Late Night Thoughts on Love, Loss and the Urgent Need for Action

I had a rough night last night. I went to bed thinking about the April 15 “Blood Moon” lunar eclipse; unfortunately we could not see it here in the Northeast, but we certainly could feel the extra-intense full moon energy these past few days.

At some point in the wee hours I woke up to strong winds battering the house, and peering out the window I could see that our long-awaited springtime had been overrun by Old Man Winter again. Driving snow, accumulating steadily on the ground.

Shit. Yet another manifestation of the new normal of our wrecked climate.

After that I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually, bored with my own churning thoughts, I fired up my tablet and started reading The New York Times in bed. Bad move. The first article that caught my attention was about how hazardous materials, particularly heavy crude and gas from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota, are being sent by rail to ports in the Northeast in exponentially increasing quantities, with virtually no regulatory oversight.

The map below shows the rail lines from North Dakota to the Hudson River, where tankers take the oil up to the refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, on the magnificent Bay of Fundy.

I live just two blocks from a train line, and I see the tanker cars that rumble past twice a day.

The tracks go right through downtown Pittsfield, the largest town in Berkshire County, and they go through many of our most lovely wilderness areas too.

But compared to cities like Albany, where schools are apparently sited right along the railroad tracks, or Philadelphia, which narrowly averted a major hazmat rail accident just recently, we have it good here in the Berkshires.

The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think that nasty crude oil spills and explosions only happen somewhere else, like Ecuador or Nigeria.

We are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine ourselves as innocent bystanders in the nightmare of industrial devastation of our land, waters and air, and the destruction of our planet’s biospheric life support systems.

If Humans Are So Smart, Why Are We Destroying Our Home?

Surface of Mars

Surface of Mars

Surfing around the web bleakly in the middle of the night, I found myself reading articles speculating about how the dead, dry planet Mars lost its ability to support life.

The most likely scientific guess right now seems to be a catastrophic asteroid hit that changed the climate. Somehow the magnetic field of the planet was damaged, which allowed its atmosphere to literally blow away into space.

On Earth, our undoing will be the result of our own relentless industriousness and intelligence.

Human beings are so smart, we figured out how to split atoms and make atomic explosions! Too bad we haven’t got a clue what to do about the residual radiation and radioactive waste—waste with a half-life measured in the billions of years.

We’re so smart, we figured out how to harness the carbon energy buried deep in the ground in the form of coal, gas and oil. We even figured out how to turn oil into a different kind of substance that’s virtually indestructible—plastic! We just somehow overlooked the fact that we might quickly bury ourselves in plastic garbage, and choke ourselves in exhaust fumes.

We’re the smartest species on Earth. But like the Grinch, it appears that we have one fatal flaw—our hearts are many sizes too small for our outsized minds.

If we were guided by heart energy—that is, LOVE—in the application of our amazing technological abilities, what a very different world it would be.

It’s Time For Those With Loving Hearts to Speak in Many Tongues, Translating Love into Action

If future beings ever look back, shaking their heads at the demise of Homo sapiens on Earth and wondering how this once lush green and blue planet turned dead and brown, I wonder if they will be aware of the anguish of some of us living through these bitter transition times.

Will they know that some of us tossed and turned through the night, seeking futilely for a chink in the armor of the corporate stranglehold on our planet? Will they see that many of us, in these end times, tried to stand up for our values; tried to put into action the love we feel for the living creatures that share our beautiful Earth?

Always, it comes back to the question that keeps me up at night. What can we do to make a difference, now while there’s still time?

For a wordsmith like me, the obvious answer seems to be to learn to speak more tongues.

Since the corporations who are so bound and determined to keep fracking and mining and bulldozing their way to Kingdom Come only understand the language of quarterly profit and loss, this is the way we must speak to them.

The almighty priests of the Bottom Line and their henchmen the politicians could care less about emotional blather of love and respect for life and leaving a livable planet for future generations. So let’s speak to them in terms of losses.

