the most likely answer to where a lot of our water come from. But, you know, we also have several oceans’ worth of water still inside the planet.

Manda: Right. I was reading you said five to 10 oceans’ worth is still under there. So when I panic about the fact that we’re all we’re draining down all of the groundwater, there’s still quite a lot in there. But is it quite deep down?

Glenn: Absolutely. And the thing to remember, too, is I don’t know if you’ve got a rock handy, but if you’ve got a rock, pick up a rock and hold it in your hand, and it’s solid, and it’s heavy, and and it seems impermeable. However, that rock, just like everything else, has a really high percentage of water. All the atoms of the universe are mostly empty space.

Manda: Yes. Yes. We’re all just bits of vacuum that happen not to fall through each other, which is one of those weird things that does strange things to my head, because we should fall through. We shouldn’t just fall through the floor. We should fall through the Earth. We shouldn’t be solid. It’s a really… Once you understand the physics of that, I find it really quite mind bending.

Glenn: Absolutely. It is mind-bending. And so the water molecule, this miraculous thing that probably came into existence somewhere earlier than the formation of the first galaxies. So somewhere in the first billion years of the universe, after the Big Bang, water molecule came into existence. And the water molecule, two atoms of hydrogen, one atom of oxygen, is one of the most miraculous things that we could possibly imagine. And it’s miraculous because of what it’s capable of doing. And we’re not even fully aware of everything that water is capable of. But just the things that we do know about water absolutely defy the make up of the molecule. So these two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, and the twenty-two degrees angle of  difference between with it, where the hydrogen atoms sit in relation to the oxygen. We know that that creates a different positive and negative side to the water molecule, so that explains some small aspects of what water is capable of. The thing for me, what really gets me about that is when if you just look at our planet, and you look at the evolution of life on our planet, you need to go back before the start of life to really get a sense of how this was possible. And that story is the story of water. So an Ocean planet, seems to be somewhat of a prerequisite for the evolution of biological life. Now, I’m saying it because this is our experience, and there’s certainly plenty of theory about the possibility of biological life involving water that doesn’t involve an Ocean, but we don’t have any proof of that. But we have absolute proof of that right here.

Manda: Right, that if you have an Ocean, then there’s a reasonable chance that you might have life.

Glenn: It’s inevitable. If you if you have a planet with this much water on or near the surface, biological life becomes pretty much inevitable. And I think I’ve a theory as to why that is.

Manda: OK, tell us the theory.

Glenn: OK, so one of the things that the water molecule does, is it is probably the most effective way for energy to be conserved. And so through principles of thermodynamics, we understand that the universe is a finite system that will eventually run out of energy. So we are always heading towards maximum entropy. And the way that we slow entropy down is through the conservation of energy. So in other words, that just simply means that we find ways to keep reusing that energy. And so it’s kind of like recycling. We’re recycling the energy. And so we’re slowing down the sort of, you know, we go from birth into our life, young, middle, age old, and then eventually we die. And so this process is the process of reaching maximum entropy. Now to slow that down, we need to keep that energy moving, and keep it being used. And so energy can never be, we can’t get rid of energy, but we can change the way that we use it. And so water is the master of conserving energy and reusing it. So I like to think there’s at least a possibility that the arrival of the water molecule in the universe, if we could imagine the universe having some form of sentience way back then, then whatever that sentience was would have been clapping and cheering as the water molecule came into existence. And so for me, it’s kind of like inevitable that when you’ve got this miraculous ability to conserve energy, then that is going to also look for more ways of conserving energy, more ways of being creative with the energy that we have, and biological life is a great way of doing that. So you’ve got a body of water? For me, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to have life.

Manda: As a way of conserving energy. I hadn’t picked that up from the book. That’s really interesting.

Glenn: And we’re talking about physical, yeah, the physics of life here, I guess. And you know, I have some ideas about how that also relates to a spiritual, soulful journey as well. But just in the pure physics of it, the abundance of water with all of the other elements that are there, and water is the great facilitator of bringing things together. And there’s no boundaries in water. There are no fences. And so the coming together of all of the ingredients of life becomes possible. And when you’ve got a lot of time, and you’ve got all the ingredients, the sooner or later the recipe is going to get right. 

