Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Human Privilege and Entitlement

Deepening Ecology ~ the Acknowledging of Grief Part 2

It is difficult for me to write about the Council of All Beings for several reasons. One, I cannot remember or imagine this ritual without tears. I guess that’s a good thing, given that the intent is to step into the pain of earth’s destruction, to mourn, and to acknowledge accountability. Two, I am simply not up to the task, and so embedded within this post are links to articles and books which ought to grace the book shelves of any compassionate human.

The ritual itself carries a far more profound depth of experience, if it’s preceded by the process of mourning and remembering.

 Mourning

In pretty much all my recent writing, I have challenged humans for our sense of privilege and entitlement – for our “set apartness”, our anthropocentrism. I can (and have) talked and written voluminously about human interconnectedness with all created forms, and yet I am convicted by the realization that until I am able to grieve the ruin, devastation, and extinction of an astonishing diversity of beings, I am serving as a kind of talking head. It’s a hard thing for me to admit. I guess I thought I could insinuate myself into the company of all those working from an eco-spiritual ground without having to feel Earth’s pain.

The first of the movement toward a ritual Council of All Beings, then, requires mourning. Joanna Macy uses the term to refer to the moral pain for what humans are inflicting on the natural world, and it includes not only grief, but fear, anger, despair, and a numbing paralysis. Macy writes, I have come to see deep ecology as an explanatory principle both for the pain we experience on behalf of the natural world, and for the sense of belonging that arises when we stop repressing that pain.

 Remembering

Think of this as an evolutionary remembering. Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks of the atoms of our bodies – of all bodies – “stardust”. We are of stardust. He describes the process whereby the chemical elements that we recognize today were forged in the centers of high mass stars which, having become unstable, exploded, scattering such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen throughout the universe, elements which formed gas clouds, then stars with planets, and ultimately, life. Stardust.

Remembering in the sense we need to remember isn’t about yesterday’s walk in the woods, or the silly songs my mom used to sing with her ukelele. The better word may be anamnesis, a remembering from the very beginning, a remembering of our star nature before we were humans.

 The Council of All Beings

For those who are participating in the Council, the first step is to allow ourselves to be chosen by another form – animal, plant, or natural feature like swamp or desert. A certain spaciousness is required of us, time, and deep listening. The question is “who is asking me to speak on its behalf?” The next step is to fashion a mask and/or costume, something that visually represents the form that has chosen us. Wolf, mountain, glacier, bird, tree. It’s a good idea to spend time with a totem, learning more about its place and role in the world, becoming conversant as to how we humans have disrupted its life, habitat, purpose, how we have compromised its future.

As the people gather, the one who is facilitating the ritual welcomes everyone, and, speaking as her adopted life-form, introduces herself and asks the others in the assembly to do likewise. Macy describes it as a kind of roll call, I am Canadian Goose; I speak for all migratory birds. I am Mountain, I speak for all mountains.

In the first stage of the ritual, the beings speak with one another, sharing their stories of hardship at the hands of humans, sharing the effects of pesticides, for example, mountain top removal, destruction of habitat for the sake of what humans call progress.

In the second stage, a few beings at a time are invited to remove their masks and move into the center of the circle, so that the other beings are able to address them directly, the humans who have caused and continue to cause such damage. I can tell you, it is hard to hear this, particularly for those of us who have kept ourselves separated from the direct causality of the destruction. You want to shout out, “no, it’s not me. I’m not the one.” Yet we are all participating in a colluding kind of way. Macy refers to it as the releasing of moral immunity.

Ritually, the humans are set apart, isolated. It’s what humans have been doing for millennia, by our own sense of entitlement, but now we have to hear and acknowledge how such set-apartness has cost all creation including ourselves.

In the third stage of the Council, the other life-forms offer gifts to the humans. What might be the particular gift that a river stone, for example, might offer the humans. As was the case in stage two, the movement from outer circle of beings offering gifts to the humans in the center is fluid. As a being in the outer circle offers its gift to the humans in the center, that being leaves its mask at the outer rim to enter the inner group of humans, open to receiving the gifts that other beings have to offer.