The insurance company guys understand already how irreversible climate change will lead to losses on a Biblical scale. The fossil fuel magnates must also be made to understand that they are driving us all down a rapid road to ruin—and no gates will be high enough to keep the floods, fires and starving displaced populations out. We’re all in this together—rich and poor alike will go down with our sinking Mothership Earth.

To the church-going folks, we can speak the language of moral commitment and social responsibility. This weekend is a holy time in the Jewish and Christian calendars. When we’re thinking about the Resurrection and the miracle of Passover, let’s remember how these ancient holidays celebrate LIFE. For those who are religious, how can you claim to follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and allow the destruction of our planet to proceed unopposed?

To the ordinary folks who are just trying to keep their own lives on track, we must speak in a very pragmatic voice. It’s time to begin to pull together as communities and insist on re-localizing energy production (solar, wind, geothermal) and agricultural production in order to build resilience at the state and town level.

It’s time to insist on regulations that will put the safety of people and environmental ecosystems above the profit margins of corporations, and if the federal government won’t do it, the states and towns must step up.

Lying awake at night worrying and mourning is a poor use of my energy. I want to spend whatever time we have left raising my voice to motivate all of us who care to work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of the voiceless: the trees and the bees, the birds and the whales, the frogs, elephants and farm animals, and especially on behalf of the human children as yet unborn, who may never be born—or may be born into a nightmarish, unlivable world gone mad.

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014--western Massachusetts

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014–western Massachusetts

Life in the 21st Century: We Need to Build Resiliency or Be Swept Away

First a giant airplane loaded with people and fuel simply vanishes over the ocean. Then a wall of mud a mile wide slides down a mountainside and buries a small community of houses and people.  What’s next?

It disturbs me that so far I’ve heard not a whisper of the question of whether this week’s Washington state mud slide was caused by logging and/or development.

Before and after image

Before and after image

Was there clear-cutting going on in the ridge above the little town that got buried?  Was the town itself part of the problem, the clearing for houses taking away the trees that had been doing the good work of holding the landscape in place?

The obvious culprit being blamed is simply too much rain, yet another example of our climate going haywire in response to the destabilization of too many humans burning too much fossil fuel.

I’m glad to see glimmerings of recognition inside the insular Washington DC Beltway that the effects of climate change are here and are only going to increase in the coming years.

Earlier this month a group of Democratic Senators staged an all-night climate change rally, Senate-style—meaning, they talked about climate change all night long to raise awareness and bring attention to the urgency of the issue.

Talk is cheap; action is what counts.

So far we have not seen nearly enough action aimed at shifting our economy towards renewable energy and “sustainable growth”—scare quotes because “sustainable growth” may, in fact, mean “limited growth,” anathema in American political/economic circles.

We know now that if human population and resource consumption continue to rise at current rates, we will simply decimate our planet, like the locusts we are coming to resemble.  That way lies death, terror and madness.

We have already altered the climate enough to keep the disasters rolling in—floods and droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, spring blizzards and summer heat waves…we’ve seen it all and this is the new normal for the rest of our lifetimes.

We need to acknowledge that building resiliency is of paramount importance in these critical years while there is still enough political and social stability to make the adaptive changes that are needed.

images-1Building resiliency means shifting to renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal—that is locally based all over the planet.  Forget about pipelines and oil tankers.  Forget about huge power lines criss-crossing the countryside.  We need to move towards a distributed energy model where each town and county becomes responsible for its own energy needs, and has back-up plans in place for the times when those floods and storms hit.

The same thing goes for food production.  Forget about shipping tropical fruits north to please the fancy of the WholeFoods crowd.  Forget about ripping up African rainforests to create palm oil plantations. We need locally based agricultural production that can sustain populations where they are.

We need to return to the resiliency of pre-20th century human populations, but now connected as never before by our awareness of the role we can play, for good or for ill, in the global biosphere.

