Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: God Talk (optional)

Ecology and Morality ~ Reconfiguring our Moral Compass

It’s giving me much pleasure to speak to the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I am grateful for the invitations.

Edward O. Wilson is a remarkable biologist-slash-ecologist who introduced himself to his audience of a 2007 TED talk in this way: “I’ve come on a special mission on behalf of my constituency, which are the 10-to-the-18th-power — a million trillion — insects and other small creatures, to make a plea for them, the teeming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger: the little things that compose the foundation of our ecosystems, the little things, as I like to say, who run the world.”

E.O. Wilson knows his insects, particularly his ants!

Now, I’m not crazy about ants. My garden is riddled with the outdoor version of those glassed-in ant farms you could mail order some decades ago – (now it’s Uncle Milton Ant Farms on sale through the internet). But I’m really interested in a person who is . . . crazy about ants, especially one who has won two Pulitzers for his science, the Carl Sagan award for the Public Understanding of Science, AND . . . the 2010 Heartland Prize for Anthill: A Novel, his first, which he wrote at the age of 81. Should give all of us would be fiction writers hope and sustenance!

In Anthill, Wilson, describes his young hero Raff Cody through the eyes of Raff’s college professor Frederick Norville who says, “I had known Raff almost all his life. We met at the unspoiled environment of Lake Nokobee, located in the central part of South Alabama close to the border of the Florida Panhandle. It was a world few knew existed and fewer still could speak of with any understanding, a world that we shared and loved. I was the scientist and historian of this place, Raff the boy who in a sense grew up there. His intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.

The moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. This book was my nighttime reading, and when I read those words I sat straight up in the bed. What could that possibly mean, Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life?

Now, I need to set this against the tapestry of my own work at the time. I was immersed – drowning might be a better description – in the “earth-centered morality” section of my own writing, working with an editor who clearly was struggling with me. I was trying to articulate a concept which I’d named the space between . . . in this instance, the space between people of churches and people not – and my editor was asking me, over and over – when we got to the morality section – what are the ten commandment equivalents for the space between . . . ? I had no answer for her; all I knew was that it wasn’t the right question. Even metaphorically, it wasn’t the right question. But . . . I didn’t have a clue as to what the right question might have been. So, maybe you can imagine how Wilson’s words impacted me at a visceral level, “Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.”

WOW! You know how sometimes you can hear or sense the truth of something before you actually can put words to it? It was like that.

The natural world – the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, fire – from which might emerge one’s moral compass . . . how does that work? That’s the question I was holding then, and I still am, really, holding that question, because there is a tape still looping through my brain, one that found its way inside my head during my college years. I was a philosophy major at Columbia University, and as you might imagine, the world of ethics and moral choice was reasonably important. All the early philosophers had to address the moral questions – they did it, most often, against a tapestry of . . . God.

My particular conundrum at the time was embodied in the writings of David Hume. I thought he was pretty cool. I don’t remember why, exactly. But he was right at the top of my list. What I do know is that I had a paper due in May, and if the University hadn’t gone out on strike in 1969, in protest of the Vietnam war, I would never have graduated. As it was, I – like most everybody – took incompletes. I skipped out of New York in May, played hard the entire summer, but finally, the time came to . . . pay up. I wasn’t any more disciplined at the end of the summer than I had been at summer’s beginning. I had to write seven papers in five days; my solution – I was in good company – was to stop sleeping.

It was the middle of the night, Day 5, and New York was as quiet as it ever gets. There was no one to ask, and so I dialed – dialed! – O for Operator.

“What number, please?” she asked.

“Um, it’s not a number exactly.”


“Then what is it, exactly?”

“I need some help.”

“Are you all right? Do you need a 911?”

“No, not that kind of help. I am very tired and have to turn in this paper tomorrow or I’ll flunk the class.”

“Yes?” Now she sounded more intrigued than alarmed.

“I seem to have forgotten how to spell. Do you spell the word of with an f or a v?”

