A certain vocal segment of us seem to believe that we are independent of everyone else. We have a right to make our own choices about everything. Our individual rights are more important than the rights of others around us. We won’t be forced to wear masks, we won’t pay for anyone else’s healthcare, or food, or anything else that “they” should be providing for themselves.
This is of course a complete fantasy. I can’t think of a lesson more perfectly suited to pop this bubble of crazy than the mask issue. We don’t need to wear them for our own safety, we do it for the collective, or really, the species. That’s why some of us are confined to our room, until we’re not collectively dripping viruses.
If I were a believer in fate, I could even see the planet providing this particular final exam for us as a way of making us awaken to our interdependence with all life, or die. However, there’s no need to go that far—we did this to ourselves, simply by believing we can do anything we please. We are part of a superorganism that extends over the whole planet and we have started to put the whole in danger. Mother Nature is not mad, God is not “gonna get you” for that. But we are triggering planetary defense mechanisms and the pandemic is one result of that.
As above, so below. Our bodies create a fever to make our bodily climate unhealthy for the pathogens that have infected us whether we are talking about a cold or COVID. Trees give off certain chemical signals when they are being attacked to call specific insects or other allies to help them. Might part of a local ecosystem repel invaders virally? The world is a network of these relationships and feedback loops. If we put a priority on learning what these cycles are and how to be part of them, life will be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cheaper, as we make use of these tendencies to lighten our load. If not, we can continue to be visited by disaster as we blunder around in the equivalent of a darkened room, setting events we can’t see in motion.
The relationship between humanity, bats, and COVID-19 is one example of how this works. Bats are very useful creatures, major pollinators, bug-eaters, and host a whole lot of viruses, some of which can kill us quite efficiently.
Why do these viruses kill us but not bats? Why don’t bats cause disease in us all the time? Finding out why they infect us is becoming clear. Finding out why they don’t get sick could lead to all sorts of medical breakthroughs for us—if we can avoid the temptation of trying to kill them off, that is, since they harbor what to us is disease.
Normally, this viral community bats live with is no problem to us. They live their lives and we live ours. But lately, with the general tendency we humans have to take over any part of the world we please, not thinking, if we bother to give a thought to the communities who live there at all, that we are stressing out a whole lot of living things, from indigenous people, to, well, bats. We encroach on their territory and stress them out in all sorts of ways, and their immunity drops. They start to shed virus everywhere. Is this what happened in the case of COVID-19? Looks like that might be the case, but we don’t have the tools to find out yet.
In any case, the problem that led us here was the fantasy of independence. Here we sit, the richest country in the world, confined within our borders because a significant proportion of us won’t stay inside during a pandemic. Our government, that bailed out the wealthy, doesn’t see making it possible financially and logistically for the general populace to do so as a good investment. Even worse, as individuals, some of us have chosen to assert our rights. We won’t do what we know would keep the most people alive. Keeping our distance for a while and putting on a mask—and putting this simple, cheap strategy into our personal toolkits.
The last few months should have showed us how counterproductive it is to ignore science. This problem is easily explainable and obviously fixable using that discipline if we choose to do what is needed. Most of our world has done so, after all, and are now cautiously resuming what is becoming the new normal. Don’t we want to be part of shaping that? Don’t we ever want to get out of our rooms?
My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.
I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.
The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).
I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.
Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.
I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.
I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.
When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.
The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!
Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.
I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.
I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?
I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.
When I began studying archaeology, one of the big questions was, what makes humans different from other animals? The answers have been shifting throughout my life, from our use of tools and language, to our adaptability. Now the changes we have made in our world have caused us to name the current epoch in geological time for ourselves. Whether that is hubris or simple assumption of responsibility only time will tell. I no longer think that there is any point to this question, beyond simple classification of species. We are part of a greater whole, and our place within it shifts, as do the places of the rest of this organism called Planet Earth. One of the things we humans do exceedingly well, however, is tell stories. We can’t really help it, this capacity is such a part of us that most of the time we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. We have been choosing to tell the ones that set us apart from every other being, the ones that make us special, that give us the right to determine the fate of all beings.