We also need, unpopular as it may be, to curb human population growth.  Sharply. Now.

Those who live to tell the tale of the 21st century will look back on the 20th century as the unfolding of the greatest nightmares the human species has ever faced.

In the 21st century, all those disastrous chickens hatched by the petro/agri/chemical industries of globalized capital are coming home to roost, and none of us will be able to build a wall high enough to keep them at bay.

If we want to survive—if we want to bequeath a livable planet to our descendants– we need radical new thinking, backed by urgent and committed action.  Now, before the next mudslide, the next flood, the next wildfire sweeps more of us away.

Infectious Hope

One of the things we are thinking about in my classes on social and environmental justice is whether it’s better, as an activist, to put your energies into a top-down or a bottom-up strategy.

Should we be trying to pressure governments, politicians and international organizations to do the right thing when it comes to, say, climate change policies?

Or should we be trying to ignite a whole series of grassroots, local, community-based changes?

Obviously it’s not an either-or proposition—it’s important to work at all levels.

But I notice that when I think about the big picture, I feel impotent and despairing.  Who is going to stop the massive deforestation of the planet?  How are we going to get the fat cats in corporations, governments and the United Nations to understand how critical it is to maintain forests and healthy agricultural soils so that they can function as the effective carbon sinks they are meant to be in our delicately balanced terrestrial eco-system?

It’s remarkable to note how my despair turns to hope when I turn my attention to the many local initiatives that I know are going on all over the globe.

When I think about how my hometown, Great Barrington MA, will be one of the first in the world to actually BAN PLASTIC BAGS in stores, my heart swells with pride.

Hope fills me to learn that Seattle is creating an innovative “Food Forest” in a city park, aiming to improve public health by regenerating public land into an edible forest ecosystem created using permaculture principles to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species.

And when I hear that some of the incredibly powerful billionaires on the planet are using their money to try to turn the climate change juggernaut around—for example, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson—it makes me believe that all is not lost.

Both despair and hope are highly contagious.

It is easy to pay attention to the constant stream of depressing news and believe that the game is over, so there’s no point in trying anymore.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesJust as green plants poke their way stubbornly through asphalt and even the most blighted landscapes are always striving to regenerate, our Earth always tends towards life.

Every single species alive on the planet today, from humans to microbes, has survived many cataclysms and tough times in the past.  Just as we have before, we can rise to the challenges that face us today.

It really doesn’t matter whether your preferred approach is lobbying Washington DC or starting a Transition movement in your town.

The important thing is to stay alert, stay active and engage with others who understand that the choices we make day by day can, cumulatively, have a critical impact on our planetary future.

We cannot afford to be complacent or ignorant, and neither can we afford the luxury of despair.

Put your hope into action, one day at a time.  I truly believe that the bridge of hope we build together can take us over these dangerous times, into a future bright with promise.

Changing the storyline: from limitless growth to sustainable planetary happiness

Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.

The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.

To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling.  It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line.  It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.

It’s a pretty tall order!

The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind.  Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.

Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart.  I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”

That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.

It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world.  You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.

I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.

The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.

We already know what we have to do.  Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.

Judith D. Schwartz

Judith D. Schwartz

We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.

If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.

What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.

It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.

It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.

If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?

Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.

345570804_640I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.

C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.

We can’t wait around for others to do it for us.  Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.

What story will you tell?  What life will you lead?  What are you waiting for?

A true agricultural revolution has NOTHING to do with genetic engineering!

When I hear the term “genetic engineering” I cringe.

Could anything good come out of tweaking the DNA of plants and animals, and maybe someday humans too?

Is it safe—is it wise—for humans to play with evolutionary fire?

A recent New York Times  op-ed by a professor of agricultural economics and a physician from the Hoover Foundation warns that humans would be fools not to try to engineer wheat and other crops in order to tailor them to our rapidly changing environment.