Manda: Yeah. Five mass extinctions down the line, and another one in process. But let’s talk about that later, because this is… so what we have is water and biological life as emergent properties of perhaps a way of conserving energy. But what we get to in your book is that the whole Ocean itself is a sentient being in the way that Lovelock proposed Gaia herself was a sentient being. So can we fast forward a bit? Because there’s so much in terms of Ocean physiology, the thermohaline and the thermocline, if I am saying those correctly, and correct me if I’m not. But the sense that there’s extraordinary physiological interactions, that if we were viewing them from the outside, we wouldn’t look at as simply weather or climate patterns, but we would look at as the organ processes of an intact biological being, and that some of the species within, the things that you describe, the ways that the sperm whales moving up and down through the layers of water are actually an integral part of the recycling of minerals within the ocean. So we have what to us is inanimate water interacting on a vast, vast scale with what to us, we are beginning to understand as sentient beings in a way that makes total coherent sense, and has its own internal logic that we are disrupting. But we’ll talk about that later. Can we talk a little bit about this idea of the Ocean being alive?

Glenn: Certainly, yes. Well, I guess the the the starting point for that is to really try and get our head around where the idea came from that environment and life are actually separate things. So this idea that we have animate life and inanimate substrate to life, the background. That idea is it is actually a relatively new idea. It’s only about four hundred years old.

Manda: Which in the timescale of the universe is very small.

Glenn: It’s very small. Also very small in terms of the human experience. You know, we’ve been around, just our species have been around for at least a couple of hundred thousand years. And so for most of that time, we have experienced ourselves and the rest of Life as one, and not separate from our environment, so the idea that it is a separate thing is really come out of the Enlightenment period, and the scientific revolution. Without going into boring details about that, basically, European thought of the 1600s and 1700s really needed to believe that human exceptionalism was real.

Manda: Yeah,

Glenn: In other words, we were different. We were separate. And not only were we different and separate from the rocks, the mountains, the rivers, but we were different and separate from the rest of life. Now, the funny thing is, that once we had separated ourselves out, first of all.. and a long time before that, of course, we were separating ourselves from the rest of Life with our agriculture, and with.. Greek philosophy started to think about the ideal that, which is above the physical world. So that was already set in motion. But when we really started to think about ourselves as being completely separate from the rest of life, we were able to then say, well, we’ve got environment; we’ve got life; and then we’ve got humans. And that served a definite purpose. We were also starting to get to the point where we wanted to utilise Life in a much more materialistic way than we had been up until that point. And so it would be very inconvenient for us if we had to consider the rest of Life as being on an equal footing to us. So our old animistic perspectives needed to go, and those animistic perspectives never separated life from environment.

You know, I think I might have even used this one in my book: you know, to separate the sunbathing lizard from the sun-baked rock is pointless. It can’t exist without the other. So for me, in terms of the Ocean as a living being, the idea of separating the water from the life in the water, so separate the ocean medium from life within it, is completely pointless. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. How can there be Ocean organisms without Ocean? They cannot be separated. And so we have to then go, well, what kind of psychological purpose was that serving, to come up with that idea, and to actually then get a set of beliefs around that idea?

Manda: Around the idea of separation, you mean?

Glenn: Yeah, around the idea of separation. And so, you know, there were good reasons for doing it at the time. But what we’re starting to see now, of course, is that the holes are appearing, and those holes are pretty big in that belief system. When we actually look at our modern science of, you know, particularly what we’re understanding about the chemical nature of the universe, quantum physical nature of the universe, you know, the idea of there being any kind of separation at all, now, of course, in the light of what we understand scientifically, let alone what we understand spiritually.

Manda: I come to this a lot in the kind of spirals of my own thinking. If it doesn’t make any sense, we have to move ourselves back to an understanding of being part of a web of life, that’s that’s a given. But I have not found for myself an answer to why was it necessary to separate. I can see that it was necessary at one level because it gave us a sense of mastery. It gave us a sense of being able to control things that are uncontrollable, and it gave a sense of being able to have degrees of agency that perhaps we felt we lacked, as we eased ourselves away from being part of a greater whole. But I haven’t ever really answered the question of why. Do you have a sense of something good that could have come out of these maybe ten millennia of separation?

