Thursday, September 13, 2018

 

The Great Filter...and Beyond


I must confess to feeling like I’ve been traversing a morass, the molasses-tarbaby into which I fell in the last post. The whole point of “Losing Earth” and its critics is to assign blame for our apparent failure to steward the Earth and to steward a future for our offspring. I found myself agreeing in some ways with both sides, thus the tarbaby.

But what if there is no blame at the level of either individual choice or social system/policy? There may well be something at the species level that dooms us to prefer maximizing present advantages to planning for a longterm future we can neither understand nor imagine. This is the position of Craig Dilworth, and I have yet to read a a cogent counterargument to his Too Smart for Our Own Good.

Another line of thinking derives from Fermi’s Paradox, the apparent contradiction between the high probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for them. As Fermi said, “Where is everybody?” Robin Hanson and Glen Brin have responded with the idea that the Great Silence with which we are greeted from apparently dead space is caused by the “Great Filter”: it is in the nature of advanced civilizations to destroy themselves before they get to the point of colonizing other suitable planets. This occurs either by (something like) nuclear war, ecological collapse, or simply because complex civilizations fall victim to their own complexity. One writer noted that the success of complex civilizations means that they grow until they outstrip their energy resources, and in the process doom themselves to death by carbon.

Advanced industrial civilizations extract so much from their planetary base that they eventually destroy their very conditions for life. If life on other planets – and the odds are huge that it is commonplace in the universe – does not reach the level of interplanetary communication or travel, then it is either because it never reached the level of complexity of our global civilization, or it was able to restrain itself before it reached the Great Filter. Many Hindu sages point to the legend about their ancient forebears backing off rocketry, because ancestral sages foresaw the inevitable results. This may not be true, but respect for wisdom, rather than power, would certainly rein in the potential for a civilization to project itself far into interstellar space. But look at India now, trying to be like the US as fast as possible, and using more coal per energy unit than any other nation on Earth. In the case of the lost decade in the Climate Wars, it is not neoliberalism per se that was the culprit. The socio-political structure was going to somehow manifest this flaw in hyperadvanced higher life forms.
I am a deeply spiritual person, and I agree that the spiritual maturation of the species would mean that anthropogenic climate change would never have become our endgame. Nobody wants to give up on the prospect of breaking through to the level of species wisdom for which I referenced Joanna Macy’s comments in my last post. As Thomas Berry wrote in The Great Work, we need “to reinvent the human at the species level.” But when Gary Snyder was asked about when he thought humans would reach that level, he answered with a chuckle, “ten thousand years.”

In the meantime, what do we do now? E.O. Wilson keeps emphasizing conserving hotspots (his latest, perhaps bravest book is Half Earth, arguing for putting half of the Earth aside for other species). We will not be able to preserve coastal cities, grainbelts, and fisheries. Conserving genetically diverse hot spots will help prime the evolutionary pump for the next efflorescence, the rapid speciation which will follow, when the time is ripe, the current Sixth Extinction.

Even if it is too late to save civilization, which has not been so kind to the Earth community, even if we have broken our covenant with the Unnameable, those of us who are faithful need to avoid cynicism and despair. (Not easy, my friends!) We need to live and work as if we were in covenant relationship with God. We need to work to restore the covenant, recognizing that this will not bear fruit in this incarnation of higher life. The end is near, and the future will unfold, but living in affirmation of that future, preserving what we can of gene pools and best practices, even as the culture for those practices heads into its death spiral, is the task. This is the huge role of spiritual leaders, conservationists, traditional culture bearers, teachers, and honest, caring writers and artists.

It is unutterably sad to observe that the desperately needed transformation of humans simply has not happened quickly enough to avert climate catastrophe. I mourn the end of the holocene period and the splendid, diverse array of life the era which has been our home, the cenozoic. But the basis for true hope lies in the regenerative potential of evolution on Earth. In the end, we must not read Biblical hope locally in terms of life in the holocene, or even in terms of Earth. history The Creator is not simply a middle eastern sky god hanging out in an Islamic Paradise Garden trying to manage his wayward children. “He” is the Unnameable, creator and lord of worlds upon worlds, with no limits. Not only does She (It) not look like your grandfather; God isn’t even a noun, which is form of hypostasy and idolatry. Godding (GK Chesterton) is the process by which the indwelling Source manifests itself throughout Creation.

