Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Earth, waters, wind, and fire

A Sense of Place Part VII ~ Coming Home

Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman surgeon. In her book The Scalpel and the Silver Bear she chronicles her wayfinding, first to Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, then to Stanford Medical School.

Born of a Navajo father and a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very attractive” mother, there was not ever a time that Lori Arviso Alvord did not live out of the paradox of being of two worlds and belonging to none.

She writes of the four sacred mountains which encompass the Navajo Reservation, mountains which form a circle to keep her people safe. Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, Blanca Peak, and the La Plata Range. To leave this mountain embrace to go east to school was a frightening prospect. The gift of these mountains was a sense of place.

Once I knew place. The unpredictability of my family life would often yield to chaos, and it was during those times I would make my escape. Packing whatever was portable in the refrigerator and a bottle of water, I would ease my way out of the brick patio door, skim over the lawn, through the tall meadow grasses (where I could begin to relax, as they were taller than I) and into the woods. From there I followed a secret way which led to a series of rock caves, big enough for crawling, big enough for sitting cross legged. Small enough to remain undiscovered, small enough to hide. grey two

The rocks which defined the caves were irresistible to a pre-pubescent child, and I would taste each one with my tongue. The ritual required that I taste them according to size. I tasted the dirt, tgrey 1he moss, nibbled on the ferns. I did not know the word sacrament; I know now that my relationship to the rock caves and the earth around them was a sacramental relationship.

That was my place. To this day I have a ritual of laying my cheek against a particular boulder on my daily walks, touching my tongue to it, and offering silent tribute to the rock caves of my childhood. To this day I can walk through the woods and smell the damp and rotted mossy earth of the forest floor in rural Western Pennsylvania. If I can embrace with integrity the concept of indigenous solely as it relates to place, then I claim those caves as my place. I belonged.

But it’s not so simple. I’ve not belonged to any land since in the way I belonged to the rock caves. I wonder if it’s the long ago glimpse of belonging to a place in a ritual way that frames the intensity of my yearning today. And maybe I am getting closer. Although I am not encircled by four mountains which proscribe my home, I have a path to the water, to Tannery Pond in Wilmot, New Hampshire. It’s not a long path, and so my husband Jim has cleared a couple trails like switchbacks, to lengthen the walk. I walk these trails three and often four times a day, with our three dogs who are at home in the woods. Every adventure shows me something I’ve not seen before: a boulder; a White Pine; green fungus against a lichen covered stone; the curl of the bark of a birch; one brilliant red maple leaf fallen among a bed of yellow poplar; a certain mist on the pond itself.

This morning it was the mist, and the stark black bare branches over my head, entangled to form a squirrel’s paradise. As I remember those caves of long ago, I remember them as mine. Now I understand what I couldn’t at the time. These trails I walk do not belong to me, but I to them. And with that understanding comes the trust that day by day I am coming home. I belong to this place.

The Paris Summit on Climate Change ~ Why We Care

“As you prepare to come to the Paris Summit in December, we would like to ask you to think about your personal role, and answer a simple, but profound, question: Why do I care?”
Organised by Nicolas Hulot, special envoy for the French President for the protection of the planet,  the letter asks each delegation member to think about what a greenhouse gas slashing pact will mean for themselves. “Your response might be very personal – the influence of a parent, child or grandparent; the influence of culture or personal beliefs; the influence of a transformative experience of the wonder and beauty of nature; a crisis in your life which brought you back to core values,” the letter continues. “In our contemporary world it is very rare that we are asked to talk about what lies at the heart of our actions. Instead we hide behind statistics, data, policy statements etc, few of which actually touch other people’s hearts and minds.”

A picture taken on January 14, 2015 shows the logo of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, the Cop 21 summit in Paris, on January 14, 2015.   AFP PHOTO /JACQUES DEMARTHON

I am struck by the brilliant simplicity of this question and thought I would spend some time with it. What follows is Round One.

I care about the release of our human sense of primacy and entitlement. I care about us as humans growing our capacity to know our appropriate place within the earth community. I care about our awakening to the interdependence of the human and non-human world. I care about our awakening to the sacredness of this world, this universe. I care about our awakening to the intimate connection between human health and well being and ecological health and well being. parisI care about the entanglement of biodiversity and human diversity. I care about the entanglement of ecological justice and human social justice. I care deeply and desperately about this earth. I care about the unfailing generosity of earth, water, air, and fire. I care that earth, water, plants, trees, creatures love me and us. I care that we have so circumscribed what it means to be intelligent and conscious beings that we cannot conceive of the consciousness or cognitive ability of non-human species. I care about elemental and sacramental ritual which engages the whole earth community. I care about the concept of a decentralized soul.

