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.

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 Truth.org 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.

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