 On a Personal Note

The gift I bring into my retirement from ordained ministry is the understanding of the transformative power of ritual. This is not new news, and I have been transformed, not, however, in ways appreciated by the institutional church. Just as the anthropocentric ritual of mainline churches forms and shapes humans to understand themselves as chosen and set apart, ritual such as The Council of All Beings forms and shapes us to understand ourselves as not only members of the earth community, but destructive members at that.

As I have said earlier, I am one who has had to walk away from the images of the Deepwater Horizon disaster; I take a circuitous route to bypass the clear-cut along my habitual way into town. I rail at a congress which has so little understanding or respect for our planetary eco-systems; sign petitions against de-listing endangered species; protest against fracking, mountain top removal, the presence of Shell in the Arctic.

Yet I am not yet able to turn and face into the devastation of what we have done and continue to do to our home and all beings who share it with us. I believe and have preached that pain and grief are the complimentary sides of love and compassion. And yet I flee from the pain. I am posting this and the one previous because I have always been “a preacher who preaches what I need most to hear.” I think that it’s probably time to turn into this new direction.

Deepening Ecology ~ The Acknowledging of Grief

This is a hard blog for me to write, harder to post; it’s confessional in content, and I don’t yet have the experience of the healing and redemptive power that comes on the other side of a willingness to step into grief and mourning, into bereavement. So, this is all about blind trust. Some would call it faith. Faith in what? I have no idea.

I have not been a person willing or able to stand in what I’ll call a field of destruction, whether it’s a West Virginia topless mountain; a local clear-cut; an NPR story about the thousands of dead fish rolling up on the New Jersey shore during and after Hurricane Sandy; the reporting of two thousand birds inexplicably yet literally dropping dead from the skies; a New Hampshire moose harvest; even a barrage of rifle shots during deer season which says to me that the person behind the gun has absolutely no pride nor skill in placing his/her shot(s). I could not bring myself to listen to the destroying of the Ohio exotics, the homeless animals from Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. I cannot look at the grim images of wolves laying dead throughout Idaho, Wyoming, and Alaska, some by aerial gunning, others by traps; cannot ingest stories of elephant ivory poaching, the likely extinction of snow leopards, the disappearing black panthers from the Florida Everglades; cannot look at images of polar bears floating on ice caps too far from land and sustenance to survive.

I could go on; I am not proud of this. And little by little, I am being called into account – some years ago, by Joanna Macy and the Council of All Beings, more recently by the Orion magazine-sponsored teleconference with Trebbe Johnson. Both of them have placed a gate along my particular journey a gate which I’ve pretty much tried to circumvent, until at last I’ve reached the point where I get to choose – will I continue to be an intellectual deep ecologist, or will I find the courage to do what’s required to integrate mind, heart, soul, and body? The jury is out as I write this. But I believe that in naming my own seemingly bottomless capacity to disconnect, lays the ground for radical hope. Much as I resist it, I also believe that there is no other way.

It has to do with standing in the grief of destruction of all I hold dear, not just intellectually, but viscerally. It has to do with bearing witness to the pain, often despair and hopelessness, of our ceaseless and indiscriminate,destruction of Earth – of the ground itself, of creatures and habitat, of water and air. It has to do with the relentless spiritual cost to us humans as we wreak havoc wherever we focus our greed, our sense of privilege and entitlement, our refusal to awaken to our own infinite capacity to destroy.

Whew!

In my book I wrote of the power of ritual to reclaim our human interconnectedness. What I knew then but couldn’t yet say, has to do with the first step toward healing: to step into the pain.

With that in mind, I want to share with you two ritual possibilities, the first forms the content of this post; the second will come shortly: both are about bearing witness.

You can find Trebbe Johnson’s essay, Gaze Even Here, in the November/December issue of Orion Magazine. Trebbe blogs at radicaljoyforhardtimes.blogspot.com/, whose mission is to find and make beauty in wounded places.