Glenn: Can I think of something good?

Manda: There must be a reason. I just don’t know what it is.

Glenn: Yeah, I’m not sure if this is, you know, I’m not sure if I’m even clear in my own mind about this entirely. But my sense is that as we started to not only remove ourselves physically from the rest of life, we were also removing ourselves spiritually and socially from the rest of Life. And we did that by elevating the soul and the spirit to a realm of ‘over and above’ our physical experience, our daily experience. And so for that to make any sense, because our lived experience was ensouled. And so now we’ve got this idea that actually that’s not the case, that the ensouling of life happens elsewhere. It happens over and above our physical, lived experience. It happens in a realm that is separate from our lived experience. And we can only attain that realm through a set of spiritual or religious practises. And so if that is something that you are striving for, then, you’re really kind of need to truly believe in separation. That’s as far as I’ve got really, to be honest, as far as I’ve bothered to go, because what I find, when I’m…I don’t like labels, but I suppose if I was being labelled, I would probably be labelled as an animist. And, you know, I’m just, I find myself, it takes up enough of my energy, particularly when I sort of apply my mind to articulating that, that takes up enough of my energy just to actually do that, without thinking that, trying to explain how we moved away from that.

Manda: Ok, so in that case, and this is going in a different direction from what you and I had planned, but I think it’s really interesting. The overwhelming majority of people on this planet currently are so adhered to a ‘separate’ mindset that they believe it’s the way the world is. Outside of the bubbles that you and I might live in, the rest of the world believes that humanity is both separate and superior. How do we help to bring people to a more connected mindset? Have you had any practise and experience at that?

Glenn: Well, for me, my work is in the Ocean and around the Ocean, and so I just concentrate on connecting people with the Ocean. Storytelling is a big part of that. And the stories that we share with each other, they influence how we see the world. And so, you know, we’ve got now a what, 20, 30 generation-old story of, you know, the absolute separation of humanity and human exceptionalism, and so very powerful story. And of course, if you were, you know, growing up without any exposure to any other story besides that one, I completely understand why you would never dream that there’s something different. Except what happens when the world shows itself to you in a way where you where you experience non-separation. And I think that that’s, the key is for me, is to facilitate for people experiences of non-separation. And for me, the place where I find the easiest to do anyway, and I think the best place to do it, is in the Ocean.

Manda: Is the ocean. And you have so many stories in the book… right at the start, that one of those where you’re connecting with the humpback whale, and then others, there’s a manta ray at one point.. and tell us the story, Glenn, because I’m saying these things are in the book, and people haven’t read the book. Tell us any story of your experience in the Ocean of total deep connection that will resonate with people listening.

Glenn: Ok, well, the humpback whale communion, I call it, is something that was so life changing that maybe I should tell it. Immediately I thought about telling an octopus story, because everybody’s kind of, probably loads of people have seen…

Manda: Yes, My Octopus Teacher.

Glenn: All I can say is I’ve had that experience. And it’s true. The octopus is a great teacher, and I’ve had one of those experiences. And that was an experience of how to be present to another’s perspective, and especially when that Other is so very other from myself. So that was brilliant. But, you know. Yeah, so people are aware I think now of octopuses.