I have many conversations these days with folks where we agree that those of us alive today will neither save nor lose the Earth, for she will endure. The biggest fault in the Nathaniel Rich piece is in the false title, chosen for dramatic effect, “Losing Earth.” Balderdash. As I have posted here before, there are one to two billion years of evolutionary history ahead of us on this sweet spot in the Universe. And now astronomers and astrophysicists are realizing another insight of the ancient Hindus, that the universe is not a one-time event. It is not a Big Bang as much as a Big Bounce. The cosmological theory that has reigned during my lifetime is fast being replaced by one that fits the facts better. The universe appears, ends, and reappears. It is regenerative. That is another story, one which both reinforces a sense of covenant stewardship towards the Deep Future and helps us forgive ourselves for failing this time around.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

 

The Covenant is Broken: What Now?

Over the past year, the self-censorship of climate scientists has begun to thaw, and the timid predictions of  the IPCC are being questioned ever more robustly.  Academics from allied fields peering into the abyss are no longer fearful of losing their careers, and elder scientists no longer fear losing their grants. Catastrophic climate change either has already begun (see accompanying firemap), as some researchers argue, or it will be upon us in a matter of scant years. The popular article announcing this sea-change is the recent NYT Magazine piece, “Losing Earth.”

In this richly researched piece, focusing on a few key figures (James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance are the good guys; John Sununu their chief nemesis), Nathaniel Rich argues that “we” had a chance during the pivotal decade for climate science and public policy (1979-89), but blew it. He sums his argument with this: “Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” It seems we are wired to "obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the longterm out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.”

Naomi Klein, the brilliant and passionate ecosocialist journalist, replied furiously that it was the neoliberals who “lost the Earth,” not the royal “we” of Rich’s piece, because the masses are disempowered, even in so-called liberal democracies.  Climate research arrived at the moment between two political and economic paradigms, with the remnants of the New Deal, augmented by Rachel Carson,  Earth Day and the Nixon Congress, replaced by neoliberalism.   Any “deals” on the climate, would have to work within the new framework, viz carbon trading, carbon taxes, and that ugliest of terms, “ecosystem services.” Klein’s analysis - see her full-blown argument in This Changes Everything-  is astute and well-researched, though her solution to the climate dilemma – a global socialist revolution by 2019 – is a progressive’s fantasy. 

Though neoliberalism arrived during the Reagan presidency, it continued into the first Bush presidency, Clinton, and the presidents serving since the pivotal 2000 election.  The Republican Party remains its primary champion, but it has captured the political elites of all sides and in all countries. I remember the amazement with which I read a short newspaper piece reporting on an Asian economic summit where Bill Clinton called the Market a “force of nature.”   Here's an excellent history and critique of neoliberalism.

Peter Sawtell, whose Ecojustice Notes is a welcome weekly invitation to ecospiritual dialogue, also challenges Rich’s assertions about human nature, linking to a rich series of articles from the liberal press.  More than one of them points out that, whereas Rich tries to show that some Republicans in Congress were ready to act on climate even before their Democratic colleagues, and that Exxon did early research which corroborated the claims of climate scientists, the Republican Party, above all other political forces on the planet, and the Big Fossil oligarchy, headed by Exxon, have done more damage in the political climate wars than any other players. 

So, are Klein and Sawtell et al correct, that it is social, political and economic structures at work here, rather than something called “human nature?”  From a broadly Marxist perspective, they are. But I’m afraid that both personal psychology and social behavior are aspects of the all-too-human.  Industrial capitalism, which has extended its reach beyond liberal democracies to the state capitalism of China, has magnified the terrifying power of our crafty minds and vastly extended hands. Yes, Naomi, just as the necessary conditions for grappling with the dreadful awakening of the Climate Beast (Tim Flannery) came together, the perfect storm of the neoliberal inflection of economics, industry and politics arrived as well.  

In This Changes Everything, Klein makes the case for a simmering global socialist uprising, which is the only thing that can save us.  She is arguing for structural change, and she’s talking non-violent revolution.  Precisely.  The powers that be, even if they have a vise-grip, remain in power only as long as the masses tolerate them.  Change must be born in the hearts and minds of human beings, which are immensely malleable, however noble their capabilities at the highest range. My mentor Joanna Macy has identified the key problem, which is that the self-reflexive consciousness that humans and a few other big-brained mammals have achieved, has not broken through to the level of social systems.  We do have “esprit de corps” in various organizations, though it’s probably declining, and orators can stir mass passions  - for good or bad.  But the whole social system responding as one to all the feedback necessary for survival has not happened yet.  The history of consciousness is full of such breakthroughs at the level of the individual personality, all the way to God-consciousness. Joanna suggests that the current crisis for the survival of higher life on Earth could be what engenders “self-reflexivity on the next holonic level,” that is at the level of social systems.  She wrote this twenty years ago.

