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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017


Honest Hope, Redux

The national political situation is a disaster, with unsettling news daily.  Besides Trump's daily atrocities, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are setting new boundaries for just how much ecological damage a cabinet appointment can wreak.  But for those of us who have our eye on climate change above all other issues, simply because it is the fulcrum upon which the whole human project rests, don't blame Donald Trump.  Our course was set before he was elected.

The key decision at a very late moment in the battle to temper CO2 emissions was Barack Obama's decision to prioritize health care reform over curbing climate change during his first term.  He eventually decided to make climate the priority of his second term, but by then it was too late.  Of course, the rest of the world needed to do their part, and I argued long ago in this space that China was likely to be key in that process.  They are stepping up now as the global leader in slowing down emissions, but this also is too little, too late. 

It is true that Trump has had more success in slowing down regulatory and diplomatic progress on climate than in pushing legislative change to the Right's hated “Obamacare.”  But thankfully, corporations, large metro areas, and states (especially California, the world's sixth-largest economy) have picked up the slack in leadership after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord. They were a significant alternate delegation to this year's IPCC convention, and Governor Brown has planned a big-tent climate mitigation jamboree for next spring. 

So if CO2 emissions are already over the limit , where now is our hope for civilization, and the remnant of the Cenozoic era?  I wrote a few years back about the difficulty of having honest hope.  Most hope these days is cheap, shallow, and dishonest, and this is true of the climate left as well as the denialist right.  But today, I received a message sponsored by Climate from the writer-activist Rebecca Solnit ("Hope in the Dark"), one of my most trusted commentators.  Though she is pitching for a small climate justice organization, she speaks honestly, saying we need to “feel the horror and the hope, and choose hope. Hope doesn't mean pretending that climate change doesn't exist or that we can erase it.  It means we fight for the best outcome instead of settle for the worst.”

Must we fight if we have hope?  The inverse holds, as the limbic system supports the link.  But as a contemplative who took to the streets for more than a decade, I have found what feels even more honest in the outlook of Paul Kingsnorth, founder of a project that is deeply searching and probing, but not fighting: the Dark Mountain Project, out of the hinterlands of the UK. Paul is author of  the seminal Orion essay “Dark Ecology.” Dark Mountain's manifesto is entitled “Uncivilisation,” essentially embracing what I feel is already happening, rather than denying or fighting it. 

In a recent audio interview, a junior editor at Orion puts the question, “Paul, people say that your message leaves them without hope. Do you hold any hope?” Kingsnorth answers, “It depends upon what you are hoping for.”  He goes on to make it clear that he does not hope for a solution to climate change, avoiding imminent collapse.  But he is not as pessimistic as James Lovelock, who envisions “Isolated mating (human) pairs in polar regions overseen by warlords” by early next century, nor Guy McPherson, who warns of a mass extinction event in the northern hemisphere by 2035.  Like most whose hope is honest rather than feathered by denial, he makes it clear that the foundations of global modernist civilization are rapidly crumbling, and the massive feedback loops of climate disruption have already engaged.  A man who owns twelve different kinds of scythes, and loves uses them, his best hope is for a chastened human presence working within a nineteenth century level of material existence (similar to James Howard Kunstler's “World Made by Hand” series).  But he acknowledges even that is a long shot. 

As for the fighting stance, Naomi Klein has written a series of penetrating analyses of global capitalism,  and I respect her research and analysis.  But when it comes to reforms which could be bolstered by honest hope, she comes up short.  In her latest major work "This Changes Everything," Klein places her hope in a global socialist movement arising before 2020 which would radically re-order global priorities and stop the emissions curve short of catastrophe.  She has famously denounced Kingsnorth as a traitor to the environmental movement. Listen to her critique, and it is clear that he makes her blood boil.  But just as our country is not ready for a socialist revolution, despite the mounting excesses of the Right, the world does not seem posed for the kind of radical change which Klein feels those excesses have made inevitable.  And the emissions curve against which she strains heroically has become much steeper since she published her latest call to arms.
Climate betrayal by conniving, dishonest Republicans and their disinformation campaign? Perhaps, if you expected them to behave like responsible politicians.  Environmentalists betrayed by a good, smart man in Paul Kingsnorth? Not at all, for the truth is that the environmental movement has betrayed itself.  Environmentalists may not think they hold mainstream values, but by and large they live like the masses.  And, except for their laudable subsistence farming and Luddite fringe, they either openly or secretly believe that human technique will save us.