I am hoping that you do this with me, and post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Anthropology ~ In Search of a Broader Context

Throughout her lifetime, my mom was a naturalist. She had a way about her with the other-than-human world, and was never more content than when she was in the moose and bear country of Montana. She had been moving rocks, one day, in a portion of the creek that ran through her property, and felt a whisper of breath on the back of her neck. Very slowly she turned her head and found herself literally nose to nose with a curious cow moose. This beautiful creature stayed right there for a while, taking in the scent and sight of what had to have been an odd creature for her, and exhaling her own breath into my mom’s hair. Then she ambled off into the woods.cow moose

The experience stayed with my mom for the rest of her life. She told me it had changed her, that the more she reflected on it, the deeper her understanding of herself in relationship to everything around her.

Against that backdrop I welcomed a book recommended to me by a friend. It was the title that caught my attention: How Forests Think ~ Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. (Eduardo Kohn) Living in the woods as I do, certainly I would like to know how a forest thinks, particularly the one I inhabit. What an intriguing idea! What I did not know when I ordered the book, is that it would be such an academic undertaking just to read it. That said, I continue to be enchanted.

Not surprisingly, I am doing a fair amount of forehead slapping; of course anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Anthropo ~ human. Humans (with an occasional primate or two thrown in) are the center of attention. Drawing on the social and biological sciences, as well as other disciplines, anthropology is all about human to human relationships, and solutions to human problems.

The question that pops immediately to mind: is it even possible to understand human interrelationships and to discover solutions to human problems without placing them in the context of the non-human world? I don’t think so. More than 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher/theologian Xenophanes wrote “Men always makes gods in their own image,” and, to bolster his point, “if horses had gods, they would look like horses.” If it can be argued (and it is argued) that the very God who called humans out, separated us and placed us above all other life forms, “chose us” is the God who is made in the human image, then it shouldn’t surprise us that the discipline of anthropology is concerned almost exclusively with human to human relationship. man skull

It follows that, with humans as the center of study, anything else that humans might explore ~ a forest, for example ~ will be investigated through a human lens, ie from a human perspective. What is a forest in relation to me? What is a black bear in relation to me? What is a predator big cat in relation to me? Or an elephant, or a baboon? A wolf? A songbird? It’s all about me.

In fact, in the very first pages of his work, Eduardo Kohn lays out a significant problem; another “slap your forehead opportunity”. He writes of the circular nature of anthropological discovery, writing about the confinement of a discipline that “seeks to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.” How much (really) will you learn about yourself by looking into a mirror?mirror

Kohn is after a broader exploration, one in which humans study and are studied ~ not just in relation to one another ~ but in relation to the non-human world. His question is simple. How might this broader context of study change ~ in a similar way to my mom being changed by her encounter with a cow moose ~ what it might mean to be human?

In the March/April 2014 issue of Orion magazine, Robert Sullivan, in his article Forest Farewell: An Ode to an Iconic Tree, writes of a visit to a grove of hemlock that is slowly dying because of the infestation of a certain sap-sucking bug. As he and a small group walk into the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, where the temperature immediately drops a good ten degrees, one woman says, “You can hear it.” Sullivan thinks she is talking about the quiet. In the quiet he hears what he thinks is the sound of a stream of cold rushing water. It isn’t. What he is hearing are thousands of dead hemlock needles falling to the ground in a steady rain. He writes, “I memorize it, lock it in, and carry it home. A forest is leaving, going forever. When I listen to the hemlock’s sad rain, play it over in my head, I feel thicker, like a hemlock, more worn.

Robert Sullivan is changed by this experience, and the measure of this change can only be understood placed in the context of the dying hemlock forest.

I like to think of experiences such as his, and such as my mom’s, as an anthropological sea change. It fits the concept of Eduardo Kohn’s broader anthropological exploration, one which redefines in some measure what it means to be human.

Eco-spiritual Dimensions of Green Burial ~ Sense of Place Part V

In my growing up years, we didn’t talk about carbon footprints, diminishing rain forests, loss of wildlife habitat, and the destruction of boreal forests. We certainly didn’t talk about dying and death, nor our cultural propensity to send off loved ones in mahogany coffins placed snugly into plastic or concrete vaults. We didn’t talk about the behind-the-scenes violence done to bodies by physical manipulation and chemicals, all for the sake of making them look good.coffin

Cremation was rare, and there was no thought given to the toxicity of the chemicals released into the atmosphere. The more money we spent, the greater show of our love; our efforts were – and to a great extent in the West, still are – designed to hide the reality of both the dying process and the outcome. Hospice care didn’t exist in the U.S. until the mid-1970′s. The job of the medical profession was and continues to be to keep a patient alive no matter the cost.