Rich’s focus on individual personalities satisfies our hunger for and identification with the hero’s quest – and James Hansen, who I have met twice, is one of mine.  But this model is inadequate for the terrifying global moment in which we stand.  As Larry Rasmussen says, we cannot solve anthropocene problems with holocene tools of imagination and morality.  Some of these are part of the problem, especially our enduring tendency to measure everything in terms of its effect on humans alone, rather than the whole Earth community.

A perfect storm stopped effective climate action just as it was crystallizing. It was more than just “human nature” that caused humanity to miss the chance in the 80’s to prevent climate catastrophe. Neoliberalism both 1) undermined the devotion to social welfare of a world order where Keynesian constraints (“embedded liberalism”) reigned in unfettered capitalism and 2) led us more fully into the all-too-human characteristics of procuring as much as we can for ourselves and our tribe.  Indeed, the “end of history” now has the ironic ring of the end of global civilization, rather than the triumph of the capitalist West.

However, underneath political and economic theory, anthropologists and primatologists have identified patterns which make escaping the endgame of civilization unlikely, and the exhaustive polymath Craig Dilworth has written a longterm history coming to the conclusion that we are Too Smart for Our Own Good (and too Dumb to Change), which I reviewed in this blog. Though it’s not fashionable these days, there is something one could call human nature, rooted in the genetic and behavioral matrix of the primate order.  Evolutionary breakthroughs which might refine that nature may be more frequent at moments of great stress, but it’s getting awfully late in the game.

After the Flood, the Unnameable made a rainbow sign in the clouds signaling his covenant  “between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come,” to preserve Creation (especially to not send the floodwaters again).  Generations have felt comfort from these words in Genesis (12-16).  But with the oceans beginning their now inexorable rise, anxiety creeps in among the faithful who pay attention to Creation, and dread certainty among those of who are awake.  We have broken our end of the covenant, upon which the theology of stewardship has been built.  But this is not the end of the story.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

 

Enough is Enough

"Enough is enough.”  Ganesan, nephew of the sage Ramana Maharshi, answered my distraught query about the trap I was in, trying to get folks to realize the massive stakes and commit to working against climate change with all their hearts and souls, all the while realizing at that late date (2016) it was too little, too late for this round of global civilization.  Ganesan indicated the message was coming to him from a deep place, outside his own thinking and willing.
I was taken aback, and spent the next days and weeks trying to qualify it.  Enough is enough for this strategy, this workshop model, this group?  I was wildly casting about, a stranded fish desperate for more water.  I have never been an activist down deep, but was driven to street actions and civil disobedience by the dire straits we were in.  I laid this out at the origins of this blog, now almost 15 years ago, and the blogscape is littered with examples of my reluctant activism.  Now, with a wise man passing on a clear message from the Universe, I balked at going back to my own contemplative nature, accepting the necessity of starting over.  Because, you see, we have this need to be consistent and faithful to our stories, even if they are the ones originating and being maintained by our little selves.

Earlier this month, I attended the Friends General Conference Gathering in Toledo.  The heart of these gatherings is always the week-long morning workshop. The one I joined was entitled “Primitive Quakerism Revived,” led by Paul  Buckley, who authored a little book by the same title.  Paul is calling for a third Quaker revival, and I resonated with his quietly provocative words, grounded in those of the early Quakers. I also quickly realized that this resonance was shaking the foundations of my call to focus on the global ecological crisis, primarily climate change, as my reason – and justification – for the privilege of being on Earth.

At lunch after our first session, Ganesan’s words suddenly resonated in my soul, enough is enough. My resistance to them dropped like a veil.  Because I had found it undeniable that the global ecocrisis was the problem overshadowing all others – and I still do – I had initially found it impossible to see my work as anything but fighting it, and trying to draw others into the fight.  But it does not follow that my soul’s calling is to attend this work before all others.  As I look over the last several years, I remember all the times folks insisted that the ecological crisis was a spiritual one.  Yes, yes, I would say, but those who were saying this were not briefing themselves on the science, and some of them didn’t even understand the systemic dimensions of the carbon cycle that has been thrown out of equilibrium. 

I titled this blog ecospirit, for I have been working at that boundary.  But pride has crept in, and I have judged those with less understanding of and appetite for the dismal revelations of climate science.  Correctly, I have named the resistance in those within the movement as well as on the part of climate deniers.  And I have not spared myself, recognizing that I rarely have the stomach any more to read the results of new studies that appear almost daily. 

Resistance has taken other forms.  I have been eldered four times for my climate doom remarks in Meeting.  Mercifully, this led to my being open to Spirit giving me messages other than the “one they need to hear.” But I have resisted these checks, telling myself – and sometimes implying to  sympathetic friends – that my Quaker Meeting elders were mainly protecting themselves from uncomfortable prophecy.  How could those in denial of the clear facts the Earth was laying before them judge me, who could see them so clearly?