The problem is that environmentalists, as Kingsnorth argued in “Dark Ecology,” came to depend early on upon quantity, rather than quality, fully swallowing the assumption that measurement and the context of scientific data is the path to slowing down the awakening Climate Beast (Tim Flannery).  But the science of measurement should only be an accoutrement to the central work, which involves unexamined modernist values

And what is the alternative?  A couple of years ago, a young Baptist woman with whom I have worked in faith-based local environmental work was asked to give the sermon at First Baptist in Spruce Pine.  This looked to me like another instance of grudging acknowledgement of the problem, with the pastor lacking the courage to put his job on the line.  But unlike myself, who, like a good liberal,  has included climate science and even some statistics in my climate sermons, Starli spent her entire sermon describing the way her grandparents lived.  She concluded by asking where the climate change issue would be if we had continued to practice the old ways of the Southern Appalachian mountaineers.  Going even further back, we have the Cherokee and Catawba from whom we stole this land.  That is another story, but the sad point is that it is better to set your compass aright and continue to steer by it than to try to reconstitute a whole set of skills with diminished resources in a world of runaway climate change and an additional 6.5 billion earthlings.

So we are back to the moral and imaginative ground of last month's posts. Rather than trying to solve the problems of technology with more technology, expecting human nature to change, or mounting a global socialist revolution, we need to learn to live in place, guided by the old stories that places will tell us if we would only listen. And let our hope be guided by the voices of place, which we must attend, one by one.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


The Cicada, the Witch, and the White Bear

Several years ago, an idealistic ecologist from a New Age church in Asheville sparked my interest in their "Earth Team." His leading was to move beyond a group of religious liberals always planning their next action to grounding the work in serious prayer about our complicity in the web. He invited me in. Next thing I knew, he had moved to New England. Shortly later, I had this dream. I'm at the beach, going into a kind of amusement house. I approach an oracular figure, Orpheus in half-lotus, head bowed under a canvas or light blanket covering. He is tall - Bob, my Earth Team mentor. Recognizing the figure, I joke about his paradoxical nature, and he answers in effect "Since you got it, now it's your turn to be Orpheus." I am shown the seat and take it. The blanket, this mantle, falls over me, and I instantly feel the strange energy of entering an alien being.

I was the anointed, the dream seemed to say. Strange energy, alien being...the teacher-scholar would now try on the cloak of activism. Joseph Campbell once told a wonderful story about a king, exiled in remote mountains, tortured by a whirring machine on his head. A traveler comes up and says, “What's that whirling machine on your head?” The device immediately leaps to the inquirer's head, and the king is freed. The new bearer of this dubious crown will keep it until another unwitting soul makes the same inquiry.

Trying on the “cloak of activism...” I wrote these words over a decade ago, when I was indeed awakened to the need for my contemplative self to rise up out of his den and into the streets. But the dream image does not necessarily say that. If Orpheus is Bob (dream irony works here, since that is also my name), then the primary image is of a Green Man who was not given to reflexive action, but wanted all responses to be grounded in group prayer. My acts of civil disobedience, attending hearings and mass marches, were all the product of the deep searching which led me to quit the ivory tower. I also facilitated workshops and preached the climate word, ending with a deep depression a year and a half ago. I was leading a series of retreats called, after Carolyn Baker, “Collapsing Consciously,” and ended up collapsing myself. Physician, heal thyself. Learn to swim before you throw others into the tempest.

