Developing a Mindful Approach to Earth Justice Work

Article Social Justice

Developing a Mindful Approach to Earth Justice Work

The story one tells oneself about climate change shapes individual feelings and actions. For example, are we on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough?  There is ample evidence for both. What if the climate crisis we face offers humans the necessary conditions to move to a higher stage of collective evolution? How might we then view this situation?

Our beloved Mother Earth is hurting, and we humans are the cause of this suffering. There is a growing awareness of the immensity and unprecedented nature of our current situation. Some climate scientists and academics have declared that we are headed toward inevitable social collapse, probable environmental catastrophe, and possible human extinction. This occurs at a time when the world is stressed by racial and social oppression, population growth and overconsumption, an unfair distribution of resources, and an extractive growth economy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh came of age in another time of great suffering, the 1950s and 60s in Vietnam. He is one of the world’s most effective practitioners of what he calls, “socially engaged Buddhism.” His Plum Village tradition was formed in the cauldron of the Vietnam War, where he urged his followers to bring the grounding and peacefulness gained on the meditation cushion out into the villages to help relieve the suffering of a war-torn people, by direct aid, social work, and building schools.

This tradition of engaged social action continues today with the Earth Holder Community: An Earth Justice Initiative in the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. The aim of Earth Holders is to “bring mindfulness, compassion, healing, and non-violence to protecting ourselves, each other, all beings, and the Earth.” 

The Earth Holder Community focuses attention on six interconnected elements of a holistic, mindfulness-based climate action and earth justice practice:

    1. Cultivating wise view, so that our actions are grounded in spiritual depth
    2. Healing & transforming racism and social oppression; to link climate justice with racial justice in order to foster human unity as a reality not an ideal
    3. Healing grief, despair, fear, and feelings of powerlessness, so that we may think more clearly, act more boldly, and love more deeply
    4. Building strong community, so that we have reliable space to recover, refresh, and renew ourselves as environmental and social suffering spreads
    5. Practicing living an ethical life, including reverence for life, deep listening and kind speech, so that we nurture the capacity for compassion and counteract hatred, blame, and “othering”
    6. Engaging in mindfulness-based earth justice work, and to bring these elements to individuals and communities around the world

We believe these six elements can help to deepen the movement for environmental and social justice.

1. Cultivating Wise View

Impermanence and interbeing are two key elements of what Buddhists call wise view.

Impermanence means everything changes.

This is the nature of reality. Nothing lasts – not our bodies, not our lives, not our civilization, not our ecosystems, not our species. Indeed, the vast majority of species that have existed on earth are now extinct. The earth and all its creations are but a moment in the mysterious cosmic flow. We are understandably attached to our particular species on our particular planet, and letting go of the idea that we are not the center of the universe is challenging. When we resist change, we suffer. Wise view asks us to learn to look deeply at the reality of change and not cling to our attached views or preferences.  This can help us find freedom in the midst of the storm. This freedom helps us respond more appropriately to the changes that are occurring.

This doesn’t mean we “give in” to climate change, racial injustice or social collapse, or have no responsibility or duty to act. It does mean that we loosen our grip on having things turn out the way we want them to. We can listen more carefully to others. We can pay more attention to people outside our circles and to beings that are not human. Acting in this manner helps us develop compassion and lessen suffering, transforming our relationship with the natural world.

Interbeing means everything is interconnected.

Another crucial element of wise view is that nothing exists as a separate entity; that everything is connected to everything else. In Eastern teachings, there is a beautiful image of “Indra’s Net”—an infinite web with a jewel at every node with facets that reflect every other jewel.

Interbeing is the awareness that we are not separate from the earth, but rather we are the Earth. When we are open and still, we can know without a doubt that we carry the Earth in every cell of our bodies. This awareness awakens a deep desire to care for the Earth, as we want to care for ourselves. What we do to Earth we do to ourselves and each other. And how we are with each other, collectively, is how we are with the Earth.

When John Seed, a rainforest activist was asked how he handles despair he said:

I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.

Another aspect of interbeing is the recognition that each of us shares a basic human nature with every other human being: with the Maldive islanders who are losing their islands to rising sea levels, and also with the oil barons, the Koch brothers, and climate crisis deniers. We all want to be happy and safe, and we all are highly conditioned to be attached to our points of views. To the extent that we can effectively deal with our judgmental and polarizing minds, we have a better chance to overcome these feelings of separation, and to see all beings with the eyes of compassion, even as we try to stop destructive activity.

2. Healing and Transforming Racial and Social Inequity

We can increasingly see how climate change highlights the interconnection between issues that were previously viewed as separate. Climate change is a racial justice issue; a resource extraction issue; a food security issue; a national security issue; an economic justice issue; a public health issue; a population issue; a democracy issue; an immigration issue; a technology issue; a gender equity issue, a species loss issue, a rights of the earth issue; and so on. Anything we care about is somehow related to climate change and environmental degradation. The silver lining of climate change, if we can grace it with such a positive term, is that we now have the real and necessary possibility of knitting together an integrated awareness that links all these issues into a new understanding of our interconnectedness.

For example, African American Zen teacher angel Kyoto williams succinctly makes the link between climate crisis and racism when she says, “The reason we continue to degrade the earth is that we continue to degrade each other.” So, as we heal the wounds of racism and white supremacy, we will also be healing that which keeps us in unhealthy relationship with the Earth. Acknowledging and healing from the wounds of racism needs to be high on our collective agenda.