Today I would like to introduce you to Lee Webster, the director of the non-profit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy. Lee is a hospice volunteer and a passionate advocate for home funerals and green burials. From the time I was first introduced – I can only describe it as a lightening bolt of clarity – I knew that what she offers is the obvious next step for all of us who are committed to walking a pathway of intention to minimize our ecological footprint and at the same time, create and enrich habitat.cremation

Hers is a rich and comprehensive compendium, drawing together the threads of ecology, family and community, human dignity, ritual, practicality, history, and common sense. Lee has – unwittingly or not – sent me spinning into the eco-spiritual dimensions of home funerals and green burial. My thoughts are mostly taking the form of “I wonder”.

Ecological healing calls to me. As I think on being “buried green”, I wonder, if we humans were to acknowledge our appropriate place within the earth community, as part of, participating in, and integral to it – and therefore of no more and no less ecological value than any other form – would we behave cooperatively and collaboratively with creation? Might we grow a vision of healing that is antithetical to our current sense of human primacy and entitlement? What if we were to share our green plans with our children and grandchildren, letting them know that “buried green” is becoming the new normal? Might we put new thoughts and behavioral patterns into more than a few hearts and vocations?

Ritual, community, friends and family call to me. More than simply wondering how we have arrived at the predominate funeral home/church directives, telling us how things must be done, I wonder about the honoring of our dead in ways that are more organic to the lives they have led. We are not obliged to hand over the bodies of our loved ones to funeral homes; the families are in charge! It’s not a common understanding.

Lee shared with me what has become a powerful metaphor. We were in a restaurant and had just ordered from the menu. She shared with me a comment from her mentor Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. “If you were to go to a restaurant, you’d be given a menu, from which you would order your preference. It wouldn’t occur to you to order something that’s not on the menu. It’s the same thing when you arrive at a Funeral Home. You are given a menu, from which you make decisions. It doesn’t occur to you to order something else, because you don’t know what’s not on the menu.” I wonder what we would choose if we knew there existed something other. I wonder what we would choose if we understood that the family of the deceased is the ultimate authority.

I wonder how a commitment to dying at home and buried “green” might serve as the ultimate embrace of one’s sense of place. My husband Jim and I have often had this conversation: “I would like you to dig a big hole (not easy in the Granite State), drop me in it, and plant a tree over me.”green-250x88

We’re both a little short on the details, but we know the commitment is right. If I knew that I would be buried (according to the legal criteria) on the property I have shared with all kinds of life forms, would I treat this earth portion (and by extension, every part of the planet) differently? Would I love it and honor it? Would I be thrilled beyond measure to imagine the deer, raccoons, moose, mice, daddy long legs, bear, and squirrels walking over me? To imagine the earthworms and billions of microbes within me? I know I would.

And, as I age, I wonder if I would welcome my homecoming? I can only say I hope I would. I hope that as age continues to come my way, as the possibility of illness lurks, that my deepening sense of place within the earth community will offset not only my fear of dying, but also the fears of my family, my community, and my medical support.

We will all die. My hope is that I do so according to what I say I believe. Ritual is important, and I will want that. But I want its sacramental significance to correspond to the particulars of who I was in my lifetime. And I know another thing. If I had to choose between some ethereal heavenly sense of homecoming and a literal earthly homecoming, I would choose to come home to the latter.


Re-imagining the Lowly Spider

It saddens and sometimes angers me that spiders generate such fear and sense of repulsion. And so it’s heartening to know that there are people who love spiders, who are fascinated by them.

I wouldn’t claim to be particularly comfortable around spiders, but I wish them no harm. In fact, when I know my husband is gearing up to clean our bathroom (the porcelain duty usually falls to him) I sneak in first and remove all the cellar spiders, dispersing them to – yes – the cellar, where they may not be quite as warm, but where they certainly will be safer. I may not love spiders but I have a history with them, and they fascinate me.

It is 1976, and I am upstairs in my self-built Vermont cabin. I am typing (on a typewriter!) at my desk, while wispy filaments, like eyelashes, float through the air in front of my face and around my head. Some of them waft through the rays of the winter sun, and they glisten. In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes it this way: “These, glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to diverging rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but in undulations like films of silk blown by the wind.” I know what has happened; the female spider’s egg sac has split, and the offspring are in dispersal status. I have protected sac and spider from my three cats who are young and curious, and now comes the startling reality that I can no longer protect them. Nor can I imagine how these tiny, hardly visible creatures can possibly survive.