The woman was mercifully kind and wanted to know what the paper was about. “It’s a paper on the philosophy of a dead man whose name was David Hume.”

I tried to explain about Hume’s thought, that you cannot derive a moral “ought” from the reality of what “is.” Hume’s explanatory words rolled off my tongue as though I knew what I was talking about, “The prescriptive does not derive from the descriptive.” I could tell I’d lost her. But she did spell of for me, with an f, and we parted as late-night compatriots of a sort.

It would please me now to make the claim and mean it that I still understand Hume’s argument that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But I’ll try. He was saying, I think, that you can’t take something like a Walden Pond experience and derive a moral framework from it. The Walden Pond is the “is” and it’s really not going to tell us much about the “ought” – at least according to David Hume – how we ought to behave.

But . . . here’s the thing. Hume’s rationale – like any of the anthropocentric, and by that I mean human-centered, ethicists of today, and they are legion – rested on the unchallenged premise of human primacy and entitlement —humans are set apart, distinct from the rest of the biotic world—a premise that is not only flawed but altogether wrong . . . and one that remains unchallenged, and, for the most part, one that remains unexamined.

This is important, because it suggests – continues to suggest – that human morality can be forged independently – disconnected – from the rest of the biotic community. It suggests that morality exists only human-to-human, or,for many people, human-to-God. And that’s just not true. The reason . . . that my editor’s question about the ten commandment equivalents for the space between was the wrong question, was that she was asking me about human-to-human morality and human-to-Divine morality, and nothing else.

What Edward Wilson’s novel makes clear, is that one’s moral compass has everything to do with that person’s understanding of his or her proper place within the biotic world. Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. Raff knew his place. His place was in/within the Nokobee. He was not a visitor, not an observer/scientist, not an exploiter. He was of the Nokobee, and, as such, knew that he was of no greater or lesser value than any other Nokobee denizen . . . even an ant. He knew that his moral behavior was intricately and inextricably connected to the health and well-being of his real home, the Nokobee.

So I guess my question is: how did we arrive at an understanding of morality that was based only human-to-human, or human-to-Divine? How did we get there? And how do we get from there to where we need to be, namely that morality is systemic, intricately interwoven with the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire? How do we get there?

So . . . let’s start with the first question. How did we arrive at the understanding that morality that was based solely on the human-to-human, or the human-to-Divine relationship? In the biblical narrative contained in the Book of Exodus, Moses is said to have received the moral law direct from God, in the form of two stone tablets containing a total of ten commandments. What’s important for this discussion is this: they were delivered from an external authority; they are linear; they are hierarchical. And . . . they deal only with human-to-Divine and human-to-human relationships. Whether or not we want or choose to rely on the Ten Commandments for our moral frame, they’ve infiltrated the culture. There are no boundaries, in this case, between scripture and culture. The beauty of this particular moral system was that it reflected the hierarchical structure laid out in the Genesis story of Creation. It reflected what the early biblical writers knew of the ordering of the universe.

God dwelt in the highest of the heavens – the heaven of heavens. Then came just the plain old ordinary heavens. That’s where the Angels lived, angels and other semi-divine beings. Then came the waters above the firmament. Windows and doors opened onto the heavens, the sun . . . moon. . . stars.

And then the earth. Below earth, Sheol, sometimes called Hades, or Hell, and several layers of that.

So . . the idea that I’ve been working with for a couple years, emerges from the observation that a biblically based morality was based on the known ordering of the world. Linear and hierarchical.

Assuming that this observation has value, then we can ask ourselves what a moral structure would look like if it corresponded to the world as we know it today.

Let me say this another way. In the same way that the ten commandments reflected the way the world was presumed to work at the time of their writing, the moral frame we need to develop from a biocentric perspective has to reflect the real structure of the world as we know it today.

What we know is this: the structure of the earth community is a web, and so it needs to have its parallel in the development of a biocentric – not hierarchical – moral framework.