The crux of environmental justice, is that the people who have contributed the least to the environmental catastrophe – mostly the Global South, mostly people-of-color – are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change, from Pacific Islanders who are already experiencing the effects of rising sea levels, to Sub-Saharan West African subsistence farmers who are feeling the simultaneous erratic effects of extreme drought and flooding, to communities of color in the US who are more likely to be impacted by air pollution (see this NPR article). When we talk about justice, we need to think about how we can rectify/mitigate/remedy this.

What Earth justice requires is radical transformation at the base of our civilization—an economy that promotes well-being and happiness, not based on greed; a society based on fairness, compassion, and cooperation where the “isms” have been healed and eliminated; a re-uniting of humans with the rest of the natural world, recognizing our inextricable interdependence and embeddedness; a human culture that encourages contentedness, sufficiency, caring, curiosity, and creativity.

Greta Thunberg

This transformation seems like a dream, given the current trends. All the more reason to not rely on the slow, incremental reforms that most of the past environmental movements have attempted.  As Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year-old Swedish climate activist says – “This is not sufficient, our house is on fire.”

Hoping that technology or the market or human decency or enough political will can “save” us from the worst is not sufficient either. Indigenous people all over the world have tried their best to remain close to and in harmonious relationship to the natural world, despite the colonialist destruction of their cultures. Those of us from non-indigenous cultures can learn much from their resistance and ancient wisdom.  This calls for a radical shift in consciousness coupled with deep systemic changes in our behavior, policies, and institutional structures, and correspondingly deep inner changes in our beliefs and feelings of powerlessness and unworthiness, our unconscious biases that make us feel superior or inferior, and the underlying conditioning that makes us feel separate from each other, other beings, and the Earth.

3. Handling Feelings of Grief, Despair, Fear, and Powerlessness.

As we contemplate the profound changes ahead, we come face-to-face with deep grief. How do we find ways of allowing ourselves to grieve, to let our hearts break open at both the present suffering and the suffering that is predicted?  Feelings of despair, depression, and sadness are natural responses to the possibilities of extinction, but as passing states of grief, not as a reason to give up or not act. Life is still miraculous, even as suffering deepens, there is still so much to love and protect.

Powerlessness. There is a huge barrier to humans mobilizing to limit harm and to change our relationship to the Earth. This barrier is the presence of deeply conditioned feelings of powerlessness in many people. While it is true that many people are engaged in inner and/or outer work from a place of fierce compassion, or solidarity or community service, regardless of what they think the outcome of their efforts might be, it is also true that there is a more pervasive societal denial, distraction, and paralysis about the situation facing us that needs addressing. Bill McKibben of 350.org puts it this way: “The crisis seems so big, and we seem so small, that it’s hard to imagine that we can make a difference.”

Many of us have internalized our childhood conditioning of powerlessness. But what if total climate catastrophe is not inevitable? What if we are big enough to tackle this? What if this is just the right level of challenge to slingshot us through to the next level of collective consciousness? What would we do if we adopted this view?

Of course, we can’t simply think our way to this point of view. We need courage to examine and feel the old feelings in order to transform them. In our meditation practice, or support groups, or therapy sessions, or friendship circles, can we make the commitment to find ways of accepting, embracing, and feeling those old feelings, and releasing them? If so, they will gradually lose their constraining hold on our unlimited capacity to love and act.

For example, for the past 30 years, I have maintained a weekly co-listening session with a friend. Each week, I listen to him for 45 minutes, and then he listens to me for 45 minutes. No advice, no agenda other than allowing ourselves to feel the feelings that arise. Along with meditation, this deep listening process over the years has helped me explore and release the early childhood hurts and historical trauma and increasingly uncover my innate capacity to care, to think clearly, and to act more fearlessly, which has allowed me to be more effective in social change work. So for me, healing early or ongoing trauma and feelings of powerlessness is a necessary part of earth justice work.

4. Building Strong Community

Feelings of powerlessness and living in a thoroughly oppressive society gives rise to separation. We get pitted against each other. We blame and shame others. We feel the need to protect our own, to go it alone, to compete, to get “ahead.” Our families, social networks, and communities break down. So building community is another necessary component of earth justice work – finding ways to unite across issues, create multi-racial and multi-class organizations, develop deep communities of practice as refuges, as sanctuaries, as think tanks, as renewal spaces.

I know this is easier said than done. White supremacy, patriarchy, and classism are dominant. Climate crisis asks us to get on with this healing and unification work, because the environmental impacts will affect everyone, not equally or at the same pace or time, but no place will be untouched, and the coming generations depend on us repairing long festering historical systems of oppression and exploitation that have kept us separate and have helped bring about the damage to the earth.

Another reason to nurture deep community is to be better able to provide a refuge of support for climate activists and climate refugees, to help each other maintain loving kindness and compassion as climate stress mounts, to be able to resist likely voices of separation and demonizing as fear increases. Strong community helps us deepen our skills in listening, and healing, and reaching harmony, skills that will become increasingly needed with rising chaos.

5. Practice living an ethical life, individually and collectively

If “interbeing” is true, then what I do in my thoughts, words, and deeds ripples outward infinitely. How I speak impacts you and vice versa. Knowing this interdependence makes me want to take good care of my actions. It helps me see the necessity of living an ethical life, and the desirability of a collective ethic along the lines of the “Five Mindfulness Trainings” offered by Thich Nhat Hanh, namely: reverence for life, generosity, kind speech, sexual responsibility, and mindful consumption.