Healing. On the last day of the Southeastern Permaculture Gathering this summer, an annual event hosted by Arthur Morgan School, folks were beginning to strike their tents for the journey home. My friend Crone Patricia showed a few of us a moulting cicada, attached to an auto tire. As we looked we noticed other cicadas attached to other tires in the same way – a couple of dozen. The shell was already that rigid form one sees cast everywhere, but he was patiently straining against it, arching body green as a young spring leaf, gleaming wet, small, intensely red eyes. The old dangling shell curled forward in a permanent dowager's hump. After watching for 10-15 minutes, it seemed to still be at the same place in its moulting. It reminded me of a woman in labor, having the baby without pushing, just patiently waiting for the baby itself to come forward.

I realized in a flash, “that's me.” I was unexpectedly moulting. This was a metamorphosis, a new green life in a 71 year-old body, casting off the dross of an outworn depression, a garment still clinging by habit. This didn't happen through my practice of inquiry, but by witnessing a humble little messenger right before me though a sudden, epiphenomenal opening of soul.

Over the next month or so, I had other encounters with animal messengers. A red admiral butterfly flew up to me, hovered, and moved on. I collected butterflies as a young camper in these mountains in the Fifties, and saw many of them then. I had only seen one here since then, as lepidoptera is one of the orders hard-hit by the Sixth Extinction. When I looked up the butterfly's symbology, the meaning was not clear – perhaps a warning. The point was that this was a visitation.

One night after an exhausting day, I went out on the deck and spread my arms in supplication for peace. A hoot owl answered, hooting three times, and I was healed. I was paying close attention, day by day, finding deer jaw bones on my walks, hawks swooping down, trident-shaped buckeyes budding in fall. I was no longer in my head, fearful of the rapidly changing climate and the madness in Washington, certainly not when I was out walking in the woods.

And my dream-life, richly active in midlife, has intensified. Inviting soul in from the natural world has opened the doors to the inner world, as well. I have recorded dreams since age 19, and learned to dialogue with dream-figures during a period when I entertained becoming a Jungian analyst. Jung called this process “active imagination.” Over the years, I have used it periodically, especially when I was down or uncentered. Now, I use it more frequently, and it keeps me in touch with an imaginal, mythic reality that feels far deeper and more satisfying than following geopolitics and geoclimate events.

A few years ago, I had this dream: I climb up on the roof, where I see my mentor Elizabeth Sewell, a poet. I go and crouch by her, balancing on the pitch for my instruction. She points up to the peak and I see a huge white bear. He feels menacing, threatening, utterly other. Noticing my gaze, he slips over to the other side. I clamber up as fast as I am able. When I reach the top, I see him moving from roof to roof, over the gables of the city. Soon, he disappears. I go back to Elizabeth to report. She tells me it is my task to find this bear.

Now I read from Martin Shaw a fairy tale about a majestic white bear, a distinguished kingly figure pursued by a brave Inuit maiden, going through many trials until she breaks the barriers of her village life to unite with him. As I put the book down, my White Bear appears immediately. I think of the polar bear, doomed to extinction, and my teacher James Hillman's remark one evening in Dallas about the big cats going extinct, and our obligation to keep them alive forever in our imaginal lives, our souls.

I sit down for an active imagination session with the White Bear, and invite him in...
The White Bear climbs down from the roof, and looks in my window, curious now, not threatening. I greet him. He is outside the shed window. My place of retreat, unused now for over a decade.
(When you go into retreat, the Hill, the Shed, the White Bear appears, inviting you.) White Bear walks around to the front of the Shed, and up the walkway steps, waiting there. I roust myself, head for the door, no hesitation. He comes in and embraces me. I feel like a child in his embrace. He tightens it a bit to let me know this is not play, that he could easily crush me. But he is not malevolent. We sit down for coffee together at the write-desk, under Ramana's gaze.

Ramana. I have a photo of the sage over the shed writing desk, wearing his loincloth, holding a staff in one hand, a water-pot in the other. As a teen, he quickened when a relative mentioned Arunachala, the great primordial mountain at Tiruvanamalai where Siva manifested himself in mythic time. Within days, he left home to go to the mountain, which he called his Father, renouncing everything to find the Great Self. For those in the Advaita tradition he subsequently revived, place is of no consequence, and the world is a dream. Ramana affirmed the latter, but remained anchored the rest of his life at the foot of his Father, Arunachala. Was not this call, transmuted as it was by a powerful mystical tradition, not a shamanic one in some sense?