So my communion with the humpback whale was something not of my choosing. And this happened after six years of working on a daily basis through the breeding season, with humpback whales. Being in the water, spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in the water with humpback whales. And this just happened to be, wasn’t intended, but it happened to be the very last time I was in the water with humpback whales way back in 2010. And the instance we were cruising along and our sailing catamaran looking for whales. We had our passengers, we were running whale-watching whale swimming operation in the kingdom of Tonga, and we were looking for whales. And, you know, when you’re looking for whales, one of the things you’re looking for, of course, is the blow. You’re hoping that you’re going to see that big spout of water, which is the outbreath of the whale. And so we’re all busy looking for that. And then directly in front of us, no more than 100 metres in front of us, this 40 ton female humpback whale, just explodes out of the water in a full body breach. So in other words, 15 metres and 40 tons of whale, absolutely clearing the water. There’s this air between her tail and the surface of the ocean. Now, when she crashes back into the surface, it’s like a tidal wave, a tsunami, and it’s just amazing. But when it happens that close to you, it’s very disconcerting. So I spun the wheel of the boat. We came up into the wind, and my partner Janey and crew dropped the sails. And all of this time, I was starting to feel some really deep pull to get into the water, very unlike anything I’ve felt before. And so by the time we’d got the boat to a stop, the mother and her calf had come to a stop also directly in front of the boat. Now, remembering that we were going one direction, the whale breached in front of us and we turned the boat 180 degrees in the other direction. By the time we were stopped, the mother was back in front of us, just lying at the surface. And at that point I really started feeling this really strong pull just to get in the water, which is exactly what I did. And I left poor Janey back on the boat to brief the passengers about what was going to happen, and all the rules about getting in the water with whales, which I completely ignored.

Manda: Do what I say, not what I do.

Glenn: Yep, I just grabbed my fins, and my mask and snorkel, didn’t put a wetsuit on, and and just got in the water by myself. And I just finned towards the whale. And as I was getting closer to her, I was just feeling this stronger and stronger and stronger energy, pulling me in, so I was like, I couldn’t even stop. And by the time I did stop, I was only about three metres away from her. And we never get that close. You, we always stopped just within visual range. But there I was, that close. And I actually, just to cut a long story short really, what I started to feel was, I actually felt her presence entering into my body and entering into my consciousness. And so it was like there was no choice about this. She was just entering into my consciousness, and I was just finding myself, and if you can imagine this: I’m in the water, laying on my stomach, face down in the water. And I just found myself actually becoming vertical in the water. So head up, and feet down. And then I opened up my arms, and I wasn’t even really aware of doing this, but I had my arms wide open. And that whole, you know, that stance, that posture of supplication? I was completely, completely opening my body and my soul to this presence that was entering into me. And from there, she just took me on a journey of consciousness, a journey into her consciousness. And by the way, the calf was present in this. I was experiencing the calf’s emotions. The calf was frightened by what was going on. I was frightened as well. And what I was then feeling was that the mother was actually just calming both of us down. It was important. And so she took me on this journey, first of all, really into my own consciousness, where it was like she was kind of probing me, to, I don’t know, I feel like she was probing me to see if there was something that I understood, which I didn’t understand. But there was something in me that is actually, you do understand. You just, you’re not touching it yet. And then she took me on a journey into her body, her consciousness. And so I was experiencing her from within.

Manda: Wow.

Glenn: And it was just… It was amazing. And then the other thing that happened was I started to get this really strong sense of expansiveness. Like I was actually, I had no more physical boundary, my body had dissolved, and I was just expanding out into the ocean. And this was a physical expansion, and a consciousness expansion. And that was the moment, when that started to happen, that I realised that what she was actually showing me was non-separation, that everything is completely connected. There is no separation: even from the physical, and the spiritual, and the mental, and emotional, from that sort of, that consciousness aspect and the physical aspect. They are one and the same. There is no separation from any of it. And what she was showing me through that experience was that the Ocean is a living body. And we cannot separate ourselves from that living body. And that’s what took me on the journey, actually over to the UK, to study with wonderful Stephan Harding, that beautiful guy and ecologist and deep ecology practitioner at Schumacher College.

Manda: Yes, I know him.

Glenn: And so under his guidance, I really delved into Gaia theory and so on, and that’s what led to the writing of The Ocean is Alive. So it was that beautiful experience with the whale, which… it’s a very overused saying, because it really changed my life.

Manda: Yeah. And the book arose out of that, and must have changed other people’s lives. It sounds so profound. And yet I wonder, how do we get seven billion people to experience all of this? Was it, so when you said in the journey of consciousness, when she was kind of probing inside you, trying to see, was there something that you understood? It was this oneness that she was endeavouring to find, did you already understand it? And finding perhaps that there was an edge of you that did, she was then able to lead you into the experience? Am I understanding correctly?