Reverence for life means trying to do as little harm as possible, insofar as we can know. This points to nourishing gratitude for all of life, noticing the goodness and beauty all around, even in the midst of suffering. It means cultivating compassion for all beings, being kind and non- violent in my relationship with all humans, the earth, oceans, rivers and lakes, and with animals, fish and plants. It means eating in such a way the causes minimal suffering to animals and plants, growing or buying organic foods as means allow, conserving water and energy, and so on. And, we can see how this is directly linked to healing the wounds of white supremacy and patriarchy, no matter where we are in connection to those powerful societal dynamics.

Kind Speech and Deep Listening. Given the corrosive public discourse that permeates public life in much of the Western world, how can we practice kindness and solidarity in our speech, so we don’t add to ill-will, blame, and demonizing? Conversely, how can we listen well to others who disagree with us? How can we keep their inherent goodness in mind even as we dialogue respectfully with them to help understand and transform the situation?  How can we offer compassionate listening with the whole-hearted attempt to help relieve suffering and find common ground?

Generosity, or No Stealing. One of the causes of the climate crisis is that we humans have been “stealing” the future from our descendants. Not intentionally stealing, but our extraction of the natural resources for our comfort and profit has essentially robbed our descendants and millions of species of a quality environment. Similarly, greed, hatred, and insecurity have caused humans to oppress, enslave, imprison, or otherwise steal from other humans through much of history. How do we cultivate deep generosity, refusing to take what is not ours, giving of our time and material resources to those in need, creating a widespread culture of giving and sharing, even as seas rise and food shortages increase and climate refugees flood across international borders? How can we practice opening our hearts and extending our hands instead of putting up walls?

True Love, Sexual Responsibility. The #MeToo Movement is just the latest expose in the long, sad history of patriarchy, sexual exploitation, and abuse. Underlying the structural power dynamics is immense suffering born of loneliness, a need for closeness, and having been cut off from knowing our true nature. In addition to challenging the structures of sexism, the personal work required is reconnecting with one’s essence, one’s true home to recover our innate security and contentment that doesn’t depend on anyone else. When people so attuned to their true nature come together, there is no exploitation or abuse, but true expression of love.

Mindful Consumption. On the one level, this is obvious. Our consumption habits are hurting the earth, and so, becoming increasingly aware of our personal and collective consumption is part of addressing climate change. Looking deeply helps us examine our desires. Less obvious forms of “consumption” include media, news, entertainment, conversations, and jokes. Which are wholesome and which are toxic? How can we protect our precious consciousness from unwholesome consumption? This inquiry can lead to many changes in our lives, individually and collectively, leading toward simpler, more wholesome, mindful and responsible living.

6. Engaging in Compassionate Wise Action

Earth justice work requires the whole spectrum of engagement, from beginners just waking to the environmental crisis, to personal healing of one’s inner life; from adopting ways to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint, to preserving a local habitat, forest or wetlands; from protecting an endangered species, to actions, advocacy, and organizing in the wider world that change policies, structures, and institutions – putting an end to all forms of systemic violence.

This also includes electoral politics.

Innumerable organizations have been active in climate justice work for decades, and despite huge and heroic outpourings of energy, money, and effort, why do we seem to be going nowhere fast? One reason is that we have not used our influence enough in a concerted and powerful way to elect local, state, and federal officials who support effective climate justice approaches, and who are willing to challenge the moneyed interests and corporations that benefit from the status quo.

The fossil fuel industry, for example, has powerfully organized to elect candidates who deny human-caused climate change, challenge overwhelming scientific consensus (97%), roll back healthy climate laws and policies, and effectively legislate for continued fossil fuel subsidies.

Changing our personal habits is helpful, but not sufficient. To have significant impact, many more of us will need to step into the power space, the political space, and the space where the laws and policies are shaped and implemented. Specifically, without eliminating gerrymandered voting districts, without getting corporate money out of politics, without ensuring all people have an equal opportunity to vote, without electing climate-friendly candidates to office up and down the ballot, or running for office ourselves, we are ceding the future to those whose patterns, wrong views, and power are hastening collapse of the ecosystems we all depend on for food, water, air, and shelter. We need to help give Mother Earth good partners in government.  

And we can do electoral work without demeaning other candidates, without using divisive or disrespectful language, without demonizing opponents. Instead, we can use kind speech, invite conversations about what kind of environment we want, skillfully link racial justice with climate justice with economic justice with immigrant justice and so on, without blaming or shaming.

We can invite people to be on the side of love.

In Summary

While not pretending that it is complete, we offer this framework of a mindful approach to Earth Justice work in hopes that it is helpful to the wider movement. It helps to think of the six elements as interacting with each other, none standing alone, but together forming a promising approach. May it be of benefit.

About John Bell

John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher who lives near Boston, MA. He is a founding staff member and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. He is an author, lifelong social justice activist, international trainer facilitator, father, and grandfather. John wrote this article with the help of members of the steering committee of the Earth Holder Community, an Earth Justice Initiative of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. This framework collectively emerged from discussions among members of the steering committee, on which he happily serves. For more, visit his blog or contact him at jbellminder@gmail.com.

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Among the Nightingales in Berlin

Music Inter-species Collaboration

Among the Nightingales in Berlin

David Rothenberg is a distinguished professor of humanities and music at The New Jersey Institute of Technology and has studied music for over four decades. He is acclaimed for his career contributions in the fields of philosophy, art, and conservation science. Most of his work has an environmental theme and involves the sounds of nature, live and in the studio. As an internationally known composer and jazz clarinetist, his releases, on ECM Records and other labels, feature unique clarinet performances, often live field recordings incorporating the music of whales, birds and insects.