And then there are the workshops I have led for a decade and a half.  Three and a half years ago, I led one entitled “Collapsing Consciously,” which went well for the participants, according to the feedback.  But it threw me into despair, and I contracted a series of terrible colds over the ensuing year, lasting as long as five weeks.  I had been offering a couple of workshops a year, but this caused me to stop and reframe.  Finally, I retooled, planning one for this June: “Deep Grief, Deep Hope, Deep Time.”  But as  registrations dragged, the memorial service for one of the early stalwarts of Celo Coummunity was scheduled for the same day, I canceled it. The truth is, I was having misgivings, not entirely sure why.

Prophets are ignored not just because the people are morally deaf.  Sometimes it’s because they have not lived into their own prophetic role.  I do not consciously consider myself a prophet, but have acknowledged a ‘prophetic dimension” to my call to climate ministry, one strong enough for me to take early retirement from my college teaching career.  Though the evidence was accumulating from many sides, I was too stubborn to see the immaturity of my call.

One of the Gathering’s plenary speakers was Reverend William Barber.  I had heard him speak before, but hearing him tune his message to a Quaker audience was a special joy.  His biblical story focused on  Ezekiel, who lived in times very much like the ones we are enduring today: unfit rulers, judges who countermined the law, a network of lies and abuses of power framing the Hebrew people. Ezekiel told Yahweh he was ready to go out and fight the corruption and hypocrisy, but God said, “STOP.”  He told the would-be prophet to lie face down for seven days in utter silence, then they could have a conversation about prophecy.  “The first Quaker,” Barber quipped. As we Quakers say, I had been “outrunning my leading,” unable to hear the still quiet voice within, even when a wise man voiced it to my face. I realized it was time to imitate Ezekiel, humbled into silence.

Many years ago an ultraconservative wrote in response to one of my letters to the editor that I was not a Christian, but a liberal tree-hugger and a pagan.  At the time I chuckled at his inability to see the nuances of my position. Later that week in Toldeo. I remembered his letter. Released from the huge burden of my self-chosen ministry (with initial nudgings from the Holy Spirit, to be sure), no longer requiring  climate justice to be the litmus test for everyone I met, while struggling to give friends and family (and myself!) a pass, I could see what he meant.  I had been in love with Creation, and her apologist.  If we love the Creator, the power within Her Creation, as prior to the wonders of this world, we open to an infinite mystery before which we need to fall down on our faces in utter silence, like Ezekiel. 

Yes, readers, climate change is the defining issue of our times, but it is intricately connected to all the others.  Just like the biosphere, morality is not a pyramid, but a web.  And it all flows from the Creator deep down at the heart of all things.  I sense that the direction of my ministry now is spending more time listening to my conservative Christian neighbors, exploring the interface between Christian universalist Quakerism and their salvation through Christ.  Where I can, I will steer the conversation to the work for climate justice, and connecting all the dots of God’s Creation restored.

Another critical election looms this fall. Reverend Barber thundered that the social gospel clearly fit the policies  of the Democratic Party, but told us not to be disheartened if we didn’t achieve immediate victory. Reviving Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, he reminded us once again of aligning with “the long arc of justice.”  I will work in this election, but with my partisanship as a climate hawk and Democrat held in abeyance so I can try to listen for the still small voice rooted both in me and my Trumpian neighbors.
 
Our planet and our country are in deep peril.  But this is not the fault of one man or one benighted group of “deplorables.”  We are not only Democrats and Republicans, educated and ignorant, rich and poor.  We are a nation driven by fear, because we do not fear God enough.  And God is within each of us as our Root, as the early Quakers realized so radically.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

 

The Web Unravels: No Butterflies


The sun was starting to set Saturday evening when we arrived at Flower Gap, so I didn’t look for flowers or insects. We had work to do before dark. The next morning was leisurely, since we had traversed by far the hardest nine of our fifteen-plus miles. After breakfast and striking the tent, I walked around the gap a bit. I was surprised that there were hardly any flowers, though the tall grasses, reeds and canes were exquisite. And I saw only one butterfly, a beautiful spicebush swallowtail, alighting on one of the few flowers. The previous day, I had seen another, smaller butterfly. A total of two butterflies in this mass of botanical beauty.