Given that drought is going to be more common in the future, as aquifers are depleted and erratic weather patterns take hold, why not tweak the DNA of wheat and other crops essential for human survival, so that they are more likely to withstand the harsh conditions that will become the new normal?

I don’t want to be a knee-jerk Luddite, but really now—can we be sure that it will be safe to alter the genes of a plant that took thousands, if not millions of years to reach its present incarnation?

I actually think it might be possible to do genetic engineering of food crops in a safe and sustainable way.  But as long as Monsanto remains in control of agricultural genetic engineering, I cannot be trusting.  The track record of that company is just too abysmal.

According to the NYT op-ed, “Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat,” which “will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides.”

Is there such a thing as an environmentally benign herbicide?

Monsanto, along with its henchmen in government, academia and think tanks, is still stuck in the old 20th century idea of unlimited growth.

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In that mind-set, we have to grow as much wheat as we possibly can to feed our burgeoning population.  No matter how many birds, butterflies or bats have to die under the plow of “progress.”  No matter if natural biodiversity is chemically poisoned to make way for the mono-crop.

No.

What if Monsanto had its way and all the wheat planted was drought-resistant.  And what if that year it never stopped raining?  Where would we be then?

We are fortunate to have seed-saving champions like Vandana Shiva who are working hard to make sure that our human heritage of genetically diverse, tried-and-true seeds are not totally lost in the rapacious maw of Monsanto.

What we need is a true agricultural revolution that has nothing to do with genetic engineering and everything to do with returning to local, regional food production.

To withstand the crazy weather that lies in our future we need more biodiversity, not techno-modified mono-cropping.

Or if we’re going to tweak those genes, just because we can, let’s do it in ways that tailor crops to small regional environments, and forget about the herbicides!

Right?

Respecting Our Elders

I was fascinated to learn recently that trees, especially big old trees, can communicate with each other and with their entire grove or forest of younger ones.

Apparently they do this through a network of fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots.  The larger the tree, the bigger the root network, and the more other trees the old one is in contact with.

What do they talk about? According to forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, trees share nutrients and chemical signals through the network.  A big old tree can help the younger ones who may be less able to withstand drought, for example, or an insect onslaught.

That’s what we know for sure now, but who knows what other wisdom the trees may be sharing?

IMG_3928 copy

I was reminded of this forest phenomenon this week as two things happened simultaneously: the news broke that folk music giant Pete Seeger had died, and I started discussing with students in my Women Write the World class the first book of the semester, The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill.

juliahillLuna, you may recall, is a 200-foot-high California redwood that Julia Hill single-handedly saved from the chainsaw by obstinately camping out on a platform high in the tree, for more than two years.

In the book she wrote later, Julia describes how she came to regard Luna as a living consciousness, a kindred spirit with whom she could connect.

I thought the students in my class would pooh-pooh that idea, but many of them were willing to entertain the notion that there might have been some actual cross-species communication going on between the massive old tree and the young woman perched in its branches.

What is certain is that living in Luna taught young Julia Butterfly Hill many lessons that she never could have learned elsewhere.

If Luna had been cut down, as so many of the great old trees have been in forests around the world, all her accumulated wisdom would have been lost too, an incalculable loss to the younger trees around her.

We are fortunate that Pete Seeger and other great old ones like him—Nelson Mandela springs to mind, and Wangari Maathai and Rachel Carson, both of whom died of cancer far too young—have been able to leave a written and recorded legacy to us younger ones coming along in their wake.

We will be listening to Pete sing, watching Mandela give speeches, and reading the books of Maathai and Carson for years to come.

But when we cut down a wise old tree, we silence its network entirely.

Forests can  regenerate—if they are not sprayed with herbicides, if their topsoil doesn’t wash away and if they’re not turned into artificial factory-style plantations.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

But even in the best of circumstances, the younger trees will be more vulnerable and less resilient without the oldest trees to shelter and guide them.

During the European colonial period, it was an accepted strategy for would-be conquerors to kill or enslave the tribal leaders first, under the theory that their followers would be less able to resist.