Trebbe writes and speaks about the ecology of grief, and the capacity to find beauty in our broken world. What follows is a digest from the teleconference of October 23rd, in which she describes a recent pilgrimage she and several friends undertook in a clear-cut on Vancouver Island.

The experiment begins by a commitment on the part of Trebbe and her friends to be present and active listeners in a wounded place. In no way does she ignore the dark side of the natural world (a la Rachel Carson), but insists that grief must also include all that is darkened by the insatiable appetites of the humans – in this particular case, those who see the clear-cut as a sign of progress.

Once we were connected, Trebbe says, And now our tendency is to ignore the diminishment and destruction. After all, those mystical place and creatures are now dead to us. And so she and her friends commit to spend time in a clear-cut, grounded in the question, is it possible to fall in love with a place so very wounded?

The small group camped in a protected area, rich with mosses and ferns, cedars eight hundred years old. Each morning, after breakfast, they separated, to spend the day at the clear-cut. They gathered for dinner, and to share the stories of the day. (Trebbe herself chose a stump for her place, a stump great enough in diameter so that she could lie across it. )

The stories were tales of beauty: a black bear and her cubs, lichens, mosses and ferns, a plethora of insects.

One of the women experienced a psychological and emotional shift; her grief over the clear-cut opened her heart to years of not-yet-acknowledged bereavement. She built altars on a tree stump, and experienced a profound knowing of forgiveness of her past, of the tree cutters, and of us who use the trees for our own purposes.

Trebbe Johnson asks the question: how might we start thinking about and behaving differently towards the wounded places. She acknowledges the value of those who tend the beautiful wilderness places and of those who tend to the replenishing of that which has died. Yet she names the missing piece. Grief. She speaks with eloquence about her own daily pilgrimage to the clear-cut, and her discovery of beauty, grace, compassion, and insight.

She insists that we owe the vanquished and the vanished something. We cannot reconstruct what has been destroyed, but we can ourselves become agents of beauty, creating of found materials, symbols of redemption and forgiveness for what has been lost, for what we humans have destroyed.

The wounded places are alive, she insists, filled with beauty and delight, a constant reminder that the world is bigger and more mysterious than we can imagine, and that we all participate in the mystery.

I am posting this as the first step towards healing, my own for sure, and perhaps a wider circle as well. In the next post, I will share what I know about Joanna Macy’s Council of All Beings. It’s another sacred and ritual avenue to the deep listening that’s required of us to remember who we are, and what’s required of us.

I’ve posted this before, and I imagine I will again, that earth healing is not to be accomplished unless and until we (humans) can embrace and practice the spiritual and ritual ground of confession, forgiveness, love, beauty, and transformation.

 

 

Poetry and the Soul of the Earth Community

I know there are quite a few poets who read my posts, and even more poetry lovers. I’m not a poet (I only write poems when I’m falling in love) but I am always looking for new poetry, in particular, poetry that grounds humans within the earth community, that connects humans to the rest of the natural order, that reminds humans that we exist as interconnected and interdependent creatures, not apart from the eco-systems of the planet, but integral to them. For lack of a better phrase at the moment, I’ll use nature poetry to include the work of a Mary Oliver, say, or a Michael Glaser, or a Joy Harjo.

The risk, however, of lumping nature poetry together is this: some nature poetry does in fact serve to make the connections of human to place, human to the rest of the earth community; some nature poetry does just the opposite.

I think the clearest way into this conversation is to borrow two quotes, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the other from Edward O. Wilson.

Emerson, the leader of the 19th Century Transcendentalist Movement is considered a naturalist as well as essayist, and wrote a great deal about nature. But he was never quite of the natural order, seeing instead the natural world as the symbol of the divine (aka God).

Adopt the pace of nature, he wrote, Her secret is patience.

Emerson writes of nature as an entity of sorts, admirable yet distinct and separate from himself. To speak of nature as Her, sets up the distinction: there is Emerson (human) and there is Her (nature). I think of it as the we/they or we/it syndrome.

Compare this to Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and biologist, fondly known as the ant man. Wilson wrote his first novel, Anthill, at the age of eighty. Of Raff, his young protagonist, Wilson writes,

In time he understood that Nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists . . . within it.