When I got home, I read the NY Times article, “The Silence of the Bugs.” Though the research is sketchy, mostly by amateurs, it turns out that, in Germany at least, there is only twenty percent of the number of bugs in midsummer peak bug season that there was a a few decades ago. This jives with my experience, at least with respect to lepidoptera. When we first moved to South Toe, moths covered our windows and night, and the butterflies of summer were prolific, as many as 60 swallowtails gathering for water in the late afternoons. Now, I’m really pleased to see, very rarely, as many as ten or twelve pipevine swallowtails on the road where they drink. Mostly, butterfly sightings are singles. And at night, just a few small whitish moths, not the large Cecropias and Lunas of yesteryear amid a sea of moths of all sizes and shapes. I blogged about this a few years backhttps://wearepassersby.wordpress.com/?s=where+are+the+butterflies, and the eery absence of butterflies at Flower(less) Gap has brought my brooding worry back.

The Times article can only speculate about the causes of the decline, which anecdotally seems to be global, not just in Germany, where it is documented. Pesticides are suspected, especially for species who spend part of their lives in water. But this is not the case with lepodoptera. And the Pisgah Wilderness is huge, has been around for a long time, and is upstream from the light agriculture of the polycultural Appalachian farmers in the valleys below. This particular case is truly a mystery. But EO Wilson, who is the most eminent of entomologists, says this of the situation: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”






 

Pisgah Wilderness: Flower Gap

I just returned from the most beautiful hike I’ve ever taken, Big East Fork up through Greasy Cove to the top of the ridge adjacent to Shining Rock (Big Butt), then back down Shining Creek, ending at the opposite bank of Big East Fork.  I went with my son, my grandsons, and my life-partner.  It was challenging; until we reached the ridge, there were no signs, so Jacob led us, orienteering by a map.  We took numerous wrong trails - fishermen’s trails, mostly – but all were near the roaring Big East Fork, where we saw whitewater and waterfalls at every turn, interspersed with deep pools.  We kept the river on our right, until we crossed two separate fords.  Everyone except Jacob got wet feet. The roar of the river was continuous for three miles. It was sublime.


The boys, myself included, wanted to dip into those pools, but we left late and had a long hiking day ahead of us, at least to the ridge above Greasy Cove.  Jacob wanted to get far enough to complete the loop, which was about 16 miles.  Southern Appalachian trails are rugged, and these were some of the most rugged I’ve ever encountered, including numerous rivulets through the rocky root-ridden or muddy trail after last week’s flooding from a mammoth tropical storm. With my top-heavy rucksack, I lost my balance several times, falling harmlessly to the banks of the deeply rutted trail. 

Having spent most of my adult life in these mountains, I knew the botanical and silvicultural treasures they held, but I have never witnessed such ecosystem diversity, with changes in biome half a dozen times.  At the top of the ridge, we reached “fairyland” as Aidan and Connor called it, deep glades of yellow birch alternating with rhododendron, the floor full of trilliums with light green flowers.  They look like something out of a science fiction movie with their eerily green blossoms, and only grow above 5 thousand feet.  When we had asked downhill hikers about camping sites, they told us that we’d reach some excellent ones after 3-4 miles, after we passed a “grassy area.”  Well, the forest – mostly an unusual mix dominated by yellow birch, but containing silver birch, beech and some maple – was floored with fine-stemmed native grasses, intermixed most of the way with fern, for much of those four miles, until reaching fairyland near the top of the ridge. 

I fell far behind the others.  Even Pablo, the muscular mutt who looks like the dog in the old RCA logo (“his master’s voice”), stopped coming back to herd me.  But there was plenty of time before dark to make the sites we had heard about on Big Butt, so I actually enjoyed the scenery while trudging on the best I could.  About a half mile from the summit I was really struggling, falling back down the trail several times, lacking enough umph to strike firmly up the steep, rocky trail.  Then I saw Jacob, who was kind and resourceful enough to relieve me of my pack. After that, I was able to make steady progress.  At the top, it was clear why nobody had come after me. Geeta needed to catch up so she could watch both packs and the boys.  A ranger we encountered by the river had told us that bears were making regular raids on folks’ food, so Jacob couldn’t come check on the old man until he could leave his pack safely guarded. 

Alas, there was no water at these sites, so we needed to hike on to our most ambitious campsite at Flower Gap, which straddles the ridges of Big Butt and Shining Rock.  When I reached the top, Jacob and the boys had gone on to establish a campsite and seek water, another “two or three” miles.   After a snack and a short rest, I got a second wind, and Geeta and I were able to make the gap fine.  I actually got far enough ahead that I was finally able to take some pictures with my new android. We walked nine rugged miles that day, ascending 2800 feet.


The gap was breathtakingly beautiful, a flowing grassy field surrounded by catawba rhododendron near peak bloom, small tree thickets, and  a huge stand of blueberries stretching up the gap to the East, in turn surrounded by the infinite Blue Ridge, smack dab in the middle of the capacious Pisgah Wilderness.  There were several other campers there, but plenty of room.  Jacob had gone after water - about a fifth of a mile away. The boys were playing.  They had come through fairyland to heaven, where they now romped.