David’s latest recording projects are focused on collaborations with nightingales. As part of the work, Rothenberg and an international band of musicians perform music in concert with nightingales in Berlin’s public parks. His project is documented in several music releases, most notably, Berlin Bülbül (bülbül is turkish for nightingale) and Nightingale Cities.  The project has also given rise to a film, Nightingales In Berlin, and a newly released book Nightingales In Berlin Searching for the Perfect Sound. David very kindly sent Kosmos this update from the very heart of the project, Berlin.

– Kari Auerbach, for Kosmos Journal


Nightingales in Berlin Trailer | Footage and Ethos of the Project

This film tells the story of David Rothenberg’s efforts to gather together an international band of musicians to cross the species line and make music live with nightingales. Because of its spacious parks and the large number of enthusiastically singing birds, Berlin is the best city to make music with nightingales. (pull out quote: “Almost everything one plays to a nightingale will encourage him to sing more. These encounters becomes a direct window into the unknown, a touch of communication with a being with whom we cannot speak. The play of pure tones jarring against click and buzz, it all becomes not a code but a groove, an amphitheater of rhythms in which we strive to find a place.”


It’s been five years since I began playing music live with the nightingales in Berlin. In 2013, I moved to the city for one year to steep myself in its refreshing range of artistic possibility and mix of world cultures, something like the New York of an era before my time, where one could live well on moderate means, and art is produced together simply because it can be, not because it might make some people known while others remain unknown.

I was also buoyed by the knowledge that Berlin offers glimmers of environmental success. Citizens had reclaimed its first airport, turned it into a giant open air park where you can bicycle the runways and listen to skylarks, who have been given part of the giant airfield as a sanctuary. Other sections contain community gardens, and whenever the city threatens to plonk down a housing development, the people fight back and it doesn’t happen.

I knew the city was home to a thriving population of several thousand nightingales, whose intense midnight songs were the terrestrial equivalent of the twenty-four hour arias of humpback whales. These were the birds of myth and literature, and, living in the New World, I had never heard one in person. As an interspecies musician, I dreamed of a music that could only be made by humans and nightingales together.

Half a decade later, I am happy to say we have a book, a film, and several recorded versions of the music, all to be explored at www.nightingalesinberlin.com. I can hardly believe everything got ready at the same time.

Last Friday, the film had just been wrapped up by director Ville Tanttu in Helsinki as he flew to Germany, heading straight for the BUFA Film Studios where we would hold the world premiere. This facility, one of Germany’s earliest movie production facilities, is currently being transformed into a center for sustainable culture by the people behind the wonderful retreat centers in the UK, www.42acres.com. Apparently, when the facility was first built, movies were only made with natural light, so the buildings were like giant greenhouses, and it is to that form that they may soon be restored.


An excerpt from the documentary Nightingales in Berlin


Still, right now it’s an idea, not a reality, so our crew had to turn the black box movie studio into a screening space, and more and more people kept signing up for the show, so we ran all over the campus, finding every possible couch and chair we could, carrying them all to the floor with the help of a great team of Iranian and Syrian students and refugees. Lima Vafadar organized the whole process, Yassi Pishvai decided where every seat would go. Ville and I and two stagehands put up the giant screen four times before we got it right.

Lima and Ehsan Tavakoli prepared food that was a work of art in itself. Binta Wasgeschah tended the bar put together out of old crates. The lights were adjusted, the public filed in. I saw my film for the very first time.

My initial reaction was a bit like Pee Wee Herman in his Great Adventure: “I don’t have to see the movie because I lived it.” But I was soon lured in to a visual poem about my recent past. It was dark, beautiful, made mostly at night. There is a lot of me talking, which I don’t like to hear, preferring instead the actual music of this amazing bird, and these fine musicians joining in: Cymin Samawatie on voice, Sanna Salmenkallio and Benedicte Maurseth on violins, Korhan Erel on electronics, and Wassim Mukdad on oud. Pioneers of nightingale science Dietmar Todt, Tina Roeske, Silke Voigt-Huecke and even Sarah Darwin, great-great-grandaughter of Charles, explain a few things.



Under the nightingale’s song

Everyone is gone except you and I

The night is cold but we are warm

As warm as long as the nightingale sings—

Forever

Yet there is much of the story we cannot explain. Why do these birds sing all night, as few other species need to do? The function of territory and attraction are not enough to presage all this beauty. We have scanned their brains, we know they love and enjoy their own music even more than we do.

“How can I be silent,” says the Farsi poet Saadi, in the thirteenth century, “while birds chant praises?” That is my motto for why I dare to join in. The nightingale needs not my own tentative, feeble human music. Or any human music. After all, he has sung the way he does for millions of years, we have only got a few hundred thousand cycles down thus far. He goes to Africa in winter, and flies back to exactly the same tree or lamppost in Berlin many years in a row—that much we do know.

After the show, some of us walk together toward the edge of the Tempelhof Field where nightingales trade fours in the underbrush. I play along for half an hour or so, then we listen reverentially for another hour to our bird. He has a few hundred phrases to work with, and somehow neither he nor we ever get bored. People file away into the night. Just a few of us are left, huddled together in the cold as this beautiful ancient music goes on and on, reminder that at least something is still right with the world, right at the border between nature and culture where the most important contact is found. We may never crack the nightingale’s code, as Dylan and Merwin well knew. I don’t even need to record it anymore, it’s wound itself up into my own songs, as I remember this moment always and will keep coming back.