Wilson places the human species well within the planetary eco-systems, and with Raff, continues to explore what it means to be one of, not apart from, and certainly not superior to.

I’m hoping that these radically different approaches will serve as the sound bites to introduce the conversation about nature poetry.

Consider this portion of Rebecca Baggett’s poem Testimony (for my daughters).

I want
you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse,
the ruby-throated hummingbird,
the humpback whale,
the profligate mimosa.

Baggett understands perfectly her human place within the natural order.

By contrast, consider this line from Mary Oliver’s poem Fall Song.

This I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn
flares out at the last, boisterous and like us
longing
to stay

By disconnecting the us (humans) from autumn, the risk is that we forget that we humans are autumn, participate in autumn, in different yet also in similar ways that the rest of creation participates. And the fact that we forget that, that we continue in our patterns and habits as though nothing has changed but the light and the temperature, serves to separate us from our proper place within the biosphere.

(It’s important – to me, anyway – that I redeem this particular poem. Mary Oliver also writes, in What Can I Say

The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.

Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it and it will never end until all ends.

I am hoping you will notice here the care and intricacy with which Oliver weaves the human species into the web of all creation.

Why is this important?

I can think of a couple things right off the top. First, language is formative, it shapes us, shapes how we think and act. Language that serves to separate humankind from the rest of the biotic (and abiotic) world forms and shapes us as a species other than. When we are a species other than, we can do pretty much as we wish, and have.

That alone has implications in how we teach, how we think, how we behave, how we medicate, how we destroy.

Second, it raises for me, the issue of greening and sustainability, both of which have positive value, yet carry the illusion that our recycling efforts, and our products made from recycled things like plastic or glass, can in fact even begin to address the ecological crisis that is not only at our doorstep, but in our living rooms.

Here’s my take. Unless and until humans can even begin to fathom that we are an integral part of a vast, interconnected, interdependent and sacred living web of biotic and abiotic participants, we cannot yet begin to understand our role within the natural order.

Why start with poetry? I suppose I could start anywhere. If you were to peruse my older posts, you will find the same message. Language is formative; shapes the way we think. Our good deeds in the green world don’t even begin to address the trouble we’ve caused.

And yet . . . and yet. All that’s required of us is a change in perspective. It’s the source of our hope. It sounds so easy. But a change in focus, a change in perspective, has everything to do with healing of the earth community, and here’s the thing . . . that healing includes the humans.

What I am saying is that no healing is possible – of the earth community including ourselves – until we humans understand our place within and not external to . . . and certainly not superior to . . . the systemic health of the whole.

It’s not as though the humans get healthy first. Can’t happen.

This is what I believe. Diversity is healthy, and human diversity can only emerge from a healthy biodiversity. Social justice is good, and human social justice can only emerge from a healthy eco-justice. It’s the health of the earth community from which the health of its species, including the human species, can emerge. We’ve had it backwards for so long, yet it’s the only possible direction.

I choose poetry for this conversation because it sinks so deep within us. Unlike sound bite media, poetry is an enduring tribute to the human soul, and as such, to the soul of the earth community. So it matters whether the poetry we read serves to connect or disconnect the human reader from the living web of which s/he is an integral part.

The Pollinator’s Corridor ~ Biodiversity in the Bronx

“One day I turned over a stone,” Sam explains, “and the rest is history.”

When we turn our minds to aspirations of healthy eco-systems, images of clean and running waters, verdant mountains (still with their tops), woodlands, songbirds, well-traveled corridors for animal migration, honey bees, bats who’ve outlived the white-nose fungus, and humans (and not too many of them) who know their proper place and role . . . I will speak only for myself here . . . but when I think of healthy eco-systems, the Bronx – I can say this unequivocally – has never popped into my mind.

So, when my friend Lisa plopped a book on my kitchen counter – not just a book, but a graphic novel – entitled The Pollinator’s Corridor, it sat there for days, untouched except to clean around it; soon it became part of the furniture, like the mail basket, the begonia, and the colander for the day’s harvest from the garden. Until one day, I looked at it and said to myself, “What’s this?” And “Where did it come from?”