We had just enough time to set up our two tents (a new one by trial and error) and make supper before darkness set in.  Jacob had brought a big bag for all the food (way too much!) and a rope to tie it high in a tree.  Alas, once complete darkness hit, he couldn’t find his rope; still hasn’t.  So I put the bag at the head of my sleeping bag, with Pablo lying on guard just outside Geeta’s and my tent.  Shortly after we went to bed, he started a low growl deep in his throat, and sat at attention, his gaze to the east.  This went on for 45 minutes or so.  Something was out there.

Sure enough, the next morning we ran into several hikers who asked if the bears had visited us.  At least three parties had their food torn down from the trees from which it was suspended, and one woman said they watched helplessly as the mother and her two cubs dined just twenty yards away.  Many of these folks had dogs, but they had not resisted the bears. 

Our story is that Pablo saved us from the bears.  We don’t know that is true, but the deep guttural  growls he made in their direction were the most menacing I’ve head from him in his five years.  Our fellow campers considered him a hero, since none of us had been bothered.  Perhaps he had warned them off, but I suspect they simply had already had their fill before reaching us. 



Wednesday, May 02, 2018

 

Mayan Roots and Guidance into the Future

Aurora and guest
We stayed the previous night with Ernesto and Aurora Saqui at Nuuk Che’il Cottages, their ecotourist haven in Mayan Village (a re-placed community like Indian Church, with the creation of the Jaguar Preserve) . Aurora is a ceramic artist, a traditional healer, and stoic (but cheerful) cook-den mother for the legions who have steadily visited this hostel, a combination of ecotourism, art center, wholistic healing, and Mayan cultural exploration.


Ernesto heals
Ernesto is a remarkable man, a naturalist-teacher, entrepreneur, and Mayan elder. He was director of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve for fifteen years, and still provides expert guidance in the preserve. After retiring from that position, he was head of the Maya Center council, representing his group in regional Mayan political gatherings. He told me that he had tired of all the political conflicts, and was now focusing his energy on being an elder, sharing the tradition with serious students, and attending gatherings of Mayan elders/shamans from Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. The day we moved on to Cockscomb, he hosted a Mayan Ceremony for a Danish television crew who helicoptered in from their ship anchored offshore. It would be featured in a tv series on indigenous cultural renewal and teachings. I asked him the day after the ceremony whether he was able to enter the spirity realm, or was he just performing for the camera. He said he had dond this so often, that he was able to enter that place of quiet readiness. “Some of them were crying,” he said.

The regional gatherings of shamans and elders happen once or twice a year, and are the highlight of Ernesto’s life. He explained that each time they met, the elders set a problem that needed healing, and they went into deep exploration prior to the ceremonies, bringing new material from the spirit realm to add to the tradtional ceremonies. Ernesto initmated that most of these problems were ecological. I was struck by two things. One was that they did not simply perform the millenia-old Mayan ceremonies by rote, but that this was a living tradition into which they integrated new visions from the spirit world. Second, I was reminded of the Pachamama workshop (Awakening the Dreamer) which Equadoran shamans have created to teach all over the world to save the biosphere. I participated in one of them several years back, and felt the power of their teaching. We are not healed, but the immune system, as Paul Hawken puts it in Blessed Unrest, is being activated.   

From Cockscomb we taxied with Ernesto’s brother to Hopkins. Emerging from Cockscomb Basin Reserve, we entered a European orange company’s plantation. Upon inquiring, we leatrned they had ruined the communal water for Maya Center. Ernesto’s brother told us that the health department nhad come and tested the water, confirming that it was highly contaminated with run-ff from pesticides and fertilizers. But they took no action. Geeta encouraged him to contact European enviro groups to put pressure on the company. This strategy worked in the case of la Milpa, where a Coca-Cola distributor from Belize City was shamed into donating the major portion of the 250,000 acres in the reserve, rather than growing more Tropicana orange juice. Massachusetts Audobon was also involved – and of course Judy Lumb.

Judy has a long history with the Garifuna people in the south coastal area, and we stayed in a beach cottage run by one of them in Hopkins. I was glad to finally get my imagined time “at the beach,” but unfortunately we encountered the same sargasso seaweed disaster which was plaguing Caye Caulker. From talking to other tourists, I surmised that the stuff was strewn all along the coast. Here, at least, it was not rotting yet. The brief history of the Garifuna is that they shipwrecked en route to slavery in the Carribean, landing on a rocky island. They were rescued by a sympathetic party, and managed to hold off the British for well over a hundred years before finally attaining independence. They are a smart, resourceful, resilient people, and we enjoyed our brief time with them.