Think about a web for a minute. Think about it as a metaphor. It’s basically circular. Each component – or filament – of a web serves to strengthen the whole system; without any one of the filaments, the web degrades or even collapses. The same will be true of a moral framework.

In a biocentric universe, the “is”—the real world—is what we have, and perhaps all we have, to ground a biocentric morality. It’s not David Hume after all. And it’s from the world as it really is that we can begin to talk about appropriate human responses and choices. The difficulty we’re having, shifting moral paradigms, stems from an unfamiliarity with appropriate moral language for where we are, and what we know today . . . stems from the fact that a biocentric moral framework cannot be linear. And it cannot be external. And it cannot be hierarchical.

So what are the touchstones of a biocentric morality? How might we imagine the web itself, along with its filaments as a new moral paradigm?

I think the web itself represents . . . sense of place. Humans have long understood ourselves – misunderstood ourselves – as existing outside the order of the natural world, imbued with the privilege and power-over, that comes with entitlement. We’re entitled, we think, to do as we will with regard to the earth and water and air and all creatures. To each other, for that matter. Power-over extends to the human realm as we well know.

So, first, we have to remember – or, as the Greeks thought of it – we have to lose our forgetfulness with regard to our proper human place within and not external to the web. That . . . is a moral imperative. We have to do this. We have to relocate ourselves. The late eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote, “In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. And now, the desolation of the earth is becoming the destiny of the human.” Berry’s invitation is to rejoin the community of life from which we emerged. I think of it as the pivotal ethical imperative. I see this as the ethical ground out of which our moral compass might be re-configured.

So . . . if the web is to represent, metaphorically and ethically, our re-imagined sense of place, then what might be some of its moral filaments?

In her poem Testimony, Rebecca Baggett writes:

“I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.”

It’s that little word must. Anyone who notices the world must want to save it.

That word must indicates moral imperative. So . . . mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is the moral filament which emerges from a true sense of place. If we know our place in the world, then the moral imperative is to be mindful, to pay attention. Mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is also a moral practice. We’re not really very practiced at the moment, most of us. We’re not yet willing to release our sense of human privilege and entitlement. Anthropocentrism continues to be the order of the day.

A second filament of a re-imagined moral web is gratitude. Gratitude for the magnificence, complexity, and mystery of the universe emerges – can do nothing else but emerge – from mindfulness, from paying attention. In the radio broadcast of a couple years ago, They Don’t Call her Mother Earth for Nothing, Alice Walker speaks of her joy at being alive on the earth at this particular time. “Blessed with the opportunity to witness to the earth’s beauty, majesty, and grace. That’s the ecstasy,” she says.

Mindfulness and gratitude, two moral practices which not only support and strengthen one another, but also reinforce the ethical ground of a reconfigured moral compass – a sense of true place. I can suggest another filament of this web we’re constructing – compassion. Karen Armstrong, in her Charter for Compassion, acknowledges that compassion “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions.” So, if we are to understand that a true sense of place – metaphorically weblike – lies at the heart of a re-configured ethics, then compassion is another of its filaments.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion, these three, bring me to the question of the proper human role within the biotic community. It’s not exactly stewardship, although we’re all familiar with the concept and consider it, for the most part, a worthy endeavor. But stewardship has to do with oversight. When we talk about stewardship – many religions talk about stewardship – we’re perpetuating the mistaken notion that we humans are in charge. And we’re not.

So if I were to take a stab at rewriting Rebecca Baggett’s last sentence of her poem, meaning no disservice to her, but really for the purposes of this post, I would write,

Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it. It’s true to say that I never for a moment would have thought I could articulate my ethics in one sentence. But I think I just did. Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it.

And if I am given the opportunity to expand on this just a bit, I would say, Anyone who notices the world with a grateful, humble, and compassionate heart, with curiosity, joy, and wonder, must want to serve it.