David Presents for 25 minutes on the process of collaborating with whales, insects and birds. He concludes with comparing, contrasting, slowing down, speeding up and combining animal sounds and as a finale.

In this same edition of Kosmos Quarterly, read about another artist who collaborates with nightingales! Sam Lee: Birdsong Hits the Charts.

About David Rothenberg

Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful and many other books, published in at least eleven languages. He has more than twenty CDs out, including One Dark Night I Left My Silent House which came out on ECM, and most recently Berlin Bülbul and Cool Spring. He has performed or recorded with Pauline Oliveros, Peter Gabriel, Ray Phiri, Suzanne Vega, Scanner, Elliot Sharp, Iva Bittová, and the Karnataka College of Percussion. Nightingales in Berlin is his latest book, CD, and film. Rothenberg is Distinguished Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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Dancing with Animals

Essay Ceremony

Dancing with Animals

Feature Image: River Murray, South Australia

A few years ago, I participated in a transformative writing for emergence course. Through it, I realised that the troubling sense of disconnection I had been feeling was from both a loss of my culture, and a lack of a relationship with the Earth itself. The Western worldview in which I grew up taught me that other lifeforms are not alive in the special way humans are. This belief prevented me from considering other lifeforms as worthy of being in relation with, and from forming the intricate systems of relationship that many indigenous cultures retain. I now believe this loss of an Earth identity is why we are able to wantonly destroy so much of our planet; it is something that needs to be rediscovered.

Recently, I embarked on a river healing journey, called Ringbalin, along the River Murray in South-East Australia. It was led by the Ngarrindjeri people whose traditional lands exist where this river empties into the Southern Ocean. The journey took us through several Indigenous Nations’ lands, and involved the building and strengthening of connections between Indigenous Nations, as well as allowed us non-indigenous people to learn and participate in acts of healing and connection through nightly ceremonies along the river.

While the journey was incredible in many ways, a part of me wondered what good it is to be dancing while people continue to drain too much water from the river for agriculture and human settlements, and allow polluted water to flow back into it. Shouldn’t we be taking more direct action to stop this? What good is it to take years and years to build relationships while we know that right now the river is not running to the ocean? Surely we must be doing something big, like lobbying politicians or protesting en masse to ensure that ecological restoration begins immediately. It seemed too small until I reflected on how the journey affected me.

Each night, the ceremony began with all of the people present inviting their ancestors to witness what was taking place. I had never really thought about my ancestors. It wasn’t a term that was used in my Christian family. Recently, I have begun exploring Buddhism, particularly the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and have struggled with his reverence for ancestors. If anything, my recent ancestors were not people I respected. I saw them as the people who began the stripping away of their culture, which lead to me—a person who cannot even speak my language and doesn’t know my people’s stories and ceremonies. Yet, in participating in Ringbalin, I gained a sense of the importance of acknowledging where I come from and connecting what was to what is. I see that the present cannot be without the actions of the past and that the future emerges out of what we presently do. So, when future generations invite their ancestors into the ceremonial circle, I will be part of those ancestors being called forth. With that, comes a continuity and responsibility that its weightier than a life lived only for the individual now.

The ceremonial dances at Ringbalin were about the river ecosystem and the sustenance it provided. Ngarrindjeri elder Uncle Moogy spoke about how their culture considers creatures—the animals, birds, fish, and plants—as Naatchi, meaning their friends. In dancing, the Ngarrindjeri honour this connection. We were invited to join in the dances—to learn the hop of the Kangaroo, the bobbing strut of the Emu, the flight of the Kite Hawk, and the swimming motions of the Whale and a school of fish. In dancing, I felt a connection and empathy for these creatures that I had not felt before. It was as if, for a brief moment, I had slipped into their fur, feathers, or scales; even as I write this, the tug of connection re-emerges.

What we choose to recreate in stories, dance, and art says a lot about our culture. I wonder then what it is to be fully emerged in a belief system that creates these dances and honours them by performing them in their ceremonies. Indigenous Nations, in what is now Australia, track their movement across the landscape through songs of animals that crafted the contours and waterways, and remain embodied in the hills, plains, and rivers. From what little I have learned of their cultures, it is apparent that they have complex, finely tuned systems of respect and responsibility to each other, the land, and the seen and unseen creatures that live in it. This has allowed them to live for tens of thousands of years across the continent in a variety of ecosystems, from northern monsoonal areas to inland deserts and more temperate climates.

In the 200-odd years since Europeans invaded Australia, it has been dramatically altered. In this country and around the world, the dominant Western mindset has trapped us into a system that diminishes the Earth’s diversity through an ongoing attempt to force the land into being things it does not want to be. In all this, we have lost an understanding of the land and forgotten how to honour the embodied life that exists throughout. In thinking how the river healing journey affected me, I see that we need to learn to really sit with the land, to dance its creatures into life, or even to begin to acknowledge a connection to something non-human. Perhaps it is my ancestral connections, too, reminding me of this important need to situate ourselves again within our Earth and all it offers. From whatever source this knowledge comes, I know that having an Earth identity is necessary for us to create ways of being that allow humans and the rest of creation to flourish.

About Dinali Devasagayam

Dinali Devasagayam uses writing to explore her place in this world with a focus of the intersectionality of race, environment, and gender and how this can point us towards more beautiful worlds. She finds peace and joy in wondering under tall trees and exploring biodiverse landscapes. Dinali lives in Australia and is involved in various community building groups. For more, visit her blog.