Coming from a country still plagued by racism, Geeta and I were struck by its absence in Belize. Folks get along in Belize. I didn't get the slightest whiff of discrimination by class, culture or race. The model of ecological preserves, embedded with ecotourist sites, seems to be working well. The big remaining ecological challenge is to find a way through major highways intersecting in central Belize to create a wildlife corridor, crucial especially for the threatened jaguar.

The model is similar to Costa Rica, and like Costa Rica, there is virtually no army. The biggest military presence I noted was a small constabulary outside Belize City. But there is no air force, nor navy, nor heavy weaponry. I did not see a gun the whole time. The night watchman at our hotel in Dangriba (the Garifuna capital, where we ended our journey) was relatively tall, with beautiful greying dreadlocks. Noticing that he held his hands behind his back, Geeta peeked and saw his peacekeeper – a machete.

The country’s prospects are reasonably good, though there is a potential threat from Guatemala, whose president ran on a platform of exercising their traditional claim to much of Belize. Both countries have scheduled referendums to have these claims adjudicated by the World Court. Unsurprisingly, Guatemala has voted no. After the election rolls are cleaned up, Belize plans to hold theirs.

In my conversation with Ernesto, I told him that I foresaw in the not-too-distant future a chastened humanity re-grounding after the collapse of global civilization on the foundation of indigenous religion (and culture). This religious culture is reviving in many places, especially in Central and South America (note the Pachamama Alliance, for example). Though this revival is less strong in the US, the recent longstanding protest camp in South Dakota over the natural gas pipeline was led by a deeply grounded core of Sioux elders. Living in western Minnesota for eleven years, I was struck by the dignity and confidence of the Plains Indians. I met. Similarly, the Mayans were not broken by their conquerors, unlike the Cherokee in my own area of Southern Appalachia. Even the Eastern Band, who were spared the Trail of Tears, seem uncertain, poignantly reaching for something that continues to elude them.

The Mayan elders are seeding a rooted, resilient future for a remnant humanity emerging from the severe bottleneck which awaits us. For this I am thankful, and I feel blessed to have met a man who embodies its possibilities.



 

Mayan Ruins and a Jaguar Preserve

Our last days in Belize were spent visiting Mayan sites and encountering the Garifuna culture. The archaeological site at Lamanai (“submerged crocodile”) was remarkable. This city, one of the largest in the extensive Mayan empire, was continuously inhabited from 1500 BC until the nineteenth century. When the British initiated excavation in 1974, there was still a small Mayan group in makeshift shacks living on the site, who were moved to a small town built for them in nearby Indian Church. What was most impressive about Lamanai was not the excavated pyramids and palaces, but the extensive mounds still unexcavated on the 950 acre site. This place was huge, one of several making up the one million residents of the classical period in Belize, which now has a population of 335,000. Since today Belize imports a lot of their food while preserving extensive forest, one can see that growing corn for a million people in this small country would have led to ecological disaster.

Judy took us to Cockscomb, home of the world’s first Jaguar Reserve. We spent one night at the preserve, in a clearing of the forest with rustic shacks and eery models of the early Jaguar cages.
An old Ford truck used by Alan Rabinowitz, the original creator of the jaguar reserve, hovered in the background, mowed up to the frame and wheels, thick with high weeds. I noted that it was not quite as old a model as the one with which I built my house, then retired to the forest at a junkman’s place, where nobody cleared the vines and forest debris. (Yes, I too am fading into history.) Judy had herself been part of the team which re-introduced howler monkeys to the area after it was rescued from orange plantations. We learned that there were now four howler families persisting in the area.

We were less able to see birds here than in la Milpa or Crooked Tree, both because the vegetation was so dense, and because Roni had left us. But the wildness was invigorating. We tubed down the Stann Creek River, during which I endured numerous chigger bites. A treat was going a little further upstream to
see a Boatbilled heron which Dorothy had spotted on a hike that morning. All day long the melodious black birds sang at the primitive site, their varied, liquid songs reminding me of the woodthrush which arrives here at my Southern mountain place every April (local Audabon folks tell me it likely winters in Belize.) A bus full of high school kids from Oakland roared in around 10 pm. As thirty souls set up camp in the dark, the electricity from solar panels failed. But I’m now a country boy, and peeing in the dark is normal.

