Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Toward a Deep Ecology

Splashing with Whales

I want to introduce you to a friend and colleague who has recently returned from Baja. Megan LeBoutillier is an artist and naturalist, her work inspired by the sheer beauty of life of all kinds in its natural state, and, on this occasion, the lives of gray whales. These are her words:

Recently I had the pure joy of being in an inflatable boat in Bahia Magdalena off the western coast of Baja California when a grey whale mother brought her calf up to the side of our boat and offered it up to our waiting hands, and excited ooohs and aaahs. The baby rolled onto its side and appeared to look at us with its giant eye. It put its face close enough to our outstretched hands to touch its magnificent head. Camera shutters clicked; I could do nothing but weep. How can one question the close connection between all creatures on the planet after having such an experience?

For some time, I have no real idea how long, the mother and calf played with each other and with our boat. They rolled over one another. They blew bubbles and splashed. The mom went under the boat, and as I watched her enormous body I had a intense feeling of vulnerability—is this going to be OK? She gave the boat a gentle nudge and we all squealed. But had she wanted to, she could easily have tossed us all into the lagoon.

The list of common household products for which these magnificent creatures have been slaughtered is not only extensive but shameful: animal feed, industrial oils, fertilizers, perfumes, soaps, shampoos, gelatin, even margarine. By the 1950’s, the blue whales had all but disappeared, yet it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that global protections were conveyed on the blues, greys, and humpbacks, protections still ignored by whalers from Iceland, Norway, and Japan.

Megan writes, “this change of heart, mind, and practice concerning whales has allowed them to survive and perhaps even teach humans a thing or two. I certainly pondered what it means to forgive when I saw the friendliness with which we were greeted by these great mammals.”

Once again, National Geographic finds power in images to remind us of our need for one another, human and non-human alike.

Consider it this way. Whales eat plankton, particularly the crustacean krill which is rich in iron. Iron is essential for the production of algae, which absorb carbon dioxide. When the whales are extracted from the food chain, less iron is released into the oceans; fewer marine plants such as algae are produced; less carbon dioxide is absorbed. As a result of the increased levels of carbon dioxide, oceans become increasingly acidic; as oceans become increasingly acidic, coral reefs become imperiled; without the coral reefs, marine life ceases.

Begin virtually anywhere in the marine eco-systems, extract one more of the key players – in this case, several species of whale – and we end up at the same place. The astonishing thing is that we simply are not understanding that we are integral to these very systems we are destroying, and, therefore, both agent of and subject to, our own blindness.

A Homework Assignment

In the congregation of my first solo pastorate, was a four-year old boy whose name was Ian. Ian loved bugs. Every Sunday, without fail, during the congregation’s prayers, Ian would come forward with a small scrap of paper, introduce the rest of us to an insect on the endangered species list, explain its purpose – why it was important to pray for it – and then ask us to pray. We always did.

I am asking you to step into Ian’s shoes. Choose a particular casualty of the environmental degradation we are seeing all around us. You might choose a copse of trees, a species of whale, the herd of caribou which will be displaced should drilling for oil be authorized for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a specific beetle. Choose one. Place it in the context of its habitat, and become familiar with its purpose and place. Then simply extract it from its ecosystem. In a way similar to an earlier blog post, describe the chain of events that necessarily occur as a result of its removal.

You might explore this as a family, or perhaps assign it as a biology exercise in your classroom.

Toward a Deep Ecology: First Steps

Pat Hatfield, a naturalist and teacher in the Ohio state park system, conducts workshops for women who are wanting to reconnect to the natural world. She describes one workshop in particular with these words: “A creepy-crawly adventure in the grasses of the field. Bring journals, sketch pads, wear long pants.” Once the participants are gathered, Hatfield instructs them to “scatter into the grasses slowly and carefully. Feel your way until you find your spot. Sit down and stay there. Stay there until you know that spot, know it with all your senses. Write, record, or draw your experience, no matter what it is: boredom, awe, fear, curiosity, disgust, amazement.

One woman in the group whose name is Susan has a phobic terror of spiders. How ironic that her spot included within its circumference a large garden spider in her web. Susan later described the experience this way: “I sat totally far away from this yellow-black striped thing that was in the middle of a huge web. The colors and the size of the thing really got me. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so terrified. Once I sat down, I was paralyzed. All I could do was just sit there and wait for my heart attack. I had my eyes squinched shut.

“I decided as long as I couldn’t move anyway, I might as well look at this thing in its web,” Susan said. “So I opened my eyes. The weird thing is that when I looked, I calmed down. But I was too far away. I made some little scoots on my butt towards her—see, I’d already decided it was a ‘she’—until my heart pounded again. And I stopped, and my heart stopped pounding. And so I did this again and again. I got really close to her. She never moved. I got really close. I was certain she’d launch an attack.”

But the spider didn’t launch an attack. In fact, the spider did absolutely nothing. “She never moved, not a flicker.” Susan noted, “And here’s the weirdest thing of all. This is so weird. In the few minutes I sat with her, I got to know that spider. I got to know her web. I even got to know each tall grass that helped support it. Each one. And I forgot all about my fear, and I wasn’t afraid.”

Children are taught to fear such as spiders, snakes, insects of all kinds (except ladybugs, maybe). It tends toward the irrational. Not only that, such fears do significant harm; how many of us would kill a garden spider or behead a blacksnake, rather than share habitat? I don’t like it? I am afraid of it? Kill it. And so it goes that the lives of creatures intrinsic to the earth community yield in the face of human self-interest. The fact that there is an ecocentric perspective continues to elude us, and because we rarely challenge our sense of human privilege, we continue put our planet at risk.

I love Pat Hatfield’s story. It reminds me that all of us, young or adult, can learn mindfulness; mindfulness – I think of it as deep watching, deep listening, paying attention – tends to move us into deep wonder and mystery. Not only are we capable of mindfulness, I have come to consider mindfulness as moral action.

For Reflection

There is something else Pat Hatfield teaches, the difference between simply narrating an experience and actually giving it away. She describes it like this: “By giving the experience to someone, or several someones, the experiences multiply themselves. There is no shortage. When you give something like this away, you still have it, so there is only the multiplication.” In what sense is Susan giving away this story? How might it impact the people who receive it? Consider your own story telling. Is it simply about you? Or might there be a learning to give away?

I’m thinking that it’s time to go outside. Find a spot – at the base of a tree or at the edge of a stream or pond – even in a city park. Sit yourself down in a comfortable enough way. If it suits you, take a tablet for writing or drawing. On the other hand, there is value in your simple presence. Watch, and listen. Pay attention.

When you come back, tell someone about the experience. Frame the story so that you are able to give the experience away.