We have done our best over the last few centuries to pull apart our world, to turn each piece over and see how it works and what it does. This, in planetary terms, is the equivalent of a baby discovering its fingers and toes. The antiquarians and Victorians created marvelous catalogues of the life on this planet. Useful and beautiful, they are a guide that allows us to orient ourselves and our studies, but they also shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. The tree of life has us at its apex, evolved from the lower animals. Since we are the storytellers, it is no surprise that we are the center. The story of archaeology gets even more specific to us, chronicling our rise from hunter-gatherers to the heights of civilization. While I learned the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and that the hierarchical model of our evolution, cultural and physical, was only a portion of the truth, the idea of the great chain of being is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is difficult to see it. Egalitarianism is an idea that we find attractive, but we’re really not very good at thinking of ourselves or our world in that way. It is an option, not an imperative.
I don’t think it was always this way. We know how to share, and we are as capable of cooperation as we are of domination. While it is very difficult to separate the assumptions of the first ethnographers (or even the current ones) from the realities of life in the cultures they studied, it appears that the closer to the land the groups studied were, the more cooperative their ways of life were. While it is very easy to create from this idea a myth of an interdependent Eden, it’s also possible to use it as a means of breaking the invisible bonds of hierarchy and allow us to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly. We can compare ourselves to other animals, weigh our various cultures against each other, and get an idea of how varied the ways we are capable of interacting with each other and our world are, but the one thing I do not believe that we will ever do is find the one best way of being human.
The pace of change has become a race, run for its own sake, with no clear goal. We are falling over our own feet in our haste to get to a future whose shape is unknown. We have become Kali, trampling the earth to mud as we dance in celebration of our own godhood. We have moments of remembering our connection to that which we are destroying, but distraction in the form of new possessions, power, or other means of changing our consciousness is infinitely preferable to utter terror, so we keep dancing, keep consuming. We keep reaching for that golden finish line, not realizing it is the light of our own destruction.
We can change the storyline any time we want to. Some of us have spent their whole lives working towards this. We have, as a result, a vast number of very useful tools to hand. We know how to harness the power of the Sun, and how to read the book of life that resides in every cell. The knowledge we have gathered, and the disciplines that grew out of them, have shown us how our world works and where we came from, and the story is growing clearer with every discovery and every connection made. We have clearly seen the faces of the planets in our solar system, and of the Earth.
We stand at a wonderful, terrible, pivotal moment in time. We are in the midst of a change that is as monumental as the discovery of agriculture, when we discovered how to strike a bargain with plants and animals that changed the nature of life on this planet. We are still bound by the terms of that agreement, no matter how hard we try to forget we ever made it, and now we must extend it to the whole planet. We have gained the power to reshape the world in a way even more fundamental than the domestication of a few species who were willing to cooperate with us. We are now being called to partnership with the planet as a whole.
Our ability to tell stories is not unique. The Earth, the solar system, the Universe tell them all the time. We can read the book of life, and our stories are written within it. The story of our choices now will be there as well, if there is anyone left to read it.
Three minutes without air, and your brain begins to die. A first responder will check an unconscious person for breathing even before they look for bleeding. Our breath is our most direct connection to life. So I invite you to take a breath and hold it. How long can you do so? Unless you’re a trained free diver, it’s probably a lot less than three minutes. What does it feel like to hold your breath? How does this feeling change as you continue to do so? And how gooood does that first breath you take afterwards feel?
Our breath is shared with all beings. The proportion of plants to animals determines the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, and so the temperature of the biosphere and the range of life that can exist. We are directly dependent on all the living things on this planet for the air we breathe and the areas of the planet that we can inhabit. By changing that balance as we have by releasing such large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, we are reshaping the only home we have. The atmosphere is the thinnest, most vulnerable organ the body of our planet has. We have grown so powerful that we are literally determining who lives, and who dies, and since we are doing it without awareness, or full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we may well be killing ourselves, cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.