Fast forward fifteen years. It is Easter Sunday, and I leave my house in darkness for my first church service of the day. Although I am running late, when I round the corner of my house I stop for a moment in awe as the sun unfolds its rays and races down the mountain above me. Coincidentally, at the periphery of my vision, I catch the slightest of movements in the garden. I don’t think much about it, as it has hardly registered. Then the sun hits the tops of the bushes, and I see what has caught my attention – literally, the blink of an eye. A small male goldfinch is suspended upside down, not moving a feather; it’s not possible, but there he is. He blinks again. I lay my vestments on the sidewalk and creep into the garden. Now the sun penetrates and lights up the web of an orb spider (and the hungry spider herself), in the center of which is suspended one very frightened bird. I gently release the finch, and make a discovery for the first time: the spokes of the web are not sticky; the rest is. Home again, I do a little research, and learn what I imagine most people already know. It’s how a spider travels, on the non-stick filaments of her web.

It is now 2009, and I am walking with my dog Missy, very first tracks on a foot of fresh snow. Untouched, so that thirty yards in front of us, the dark spot in the middle of the snow covered dirt road looks out of place. Not only that, it is moving, moving fast, in fact. As we approach, I see that it’s a small spider. I wonder how s/he got there; I also wonder where s/he is headed because there is nothing but snow in front of her. I opt for an intervention. I pick her up with my mittened hand, and the spider finds a safe spot between my thumb and fingers, and seems content enough to stay there as we make our way home. I put her among my begonias, and figure she can have a warm enough winter.

coming back to life

A year and a half ago, Jim and I make ready for a major remodel of our New Hampshire home. The preparation seems endless, and it is not surprising to him that I am making it even more difficult. Outside the guest room window is a mama spider, and beside her is her egg sac. I know that ladders will soon be climbing that wall, and so, in a burst of compassion, I attempt to remove both spider and sac. But they drop to the ground. I peer down and can see the sac, but not the spider. Suddenly the sac begins to move, and I realize the mama spider is dragging the egg sac across the lawn. I am spell bound. It takes her a long time, but she is obviously determined. I see the egg sac make its way up the sturdy stalk of a comfrey plant, and then it disappears. Curious, I follow the trail and peer under the highest leaf on the plant. There is the sac, and the mama is affixing it well to the underside of the comfrey. Truly, I am dumbfounded, and wrestle with a sense of guilt for quite a few days.

And at last, this summer, after a day of pouring rain, I step outside and find a large spider – an uncomfortably large spider, dead on the deck floor, her eight legs wrapped around her egg sac. I gently lay spider and sac on an index card and add it to my box of “treasures”.

I am both saddened and fascinated by my intimate engagement with spiders – in particular, the last two close encounters. What compels a spider to drag her offspring fifty yards across the grass? What compels a dying spider to wrap her arms around her egg sac? These two images haunt me, and I am not sure why. It has something to do, I think, with where I began this musing: the bad rap that spiders suffer in the minds and at the hands (and vacuum cleaners) of humans. At first blush, spiders are kind of ugly and creepy. We’re afraid, repulsed, and therefore we hate them. We teach our children to say “I hate spiders.” We teach our children to crush them.

Yet spiders are beautiful, and they are fascinating. Close encounters such as these make me want to know more, and so I begin to explore the role of spiders in the ecosystems of earth. I am not surprised to learn that they prey and are preyed upon. As my husband Jim too often remarks, “everybody is somebody else’s lunch.”

This is what I already knew: spiders are good gardening partners, as they feast on other destructive insect populations. And they don’t eat cabbage leaves, or squash blossoms.

What I now know that I didn’t, is that spiders, because of the way the newly hatched move on silken tendrils at the whim of the currents of wind, they are often the first to catalyze the development of ecosystems where before now, there have been none.

The naturalist and teacher Chris Buddle argues this: spiders and their webs represent little pockets of concentrated nutrients in landscapes that are void of much other life.  He reminds us, for example, that after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, spiders were the first to repopulate, and therefore the first to catalyze the recovery of the ecosystems of the Cascades.

I am inordinately pleased by this idea. It reminds me of what I already know; all created forms – animate and inanimate – have role and function on this magnificent planet. It is to our earth, and therefore human, peril that we take so lightly the 200 or so per day extinction of earth’s creatures.