Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Human Privilege and Entitlement

The Legal Standing of Eco-systems

I would like in this post to introduce the work of the Community Environmental Defense Fund (CELDF), whose Associate Director Mari Margil offered the 2010 keynote at the Bioneers Conference. Margil articulates in a far more eloquent and succinct way than I can, the seedling work of turning existing environmental regulatory laws on their respective heads. It’s no secret that our environmental laws are not designed to protect eco-systems; rather they serve to regulate the pace of systemic corporate destruction. I am going to let this three part video speak for itself, in the hopes that you can find half an hour to give your full attention to a transformative way of practicing environmental law.

As they exist currently, environmental law protects the rights of corporations, not the rights of communities, and certainly not the rights of eco-systems. The country of Equador is the first to adopt a constitution that accords legal standing to eco-systems. The city of Spokane has adopted similar ordinances, as have the towns of Blaine, Pennsylvania, Barnstead and Nottingham New Hampshire, Shapleigh and Newfield, Maine.

As I keep contact with environmental activists in eastern Pennsylvania who are fighting the Marcellus Shale fracking operations, and environmental organizations in the states of New York and Ohio working to call a fracking moratorium, I can’t help but look to these examples as beacons of radical hope and radical joy, as people begin to make decisions about what can and cannot happen in their own communities.

As the Transition Movement makes itself known in regions throughout the world, the legal implications and potential are becoming increasingly important. What a gift it is to find examples of a country, a city, and small New England towns insisting on their autonomy, and coming to understand that unless and until we confer legal standing upon our eco-systems of which we are a part, and upon which we depend, then the healing and health of earth is a dream whose time is not coming.



For All the “Bostons”

I was going to write today about the aging and broken grey poplar at the southwest corner of our house, and the discussion as to whether or not it needs to come down.

It will have to wait.

So many things I do not understand. The Boston Marathon is a moment of joy in a hardened world. It’s an icon of hope for global engagement and peace; it symbolizes a potential for healing in our broken lives,both individual and collective; it stands for beauty and resilience, for courage, for a profound commitment not only to live the lives we are given, but for the hope of transformation.

I honestly don’t know what we are supposed to do with the day’s bombings in Boston. With the deaths and the injuries, and the understanding that this particular woundedness is reflective of the violence and injury around the world, in every pocket, human and non-human ~ earth, sky, water, creature.

I don’t know how to hold this day, this beautiful and iconic and perfectly sun and blue sky day. How do we hold this against the violence we we want so badly to flee in our day to day, hour to hour world? How do we look at it, straight on? How do we come to know today in Boston as symptomatic of the deepest possible wound of disconnection?

Maybe the next question, is how do we choose to live?

This is what I know, and believe me, it is scant comfort in the face of tragedy that we in the privileged west can’t begin to know. Some know it. If I were to hazard a guess from an embarrassingly comfortable place, I would say that our servicewomen and men know, I would say that our embedded journalists might know, I would say that those to whom this country has given asylum know and know best.

This is what is on my heart tonight.

We cannot turn away.

We cannot fix it.

We cannot address all of it.

We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of numbness.

We are not allowed to think that what happens in Boston is any more or less significant than what is happening with the lost girls of Sudan, or the baby seals lost to the hunt, or the diminishing rainforest, or the casualties of the drone strikes, or the attempted dismissing and disempowerment of Occupy, or the West Virginia mountain top removal, or your next door neighbor’s clearcut of 400 acres, or female genital mutilation, or the open fire on the students and faculty in Newtown, and there is no end.

The violence is systemic and extreme, and we know that constant violence can actually change a person’s brain structure.

The question I am holding is this: how will we choose to live?

I do not know how to do this. Or at least I do not know how to do this well.