To the Celts, knowledge was carried on the breath. Their culture was an oral one, and for a long time, they believed that to write a thought down was to kill it as the vital spark of life in it was gone. The very word, inspiration, means “to breathe in.” To me, a song is carried on the breath. Music only truly exists in the moment it is being played. Even to remember it, you have to play the tune in your head. Yes, it can be written down, but that is cold storage. A page of sheet music does not sing. It takes a person to do that, to take those markings from the page and transform them into sound again. The invention of recorded music allows us all to hear the greatest performers whenever we please, and–truly amazing–to hear them long after their deaths, but the recording must be played in order to have its full existence.
Even this miracle is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t sing any more, or at least not nearly as much as we used to. Many of us are literally afraid to open our mouths at all. We can hear virtuoso performances any time we want to, so learning to play an instrument or sing isn’t nearly as vital as it used to be, but the things we could be learning by being able to hear those performances over and over and learning in the process to duplicate them are lost to many of us. We can get some of the pleasure with no more effort than pushing a button but we are losing out on the greater pleasure of making the music ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say “I play the radio,” when asked whether they play an instrument? We’re allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the quality of those performances, instead of being inspired by them. How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t sing”? What was carried on the breath is now carried in the pocket. So maybe the Celts were onto something there. They adopted writing in order to save some of their knowledge because the living libraries known as fili, brehons, druids, were being slaughtered by invaders. While that innovation saved things that would otherwise have been lost, enriching our collective memory and making information that was in the hands of specialists available to a much wider audience, our individual memories are not the well trained muscles that they were. The linkages between knowledge that can only be made by people who have all the information in their minds, readily accessible, are no longer available to us.
Our planet, our lives, are a song being sung by all of us, carried on the collective breath we all share. Each of us has a part to play. Our every action is a note in the larger chorus. The knowledge within every being on the planet is the fabric of which we are all made. From the dance of photosynthesis, the knowledge of the plants of how to capture the energy of sunlight and make it available to all, the planet has built up to the knowledge that allows us to actually leave the surface of our planet, beyond the atmosphere to where we can finally see ourselves as the one living world that we are all part of.
Our knowledge is now the key. When the Celts adopted writing, they allowed us to hear the voices of the dead. They also expanded the range of time they could hold clearly in their collective consciousness, and the depth and breadth of the poetic meters that were available to them. They had no idea that all this would happen, it was a result of their willingness to adapt and change. We have begun to change our world, true, but we have also targeted the part of it that is the fastest to react to change. What we have done happens at a rate that is slow for us, but within the span of time that we humans are capable of perceiving. We have already done a related experiment on the outermost part of our planet, the ozone layer. Back in the 1970s, we discovered we were “holing the spacesuit” with our indiscriminate use of chlorofluorocarbons, and at that time in our history, we were able to work together, to ban the use of these compounds and reduce their use far enough so that we are able to see the healing happening. If we can do that, we can also do the same with carbon. It will be harder, CFCs are fairly exotic and far more easily replaced than carbon, the basis of life itself, but we are are inventive creatures, never more so than when our lives depend on it.
All that we are is borrowed from the organism we are part of. All of it must be given back, and at the beginning of this post, you had the opportunity to learn just how impossible it is to hold onto the breath, and how vital it is to life. It also can determine the state of our consciousness. Three deep breaths are the quickest way I know to calm down, if they are taken with awareness, and allowed to have their own shape.
Breath is a great wheel. I invite you to breathe in, slowly. Take the air in all the way to your belly, until it stops by itself. There is a natural pause there, and if you just let it, your body will round that curve, and give back the breath it has just taken in. There is a similar pause at the bottom of the breath, and your body will, if you let it, round that curve and breathe in once again. Can you concentrate only on your breath long enough to do that three times? It can be hard at first, but with practice, you can follow your breath, and feel the effect it has on your body and your mind. Three breaths are available to you any time, any place. No one will notice if you do this on the bus, at a meeting, when you are feeling stressed. And it costs you nothing. This is a benefit of our connection to all beings.