I lifted it from the counter and took it upstairs to my desk. I read it four times over a space of two hours and had no sense whatsoever of the passage of time.

The Pollinator’s Corridor (Volume One) is the story of a vision, parts of which are beginning to find flesh in many of our urban areas, although not quite with the brilliance that is laid out here. It’s the work of a young mystic and prophet, visionary and artist whose name is Aaron Birk.

The book begins with a Prologue, Terra Incognita, earth unrecognized, land disguised, land masquerading as something else. Land, none the less, and the land in question is the Bronx. It’s a simple enough beginning. A young boy, out for a run with his dog, throws out a ball on the end of a rope – a game of fetch. The dog doesn’t come back. The boy searches and searches, calls and calls, and, in tears, “Where’s my dog?” Most all of this in graphic images.

The boy spies his dog, who has made a discovery of a sort. It’s a rock, and through his tears – minutes before of grief, now of relief – the boy turns it over. And discovers the denizens of the under-the-rock habitat, dozens, maybe hundreds of them: worms and ants and beetles and fungi and spiders and pill bugs. And these are only the ones visible. Edward O. Wilson would probably put the number well into the millions.

Eight years slip by, and the now adolescent sits in a biology class; these are the teacher’s words:

The naturalist’s tools are curiosity, observation, and the ability to make connections. You will develop a working knowledge of our region’s inland and coastal ecology, investigating climate variance, succession theory, and the evolution of species. You will address critical issues in nutrient transport, soil and water conservation, and habitat loss.

The first and obvious response is from Gretta,

“Sorry, Dr. Benzing, I feel what you’re saying and all, but what’s the point? This is the Bronx. People are dying in the streets, and you want me to crawl around in the woods with a magnifying glass? I don’t get it. How is ‘biodiversity’ supposed to keep my brother outa jail?”

How indeed. Although I want so badly to give away the whole story, what I really want is for you who are reading this to contact Aaron Birk and buy at least ten copies of this astonishing book! In a nano-second, Dr. Benzing takes on science (lost its way) politics (ditto), the gas, oil, and coal industry and their lobbyists, and British imperialism! Dr. Benzing ends his diatribe with a call to ethics, accountability, and a sense of purpose.

I have to say, my biology class didn’t look much like this!

Gretta’s question remains, and this time it falls to Sam, the same Sam who had turned over the rock, to make the connection – Gretta’s brother with restoration ecology, native plant gardening, urban beekeeping, and community agriculture.

Dr. Benzing’s pairing of Gretta and Sam shouldn’t surprise any of us. But what should not only surprise us but set us on fire, is the “what happens next?” And what happens next – I am NOT going to reveal the “hows” and the hope; the biological and geological science of the Bronx; the history and power and abuse of privilege – white privilege in particular – in a city whose disrepair, poverty, violence, and hopelessness, is the very stuff of which urban re-development is made; the unlikely but life-giving intricate interrelationships and interdependence between Sam – Sam with his night visions – Gretta, his partner, an urban squatter whose name is Natasha, and a couple of city cops.

The last chapter of Volume One is called Terra Firma, and it offers a vision, a pragmatic vision of a pollinator’s corridor, an underpass following the path of a mass transit overpass, replete with indigenous plants, plants chosen to allure the bees and butterflies, insects, river to river, a reclamation dream, one which there is every reason in the world to accomplish.

In the words that frame the unexpected embrace between Sam and Gretta, “We can do this.”

We can do this!

Cultural Diversity in the Environmental Movement

A few months ago I gave a talk entitled Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire ~ The Missing Thread in the Environmental Movement, the thread itself being that of spirituality. The question I was (and am still) holding was this: if we could come to understand the spiritual and sacred dimensions of this astonishing planet, would we behave differently? I offered spiritual giants in the environmental movement such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, and am suggesting strongly that we would behave differently.