Glenn: Yeah, that’s pretty much how I see it. In a way, this understanding, I think, is within all of us. It’s kind of in our makeup, because we are water. Basically, we’re animated water: as Vladimir Vernadsky, the great Russian scientists says: we’re all just animated water. And so in a way, we can’t help but have that knowledge within us. It’s just a matter of accessing that. And so, you know, that for me is the great hope. You know, I’m not that susceptible to blind optimism, but I have a great sense of hope for humanity, because we’re not separate. Because we are a part of this whole journey. We have a belief system that we’re not, but the belief system is the thing that’s delusional. It’s not humanity itself. Humanity is a part of this. And so for me, that’s the work of connecting with people. This is already happening, and the pace is quickening. You know, exactly what you’re doing, Manda, with your podcasts and your writing. With individual connections, for me, is the strongest and most powerful. And Mother Teresa’s beautiful words, you know: we may think that what we’re doing is but a drop in the Ocean, but the Ocean would be less without that drop. And that one on one work with people, we don’t know what ripples that creates, and what tsunamis might grow out of those ripples. And so that work is so worth doing. And the other thing that really gets me up in the morning is that complete understanding that I’m not the only one doing this. That there are many people doing exactly the same thing all around the world, connecting with another individual. And so it is a wave of consciousness, if you like, and how to reach seven billion people will start with one at a time. That’s how I see it.

Manda: Yes. And move it out. And you live in New Zealand. And without getting too fangirl about Jacinda Ardern, she does seem to be pretty unique amongst world leaders at the moment. I have hopes for Nicola Sturgeon, but who knows? And so because what you have in New Zealand almost uniquely is a degree, at least, of honouring of the indigenous peoples by the white people. You have a treaty that is kind of being honoured, and you have a dialogue that seems to me really alive, and centred on the Ocean, because the Maori were Polynesian, and the Ocean was obviously integral to their culture in ways that it possibly isn’t, to say, people indigenous to the Amazon. Can you tell us a little bit about how that’s influencing the way that you think, and the way that the people you’re connected to?

Glenn: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Yes. Well, yeah, Jacinda, we’re really happy that we’ve got Jacinda.

Manda: We’re not slightly envious at all! Sorry..

Glenn: We are happy to share, but as long as you give her back! And yeah, I agree with you. She is a really political force. She’s a really unique person in the political realm, I think, because she’s really real. She’s genuine. She’s kind. A lot of us in New Zealand are pretty darn happy that that she’s our Prime Minister, and there’s not that many that are unhappy that she is. But, you know, she’s still a politician, and she’s still got her her agendas, and all of that sort of thing. And so we still have a pretty robust dialogue over here as well, and there’s plenty of dissent about things. But what you touched on, I think, is even more fundamental. Here, you know, this Land here, this continent of New Zealand, which we now understand, we’re a continent now, and it’s unique in the world for its isolation. And it was the last piece of land to be colonised by humanity. And when the ancestors of today’s Maori arrived here, and we don’t know exactly how long ago, some of our archaeological evidence suggests that it’s somewhere between maybe a thousand and 1200 years ago, maybe a little bit less. Some of the genealogy, from the Maori genealogy, suggests that it may actually be longer than that. And of course it is. We had this, there’s a conflict right there, because you’ve got a science, the science of archaeology and carbon dating and so on, saying, no, look, this is what we can prove. And then you’ve got this oral history. This is well, actually, it was quite a lot longer than that. Now, for two hundred thousand years, humans have been practising the art of oral history, and through storytelling. And the continuity, and the accuracy of that, is pretty well documented.