If you have the time, and the inclination, can you follow nine of your breaths with complete concentration? Awareness is a muscle, and this is not as easy a task as it sounds. The benefits will only become apparent to you with time and practice, but they will be as close as your next breath, whenever you choose to take it.
Pardon me, do you have a minute to talk about water? I really think this conversation is long overdue. When you turn your tap, have you ever considered where the cool clean miracle that comes out of it came from? Go ahead. Get a glass. Fill it up and take a drink. Feel it slip down your throat and become part of you.
Thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act, we in the United States have the right to know where our drinking water comes from, and what exactly is in it.
Tap water is a blessing. Water is a gift from the earth and the sky. Tap water in the United States is more rigorously tested than any bottled water, and it is available to all. It is subject to laws that are getting better and better at using it sustainably, for the good of all while bottled water is a product of profitmaking companies, who take without any thought for the amount, and the effect on the land they take it from. That pretty picture on the label is likely a lie. Major brands like Aquafina (Pepsi) and Dasani (Coca Cola) are basically tap water. Spring water is not required to come from a spring to bear that label. These companies are damaging the land I live in, and our already overstressed aquifers. They are doing this all over the world. There is a campaign in my state, as a matter of fact, to get people to trust and drink tap water. The idea that it isn’t safe is yet another set of lies by companies who want to sell us water filters and–you guessed it–bottled water. I won’t go into the waste and hype any further here because that isn’t my main point, and the information is readily available. I hope I’ve inspired you to go and seek it out for yourself because it is an illuminating exercise.
Where does your tap water come from? Mine comes from the Mokelumne river and is stored in Pardee Reservoir. From there, the trail back to the source leads to the Sierras, and the snowmelt that feeds the river. The water that runs from my tap is piped from the reservoir, and across the Central Valley to Oakland, where I live.
The story darkens from here. Pardee Dam was built in 1929 to supply the fast-growing East Bay with water. In the process, the salmon runs were forced downstream. The downstream Camanche Dam was added in 1963. The fish managed to make the adjustment at first, but now, between population growth, destructive water management practices and climate change, the salmon and steelhead runs are nearing extinction.
Mokelumne is a Plains Miwok word meaning “people of the fishnets.” Their connection to the river and their means of existence are encapsulated in that name that we don’t think about. The people were long gone before the dams were ever built, having been removed to the missions. There are few left today. The Ohlone, of which the Miwok are a part, are not federally recognized tribes, and live on meager allotments while they fight for recognition. Their ancestral waters have thus been appropriated for our use.
All this information flowed from one simple question: Where does the water I drink come from? Now my questions are many, and answers few. What can I do to help the salmon? To support the people who have lost their river and their way of life in their quest for recognition? The other Native Californians who deserve recognition, and respect? What are their land spirits, and how can I respect them as well? Scattering tobacco and saying thanks is nice, but it doesn’t change anything for the people and the land, it only means I have manners.
I don’t know any of this yet, and I do know that respect for water is only a beginning. I know that connection to this land that I live in is something that begins with simple things like knowing where my water comes from, using it with awareness of its scarcity, and not wasting it. Knowing the plants and animals that share this land with me, and respecting the people who took care of it before I was born is not only manners, it makes my own life more meaningful. I know that the more of us who do so, the richer our lives will be, and the more likely it is that we will find ways to make connections that will bring us together in truth. Together we can pass the land to the future in better condition than we received it.
