Healing the Commons
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“If you ride your breath and quiet your mind, you will hear the heartbeat of the Earth,” Susan Podebradsky tells us in the poem we used as our opening words this morning. “The Song of the Soul of the Earth” is something we feel “deep in our bodies, and deep in out souls because the Song of the Soul of the Earth is our song too.” These lines remind me greatly of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s teachings about Oversoul: that my own simple song is part of the great song being sung across all creation.
And I can sit among the tall trees and feel the breeze washing over me and hear the ripple of water there on the lake – and when I ride my breath and quiet my mind I can hear the heartbeat of the Earth. And the intricate connected patterns between the trees and the lake and other people and my small self become obvious when I look for them. The earth pulses and I pulse in return. We are connected. Our theology speaks of this; science discovers this over and over. The patterns of life are interconnected, interwoven throughout all existence. As John Muir says in what I now think is my all-time favorite quote: “when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Such a way of seeing and understanding the world we live in is the reason I care about the environment and about peace among people and about racism and healthcare and war and so many other social issues. I am a part of the pattern; I am a partner in all that is. I feel it deep in my body and deep in my soul because the Song of the Soul of the Earth is my song too. Oppression, destruction, the suffering of others people and of the earth is part of my life and my existence. This is why I care. This is why it matters to me that we deal with the social ills of our times and the environmental destruction of our world.
Today is the 42nd Earth Day, a day of activism and awareness-raising. It is a day when many people – religious and non-religious – consider the earth and our human impact upon the earth. But it can be daunting: this task of saving the world from environmental destruction. Ozone holes and global warming are huge problems, loss of biodiversity and melting of the polar icecaps – near impossible to think about let alone solve. But that is exactly what we are about. Well, not exactly. Saving and solving are perhaps not the right action words for what we need. Repairing and healing are closer to what I think we need to be about.
I have come to see that there are two levels to the repair and the healing. First and foremost for there to be any significant impact on climate change, specifically any significant decrease in the negative human impact on our environment, there will need to be globally coordinated political actions to reduce emissions of dangerous gasses and chemicals, we will need to regulate for sustainability of our economy and our environment, and to make a solid commitment to clean renewable energy sources. The types of major course corrections needed are going to come at the governmental level. And this is daunting. I know, for example, that as a nation we could be drawing the majority of our energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar, but there are financial and legal incentives in place currently to keep oil and gas consumption in the lead.
It is frustrating and I feel helpless when facing the scope of the situation and my role in it. This is so much larger than one person’s consumer choices. And it feels like my actions to recycle and use energy efficient light bulbs and reusable canvass shopping bags are all the equivalent of ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ But, consider the reading from Gordon McKeeman about being “a drop in the bucket.” Every voice counts in the larger work. We need to have significant political movement to address climate change. Wes Ernsberger and others from our Green Sanctuary are planning to have petitions and other political action steps people can take available after services this week and in the future – should you feel moved to participate in that way. Check out an environmental advocacy group to see if they do political actions. Get informed, get involved.
But that’s just one level of what needs to happen. The other level is that we need to build a person by person change in our mindset, our framework as to how we look at ourselves and our place in the world. Listen to this story that author, engineer, and environmentalist Derrick Jensen tells:
Years ago I heard a story of a Native American spiritual leader who was in a circle with several environmentalists who were drumming and singing. One of the environmentalists prayed “Please save the spotted owl, the river otter, the peregrine falcon.” The Native American got up and whispered, “What are you doing, friend?”
“I’m praying for the animals,” the environmentalist replied.
“Don’t pray for the animals. Pray to the animals.” The native American paused, then continued, “You’re so arrogant. You think you’re bigger than they are, right? Don’t pray for the redwood. Pray that you can become as courageous as the redwood. Ask the redwood what it wants.”
As it says in the Bible, “Ask, and ye shall receive.”
Ask the Pandas what they want. They will tell you.
The question is: Are you willing to do it?