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Farming While Black

Article Book

Farming While Black

The following excerpt is from Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. —Malcolm X

As a young person, and one of three mixed-race Black children raised in the rural North mostly by our white father, I found it very difficult to understand who I was. Some of the children in our conservative, almost all-white public school taunted, bullied, and assaulted us, and I was confused and terrified by their malice. But while school was often terrifying, I found solace in the forest. When human beings were too much to bear, the earth consistently held firm under my feet and the solid, sticky trunk of the majestic white pine offered me something stable to grasp. I imagined that I was alone in identifying with Earth as Sacred Mother, having no idea that my African ancestors were transmitting their cosmology to me, whispering across time, “Hold on daughter—we won’t let you fall.”

I never imagined that I would become a farmer. In my teenage years, as my race consciousness evolved, I got the message loud and clear that Black activists were concerned with gun violence, housing discrimination, and education reform, while white folks were concerned with organic farming and environmental conservation. I felt that I had to choose between “my people” and the Earth, that my dual loyalties were pulling me apart and negating my inherent right to belong.

Fortunately, my ancestors had other plans. I passed by a flyer advertising a summer job at The Food Project, in Boston, Massachusetts, that promised applicants the opportunity to grow food and serve the urban community. I was blessed to be accepted into the program, and from the first day, when the scent of freshly harvested cilantro nestled into my finger creases and dirty sweat stung my eyes, I was hooked on farming. Something profound and magical happened to me as I learned to plant, tend, and harvest, and later to prepare and serve that produce in Boston’s toughest neighborhoods. I found an anchor in the elegant simplicity of working the earth and sharing her bounty. What I was doing was good, right, and unconfused. Shoulder-to-shoulder with my peers of all hues, feet planted firmly in the earth, stewarding life-giving crops for Black community—I was home.

As it turned out, The Food Project was relatively unique in terms of integrating a land ethic and a social justice mission. From there I went on to learn and work at several other rural farms across the Northeast. While I cherished the agricultural expertise imparted by my mentors, I was also keenly aware that I was immersed in a white-dominated landscape. At organic agriculture conferences, all of the speakers were white, all of the technical books sold were authored by white people, and conversations about equity were considered irrelevant.

I thought that organic farming was invented by white people and worried that my ancestors who fought and died to break away from the land would roll over in their graves to see me stooping. I struggled with the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I could not have been more wrong.

At the annual gathering of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, I decided to ask the handful of people of color at the event to gather for a conversation, known as a caucus. In that conversation I learned that my struggles as a Black farmer in a white-dominated agricultural community were not unique, and we decided to create another conference to bring together Black and Brown farmers and urban gardeners. In 2010 the National Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS), which continues to meet annually, was convened by Karen Washington. Over 500 aspiring and veteran Black farmers gathered for knowledge exchange and for affirmation of our belonging to the sustainable food movement.

Through BUGS and my growing network of Black farmers, I began to see how miseducated I had been regarding sustainable agriculture. I learned that “organic farming” was an African-indigenous system developed over millennia and first revived in the United States by a Black farmer, Dr. George Washington Carver, of Tuskegee University in the early 1900s. Dr. Booker T. Whatley, another Tuskegee professor, was one of the inventors of community-supported agriculture (CSA), and that community land trusts were first started in 1969 by Black farmers, with the New Communities movement leading the way in Georgia.

Learning this, I realized that during all those years of seeing images of only white people as the stewards of the land, only white people as organic farmers, only white people in conversations about sustainability, the only consistent story I’d seen or been told about Black people and the land was about slavery and sharecropping, about coercion and brutality and misery and sorrow. And yet here was an entire history, blooming into our present, in which Black people’s expertise and love of the land and one another was evident. When we as Black people are bombarded with messages that our only place of belonging on land is as slaves, performing dangerous and backbreaking menial labor, to learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing.

Soil-kissed hands at Soul Fire Farm. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.

Fortified by a more accurate picture of my people’s belonging on land, I knew I was ready to create a mission-driven farm centering on the needs of the Black community. At the time, I was living with my Jewish husband, Jonah, and our two young children, Neshima and Emet, in the South End of Albany, New York, a neighborhood classified as a “food desert” by the federal government. On a personal level this meant that despite our deep commitment to feeding our young children fresh food and despite our extensive farming skills, structural barriers to accessing good food stood in our way. The corner store specialized in Doritos and Coke. We would have needed a car or taxi to get to the nearest grocery store, which served up artificially inflated prices and wrinkled vegetables. There were no available lots where we could garden. Desperate, we signed up for a CSA share, and walked 2.2 miles to the pickup point with the newborn in the backpack and the toddler in the stroller. We paid more than we could afford for these vegetables and literally had to pile them on top of the resting toddler for the long walk back to our apartment.

When our South End neighbors learned that Jonah and I both had many years of experience working on farms, from Many Hands Organic Farm, in Barre, Massachusetts, to Live Power Farm, in Covelo, California, they began to ask whether we planned to start a farm to feed this community. At first we hesitated. I was a full-time public school science teacher, Jonah had his natural building business, and we were parenting two young children. But we were firmly rooted in our love for our people and for the land, and this passion for justice won out. We cobbled together our modest savings, loans from friends and family, and 40 percent of my teaching salary every year in order to capitalize the project. The land that chose us was relatively affordable, just over $2,000 an acre, but the necessary investments in electricity, septic, water, and dwelling spaces tripled that cost. With the tireless support of hundreds of volunteers, and after four years of building infrastructure and soil, we opened Soul Fire Farm, a project committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system, providing life-giving food to people living in food deserts, and transferring skills and knowledge to the next generation of farmer-activists.