As this fall has progressed, I have found myself moving organically between the shamanic work and the vichara, moving from body through emotions through thoughts to the carrier of it all, the I-thought, arresting that inward movement to ask, Who am I? What do I designate as shamanic? Walking in the woods, ever alert for signs, watching the sun and moon rise and set, inviting in dream figures, animal totems and witches, for serious dialogue. In each of these, the ego is humbled, giving way to an Observer, who is within, and who is also without, as David Abram taught me years ago (come to a retreat and I'll show you what I mean!).

On my best days, this process happens naturally, and each practice supports the other. Just a couple of days ago, I had my third encounter with Cundrie, my favorite witch. She is a figure from Wolfram's Parzival, an old woman with a pig's face and a Parisian hat, riding on a mule. She appears in the Parzival saga whenever the knight is riding too high, and needs to be humbled. In my shamanic world, you could say she plays the role of Shiva (he of the buckeye trident), destroyer of the ego, as well as the mind-built world. When she visits me, I see her riding up my road, whipping that mule to go as fast as she can, dismounting and striding straight up the walk, in the door without knocking, up the stairs and into my study, bursting open the door to confront me. This last time, she followed this scenario until she reached my study door, where she slumped to the floor, just staring. She sat thus for two days, smoking her cigarette. When she finally came in, gently tapping me on the shoulder, and I greeted her, all the tempest of the last ten-day slide immediately calmed. I went directly into my deepest meditation in several weeks, a deep, dark peace that stayed with me for quite awhile. I did not have to repeat the sentence, who am I, for I was well beyond identification with any of the elements.

So yes, though these two paths seem very different to the analytic mind, in my own experience they can work together, even requiring each other. The integration which has eluded me so long is unfolding. I do not know where it will lead in terms of my efforts at this blog, or my work in the world. I will stay engaged with the new green cicada and my faithful Cundrie, and keep tending the soulfire, keeping my kindling dry. And I suspect that my future work will have more to do with midwifery than prophecy. Follow me here, and I will invite you into the patience of birthing without pushing.

Friday, November 17, 2017


The Shaman and the Inquirer

Two traditions have anchored my personal spiritual practice since laying down college teaching at the millennium, returning to Appalachia to work for the healing of the earth – and myself. The first set of practices clusters around enlarging my field of awareness to honor the entire earth system, Gaia, as a divine whole and in her particulars, both saying thanks for participation in the exquisite natural world in the Southern Highlands and grieving what we are losing here and elsewhere. This practice, which still feels like an apprenticeship after 15 years, grows out of my encounters and training with Joanna Macy (April 3 post) and her process of accepting the despair which we all carry for the earth, then moving through it to empowering us to help heal her.

All of this is framed by prayers of thanksgiving, both for what the earth gives us, and for the opportunity to speak and act on her behalf. Joanna Macy's training is in Tibetan Buddhism, which honors the natural world and a host of divinities who embody natural forces and characteristics. It incorporates elements of Himalayan shamanism as well as pre-Buddhist India, both Vedic and animistic. Though the modern term for this approach, following Arne Naess, is “Deep Ecology,” I name it as shamanistic: practices that awaken to and honor the divinity shot through all of creation, mirroring each aspect through our own consciousness and ritual.

The second set of practices grows out of Advaita Vedanta. Historical circumstance threw me into the midst of a religion that accepted and accommodated every practice in South Asia, including yoga, animism, as well as priestly brahmanism and polytheism. Though I was taken by everything about the Hindu culture in 1968, it was self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi that affected me most deeply. He took the ancient practice of the jnana yogi, neti, neti – which recognized the ineffable quality of the divine by saying [It's] “not this, not that” to every experience or formulation of God, and turned it into the simple inquiry, “Who am I?” For every experience, including the customary practice of dividing experience into body-mind (the “self”), the world, and god, is at root only the emanation of the Self, (Brahman), the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. The I thought is primary, and no other thought or image is possible without it. This primal thought itself arises as an epiphenomenal miracle from the Self, which is all that exists.