Spirituality and Ecology ~ The Partnership

I want to introduce my friend Steve Blackmer to the readers of Restoring the Waters. Were I pressed to give the substance of embodiment to the intersection of spirituality and ecology, it would look pretty much like Steve. Steve’s about to graduate from the Yale Divinity School, probably as big a surprise to him as anyone. In fact Steve’s personal narrative reminds me a little of Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, where Harry and friends board the train for Hogwarts. Steve’s touchstones have been as familiar as railroad tracks, and yet several years ago, he stepped into a kind of parallel universe. I am introducing him through portions of a recent article appearing in the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Ethics “Transforming Themselves in Order to Change the Planet, written by Marc Wortman.

Just a short walk separates The School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from the Yale Divinity School (YDS) campus at the top of Prospect Street. Yet it took Stephen Blackmer ’83 more than 20 years after graduating to make the journey up the hill from F&ES. The long circle that brought him back to Yale shows the ways in which environmentalists are seeking a deeper moral and spiritual grounding for their work and how believers are applying their faith to environmental advocacy.

Blackmer said he “never dreamed” of taking a course at YDS while studying at F&ES. He wasn’t religious and didn’t see any connection between religious faith and his career. His master’s thesis examined how the 19th-century development of the American canal system affected forests. He briefly considered an academic career but left Yale to work in forest management and environmental advocacy.

Over the next two decades, he proved to be an exceptionally effective environmental coalition builder. Based in New Hampshire, he founded the Northern Forest Alliance (NFA) in 1988 and the Northern Forest Center (NFC) nine years later. The organizations became leading centers in conserving forest land and implementing sustainable forestry practices for the 30 million acres of forest along the United States-Canada border that stretches 400 miles from New York State to Maine. With Blackmer at its head, the NFA doubled the amount of protected natural land in the region, to 3 million acres; at the same time, the NFC “helped move the region from a clear-cut to a sustainable forestry model.”

His work brought him a wide following in the regional environmental community and won him national recognition, including the 2003 International Paper Conservation Partnership Award, but then “something happened.”

Blackmer said he started experiencing burnout and a growing recognition that environmental destruction could not be averted only by scientists and the political process. “I had this formless sense that there was a deeper problem to explain the situation, and there was a deeper place I wanted to get to.”

In 2005, in his search for insights, he went on a wilderness vision quest in the Inyo Mountains of southern California, a high-desert region. He spent four days and nights alone with no food and limited water. He returned to New Hampshire wrestling with why individuals and societies damage their environments in the first place. “What is wrong with us that we do such violence to the planet, to each other, to ourselves? How is environmental destruction related to other forms of human harm or evil?”

To find answers, he began attending Christian religious services. He said his prayers led him to the “excruciating” realization that his life as a conservationist was “dead, over” and that resulted in a long period of depression. “My whole identity was wrapped up in that, yet I knew a change had to happen.”

In 2007 he resigned from the NFC (he had already left the NFA) and spent a year as a Bullard Fellow at the Harvard Forest. In 2009 he came to New Haven to study at YDS. He is now completing studies for a master of arts in religion, with a thesis on his own spiritual journey that led him “to become a Christian in order to take my environmental work to the next level.” He intends to become an ordained priest—an “eco-priest,” he calls it—in the Episcopal Church after graduating next spring.

Blackmer is among an increasing number of students at Yale who are combining religious and environmental studies. In each of the past five years, around 10 new students have enrolled in the first—and what remains the world’s only—formal joint degree program in divinity and environmental studies. The students ultimately earn master’s degrees from both programs.

“The bottom line is this”, says Blackmer. “It is not only failed or outdated policies, technologies and economies that are the problem. We are. By allowing myself to be transformed, I can bring further transformation into the world. And if that kind of change can spread, there is hope even in the face of the worst violence and destruction.”

I have a personal reason to welcome Steve to Restoring the Waters. We both live in New Hampshire, and have been scheming, for the past many months, how we might partner in this exploration of the intersection ~ where ecology and spirituality and – in this case (not exclusively – let me underline that not exclusively) – Christian principles and practices (along with their commensurate theology) have the opportunity to engage in the dance whose goal is nothing less than the transformation of self and community, in service to the healing of our planet.