And now we have our modern way of dating things, but it relies on very small pockets of evidence. The fossil records, for example, are a really good example. You know, we try to get an idea about what life was like three million years ago from fossil records. But the fossil records will tell us only what they can tell us. And so the first ancestors arrived here at some point, and they were the first people to to put their human footprints in the sand here. And they were the great voyages, the voyages of Oceania, were the greatest expansion into the Ocean that has ever happened. And the invention of human-based navigation, the invention of human-based stargazing. And I’m saying human-based because navigation has been going on in the Ocean for millions and millions and millions of years. I like to look at it this way. For me, this is really affirmed when I talk to Maori people who are knowledgeable about the navigational practise. Navigation is a knowledge process. Anybody who wants to navigate has to learn how to participate in that knowledge process. So for me, the idea of navigation is something that is in the Ocean. So the turtle finding her way back to her natal beach, the hammerhead shark finding his way to the cleaning stations three thousand miles away. And so the early voyages of Oceania participated in this knowledge process as well. And they developed the star charts. They developed all of the means by which they could never be lost. The idea of being lost is just something that’s been overlaid by Western thought.

Manda: If you’re an integral part of the Ocean, then you’re you’re never not part of it.

Glenn: I think one thing for me that sums that up really well, is that here, in this part of the world, the Ocean is seen as the thing that connects people, whereas Northern hemisphere, and in Europe, it’s the thing that separates. And so the Ocean is also Mother. And the personification of the Ocean in Maori.. for Maori, and for some of the other Pacific peoples, her name is Whaea Moana. How Maori see the Ocean is as an ancestor, as an ancient and venerable ancestor. Now, what I think is important to understand, and it may be this leads a little bit into what the situation is here at the moment, with our relationship, our changing relationship with Maori here, is that the idea of an ancestor is not a historic idea. Your ancestors are always with you. Now that’s also a concept that many indigenous peoples around the world understand. And experience: more than understand, they experience the ancestors are with them all the time. So this idea of linear time is also a concept that we take for granted as being true. For many peoples, the idea of linear time is just a new idea that is part of the colonising process, if you like.

We have two languages here, two official languages. We have English, and we have Maori. Or Te reo, as it’s known. Up until the last couple of decades, or I probably should say three or four decades, there was an absolute danger of Te reo  going extinct. And it was illegal, and it was forbidden, just like in so many other places around the world. But then some really brave and courageous Maori, they saw this happening and they weren’t prepared to let that happen. And so they started re-engaging with their language, and to the point now where our place names are now bilingual. So New Zealand is Aotearoa New Zealand. And what I’m starting to learn, and I guess what many more other Pākehā are starting to learn – Pākehā is the name for us latecomers, and it’s not a derogatory term. I grew up believing that it was a derogatory term, but it’s not a derogatory term at all. And one of the very important fundamental aspects of Maori culture is a thing called manaaki atawhai, which is your generosity and welcoming of visitors. And as a host, you’re responsible to look after your visitors is absolutely paramount. It’s one of the most important concepts, manaaki atawhai.

Manda: Even as they’re destroying the land that you’ve loved for generations. Great.

Glenn: Yes. White or black, this is still absolutely paramount. And it’s just as well, because you know what is happening here now in Aotearoa is because Maori are making it happen. The reason that they are doing that, one fundamental reason, is that in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. So in Maori that is Te Tiriti O Waitangi. And that was signed between a representative of Queen Victoria and a collection of Maori chiefs. Quite a few Maori chiefs signed this document, and they signed it in good faith, and the treaty was written in Maori. There was no English version. It was just in Maori. An English version was written some weeks later.

Manda: And did it say the same thing?

Glenn: No, it was substantially different. That treaty was sent around the country to try and get chiefs to sign it. I think from memory, only about seven chiefs actually signed that English version. Anyhow, you know, we skip forward now, to 2020 or 2021. And what we have now in this country is, is a journey. And it’s a journey not just of reconciliation. It’s a journey of forging something new that honours the treaty. We have to go on the journey together. And  that’s exactly what’s happening here. And it’s certainly not easy, and by no means is it perfect. And there are still huge inequalities here. Maori still make up a huge percentage of prison, represented in poverty, in health, and all of those things. So there’s an awful long way to go. But I think it is fair to say that we have started a really, really fundamentally good journey.

Manda: And is it, we’re going to have to draw to a close shortly, because we’re heading towards the end of our time. But I’m really interested in this journey, this possible fusion of Western thinking and indigenous, connected, animistic thinking. Is it filtering through into general New Zealand culture in ways that are leading to systemic change, or is that a fantasy too far?