After a couple of years of intermittent practice as a young adult, I quit self-inquiry, frustrated with my lack of progress. Then, a few years ago, I discovered, virtually in my backyard, a community that trains folks in the Maharshi's method. It turns out that the practice which the ashram authorities forbade transmitting at Ramana's ashram in South India has been taught since 1978 in NC, first in Greensboro at a storefront, now at a rural ashram near Asheboro, home of the NC Zoo. The center calls itself AHAM (Association for the Happiness of All Mankind), and its training in self-inquiry is authentic, augmented by a highly supportive structure, which is modeled on Alcoholic Anonymous, for thoroughly incorporating the teaching in one's life.

Since re-encountering self-inquiry through the AHAM community, I have prioritized this practice. As the Maharshi said, one must always come to this in the end, no matter what practice one follows initially. But I sense that I am not sufficiently honoring the Tibetan-shamanistic practices I learned from Joanna. I am not moving through despair to an affirmation of the essential joy of our true creative nature that the Maharshi says is our natural state, and which I usually re-experience when I do the deep ecology exercises. Instead of using the sympathetic identification of shamanism, I merely glance outdoors and retire to my meditation cushion, where I struggle with the endless stream of thoughts. They occasionally cease long enough to dive within to the questions, who's experiencing, who's thinking, to the gateway question, “who am I?” There is rarely very much energy in the process (maybe I should do more yoga first, or pranayam {breathing exercises}, I ask myself). I struggle to get beyond a deadening apathy, stalked by despair over the state of the earth that I hold at bay long enough to engage in the effort at meditation.

Occasionally this works, throttling despair by letting it in, going through it, and simply cutting off the feeling by retracing the I-thought, undoing karma. Despair, and any other feeling or thought, is totally destroyed as soon as one asks, “who's thinking...who's feeling? But when the vichara is working, even with the eyes open, the world feels unreal, like an image, a mirage. When the shamanistic practice works, on the other hand, I enter into identification with the world as plant, creature or natural feature, and what starts to feel unreal is experiencing myself as a separate entity. The practice takes me outside of myself, beyond experiencing that self as encapsulated in my body, breaking down boundaries, rendering them more fluid. I expand my identity, beginning to experience what Naess called the ecological self - a process of expanding self-awareness into the biosphere.

So it feels like the two practices are moving in opposite directions. It is true that each of them moves beyond the ego, the little tyrant who converts everything to his dominion. Shamanism moves beyond the ego through identification with wider and wider circles of being. I am that too. Advaita, especially through the Maharshi's self-inquiry, moves beyond the ego by going through it more deeply within, moving into identity with the Self who creates the world, including Gaia in all her multifaceted being. The “I” disappears into its source, like waves into the ocean. I am only That.

I deeply honor both of these practices, and have had remarkable experiences using each method. Shamanism feels closer to my experience, because I am an embodied being. But Advaita feels fundamentally true, however fleetingly I experience its core: I am that I am. To choose one over the other feels fundamentally wrong. What has long eluded me is integrating them.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


The Sun Dims, Three Billion Years Early

The eternal silence of these infinite, vast spaces frightens me.  Thus wrote Blaise Pascal, aged thirty, in Pensees (1669).  He was less impressed with human power than the infinite, which bounded it.  The great apes who have inherited the earth are a fulcrum without a niche in the natural world, capable of catapulting us beyond our planetary home into that frightening vast space.