Earth, Water, Wind, & Fire ~ The Missing Thread in the Environmental Movement

I debated a long time whether or not to post a talk I gave recently, at the invitation of the Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. As the content itself is appropriate for the “space between”, I don’t feel as though there is an integrity issue here. The “don’t do it” concerns were: one) it’s long; and two) it approaches the edge of self-serving. So, the invitation (as always) is this: read it if you wish; the choice is yours! I have to begin, though, by describing my outfit. I rarely wear skirts but I did for this occasion. On top I was wearing a longish jacket which covered completely a black and white striped referee shirt. The explanation unfolds below. Picture this: as I begin to talk, I am unbuttoning my jacket to expose the referee shirt underneath.

I suppose that the phrase “having the courage of one’s convictions” has as many varied expressions as there are people having . . . courage. For me, it’s about making myself vulnerable in ways that are uncomfortable, for the sake of something far greater than myself. It’s about showing up. Bill McKibben, founder of the non-profit spoke in Exeter NH a few nights ago, and shared his discomfort with his abrupt ascent into the media spotlight. “This is not my calling,” he said. “I’m a writer, and I would much rather be sitting in my Vermont house in front of my computer than getting arrested in front of the White House, or wearing a referee’s shirt to blow the whistle on the numbers of elected officials receiving money from the coal and oil lobby and then passing legislation on their behalf. But here I am. Feeling foolish, uncomfortable in my own skin.”

I can relate. I’m a writer, too, and I could speak the exact words as Bill McKibben. But I’ve got my own words to share, and I’ll do it wearing this referee’s shirt as a symbol of the struggle to turn around the trouble we’re in. For McKibben it’s the science of climate change. For me, it’s the reclaiming of the spiritual thread of the ecology movement in general.

You know how in a theater Playbill, the first few pages introduce the actors? I need to do that with you, introduce a few – without having your eyes glaze over . . .

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried up at once; a shower is always falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

These are the words of John Muir, in the early years of the 20th century. To put him in more contemporary context, Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. Now I don’t think we want to categorize his observation as science, although he was in fact a brilliant scientist. We can’t think of these words as conservationism, either, although Muir was a conservationist of sorts. But . . . there are conservationists, and then, there are conservationists. Two ways of thinking about ecological conservation, and they emerge from really different perspectives.

Gifford Pinchot – a familiar name to those of us who have migrated north from Pennsylvania – represents one perspective. He was the chief of the US Forest Service – the first, in fact, coming into his own about the time John Muir was crossing over the thin space into another realm altogether. These words belong to Gifford Pinchot – his definition of conservation – “the art of producing from the forest and the waters whatever they can yield for the service of man.” Pinchot was all about the primacy of humans, about human privilege and entitlement. I think of him as the seed of the sustainability movement. And by the end of this talk, I am going to suggest strongly that sustainability – as an economic philosophy – is suspect.

The philosophical difference between the two – John Muir and Gifford Pinchot – is clear. Pinchot would have had no truck with Muir’s words, “ . . . eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn as the round earth rolls.”

Muir’s speeches and his writings were poetry, or poetic prose, and they emerged from his always-evolving and deeply spiritual life which – unlike Gifford Pinchot – was inextricably interwoven with a clear understanding of his place within the biosphere. For Muir there was no spirituality disconnected from his place within the biotic world. And, unlike Pinchot, his was no human-centered ethic of entitlement and privilege – the word is anthropocentrism. He writes – this makes my heart sing – “The world we are told was made for man. A presumption that is totally unsupported by the facts”. Muir’s spirituality was grounded always in the sacredness of the elements – earth, water, wind, and fire – the blessing of creation shared by all life forms.