The Americans took a page out of the same playbook in their treatment of Native Americans, trying to demoralize the tribes by killing, imprisoning and humiliating their leaders.

It has been no different with logging.  The big old trees are the most highly prized, and are chopped down first, with longstanding and poorly understood consequences.

IMG_4053 copy 2

Dr. Simard is arguing for a different kind of forest management plan, one that is respectful of what she calls “the mother trees”—those old survivors who can help the regenerate the forest after the loggers have moved on.

Just as we honor outstanding human elders like Seeger and Mandela, we should be honoring the most ancient living things among us, the old trees.

It makes scientific sense (older, larger trees trap more carbon and hence help reduce global warming) and it also makes moral sense.

It’s the right thing to do.

Photo by Patxi Pierce

Julia at the top of Luna
Photo by Patxi Pierce

Dark Universe, Brightening

Socrates had it right long ago when he acknowledged that to the extent that he was wise, it was because he knew how much he did not know.

During my lifetime, the trend has been for homage to be paid to all the cocky, smart human beings who think they know everything.

The slicker and more self-confident the guy (and this is mostly about guys), the more rewards and adulation he gets.

Collectively, especially in the United States, arrogance has been the name of the game.  I think this collective hubris may have reached its apex with the splitting of the atom and the knowledge that he who controls atomic energy controls the world.

Or so we thought.

Climate change is ushering in a whole new, and much more humble era.

imageIt turns out that just because we can bulldoze forests and mountaintops, change the course of rivers, drill beneath the sea and through solid rock, and completely saturate the earth with satellite, drone and in-home surveillance devices, we are still just as vulnerable as we ever were to the simple, earthbound necessities of food and shelter.

As the big, climate-change-induced storms continue to roll in from the ocean, so frequently that they all begin to blur into an anguished nonstop disaster montage, a slow but steady sea-change in collective human consciousness is beginning to occur.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

We are beginning to recognize how much we still don’t know, and how dangerous our ignorance, combined with arrogance, is becoming.

There is no doubt now that we who are alive today, along with our children and grandchildren, are going to be living through a remarkable transition time as the planet we have destabilized and plundered during the past few hundred years of industrialization seeks to return to equilibrium.

We must acknowledge that human over-population has played a major role in this process of destabilization.  Our very success as a species is what is driving the current unfolding disaster.  By reducing our numbers through disease, drought, flooding and the competition for shrinking natural resources that leads to war, the planet is doing what it must to return to a steady state where the ecosystem as a whole can flourish.

It is sobering to live with this knowledge.

Perhaps it is my sadness at knowing that I am going to be living through (and dying in) a veritable Holocaust of earthly creatures, that has me searching outside the box of science and common knowledge for signs of hope.

IMG_4150 copyI was not raised with religion, but I have always been an instinctive spiritual animist, seeing the divine in the beauty of the natural world, and in my unbounded love for all the elements of our Earth—rock, water, air and all the myriad living beings that inhabit every strata of our planet.

I have also been open, since I was a child, to the possibility that there is more to our experience than meets the eye.  I have always been fascinated by the occult, shamanism, and science fiction involving time travel to other dimensions of space/time.

I don’t know if it is just because I am paying more attention, but lately I have been perceiving a definite uptick in collective awareness that the key to fixing what ails us in the physical world may lie not in better “hard science,” but in a deeper connection to knowledge that can only be accessed through a different kind of perception.

The doors to this under-tapped realm of wisdom are accessible to us through what has poetically been called “our mind’s eye.”

There have always been humans who have been explorers in this realm—Socrates was one, the Biblical sages and prophets were others, and modern esoteric explorers like Rudolf Steiner, Terrence McKenna, Mary Daly, Martin Prechtel, Starhawk and many more.

Terrence McKenna

Terrence McKenna

In the 1960s psychedelic drugs opened the doors for many people who were not at all prepared for the “trips” they encountered.