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. It is a consequence of a conceptual split from the natural world which many would argue goes back to the neolithic, when we became settled farmers with stores of grain to guard and distribute.  Out of this came the fortified granary -the polis - the treasury, and a new, more complicated sense of us and them, beyond tribalism - though it persisted as well. Hamilton cites Jacob Burckhardt (198), who wrote that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” Or in biblical terms, the Fall.
It is “inconvenient” to curb greenhouse gases in our greedy pursuit of a status quo which now consumes all of the Earth's annual output by early August, as of last year. We ignore it, but every act has a moral component, and our failure to wean ourselves from fossil fuels is a moral one. Our split from nature, which began as conceptual, has become reinforced until it is also a moral stance, consciously chosen (baldly stated in several Renaissance-era texts and speeches).  Amazingly, the 2012 London Olympics dramatized this in the opening ceremony, where the figure of Caliban comes to the stage and speaks poetically of his love for his island, its beings, sounds, breezes, and textures, only to be rudely replaced by Industrial Man and his smog-belching factories.  The 2012 Olympics celebrated this.  We are conscious of our vaunted  exceptionalism, blessed in the book of Genesis when its author says that Y-hw-h loves us above all creation. 
But as the Bible also tells us, we are only creatures of clay, adamas, and as such, subject to the same natural laws as all other living things.  And now the petri dish on which we live, this poor Earth, is overcrammed with humans, and we are not only reluctant to check our numbers (be fruitful and multiply), but our covetous hunger for food, the built environment, and toys.  Believing in the infinite power of our intellects, fired by god-like imaginative powers, we now dream of mass-producing steaks without the cows, and our most fashionable philosophers speak of a human realm that has no need for the natural world. 

The distinction men have drawn between “natural history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of millions of years – and “human history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of years, decades and centuries – has collapsed (D. Charkabarty).  “With the Anthropocene, humans have become a geological force so that the two kinds of history have converged...”(Hamilton, 198). Anthropogenic climate change affects the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the oceans via acidification, the biosphere, via habitat loss and species extinction, the cryosphere, melting ice mass, and the lithosphere itself through vast mining projects and mountaintop removal (and the now-flooding New York subway system).  If you're not yet convinced that we are, in the words of Brian Swimme, a “planetary power,” consider this: geologists project that unchecked global warming will cancel the next Ice Age, perhaps three of them, altering the planet's climate for up to 500,000 years. 

Since we have known for decades now that fossil fuel burning causes atmospheric warming, anthropogenic climate change is now deliberate, even if the effect of our action may not be. (161)  Anthropogenic climate disruption is creating biospheric and social problems, but instead of accepting the challenge of changing behavior, “we live in societies predisposed to seek technological answers to social problems.” (174) And the technocrats have a huge backing among the economists, who see geoengineering as far cheaper than restraining our fossil fuel consumption. Newt Gingrich is typical of political figures on the right in his summation, “Geoengineering holds the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.  Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention...Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” (168)

As an example, Hamilton outlines in detail the efforts of governments and large fossil corporations to create carbon capture and storage (CCS), which was initially considered quite feasible. As with the Vietnam War, the effort was continued (and continues still) long after it was apparent it would not be workable.  In doing so, companies like Exxon hoped beyond hope to assuage their guilt for being complicit in creating the conditions for climate disruption. The result, Hamilton notes, was a “lost decade” in working for emissions reductions.  The dilemma now is that  pursuing climate engineering will similarly make emission reductions less likely to be pursued, and the lost decade will quickly turn into three. Hamilton sums up the issue succinctly: “But if climate engineering is inferior to cutting emissions (in the sense of being less effective and more risky) then merely by choosing to engineer the climate instead of cutting emissions we succumb to moral failure.” 162

Our moral failure is huge, and we would atone for it by playing God on a scale beyond the many precursors to the ultimate move of managing the global climate. My question is, when have we ever looked at a new technology and refused it?  I have already reviewed at this site a book which emphatically answers “never”: Too Smart for Our Own Good.  But there have been hesitations along the way to our status as the “God Species.”  Hindus claim that they discovered rocket science during the Vedic era, but that the brahmin priests decided it would create too much mischief. More recently, the NYRB reviewed a collection of letters between the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife, in which the scientist describes how he and his colleagues passively resisted Hitler's pressure to develop the atomic bomb after discovering nuclear fission in 1939.  Heisenberg was a brave and thoughtful man. 

So German physicists, like their “Aryan” forebears in Vedic India, did refuse to pursue a technology.  Fatefully, our scientists did not. Robert Oppenheimer, observing the first nuclear test from a bunker in Nevada, compared the mushroom cloud  to Krishna revealing himself as an infinite series of beings in the Bhagavad Gita. But the genie was out of the bottle; Oppenheimer's flash of insight was after the fact.  Indeed, several of the men who created the bomb were unsure the earth's atmosphere would survive the shock. The Manhattan Project was a technical success. We built the bomb to save Europe – and we used it. 