I only know this:

there is no “hierarchy” of violence. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about two deaths or two thousand, or two hundred thousand; it doesn’t matter whether these deaths are local or global, human, non-human, mountain, water, air, whether they happen in designated war zones or in Boston, in the lands of the First Nations peoples, or in the West Virginia Coal Country, in the Alberta Tar Sands, or in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf, the coral reefs of the world’s oceans, in the illegitimate housing foreclosures, in genetically modified foods, in the rapid extinction of species. “I do not want to die here,” says a Gitmo prisoner . . . there is no hierarchy of violence.

I know this as well. Humans have disconnected ourselves from the natural order. We have forgotten that we are of and not above what Thomas Berry calls the earth community, what Aldo Leopold calls the biotic world. And from this disconnect has emerged a relentless sense of human entitlement, the markers of which – among countless others – are greed, wanton destruction, an alarming shortsightedness of vision, a dispassionate and self-serving government.

This very disconnect is the source and ground of all violence, this I know.

And I know one more thing: the human soul is longing to remember . . . longing to return to its homeland, the markers of which are compassion and kindness, generosity, resilience, courage, and the willingness to release all other markers.

So . . . how do we hold all this? I don’t know, and if I begin to name things, I will forget most things. But still . . . Some of us sit in the Zuccotti Parks of the world; some of us write; some of us rearrange the introvert inside us and take the message on the road; some of us raise children; some of us grow vegetables without fertilizer; some of us simply sit in beauty (my model is our dog Carson, the reincarnation of Ferdinand the Bull); we write poetry; we make art; we build up our communities; we serve the earth community; we love as best we can; we make kindness and generosity our mission; we find ways to engage in healing.

We refuse the option of numb. We refuse to turn away.

It’s not much. But I do believe it’s required, and I do believe it’s enough. This is what is asked of us.

Rainforest Eco-activist R.I.P.

We don’t always know exactly what it is that creates social change. It takes everything from science all the way to faith, and it’s that fertile place right in the middle where really exceptional campaigning happens–and that is where I strive to be.”

These were the words of Becky Tarbottom, a woman who died accidentally and unexpectedly the day after Christmas, at the too young age of thirty-nine. She had served as executive director of The Rainforest Network. I will post her tribute below, but first I want to share my own sadness. Becky speaks of that fertile place right in the middle . . . As I heard her speak those words last fall, I understood her to be talking of what I call the space between. I think of the space between as that ground in which people are able and willing to shed ideologies, self-interest, and non-sustainable lifestyles for the sake of the healing of our planet.

The second touchstone I shared with Becky was this: she not only understood that social justice is intricately and inescapably intertwined with ecological justice – that one can’t/won’t happen unless both happen concomitantly. Becky had a huge vision, and although I didn’t know her personally, I often found myself in the wake of her philosophy and activism, trying to stay afloat. She was tireless.

I am so saddened by her dying. And frightened. The rainforests are essential to the health of the earth community, and their destruction, from South America and Central America to Southern Asia and Africa, are and will continue to have devastating effects on human and non-human populations.

I want to share the words of her friends and colleagues, offered in tribute.

Rebecca Tarbotton, known to friends as Becky, was a profound thinker and leader. She was dedicated to merging environmental and social justice movements, and building campaigns that inspire transformational changes in forest protection, climate change and human rights. A self-proclaimed “pragmatic idealist,” Becky was deeply admired by a whole movement of activists for her boldness and clarity of vision.The RAN staff, her friends and family remember a “force of nature” with an infectious laugh, adventurous spirit, and a heart bursting with love.

Under her leadership, RAN achieved tremendous victories in preserving endangered rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants. Most recently, Becky helped to architect the most significant agreement in the history of the organization: a landmark policy by entertainment giant, Disney, that is set to transform everything about the way the company purchases and uses paper. 

Becky spent much of her time thinking about how to inspire masses of people to work for transformational social and environmental change, and how to push the country’s biggest corporate polluters to reform their ways.