I began this post with a simple way to appreciate and connect to water. Here’s a more challenging way to do it in my area. On a hot day go to the hills, where in my tradition, Lugh reigns right now. Walk in the heat and the dust, smell the dry, golden grass all around you. Touch the powdery dry bark of the live oaks and feel their waxy leaves. Listen to the hum of heat, and feel your own sweat run down your body as you hike in the heat and glorious sunshine. Feel yourself getting parched and overheated. At the top of a hill, where you can see the glorious Pacific, or San Francisco Bay spread out before you, open your pack. In it you have packed a water bottle, wrapped against the heat, beaded with condensation and filled with cool water. You won’t be able to resist running that bottle over your body, holding it against the back of your neck, feeling the beads of moisture on your skin, cool and wonderful. Hold it in your hand and open it, and when you drink, you will feel every molecule of coolness as it slips down your throat and becomes part of you. You will feel every cell in your body open to the giver of life, the gift of California’s rains and her living heart, depending on where this water you drink comes from.
When you go home, take a shower, wash yourself clean, and think about the miracle we all have installed in our homes; an ever flowing waterfall, that runs at any temperature we choose. What has it been? Seventy years or so since showers became a regular part of our lives? We are so wealthy. We would do well to appreciate what we have, and give thanks for it.
What is the story of water in your land?
The mythology we need is likewise growing with us.
Gaia showed me a plastic cat today. S/he was cute and cuddly, shallow in that candy apple kind of way, a plush toy of an animal.
As a Pagan, I didn’t expect to have Plastic show up in my meditation. Aren’t we supposed to encounter Great Trees thousands of years old, or have deep and meaningful conversations with wise old ancestral beings? Naah. I’m a city kid. A fake fur generic stuffed cat named Plastic makes perfect sense. After all, I have a pretty intimate relationship with it. As a city kid, I encounter it all the time. In addition, I work on a beach in a big-city park. Plastic is washed up on it, thrown on it, blown on it. Thinking on how each bit got there isn’t something you can do all the time, but there have been very interesting stories that came in on garbage.
Garbage? What is garbage? Something we don’t want, right? Something we want to have go away. This was not really a problem in the past so we don’t yet have much experience with it. With most things, we were more concerned with making them last than their eventual demise. Food came packaged in things that rotted, or could be reused. There were fewer humans, and less to dispose of.
Plastic makes life so easy. Everything in our world is fresh and clean, individually separated and made to whatever size we wish. Cheap to manufacture, light and almost unbreakable, we throw a broken possession away and buy another without a care in the world. While we weren’t looking, we filled our world with it and only now that we are completely dependent on it are we beginning to realize we have a problem.
Plastic changed everything. Plastic is revolution on an elemental level, equal to the moment plants learned to create lignins. Both moments changed the world. At first, nothing could eat lignins. Plants grew, fell over–and lay there. They ushered in the Carboniferous Age. Now we humans have found those buried trees in the form of coal, and other fossil fuel sources as well. We make plastic from oil. Inert, strong, dense, it is a one-dimensional portrait of the qualities of the element Earth. It bears about as much resemblance to a living part of this planet as a carousel horse does to a real one. It does not fit anywhere, and we have spread it everywhere.
It’s still the Earth. Gaia so changed that she doesn’t recognize herself. The substance doesn’t fit into the web of life that is her body, it is an energy that she is not able to integrate into her body–or is it? Is it lifeless, or do we not yet recognize the life that’s in it? Earth does not concern itself with that. It is here, no more. Where does it fit? Gaia picks up the puzzle piece and looks at it, turning it over in her hands as it is buried and turns with the movements of roots or dug up by animals. She holds it up to the light as the sun hits it on bare plains or sandy beaches. She sees how it moves as a plastic bag blows across an empty parking lot or a plastic bottle is tossed on the waves and moved by the currents at sea. She gathers it together on shorelines and in the center of the ocean, feeds it to hungry seabirds who will eat whatever they can get. The experiment is vast, and completely uncontrolled. We who made it could have limited its spread, but we didn’t know, and we didn’t listen. We were in love.
Which are the creatures who can change it back to something that is once more part of the web? How will it become part of the earth in the end? If there are future geologists and archaeologists, will our time be easy to read in the Book of the Earth? Will there be a layer of plastic from the bottom of what was then the sea, in the soils that were the land at that time?