Monday, April 30, 2018

 

The Ultimate Safari


On our way to Crooked Tree, Roni drove deeply up a remote side road, searching for the Jabiru (a huge stork). The wetlands were less extensive here. We saw very few birds, and no Jabiru. Now, at Birds Eye View Lodge, the owner has cooked up an “Ultimate Safari” to a remote Jabiru nest. The excursion lacked only an order of boots, which arrived the day before us. We four septugenarians constituted the first sally into the wetlands to see this amazing bird, the largest in the western hemisphere. The “safari” consisted of taking a launch across the lagoon and deep into one of its fingers opposite the lodge, where we found three waiting canoes. We carefully transferred to the canoes with Rudy and a young photographer in the lead (she had never canoed before). We proceeded to paddle about 45 minutes into some challenging wetlands dotted with various shrubs, some of which bore thorns. It was windy, so virtually impossible to avoid repeatedly running into them. The circuitous path was marked by orange tape hung from the shrubs and small trees. On our way in, one of the Jabiru pair flew overhead en route to spelling its mate, its eight-foot wingspan on full display. It was like a treasure hunt.

After traversing the water, we grounded our canoes in thick grass and donned boots for walking through muck, then a muddy track another half hour to a rustic bench Rudy and a companion had fashioned from a tropical tree. The track was littered in one section with holes, which turned out to be iguana nests. We then approached the nest, first into a blind, then moved to a closer position after being assured the bird was ignoring us. One of the parents is always attending the nest, which was at the top of the tallest pine, about five feet across. The stork was remarkably attentive to the chick – no, there was a second one! We stayed for a long time, hoping to see the tag team in action, but eventually had to leave for the long trek back. We arrived at the lodge shortly before dark, enduring a light rain on the launch back. When the owner debriefed us, we noted that this was not an adventure for those who didn’t have at least modest canoeing skills. Whether she plans to show us on the website, grey-hairs fighting briars with upraised paddles, is an open question. But the Jabiru was magnificent, an experience for a lifetime.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

 

Adventures Birding in Belize


We recently returned from a rewarding visit to Belize, hosted by a Quaker friend who has lived there for thirty years. With Judy’s planning and guidance, we were able to experience both natural richness and cultural diversity in this tiny country of 335,000 below the southeastern corner of Mexico. Since the country only received independence (formerly British Honduras) in 1981, she has matured with the recently freed colony.

Though less wealthy and with somewhat less ecological diversity, Belize is similar to Costa Rica. Forty percent of the country has been placed into ecological preserves. This process began with independence, and Judy has played a part in that history. She is a longtime member of the Belize Audobon Society, serving on its board until recently. When she took us to Cockscomb, a wild, jungly wildlife sanctuary near the south central coast, we learned that she was part of the team who re-introduced the howler monkey to the reserve more than 25 years ago. The original 14 troops introduced on 3,000 acres have repopulated far beyond that original territory, filling out the 250,000 acre preserve. In a world plagued by dismal stories, this one is definitely a success!

Judy lives on Cay Caulker, renting a cottage that fronts the lagoon formed by the world’s second longest barrier reef, running 230 miles about a mile offshore. It is healthier than the Great Barrier Reef. We had a wonderful day snorkeling about it, highlighted by feeding the sting rays (and the occasional small nurse shark) with sardines, while we hung out in the water with the 40-odd fish. The rays are quite docile, and their skin is delicately smooth, which surprised me. I also watched a Frigatebird steal a fish from a Laughing Gull in mid-air. Suddenly I understood what kind of frigate was the reference!

Judy is a publisher of both cultural and naturalist books about Belize, as well as the series of pamphlets issuing from summer sessions of the Quaker Institute for the Future. Her neighbor Dorothy is a partner in this enterprise, overseeing many children’s books. They are both longtime birders, and Judy arranged for the premier birder of the country to guide the four of us for three days, the first part of a ten-day tour that Judy and Dorothy arranged for us.

Our adventures with Roni Martinez centered on La Milpa, a large preserve inland to the north. Just about a month before our visit, Roni received his country’s the most prestigious environmental award, and we were honored to have him guide us to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At Geeta’s instigation, we have birded before, including a couple of outings in Costa Rica, the bird capital of Central America. But it didn’t take until we had those three days under Roni’s expert guidance. We identified over a hundred and twenty different birds, and I have clear images of most of them (we are much less able to identify calls). Now, one of us jumps out of bed each morning to go check out a new call or a flash of color.

From La Milpa we drove slowly to a rendez-vous with the chief guide at our lodge in Crooked Tree. Rudy was also excellent, and we were treated the next morning to a boat ride on the lagoon dense with shore birds of all sorts, as well as iguanas sunning themselves in the tops of brush bordering the lagoon. Judy had said before our visit that we would see large flocks of shore birds congregating around the shrunk water cover during dry season, but unseasonal rains produced a plethora of water, with our room looking out on a small lagoon in the rear and a virtual lake as far as the eye could see in front. The food here was the best we had in Belize.

In my next post, you'll hear about Rudy's "Ultimate Safari," with four septugenarians bungling about in canoes in the wild wetlands of Crooked Tree.




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