It is no longer possible to ignore the catastrophe that confronts us as the ice melts, as the oceans warm and storms wreak havoc in Asia, as endless droughts grips Australia, India and Africa. And, despite the efforts of millions of good-hearted men and women, we have to admit that the environmental movement has failed.
This is difficult to comprehend here in the Pacific Northwest where, after a morning rain, sunlight glints off beads of water on the cedar boughs and magnolia leaves—still green in late October—as the last tomatoes cling to the vines and the pumpkins and spaghetti squash lie ripe on the ground. It’s hard to imagine that this land, so rich and moist, may soon be unable to support our lives.
Even as millions gather around the world to advocate for the reduction of carbon emissions to 350 parts per million, the halls of government echo with intractable arguments over ineffectual measures like carbon trading or slowly raising the gas mileage of cars. Serious efforts to invest in alternative energy can’t make it to the floor of Congress. And even that is not going to be enough. Soon, the questions may be about finding adequate food and water rather than keeping cars on the road and our computers running. In a sense the 350ppm Action is symptomatic of the problem. For the environmental movement has always relied on science and advocated technological solutions for the problems caused by pollution. And a few opposing scientists—often in the employ of the extraction industries and given undue airtime by the mainstream media, which is, after all, dedicated to maintaining our consumerist lifestyles—dispute the overwhelming evidence that implicates human involvement in climate change. And even the best technological solutions carry with them unknown consequences.
And so, at a time when serious changes need to take place if we are to survive, we find ourselves at a standstill. Clearly, another approach must be taken. What’s been missing in the environmental movement is any real sense of the livingness of the land, of the song that rises from the oceans and sweeps across the continents carrying with it the voices of every living thing, all the people, plants and animals, the mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, valleys, plains and deserts. We are under the thrall of Scientific Humanism—the concept that humans are the pinnacle of evolution. We believe that we can understand the nature of being and solve the problems of survival through the activities of the mind and the applications of technology. We have separated ourselves from the living world and taken on the premise that anything that increases human wealth is good, without regard to the damage it may cause to other beings. While Scientific Humanism has increased our capacity to produce food and shelter and brought us numerous conveniences, it has perpetrated a population explosion and conditioned us to a lifestyle that is patently unsustainable. And, for the most part, we have lost the knowledge of how to live in sustainable relationship with the land—wisdom that was nurtured for tens of thousands of years by our ancestors. We have lost our capacity to hear the song of the Earth.
This wisdom is still alive in cultures that maintain their ancestral rituals and live in close connection to their lands. Emissaries from these cultures arrive every day, calling to us to wake up, to look at the precipice we’re perched upon, to listen. And even people in our culture are being called to ancestral traditions, to recall the ancient wisdom of our lands and to awaken the consciousness of our people. I am one of these.
Yet, in a sense, we are like whales swimming up the rivers or beaching themselves to call attention to the problems of the seas. Our voices seem unintelligible and are easily ignored. And for those of us who have been called from this culture to nurture our connections to the living world, it is so difficult to let go of our cultural conditioning. How do we, really, begin to hear the singing of the world?
Not long ago, as I was sitting beside the fire in a tuki, a ceremonial house, in a Huichol village in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, I asked this question. And it came to me that the way to begin is to stop looking at the artifacts—the things made by humans that cover the land—and to start paying real attention to the land itself, with its vitality of plants and animals and people, the movement of the rivers, of the wind and clouds, of the sunlight pouring down, nurturing every living thing. And to not ignore the places where the land has been marred, for that, too, is vibrantly alive.
A couple days later, as I flew in a small plane from that remote place, it was so difficult to keep my eye from falling on the ranchos and roads. But I was able to see the livingness of the land and its endless diversity. And when I landed in Puerto Vallarta, beneath the roar of traffic, I could hear the song of the ocean and the wind moving among the trees, of the grass pushing up between the cobblestones. Now, as I sit on this land which holds my home and has nurtured my family so generously, I hear this song singing through the cedars and pines, alive in the grasses and ferns, in the squirrels and birds. It is calling for all of us to slow down, to look at the living world. For the Earth has endured for billions of years without us and can, in a few thousand years, easily repair the damage we have caused. Yet, we too are children of the Earth and she is calling to us, through every living thing, to wake up, to listen, to hear the song she sings and to recognize our part in that song. Through this listening, we will begin to learn again how to live in proper relationship with the land.
About the Author
Jonathan Merritt is editor emeritus of Sacred Fire. He is a poet, an initiated Huichol shaman (marakame) and a firekeeper in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine.
Sacred Fire magazine is an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.
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