As she said during a keynote address in October 2012: “We need to remember that the work of our time is bigger than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet…We don’t always know exactly what it is that creates social change. It takes everything from science all the way to faith, and it’s that fertile place right in the middle where really exceptional campaigning happens–and that is where I strive to be.”

Does the Language Matter? A Question of Paradox

This is a question that has puzzled me for a long time, both as a clergy person and as an ecologist. The question arises from my conviction that language matters because it is formative. Whether or not we are conscious of it, language forms and shapes our attitudes, our ethics, and our behaviors. Here is the question. Is it possible to reconcile the language which calls humans to two things at once: our rightful place within the earth community, and our rightful responsibilities with regard to the health of the planet? Is it possible to find the language that can point to both?

In the year 2000, the Earth Charter Commission, begun as a United Nations initiative, released what is known as the Earth Charter. The brilliance of it lay in the recognition that ecological justice cannot be separated out from the social injustices of poverty, economic development, respect for human rights, democracy, and peace. In other words, there is no human justice outside of ecological justice; they are intertwined.

As I have read through it several times, I continue to be struck by the intricacies of language. The Charter’s first premise, that humanity is part of an intricate and vast evolving universe, suggests that humans are not separate creatures but integral to the biosphere. Yet it speaks of the resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity as though they were different entities. In fact, the paragraph heading reads, Earth, Our Home, and although a stretch could be made, it’s pretty evident that the our refers to the human home.

I am asking that you who might be reading this reflection not assume that I am talking against The Earth Charter, because I am not. I think it’s a terrific document. Yet I am of two minds about the language. On the one hand, the document is intended for human reflection and activism and, as such, is addressed to the humans. On the other hand, language is formative and such language that serves to distinguish humankind from other ecological systems is problematic. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and have come to the only possible conclusion: we have to learn to live in the paradox.

The language of The Earth Charter is about as careful and deliberate as any I know, which is why I begin with it. Yet the paradox, I think, cannot be resolved. It is the reality that humans have capacities distinct from all other forms, with regard to the biotic and abiotic diversity of the planet. And yet, every diverse form of which Earth consists – including the human – is subject, ultimately, to the same pressures of interdependence and interconnectivity as any other.

Having set the bar pretty high regarding this question of formative language, I would like to hold up against The Earth Charter, the language of four other documents.

The first is the bible. In the Genesis stories of Creation, we hear a couple things: one, although all creation is worthy of blessing, the humans are the Chosen, called out by God, set apart, and awarded dominion and rule over all creatures. The humans are also charged with care taking; the Church calls it stewardship. I want to say unequivocally that the language here does, in fact, matter. Stewardship implies oversight, management. It does not imply – as The Earth Charter does – that all beings are interdependent. Moreover, as the language and ethical tenets of scripture serve to dictate the shape of the worship of the church, religious assemblies are deeply imbued with a theology that cannot stand the scrutiny of the science. Humans are not called out, not the Chosen, not set apart. Whether we are biblical literalists or prefer to understand the creation stories as myth, the theology is formative. The language matters because it has formed and shaped us for millennia, even those of us (the nones) who claim no religious affiliation.

The second document is The Charter for Compassion, a global effort initiated by Karen Armstrong. Not quite as problematic as the scriptural account of creation, maybe, but its sole focus on human-to-human behavior omits two significant principles. The first, articulated so clearly in The Earth Charter, is the recognition of the interdependence and interconenctedness of every form of life. The second is the implication by omission, that compassion of human to human – that social justice human to human – can in fact be accomplished without the recognition that eco-justice (eco-compassion) and human justice (human compassion) are intricately intertwined. One cannot happen without the other. I like to think in terms of possibilities, and not many additional words, it is certainly possible to widen the embrace of compassion to include compassion for Earth.