John Muir isn’t the only deeply spiritual ecologist. He stood on the shoulders of such as Henry David Thoreau. I think we can get clarity about Thoreau if we were to hold him against the backdrop of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson; they were both Transcendalists – just like Muir and Pinchot were both conservationists – but each was tugging on a different thread. Briefly, Emerson saw nature as distinct from, separate from himself – he saw nature as allegorical (the ant is a symbol of industriousness); he saw nature as the symbol of God – not God but the symbol of God. Thoreau, on the other hand, couldn’t – wouldn’t – accept this dualism. For one, like John Muir who followed him, he knew himself to be of the natural world, not distinct from it. And two, Thoreau grounded his own spirituality in the natural world. It was Thoreau, not Emerson, who could write these words:

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the (ordinary) citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There . . . is the strength, the marrow of Nature. . . .”

Okay. Just one more, and then I’ll try to weave this together. Aldo Leopold, standing on the shoulders of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Leopold and I shared one year of life on this planet, although neither of us knew it at the time – and I consider that my great good fortune. Leopold was the first to make use of the concepts of ecology and eco-systems, and he distinguished his ethics from the more popular environmental and conservationist philosophies of the day. Leopold understood the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms including humans; and the lens through which he explored the natural world was the lens of his ethics. Maybe some of you recognize his land ethic, and he intends the word land to stand for all life forms – human and non-human – and their systemic interactions and interrelationships. “A thing is right,” he said, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

How simple is that!

So. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. These are my prophets, and my mentors. And they’re calling to us, challenging us to reclaim a thread of what we today loosely refer to as the environmental movement. It’s a thread that we’ve dropped,and –  in my mind – no less important than the other two: science and pragmatics. I’ll call this third thread the thread of eco-spirituality. It hasn’t always been missing, witness these three, Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. But today’s environmental movement consists – for the most part – of only two: the science, and the pragmatics. We’re missing the spiritual. And it’s the spiritual that embodies hope, life, courage; it’s the spiritual that holds the good news. It’s the spiritual that holds the potential to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

We have all the science. We know what we’re doing to earth and water and air. We know that 200 species of life forms are going extinct every day, and we suspect that to allow species to go extinct has real consequences, even if we’re clueless as to what those consequences might be. We know about climate change. We know about fracking and mountain top removal. We have all the information we need about pollutants of earth, air, and water. Science is the first thread, and we’re still holding that one. To the point where many people have become numb with despair. And although the science might be changing opinions, it doesn’t seem to be changing hearts.

The second thread is what I’ll call environmental pragmatism. The second thread is about composting, recycling, solar panels, wind generators, geothermal heat, tankless water heaters. Environmental pragmatics fall under the umbrella of sustainable living. Both words – environment and sustainability – for my nickel, are suspect. When we talk about the environment, we’re talking about all that surrounds us, the humans. Our environment. We’re the center. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about the environment, because When we talk about the environment we’re talking about that which surrounds us, the operative word being us, we the humans inasmuch as we continue to occupy a human-centered reality. Environment is all about us. Sustainability, then, tends to refer to all that we humans need to do to maintain our environment. In a human-centered reality, so the thinking goes, we need to sustain our resources so that we can continue to live in the manner to which we (or some privileged proportion of us) have become accustomed.

The second thread – the pragmatic – addresses our sense of powerlessness over the suffering of the planet. Look! We can do something. We can help. Together we can turn this around. If only we all did these kinds of things . . .

So two threads, the science and the pragmatics. Together, they are necessary but inadequate to address the magnitude of the damage we’ve done to earth, water, air, and all wildlife and their diverse habitat. Together, two threads are insufficient to change hearts and transform perspective and behavior.

It’s the third thread we have to reclaim, the spiritual thread. And I am not talking about a belief in God, or any doctrine or dogma; I am not talking about anthropocentric religious practices. In fact, religious practices all too often get in the way – despite our calls for good stewardship – or maybe because what we call good stewardship falls into the same category as environmentalism and sustainability. Stewardship implies oversight – we think of ourselves, our human selves, as the overseers. All three of these – environmentalism, sustainability, and stewardship allow us to leave unexamined and unchallenged, the primary assumption which is . . . the . . . root . . . cause . . . of ecological degradation. The culprit here is our foundational assumption of human entitlement and privilege. The culprit is our anthropocentrism. And any spirituality that emerges from a human-centered reality will be by definition really, an agent of continued damage.