Manda: That is such a good question Manda, and I’m really happy to say that the answer is yes, it is filtering through. Not always, but I’ll give you a couple of examples. And I think they relate also to the other things that we’ve been talking about. So the idea of legal personality for a place is something that many of us around the world see as a pathway to a more healthy relationship between humanity and the planet. Now, and it’s also a really old idea, because many indigenous cultures hold that the mountains, the rivers, are living beings, they are ancestors. They are beings in their own right, and you have relationships with them. So it’s an old idea that’s getting a new kind of facelift, if you like. And so here in New Zealand Aotearoa, we have legal personality for the Whanganui River, which is a beautiful river system. So the Whanganui river is legally recognised as a living being.

Manda: Wow. Why just that river?

Glenn: Yeah, well, because, another great question, the reason just that river at the moment is because the Maori of the river have spoken on behalf of the river. And they’ve worked really, really hard. And the other thing I would say is that the rest of New Zealand listened. Not everybody, of course, but enough listened so that our government said, yeah, OK, this is.. we recognise this. This has since happened also with a mountain range, a beautiful hill country native forest called Te Urewera, and Te Urewera also has legal personality as a living being. For me, the next step is we recognise the oceans in the same way.

Manda: And each of these is a vanguard, and other legislation can follow once the precedent has been set.

Glenn: Yes, absolutely.

Manda: Is this being taken up around the world anywhere else? Have you noticed this rippling out?

Glenn: Yes. So there are other places. So the Ganges is one that has followed suit. So, yes, this is starting to really have ripples around the world. No surprise there, everything’s connected. And the work that I’m going to do, the research that I’m going to be involved in over the next three years is exactly around this. So a lot of my work is based around connecting to the life force of the Ocean. In Maori that life force is known as the Mori and the Mori is the essential life force that inhabits everything, and the Ocean is the primary source of Mori.

Manda: Can we come back and talk to you in three years and find where you got to? That sounds so interesting.

Glenn: There’s so many positive things that we can look to. And then the times that we’re in at the moment, we here in New Zealand have to be humble. And when we talk about our situation with Covid, because we are very aware that other people are having a much different and unhappy experience of it, is that it also provides, and I don’t want to upset anybody or insult anybody, but this is providing us with some incredible opportunities as well to rethink. Take a step back. Where should we look, if we want to reset ourselves around this stuff, and to to rethink our place, where should we look? We need to go to the places, and Stephan Harding called them, we need to go to our Gaia places, those places where we lose ourselves, and then find our wider self, our ecological self. And most people will have had that kind of experience. They’ll be walking in the forest, or down by the beach, along the river, or just sitting under a tree. They will be able to recognise that experience. And, you know, this virus is one of those opportunities for us to do. My great friend Gill Coombs, who I know you know, she does this every morning when she goes walking. You know, she walks in that way every morning. So this is, you know, it’s a morning routine for her. And so this is possible for all of us. Just so happens for me that it’s in the Ocean that it happens.

Manda: But even if you’re land-bound, you can find a connection to the web of life in the natural world. The thing is, it’s hard to find it when you’re locked in concrete, but you just need a bit of green, and a bit of blue.

Glenn: And you’re so right. It’s really, really hard. But like, it’s one of the things that is really important to remember is that, you know, you might be locked in concrete, but that doesn’t make you separate. Nothing makes you separate. Only an idea has made you separate. In thinking, and in your belief. But in reality, you never were, and you never will be.

Manda: That, I think… I have half a page of questions that I still wanted to ask you. But I think actually we’re heading our hour, and that sense that you never are, and you never will be separate. And that whether you’re scuba diving in the Ocean, or walking in the forest, or just looking out of a window and looking up at the sky, you can still connect to that sense of wholeness. That feels like a really good place to stop. I think we’ll come back. I want to come back. Maybe when you’re just partway through your studies, and find where you’re getting to. That would be so inspiring. But in the meantime, Glenn Edney, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.

Glenn: Thanks so much. That was really good fun. I enjoyed it.

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