Gaia doesn’t care. Gaia will keep changing until the day the Sun engulfs her. She will find a way to change plastics, as she turned the bodies of sea creatures into oil. There are microbes that eat oil. We use them to bioremediate gas stations. Gaia is already on this, already changing, already singing the opening bars of the next Age. We, if we live, can sing with her. The wise stories that will guide the future are already within us, as are the people who might sing them.
Does the caterpillar know the difference between death and transformation? Whether or not it does, it has no choice but to do one or the other. Humanity is facing a similar evolutionary moment right now. Nothing we do is going to bring back the old ways of living, but nothing we are doing appears to be creating new ones. The old stories are no longer serving us, but the institutions created by them are still holding us fast.
There’s no way for an individual to truly break free, though many of us are trying desperately to do so. The problem we’re facing is a collective one and it will take the cooperation of every one of us to solve it.
We’re luckier than we seem to know right now, however. For the first time in our existence, we can see the extinction event coming. We have discovered and named the ages of geologic time and we know that we are in the Anthropocene. We have the capability to be aware of our predicament, and to know that we have literally changed the world. Since the problem is of our own making, we may still be able to unmake it. Gaia is finally aware of herself. She has seen her own face at last, and all of her parts can communicate in ways that were never before possible. The organs of this awareness in the form of humanity have brought her to this moment of change, and like the caterpillar, we will either transform in ways we can’t imagine, or we’ll die. We can only emerge from the chrysalis as a whole.
Our awareness of this truth is the key to our survival. Nothing less will change the acid balance of the oceans and the carbon concentrations in the air. We stumbled onto a seductive, lethal means of powering our existence that changes the most delicate organ Gaia has; the atmosphere. As our dependency grew, however, the effect we are having on another organ, the hydrosphere, also began to push the biosphere in a direction that will eliminate many other forms of life.
Luckily for us, the fact that the atmosphere changes so quickly is one of the things that we can use to rebalance the systems in a way that will allow us to survive. Our awareness is the best tool we have to do this. Many of us already know this. Some peoples have never forgotten this basic truth, that we are one organism and what we do to that organism we do to ourselves. Others of us are learning, but what we haven’t managed to do is create that awareness as a planet. We are changing, we have seen our face, but the stories each part of us tell about ourselves, and most importantly about others still hold us back from knowing who we are, and acting as one. There is no “them,” there’s only us.
Many solutions are growing, nevertheless. Some think that if every human being meditated regularly, this would save the world. Others think that if we all ate vegetarian food, we’d do it. Others think that we all just need to get right with God. None of these things will work, but at the same time, all of them will. We’re like the people in the darkened cave, trying to figure out what the elephant looks like. Each rigid solution is but a facet in this chrysalis that holds us fast.
We’ll come out in our own time. It’s inevitable. Parts of us will die. I’m sure the caterpillar feels as if it is dying as its very body re-forms. The soft caterpillar legs give way to the exoskeleton-clad limbs of the butterfly. We have lost many species and will lose many more. We may lose the coral reefs, cities may slowly fall apart under ocean waters. The polar bears and the caribou may be only a memory, like the passenger pigeon and the Yangtze river dolphin. Like a large ship that did not notice a small deviation from its course until late in the voyage, the corrections we have to make will be far more extreme than they would have been had we noticed earlier. We’ll still get where we’re going in the end, if we choose to make them.
What could we become?
I got to spend a little time in the remnants of the temperate rain forest that once covered my homeland. The presence of the trees was immense. We had come as Druids, to pass one of our own between us. My southern group had chosen to make the trek to the northern group and they gave us a place beyond any expectations to do our rite.
It was a one way journey, as good adventures are. Whether you intend to return to a particular spot or not, chances are you won’t be doing it. On our walk around the place we stopped at an immense old growth redwood, hollowed by time and fire. It was large enough that all eight of us could fit inside. We sang cascading Awens in there, the space a gigantic resonator.