On the micro scale, science is busily sequencing multiple genomes, redesigning DNA in cells by selecting for traits and swapping out genes. Though some called for public debate, there has been essentially none.  In Siberia, scientists are busily re-engineering the modern elephant to have some of the traits of the extinct woolly mammoth, so that the spruce forests invading the tundra might be turned back by a pachyderm herd jealous of its own food source – grasslands. This would restore the albedo effect of the vast northern tundra to help mediate the loss of sea ice.  Other scientists are keen to create designer genes to meet would-be parents' desire for perfect offspring. As Hamilton puts it, “Life is reduced to a manipulable genetic code” (179).

I have long been disturbed by genetic engineering and dismayed over the lack of public debate.  Where is the landmark court case turning back the hubris of great apes playing God by reshuffling the gene pool on a cross-species basis? Where are the preachers citing the magnificent text of Job in the face of our smug hubris (Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?)? And now, after splitting the atom and altering the blueprints of life itself, we are on the brink of managing the entire earth climate. We would re-engineer the global climate to save the “Earth”  from global warming – but on our terms, for us, our civilization.  

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations headed for 550 ppm and beyond (the upper limit of “safe” climate perturbations is 350-450 ppm), it seems only a matter of time before we have sufficient  motivation to start the application of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere.  The big question is, who will have jurisdiction over this effort?  Will it be an extension of Cold War military gaming? How will the interests of poor vs. rich nations be adjudicated? Will it be overseen by the UN Climate Convention? What could the rest of the world do if a large rogue nation that is not a signatory to the convention decided to go it alone to create a solar filter? 

At the very least, there should be widespread debate on the need and feasibility of these plans, including a thorough discussion of the considerable risks (which are on a scale comparable to the risks of a nuclear exchange).  But if we have these discussions too soon, then one probable result would be that all efforts at mitigation would cease.  The Promethean and Soterian forces remain in opposition, with the Soterians arguing for using this technology only as a last resort in the face of climate emergency. Soterians (I am one) would continue to push hard for emissions reductions, for if we reach the 85-100% reductions needed from current levels (403 ppm), we could ground the planes indefinitely. The question is, how do we determine when we are in a state of climate emergency, given that the process leading to such a state is one of multiple tripping of tipping points, each of which leads to others. Once the process begins – and some scientists argue it already has – it is essentially unstoppable. 

Prometheans, who hold the power now, would argue to create the filter as soon as possible, to save money and avoid unnecessary (human) suffering.  With this shift, their goal of having the entire earth system under human control would be met, and geoengineering would be a permanent alteration of the heavens.

Any public debate should include scientists, ethicists, public intellectuals. And it shouldn't just be about saving the two-leggeds.  It will require as well folks who can speak for the voiceless: poets, artists, musicians and spiritual folk. Perhaps, after such a debate, we will still take the best available option, but at least we will do so with our eyes wide open to the enormous risks.  And we will have set the stage for  memorializing the earth we leave behind, the whole magnificent biosphere.
Once we engineer the climate, second-guessing the Sun, the first god for much of Earth history, we will have completed the process of circumventing wilderness, the Great Commons that once surrounded our human dwelling-places. The End of Nature, which Bill McKibben published in 1989, will be essentially complete, usurped by a full-blown, but not fully matured, Anthropocene. Ultimately, morality and beauty join as our bedrock values, and both will be displaced by a “functional” Earth engineered by our Promethean overlords.

If the distinction between natural history and human history fully collapses, then the sublime, that which gives humans awe and humility in the face of the unknowable and unimaginable will similarly move one step away, into the vast reaches of space over which we still have no control. But the sublime will haunt our move to control the planet.  The ”silence of vast space(s)” which Pascal feared will remain our destiny, postponed perhaps for a bit.  But the Earth, our home, will be eclipsed.  Oh terrible, sad, smudged fate!

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