The third document of note is The United Nations Millennium Development Goals. There are eight of them, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, and several health provisions. Number Seven (next to last) is Environmental Sustainability, as though the environment were in some way distinct from the global conditions of poverty, ill health, hunger, inaccessibility to clean water, etc. Next to last as though the conditions of poverty and hunger could be addressed without addressing ecological healing and health. In a similar way as above, it takes very little to move from the goal of environmental sustainability as the next to last goal, to language which might allow us to understand ecological health as the ground for all the other Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, the United Religions Initiative, an effort begun in 1993 in the Episcopal Diocese of California by its bishop William Swing. I’m including this one as a solid effort to affirm the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms, human and non-human. The URI formed the charter for religious peace and cooperation, yet understood the delicate interconnections of the Earth Community; peace and justice cannot be separated from the health and protection of Earth.

 Therefore, as interdependent people rooted in our traditions, we now unite for the benefit of our Earth community.

We unite to build cultures of peace and justice.

We unite to heal and protect the Earth.

We unite to build safe places for conflict resolution, healing and reconciliation.

I want to say, in this brief examination of these four resources, that it is not my intention to challenge or diminish any effort for good. Maybe it would be better said that I am calling all of us to an awakening of the importance of language as it expresses a philosophy or theology. Human justice and peace cannot be accomplished without ecological justice and respect for all creation. It’s not possible. Ecological healing cannot be accomplished from a position of over-seer, particularly when the over-seer (steward) is convinced of his/her right to do upon Earth as s/he wishes. It’s not possible.

The better efforts toward justice and peace are those which make explicit the intricate interconnections of all forms, biotic and abiotic. Of these above, The Earth Charter – despite the essential linguistic paradox of this and all efforts – comes closest to a philosophy of not only of the value of all beings, but of our the essential interdependence. It’s only from this ground that we can even begin to attend to the healing of our planet.


For years I served as a visiting pastor in a summer chapel on the south coast of Massachusetts. The houses along the beach were enormous, their inhabitants young and wealthy, second houses for most of them.

Although I am not particularly proud of this story, I’ll tell it anyway. I was walking my dog along the beach, staying close to the water, fairly confident that there were a certain number of feet of beach owned not by the residents but by the state. My dog was very interested in the ducks who were hanging out by a pier, shielded from the wind by rocks and concrete. Suddenly a woman began to yell from her porch, “Stay away from my ducks.” I told her they were not likely her ducks, and the experience only went downhill from there, involving an increasing number of property owners on one side, and I and my dog on the other. My dog and I were thoroughly beaten. After some ridiculously childish last retort thrown back over my shoulder, we slunk off. I am even less proud of this: the following summer, as that same sweet dog and I went down to the beach, it was with immeasurable satisfaction that I saw firsthand the tempest of the winter, for all the sand from the beach had disappeared. No more beach. Just a vast expanse of water nearly up to the porches of the houses.

It’s against the backdrop of this story that I want to introduce Wendell Berry’s new novel, A Place in Time. It’s a stunning, tender compilation of twenty stories describing the lives of the many generations of the Port William Membership, a small farming village in Kentucky. Wendell Berry was awarded the National Endowment of the Humanities 2012 award, and his acceptance speech was entitled It All Hangs on Affection. Berry’s premise is simple: if you love the land, you won’t destroy it.

In the story Misery, Andy Catlett, one of the Port William membership narrator of this particular glimpse into the farming life, explains things for us:

 Grandpa belonged to the farm, the barns and fields, the pastures and crops, the animals. The farm had been his life, his passion and his trial. The economy of the farm, depending as it did on markets and the money economy, had been during most of his life far less stable and secure than the household economy that depended almost entirely on the place itself . . . But insecurely as the farm had belonged to him, he had belonged absolutely to it.

In the telling of this story, sharing of the story of his Grandpa Catlett, his grandson Andy offers an accounting of the only time his grandpa – in a desperate attempt to make the money he needed to keep the farm going –

 planted a field to all corn, plowing more than he knew he should, and it washed badly in a hard rain. He put it back in grass and never plowed it again, and he grieved to the end of his life over the hurt he had given it.