Our first order of business was feeding our community back in the South End of Albany. While the government labels this neighborhood a food desert, I prefer the term food apartheid, because it makes clear that we have a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain groups to food opulence and prevents others from accessing life-giving nourishment.

About 24 million Americans live under food apartheid, in which it’s difficult to impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This trend is not race-neutral. White neighborhoods have an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black communities. This lack of access to nutritious food has dire consequences for our communities. Incidences of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are on the rise in all populations, but the greatest increases have occurred among people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans.

***

Farming While Black is a reverently compiled manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system. To farm while Black is an act of defiance against white supremacy and a means to honor the agricultural ingenuity of our ancestors. As Toni Morrison is reported to have said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Farming While Black is the book I needed someone to write for me when I was a teen who incorrectly believed that choosing a life on land would be a betrayal of my ancestors and of my Black community.

About Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer who has been tending the soil for twenty years and organizing for an anti-racist food system for fifteen years. She currently serves as founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works to dismantle racism in the food system. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award and author of the new book Farming While Black (Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2018).

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Rhino Conservation

Article Causes and Visions

Rhino Conservation

I literally won an auction. It was a live auction for a trip to Namibia. That was completely on a whim, but it was a bucket list item that I always had. I am the quintessential animal lover, the little girl who was picking up the strays and the little birds. I’ve always loved animals. I’ve always liked being out in nature. I probably never would have taken the plunge to go to Africa because it was daunting to me. Where do you go? How do you figure it out? It seemed so foreign.

When I got to Namibia, the first large wildlife that I saw wasn’t a bird or baboon but a giraffe. It was actually a group of giraffes walking towards a waterhole. The sauntering and the movement of those giraffes coming above the trees, that was it for me. I was so… taken. That’s what sowed the seed.

I happen to have a friend at work, Dr. Mullen of Penn Medicine, who’s also a wildlife lover who has been to Africa a number of times. He is a National Geographic supporter, and connected me with Dereck and Beverly Joubert, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. They were on tour in the US in the fall of 2015 for their film Soul of the Elephant which was debuting and had won some awards. The Jouberts came and spoke at the Department of Surgery at Penn Medicine on leadership from their perspective as conservationists.

Connecting with them after their talk, I had one question for them, “How can I help?”

They had just started their joint program Rhinos Without Borders. There has been lots of press around big cats and elephants. Not as many people know about the plight of the rhinos and, in fact, I did not. I said, “Fantastic. If the rhinos need help, then we are here to help the rhinos.” That was really the beginning for PARCA.

Since then, our mission has been to educate about the plight of rhinos, contribute to their conservation as well as the preservation of their larger ecosystem.

Over the last year, I’ve realized how profoundly wildlife affects people. The prior President of Botswana had a very animal-focused mentality. He was very much about the environment, very much about photographic tourism. They stopped all hunting in the country, and they’ve seen wildlife rebound.

Yet as wildlife has rebounded, it has encroached further upon humans. Women who have to go to retrieve water, are not able to get to their water source because the elephants are blocking it. Farmers are also affected by crops that get damaged. There have actually been incidents of elephants killing humans, and many other effects of their encroachment.

The new president is not as environmentally focused. He says he is more about the people and looking at what the people need, like crop protection. The environmental ministers presented him with a plan a few months ago that included elephant culling and reinstituting hunting.

As Westerners, when we make comments on social media or in petitions about ‘saving the elephants,’ some of us are intending for that to mean we have to protect the elephants and the people, but we haven’t been saying that. So the people of Botswana weren’t hearing that. What they were hearing was Westerners—who think they know the situation yet who don’t have conflict with these enormous land mammals—just saying ‘protect the elephants,’ while locals are losing family and friends sometimes to this conflict.


The Extinction Report

In the midst of our global climate crisis, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report sheds light on the rapidly declining biodiversity and worsening health of the planet’s ecosystems. The 40-page summary for policymakers, published this May, compiles evidence from various scientific studies and reveals a reality that cannot be softened–one million species face extinction, and their loss further compromises surviving ecosystems. Without the restoration of their habitats, nearly 500,000 species will face extinction in just the next few decades.

The drive of this crisis is clear: human activity–development, deforestation, resource extraction, overfishing, hunting–as well as climate change (also largely driven by human activity) has put these species at risk. The extinction of such scale threatens human well-being, as biodiversity is foundational to our livelihoods, health, and, ultimately, our survival. The consequences of ecological and climate changes will disproportionately affect urban and poor communities.

Nearly 25% of global land is owned or tended by indigenous or local communities, and proves to be healthier than nature managed by large corporations. Appropriately, the report consults and includes local and indengeous knowledge, and contends that improving the planet’s ecological health depends on a cultural shift away from primarily valuing economic growth toward perceiving ecological health as central to human quality of life. With human activity at the center of this ecological crisis, the solution also rests in our hands, requiring systemic change across every industry.