More recently, I participated in a tele-conference sponsored by Orion Magazine, Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement. Then, just several days ago, I read a blog post by a colleague, Courtney Martin, who serves on the board of The Center for Courage and Renewal, Nine Learnings on Privilege and Diversity. (Whew! I think I have broken my own record for the number of links loaded onto the front end of a post.)

So today I want to offer an additional dimension to “the missing thread”, and maybe begin a conversation about the spiritual cost to what many feel is a homogenous movement, as well as the political, policy, and activist cost. Finally, I want to add a dimension to an earlier post on this website concerning human privilege and entitlement.

In the Orion Magazine tele-conference, Marcelo Bonta, director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, and a conservation biologist, speaks to the efforts of others in the movement to silence his voice, dismiss his education and experience, and his having to deal in general with racist comments and ignorance around people of color as they engage the environmental movement. He speaks of his own isolation in the work, and identifies the root cause of the movement itself as “the homogenous environmental culture.” Without diversity of leadership and opportunity, the work won’t be sustainable. “Linking the environmental movement to equity, diversity, and inclusion,” he challenges, “leads to creative solutions to environmental problems.”

As I listened to Marcelo on the conference call, I am chagrinned to confess that it’s not occurred to me until now that the environmental movement could suffer just as any other organized movement from the effects of white power and privilege. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. One of Courtney Martin’s “nine learnings” and one that attracts me personally, is the charge to shut up and listen.

If you have power and privilege, of whatever kind, sometimes the most important thing you can do is stop talking and start listening. Privileged people are used to taking up space, being heard, contributing their stories and opinions. Don’t silence yourself, but consider the gift that your silence can be if offered in a spirit of true self-awareness and re-balancing.

Monica Smiley, of Oregon’s Tualatin Riverkeepers shares the experience of an all white board of directors under her leadership, serving a population in the Tualatin watershed which is 80% latino. She speaks of the shock of being turned down for a grant to partner with the latino community to develop watershed programs. It was a wake-up call to her that the granting organization insisted the board and staff reflect the diverse community their organization was trying to serve.

Courtney’s learning number two suggests that those of privilege and entitlement make our mistakes in public.

You will screw up. You will hurt people. You are human. The most courageous thing you can do is not to try to never hurt anyone, but to acknowledge the hurt you cause and try to learn from it.

Ginny McGuinn of Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities calls us back to basic principles of ecology. It’s always surprising, she says with some measure of irony, that the environmental movement thinks it can function and find solutions while neglecting the most important and obvious ecological principle – diversity – a “slap your forehead” moment certainly.

Courtney’s learning number five suggests we learn to embrace the paradox.

I have to be constantly aware of the unearned privileges that I have been afforded because of my whiteness, my membership in the middle-class, my heterosexuality, etc. I also need to know that when I hurt someone else with my ignorance, I am not a terrible monster, but a person shaped by my racist, classist, heterosexist environment. It is my fault, and I am also a product of my environment. Both are true at the same time.

This weaving of voices has been powerful for me. It reminds me yet again – a reminder for which I am grateful and humbled – of the vigilance required particularly on the part of white people of privilege, unearned privilege based on whiteness. And it’s not just about looking around the table of a board room and seeing a diversity of color and culture. It’s about spiritual integrity and wholeness.

If we’re going to posit a sacred universe (regardless of to whom or to what dynamic we attribute creative agency) then we have to acknowledge and celebrate a sacred diversity. This is so very obvious that we obviously need to remind ourselves over and over. And over again. And . . . this sacred diversity includes the humans.

For me, the joy of being alive at this time, as the whole world groans in the throes of unparalleled greed and destruction, of fear and anxiety, of self-centeredness and self-paralysis, alive in a time of unconsciousness, blindness, and ignorance, is the reality that this particular moment, on what Carl Sagan referred to as “the pale blue dot” holds the possibility for unparalleled learning, unparalleled awakening, unparalleled generosity and kindness, unparalleled systemic transformation of selves, of institutions, of behaviors, of economies, of values.

Witness this short video clip of an interview from Courtney’s book Do It Anyway!

Hope abounds! My heart is dancing as I load my bottles and cans and paper into their respective bins and attempt to speed my way to the recycle station before closing.