The spiritual thread, the third thread that I’m suggesting we reclaim, is that which emerges from our knowing and living out of our proper place within the natural world, not somehow external to the biosphere, and certainly not at its pinnacle.

It’s the difference between saying I love nature and I am nature. It may sound like semantics, but its not. And it’s all the difference in the world.

So how do we pick up this third thread? How do we begin to re-imagine our proper place in the world? How are we to be with a re-visioned anthropology in which humans are of the biotic world, intrinsic to it, of course, but of no greater or lesser value . . . value, than, say, a dung beetle. How are we to be, and what are we to do, to reclaim this third thread?

Baby steps, I guess. And all I can do is share with you some of my own baby steps. Wearing this referee’s shirt is one of them. I walk a lot. I try to walk every day. In the years I was privileged to be partnered with my sweet rescue dog, Missy, I think we shared close to twenty-five hundred walks, and here’s how we did it. We’d walk into the woods, and before we’d go in, we would stop. Look. Listen. Smell. Notice. Missy’s heart was already prepared for this journey into the forest. It’s my heart that needed and still does need, the time to prepare for what’s literally a homecoming.

This is called mindfulness, and mindfulness transforms relationships. When I leave the woods, I give thanks, out loud, continuing to re-shape my heart and soul with the practice of gratitude. I give thanks to the trees and the rocks, and the water. I give give thanks – out loud – to my Missy girl, who taught me to notice. Mindfulness and gratitude. With both of these in place, it’s possible to become a servant to the biotic community. I like the word servant, here, as being the expression of right sacramental relationship with the planet, with the elements of earth, water, wind, fire, with all life forms, all habitat.

“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the (ordinary) citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of Nature. . . .”

You can see why Henry David Thoreau is a mentor. He knew himself as well to be the strength, the marrow of Nature.

To reclaim this third thread – and I don’t think any other approach carries this kind of transformative power – in the reclaiming the spirit of place, the sacramental value of earth, water, wind, fire, and all creatures – in that remembering, lies our hope.

Eco-spirituality ~ A Colleague Newly Met

I want to introduce you to a woman with a passionate heart for the most vulnerable among us, the creatures whose lives and habitat we humans continue to place “beneath our feet.” LoraKim has boundless energy and compassion for all life-forms, as you will see from her short bio below. I have linked this site to hers, under the resources tab, as she is in the process of linking this site.

I have watched her Gopher Tortoise video countless times, and it gives me great pleasure to share it with you.

LoraKim writes to say, “I’m so glad you liked the tortoise – that was such a special time that she allowed me to get close and to film her so others could see her beauty.


Rev. LoraKim Joyner, D.V.M.

Birds have always called to me. Since an early age I always had birds in the home, out in the pigeon coop, or eating at the yard feeder. My hope for avian flourishing led me to a B.S. in Avian Sciences and then later to a D.V.M. where I specialized in birds. A later Masters in Preventive Veterinary Medicine emphasized avian research. Hearing birds call to my heart, I worked in other countries as a consultant in avian medicine and conservation, with an emphasis on parrot conservation. My hopes for the birds led her to the Philippines, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala where I lived for several years. My work with birds has also included working as a Clinical Instructor and Research Assistant Professor at the Nondomestic Avian Clinic at the College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University. There I later served as the Community Advocate, where I taught ethics and grief management as well as assisted staff, faculty, and clients in dealing with grief and ethical issues. Today I serve as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, president of Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA), Director of Conservation at Lafeber Company, as well as consultant for “Wings of Comapassion,” a website dedicated to grieving, healing, and hope in avian-human relationships ( My experiences have taught me that the birds cannot flourish if the human heart cannot heal, and the human heart cannot heal without knowing the great depth of suffering and beauty in all life.