I know that this huge silence, these gigantic trees, were once the way this coast was, but I’m still surprised by it every time I come within it. There’s something in it that is part of me even though I’ve always lived in the heart of the city. Given a chance, I would build my city within it, or a city that will not be seen for centuries as the big trees grow. There are redwoods in the center of 14th Avenue, and they dot my city in ones and twos. They are always eager to grow, throwing off green shoots from their large burls wherever the sun shines steadily on them.
They remember what they could be, what they are in places like the one I was in on Sunday. This forest is mainly young trees, but there are venerable elders there, guiding the younger trees into the form they might become, if allowed to.
Will we be here to see them, if they do?
The Greenwood Message:
Why do you humans prophesy your doom? Can’t you see how it works here? Look at your cities. What do you see in every crack and crevice? The greenwood says we have always been here and always will be. Join us. Care for us and we will care for you. We are the tenacity of life. Are you? Why do you remove yourself from the green? We remember who you were and who you can be.
I took this down hurriedly in a workshop at Pantheacon. Given by Raven Grimassi , it was an exploration of plant spirits. It was like sunlight through my bones, water trickling across my skin. It echoed something Gaia had asked me to do many years ago.
She asked me to see the good that was in her. She asked me to see the green. It is all around us, always. What we see is what we give life to. What kind of world do we want to live in? We humans have always created it, thought by thought, action by action. I think we evolved in order to create it. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we wanted to go to the moon. By the end of the 1960’s, we had done it. We began with words on paper, visions that writers like H.G Wells gave us. We went on to images on film, such as Georges Melies A Trip To The Moon. From there we leaped from Goddard to the terrors of the Nazi rockets to NASA and the Cold War space race. War can be a terrible impetus for invention. But the images of Neil Armstrong and our first view of ourselves as a whole came from that, and changed us forever.
What we give our attention to is what we create. We all know this. The more attention we give to anything, the better the final product whether it’s a home cooked meal, a song, or a garden. Then there are things we co create. The life of a child, or the life of our world. If we are truly one organism, we are yet another function that life has cocreated. We are the awareness of past, present, and future. We are the planet, looking at itself at last and knowing who we are.
But what are we doing with this awareness? I love dystopic stories. The excellent Wool kept me up all night. Likewise The Book of Eli and and the old reliables like The Road Warrior and Soylent Green. The problem is, these sorts of stories, or their opposite, the “life will go on forever just like this” tale are so much the norm that anything hopeful and futuristic is like a breath of fresh air. It opens up the mind just as the stories of our destruction used to. Is it any wonder we’re heading towards these kinds of worlds when that’s what we’re feeding our collective psyche on? It’s as if we discovered a taste for excitement, like a drug, and now that’s all we want to consume. I’m no better. My song Kali Is Here is more of the same.
Most of the dystopic stories have a kernel of hope at the end. The problem is, it’s just a kernel and it’s not often fleshed out. The storyteller spends their time lovingly crafting all the various problems we have to go through to get that future, but no real time on the future itself. Even the few hopeful books of this sort, such as Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing bring our current problems with us in the form of soulless robotic governments for the brave Utopians to fight against with all their anti Establishment courage and conviction. It’s better this time around, the Utopians already live in their paradise, but they must now fight to defend it. Even when the war is won it is rarely over for good.
Is this what we really want? In fiction, after all, we can play out any scenario we choose. I think we can get from here to the future without mass death or war. I think we can use our knowledge and awareness of ourselves and the planet we live on in service of the whole to adapt to the changes we’ve caused. I think that’s just as much of an adventure as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games. While, as in the last century, great leaps may well be created in response to great suffering, we don’t have to envision it that way. I fear we’ve already built in a lot more suffering in change than we might have otherwise, but we can always choose to shift our focus. I think things in reality can shift a lot faster than it seems from this vantage point. For me, this is the point of The Greenwood Message. All we have to do is choose life and the whole planet is behind us.