Now we seem to be coming around again to a period where, as conditions in the physical world deteriorate, more of us are seeking understanding and reassurance in the non-physical.

The more we know of how bad things are here in the physical realm, the more we want to know that “another world is possible.”  And the more we look, the more we find that indeed, there is much more to the universe than meets the eye.

Even scientists are beginning to align with the spiritists they previously disdained. In our age of quantum physics, the whole idea of a “spiritual dimension,” accessible through human consciousness, is becoming much less far-fetched to rational hard science types.

The new Hayden Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” ends with a graphic that could be right out of “Twilight Zone,” showing that roughly three-quarters of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a term invented to represent in language something we know enough to know we do not understand at all.

It could be that waking, embodied life is to human consciousness what the physical, hard-matter universe is to the cosmos as a whole.  Just a tiny fragment of a much larger, and potentially much more interesting, whole.

What if the reason every living thing on this planet sleeps (whether in the daytime or the nighttime) is in order to reconnect with the non-physical realm that spiritually sustains us?  We know that if we are deprived of sleep for any length of time, we go crazy and die.

What if “the dreams that come,” whether in sleep or in death, are just as valid a form of experience as the waking hours of our day, and our lives?

What would it mean to be able to think beyond the brief timelines of our individual lives, or even the eons of evolutionary cycles on the planet, and know that we are all part of a much grander cosmic dream?

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Photo source: American Museum of Natural History, Rose Space Center, Hayden Planetarium, “Dark Universe”

Thinking this way does not give me license to let go of my focus on making a difference here on earth, now in my lifetime.

In some ways this imperative becomes even stronger, as it was for Socrates, Steiner and so many other visionaries who were also powerful initiators and guides during their lifetimes.

During this winter solstice season of introspection and questioning, I have been reading and re-reading the writings of one such contemporary guide, the Sufi mystic and spiritual ecologist Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.  I leave you with a passage to ponder:

In the book of life we can see the energy patterns of creation, the rivers of light that flow between the worlds.  We can see how the individual relates to the whole and learn the secret ways to bring light into the world; we can understand the deeper purpose of the darkness and suffering in the world, of its seeming chaos.  And the attentive reader can glimpse another reality behind all of the moving images of life, a reality that is alive with another meaning in which our individual planet has a part to play in the magic of the galaxy.  Just as there are inner worlds, each deeper and more enduring, there are also different outer dimensions whose purposes are interrelated and yet different.  The inner and outer mirror each other in complex and beautiful ways, and in this mirroring there are also levels of meaning.  As we awaken from our sleep of separation, we can come alive in a multifaceted, multidimensional universe that expresses the infinite nature of the Beloved.

–Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Power: How It Works

Let it be so.

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia.  Photo by Eric  B. Hernandez

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

Keeping Mandela’s Dream Alive–Not Just for South Africa, but for the Planet!

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years as a terrorist.

And then he was released and became one of the greatest freedom fighters the world has ever known.

For me, the lesson is clear.

We cannot rely on others for a moral compass.

I am thinking of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Tim DeChristopher and Lord knows how many others who have been exiled or imprisoned for “treason” in the United States.

I believe they will be exonerated in the long run, just as Mandela was, and shown to be on the side of justice.

Nelson Mandela as a young man

Nelson Mandela as a young man

We shake our heads incredulously when we hear that Nelson Mandela was in jail and at hard labor for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years!  He was imprisoned just a few months before I was born, and released a few months before I married.

He came out to have a whole new life, like a butterfly breaking out of an unwanted cocoon.

The news media seems to be playing up the aspect of Nelson Mandela’s story that deals with forgiveness.

He forgave his captors.  He was not vindictive.  He believed in reconciliation.

Yes.

But I do not forgive them.  And the part of Mandela’s story I would like to focus on is his incredible perseverance in achieving his lifework of overcoming the evil of apartheid in South Africa.