Winter Solstice Celebration ~ December 22, 2011

I know it’s late, but the winter solstice is on the 22nd, not the 21st, this year, so I thought I’d post this Order of Celebration in case anyone was casting around for one. This would have to be adapted to your own situation, of course, because this particular ceremony was designed for a particular setting; it shouldn’t require too much tweaking. If the weather isn’t cooperating, then you can just honor the darkest day from the warmth of your living room.

Just a note to those who have called me their favorite pagan. I appreciate it, actually, glad to be a favorite anything. But here’s the difference, and I think it’s important enough to make note. Paganism is – in one way or another – worship. For the record, I do not worship the earth, or the waters, or the universe. I celebrate it.

Anyway, I love the darkest day of the year. I love it for the dark, and I love it for the light to come. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Winter Solstice Celebration ~ December 22, 2011

(As people arrive, we will gather around the outdoor fire.)


Long ago, people in the northern hemisphere celebrated the winter solstice, a time when the days grew short and the sun was at its lowest point in the sky. Many people dreaded the cold, dark days of winter. So when the sun seemed to change its course and grow in strength again, they rejoiced.

Acknowledging the Four Directions

(We turn to the East, ringing our bells.)

East Guardian:

I am the East, the place of dawn, influenced by the element of Air. I am the breath of life, of speech, and of song. I am the season of Spring, the season of birth and new creation. In my season, the Earth warms and leans towards the Sun.

(We ring our bells, as we turn to the South.)

South Guardian:

I am the South, the place of mid-day, influenced by the element of Fire. I am the passion and laughter of life. I am the season of Summer ~ keeper of the Earth’s abundance; I am the blessing of children, the keeper of truth and innocence.

(We ring our bells, as we turn to the West)

West Guardian:

I am the West, place of dusk, influenced by the element of Water. I am the guardian of life’s water ~ from the oceans’ depths to the waters of the womb that rocked you before your birth. I am the sweet rain satisfying the thirsty Earth. I am the season of Fall.

(We ring our bells, as we turn to the North)

North Guardian:

I am the North, the place of midnight, influenced by the element of Earth. I am the place of the ancestors and ancient wisdom, of all who have walked through the years and who know the way. I am the season of Winter.

(From the campfire, we walk in silence to the bridge, each of us carrying a sunflower seed bag. When we have reached the bridge, we’ll remain in silence for a minute or two.)



Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you,

If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

~ David Wagoner ~


Leader: Meditation

~ Being outdoors in the winter at this time of Solstice

~ Being part of the fabric of the natural world

~ Appreciation for the beauty and magnificence of the natural world

~ Focus on our relationships with other life forms

~ These seeds as symbols of life and messengers of goodwill

(Each person offers her seeds in turn, by placing them on a spot of his/her own choosing, speaking an appreciation of the natural world. When everyone has placed his/her seeds, the group walks in silence back to the house.)

Ceremony of Light

(The people gather around the table covered with pine boughs, berries, and candles. One candle, that which represents the year that has ended, remains burning.)


If there is to be peace in the world,

there must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

there must be peace in communities.

If there is to be peace in communities,

there must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors.

There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart.


The old year has ended, its light diminished, but not yet gone. While this light of the year passing still burns, we have to remember the hurts, sorrows, disappointments, and damage we have done to the earth, water, and air, and all creatures, human and non-human. We have to remember them before we can confess, them, release them, and chart a new course.

(A few moments of silence, as we remember)

Peace in the heart begins with letting go. The days and nights may be at their darkest, but we trust in the birth of the new light which lies on the other side of release. That very hope that we carry in our hearts, minds, and hands, chart the course for our journey.

(The new candle is lit from the old, and the old candle snuffed. As each new candle around the table is lit, we sing this song of peace.)

Hymn: Peace Before Us

May we receive today the blessing of peace. May we notice the occasion of peace each time we encounter it. May we name it, and nurture it. Go in Peace.