I think the mindset we would benefit from is one in which we see ourselves as interconnected with the redwoods and the spotted owl, with the heartbeat of the earth and the Oversoul. Such that we will believe that what befalls the earth befalls to each one of us. And that our work is not to save the earth or to save the river otter. Our work is to repair and heal. And in that way we may heal and repair ourselves. There was that playful bumper sticker from the 1970’s environmental movement that came out after all the ‘save the whales’ and ‘save the seals’ and ‘save our planet’ bumper stickers. The playful one that came out after those said ‘save the humans.’
Because, really, the earth will survive us. Climate change happens; mass extinctions are part of the grand pattern of existence on earth. The question is can we maintain enough of the current climate and environment such that humans survive. And the trick here is to notice that one of the critical things humans need includes the biodiversity around us and the healthy thriving land beneath our feet.
And for that, I am convinced we need not only political actions in favor of sustainability but also a mindset change to bring us into balanced interconnectedness. Not really to save ourselves from an environmental crisis so much as to save ourselves from the sin of believing we are separate and isolated and superior. I am convinced we need to move past seeing the earth as a merely commodity and resource, it is also a source of healing.
As a few lines from an Ute prayer say:
Earth teach me humility as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands all alone.
Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
There is much we might learn from the earth should we be willing to listen, to ride our breath and quiet our minds enough to hear the heartbeat of the Earth. One reason we should save the Pandas and the Spotted Owl and the Polar Icecaps if possible is because each of these is precious. Another reason is because we are all part of the same pattern. What affects one strand on the web affects us all.
Frogs as a broad species are in significant danger: nearly a third of all the 6000 different species of frog are endangered because of a fungus spreading across South America and moving up to Central America. Amphibians such as frogs have a skin that allows water and nearly anything in the water directly into the frog’s body. So they have no defense or immunity against this particular, human-introduced fungus. And it is killing them off. This matters to us pragmatically because human beings thrive best in a system with a high level of biodiversity. The greater the variety of species on the planet, the greater stability and resiliency experienced for the whole system.
From this perspective, even our small actions make a difference of consequence because they can help shift the mindset, the framework for this situation. Our small actions matter not because they impact legislation and create globally coordinated efforts toward sustainability; the matter because they impact the basic mindset we live in.
Listen, for example, to this poem called “Birdfoot’s Grampa” by Joseph Bruchac (from Entering Onondaga)
The old man
must have stopped our car
two dozen times to climb out
and gather into his hands
the small toads blinded
by our lights and leaping,
like live drops of rain.
The rain was falling,
a mist about his white hair
and I kept saying
you can’t save them all,
accept it, get back in
we’ve got places to go.
But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
he just smiled and said
they have places to go to
In the meditation this morning, Kathleen McTigue writes “If we can learn to think like a stone, then we might learn to think as though we are truly a part of the planet instead of merely living on it. The meditation reminded me of the pivotal story in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. The thrust of the book is summed up in Leopold’s forward when he writes: “When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” (viii)
But the pivotal story is in a short section headed, “Thinking like a mountain.” (p 129-133) In it he describes killing a wolf. He talks about being out with others when they saw a pack emerge within range. And naturally, or at least what seemed natural to these young hunters, they shot.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf not the mountain agreed with such a view.
Leopold goes on to describe how a deer population with no wolf predators to keep it in check will quickly devastate a mountain’s foliage. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddle horn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.” When all that fuss about culling the deer population in the Binghamton University wood was raging, I kept thinking back to this passage from A Sand County Almanac in which Leopold wrote: “Just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” (p 132)
The point is not to think only of the deer or of the wolf or even of the mountain. The point is to think of the whole system and the interrelated parts that depend on each other. The point is that we live in the pattern; we are not separate from it. Thoreau said, “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
At times I am tempted by despair and discouragement. At times I am tempted by what I know of environmental ruin and what I see of politics to throw my hands up in futility. But I know that drop by drop we can make a difference – both for the pragmatic changes needed at the governmental level as well as for the basic perspective changes in how we see ourselves as people in this world. We can repair and heal the earth because we are the earth. We can respond to the changing climate. We are already involved, we live in the pattern.
And we feel it
Deep in our bodies,
And deep in our souls,
The Song of the Soul of the Earth
Is our song too.
In a world without end
May it be so.