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It takes great self-awareness and rock-solid confidence to maintain one’s moral compass in the face of a whole state and social apparatus set up to prove one wrong.

For example, climate activists today, like the Greenpeace 30–locked up in Russia for daring to challenge Russian drilling rights in the Arctic–need to be incredibly resolute in their insistence that we must do what we can to stop the runaway warming of the planet.

Today we have many ways of expressing our solidarity—ways that were not available to sympathizers of Mandela back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  We need to use these communication channels to send a solid wave of support back to those who dare to challenge today’s rulers—the fossil fuel industry, the National Security Agency, and the like.

Mandela fought the good fight and he won.  Today, our fight is not for justice in one country, but for the very survival of the human race—and so many other species—on this planet.

We owe it to the memory of Nelson Mandela to stand firm and refuse to be bullied or intimidated.  We who are fighting for a sustainable planetary future are on the side of justice and will be vindicated as such, just like Mandela, if we are not all washed away first.

Nelson Mandela was great because he never gave up.  He remained true to his own moral compass and he lived his ideals.

We must do the same today, and then some, to keep Mandela’s flame alive and burning brightly for a new day on this sad beleaguered planet of ours.

A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

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“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

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This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

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Dreams of terror, dreams of peace

This morning my son came down to breakfast with a queasy look on his face.  “I had a dream that I killed a baby,” he said.  “I was shooting with a machine gun at these guys, and the baby was in the way.”

I hate the fact that this kind of violence, which kids are exposed to through the media constantly these days, creeps insidiously into their sleep, invading their dreams.

The subliminal violence is everywhere.   This same son, a 9th grader in a typical American public high school, is reading Lord of the Flies for English class and All Quiet on the Western Front for Social Studies.

Lord-of-the-Flies-1963-fi-007Lord of the Flies, you’ll remember, is about how a group of adolescent boys, turned loose on an island without any adult authority present, morph into “beasts” who bully, torture and kill one another.

All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, and my son’s teacher is sparing the class none of the gory details of that war; in fact, a whole section of the paper my son has to write about the book is supposed to enumerate all the challenges ordinary soldiers in that war faced, from freezing muddy trenches to disease to field amputations, rats and artillery fire.

Last month, this same teacher had the kids reading 1984 and spent a lot of class time talking about how the surveillance tactics and physical brutality in that book related to real-life episodes of torture and detention camps in the history of China and the Soviet Union.

In short, my son’s imaginative life lately has been saturated with violence, for which the peacefulness of our home is no match.  And he is one of the more sheltered boys growing up today; I do my best to keep him away from violent movies or military-style and gangster video games.  We don’t even have TV at home.

When dreams like this emerge at our breakfast table, they remind me that the apparent peacefulness of a small American town like mine is terribly fragile.

With every mass-murder shooting incident that occurs, the fine veil of civility frays just a little more.

The truth is that the United States has one of the most heavily armed civilian populations in the world.

It would not take much, in terms of social unrest, for those guns to come out and the “beastly” side of humanity to emerge, a la Lord of the Flies.

That’s what worries me when I contemplate climate change scenarios involving catastrophic storms like Haiyan that result in power outages, fuel and food shortages—which could happen here in the U.S. just as easily as anywhere else.

What we should be doing now, in the time we have left before climate change gets truly out of hand, is strengthening our bonds as communities.

Never mind the dysfunctionality of our Congress, the bashing and competitive trash-talking that too often passes for ordinary public discourse in America today.

On the local level, we can do better, and indeed we must.

Every community in America should be starting to plan for how it would respond to disruptions in power, fuel and food supplies.

We can’t rely on FEMA to ride in to the rescue.  We can’t afford to entrust our survival to the guys with the biggest guns in our area.

The Transition Town movement has it right in their focus on building strong, resilient communities and re-learning valuable pre-industrial skills.  But they need a greater sense of urgency.

My son’s dream is a warning that we ignore at our peril.  There is no time to waste.

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