In contemporary culture we speak of belonging in a way utterly antithetical to Grandpa Catlett’s knowing. We say, “I own this land.” “This land belongs to me.” My grandfather owned it before me.” Or, like the above, “This is my beach.” “These are my ducks.”

What would it be like, I wonder, to know ourselves as belonging to earth? How might our behavior be turned on its very head? What would be required of us? How might we come to understand the nature of our role as human participant in earth’s eco-systems?

To belong to the land requires us to be mindful, attentive, observant. This past summer, yellow bush beans were prolific in one section of the garden and not in another other. What was the message? Different soil? Too much nitrogen? Too little? Did I deplete essential nutrients the previous year without thought to replacing them?

Will a newly planted dogwood give me the message next spring that it hasn’t appreciated Carson the rescue dog using its roots in the same way city dogs use fire plugs? And how will I respond with ingenuity? Why didn’t the milkweed blossom this year? Is it true that the butterflies are moving northward? Are there any healthy bats in this part of New Hampshire? Will they inhabit the house we built for them?

The grass, trees, vernal pools, wildlife of all kinds are all giving us messages all the time. Our role is to pay attention and respond appropriately.

So far I’m just scratching the surface.

What might it mean to belong to the land? It means to go out into the woods, walking through the trees, touching, smelling, noticing who has found a home in the bark, who is hiding under this rotted branch, or under this rock. And how old is this rock? What history does this rock boast? It requires being grateful. It requires making friends by name. Have I taken the time to learn to identify Trillium, and to know that to pick one does real harm in the production of its next year’s food? Having made the endangered list, a dubious distinction, I am grateful to find some in the woods to which I belong. Who is this insect?

To begin to know one’s fellow residents and their habitat, to learn of their purpose, their essential contributions to the health of a particular eco-system is to learn to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness, interdependence of the habitat to which we belong. I believe that to know oneself as belonging to earth – no matter where we live, or move, or travel – is to live thoughtfully and gratefully. Mindfulness, gratitude – marks of the role of servant. We can do no better, in the words of Wendell Berry, than to live with affection.

What might it mean to belong to the land? There is a deeper level still, and it has to do with the completion of the soul, not just mine, or yours, not just the soul of the land, but the soul of all being. A couple springs ago I was standing in my kitchen chopping vegetables for that night’s supper. It was a full moon evening, although the cloud cover would eclipse any lunar sighting. A diffuse mist rose from the earth. The sky had turned lavender, with merest hints of yellow and pink. The white pines and still-naked oaks and maples were stark black against the sky, every bough, every branch distinct. My sense of longing was palpable. I walked out into the evening and knew myself in deep union with the trees, the sky, the mist. I walked in the center of the road, my head thrown back onto my shoulders, the trees directly above me forming a canopy that seemed to grow increasingly protective as the evening darkened. I could hear their song, a deep bass hum, their energy adding resonance to the song of the universe. The universe was alive and in conversation, wondrous and amazing. This is mystery that cannot help but change us, calling to us tenderly and insistently, you belong . . . you belong.

There are other moments, many of them, that my sense of longing for the kind of belonging I just described, equally palpable, cannot find a home within me. I have too much work. I’m on deadline. I am tired. I have to pay bills. The evening sky or the morning sky calls, and I am afraid to go out. I am afraid that I will not come back. If I truly belong to the land, then my life as I’ve built it will have to change.

Here’s what I know, though. Humans have a place of belonging within the universe. It’s just that we haven’t discovered it. In fact, we seem to do pretty much everything we can to ensure that we don’t discover it. If we were mindful of our footfalls, grateful for sun and wind, water and earth, creatures and habitat, trees and insects and the bacteria and fungi which makes everything possible, we couldn’t have the lives we are living. We would have to love from our place within the earth community, not as caretakers or stewards, but as those who belong. From our love would emerge a deep understanding – a soul understanding – of our role and purpose.

It all hangs on affection.