Key findings

  • Up to 1 million: species threatened with extinction, many within decades
  • 33%: marine fish stocks in 2015 being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% are maximally sustainably fished; 7% are underfished
  • 45%: increase in raw timber production since 1970 (4 billion cubic meters in 2017)
  • >75%: global food crop types that rely on animal pollination
  • +/-821 million: people face food insecurity in Asia and Africa
  • 68%: global forest area today compared with the estimated pre-industrial level
  • 29%: average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008; the extinction risk of birds, mammals and amphibians would have been at least 20% greater without conservation action in recent decade


It caused me to pause and think about how I was saying, “I wanted the elephants to be protected.” It doesn’t mean I don’t want to protect humans. I want, hopefully, to find a solution that encompasses everybody.

It’s complex, and we can’t do it without the locals involved in the conversation. Understanding the disruption of social structures to both humans and animals is critical in the work of conservation.

Understanding how to extend my circle of compassion has been transformational for me in this work. Take poaching or hunting even here in Pennsylvania—when you hunt a deer, you’re removing an animal from is social structure. You have no idea if that deer has young to take care of. And then, when you consider folks that hunt as a food source, it’s not as easy to say, “No, it’s completely wrong, and you can’t do that.”

Taking time to consider the whole and listen to others’ perspectives is essential in this work. Articles like the latest UN extinction report are so important to keep the dialog going. I hope that folks find time to read these reports and really think about the scope of these issues. You don’t need to feel pressured to find the solution, but participating in the conversation is important, because you may have ideas that the experts haven’t thought about. And we need to find space for the voices of local communities, for those living this experience everyday. Otherwise, our solutions will fall flat.

Having been in the conservation realm now, I’ve become more aware of all of the plights that exist and the different animals who are threatened, from amphibians to birds, insects – it’s profound. We have a lot of work to do and it can be very daunting, but if you find your cause, you will love it and you will work for it. Of course, I would love for you to take my cause, because I love my cause. But, I want you to find your cause. We are pretty powerful when we put our minds to things.

When you lock eyes with an animal—whether its common or foreign to you–you cannot help but have that awe inspiring moment of, “Oh my gosh, I just had a connection with a wild animal.” Even if you go for a hike in your local woods or spend time in your backyard, take time to hear the birds. So often, we become immune to seeing and hearing the life around us.

I often think about book Silent Spring. What would it be like if you woke up in May, finally able to open our windows, everything’s coming back to life, and it was silent? It would be so void. Our lives are enriched by the animals among us, and we have to just take a moment and appreciate that. When you make that connection with another living being, and certainly one that you don’t expect it because they’re wild, it’s profound.

PA Rhino Conservation Advocates (PARCA) has been working to help protect the rhinoceros since 2015.  First and foremost, our work raises much-needed funds to enable groups in Africa to protect and care for rhinos. We advocate for and educate the public about rhino conservation and the critical nature of this issue.  We are a U.S. public charity under IRS Section 501(c)(3).


Dereck and Beverly Joubert

Dereck and Beverly Joubert are globally recognized wildlife conservationists, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, award-winning filmmakers, and photographers. They are the founders of the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic, which funds 86 grants in 27 countries for the conservation of big cats. The Jouberts have been researching in Africa for over 30 years and are prolific in their conservation work. They have made 25 films for National Geographic, published 11 books, six scientific papers, and written many articles for National Geographic Magazine. They have received 8 Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a Grand Teton Award, multiple Golden Panda Awards, a World Ecology Award, and a Presidential Order of Merit awarded by Botswana’s president, Seretse Khama Ian Khama.

One of the most beneficial things that the Jouberts did for me personally and for PARCA as an organization was to extend their full support to us, ‘What we have at our disposal, you have at your disposal,’ they assured me. ‘Use what you can, because we’re all partners in this. There’s no competition. If you’re jumping on board and we’re all going to do this, we’re going to do this together and we all have to support each other.’ Their generosity came in the form of advice and expertise, access to their staff, and even their portfolio of photography–Beverly Joubert-quality photography, of course.

Beverly Joubert is an acclaimed photographer, and her exhibitions have furthered the reach of their mission. The Jouberts recently launched Rhinos Without Borders in partnership with Great Plains Conservation and And Beyond which aims to move 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana to save them from the poaching crisis.

About Heather Smith

Heather Smith has worked in healthcare at Penn Medicine for 30 years. In 2016, she co-founded PA Rhino Conservation Advocates (PARCA), Inc. after a life-changing trip to Africa and the opportunity to meet conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Heather serves as president of PARCA whose mission is to fund the relocation and protection of wild rhinos, fund the care of young rhinos orphaned by poaching, and raise public awareness about their plight. The organization has funded the move of two rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, sponsors an orphaned rhino at a sanctuary in South Africa, and funded several anti-poaching programs in Botswana and Kenya. PARCA has also sponsored trips for two safari guides from Botswana to the U.S. Heather’s cat allows Heather, her husband, daughter, and 2 dogs to live with him in Media PA.

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Eating as if Life and the Planet Mattered

Conversation Mindfulness

Eating as if Life and the Planet Mattered

Rhonda Fabian | We find ourselves in a very tender moment for humanity. How do the collective challenges we face impact your personal practice?

Marge Wurgel | I believe at this time in our history of the planet, we are on the teetering edge between a more loving, compassionate approach to the Earth, or continuing our destructive habits.

If we don’t choose fairly soon, the Earth will continue to suffer deeply. There are more animal and plant species facing extinction. Water sources are being polluted. The air is being polluted. Our land is being stripped of many of its minerals. Those of us who feel a very deep sense of love and connection with Mother Earth have the opportunity right now to step up, to speak out gently, to take personal action, and to try to take collective action to care for the planet.

Joaquin Carral | One of the biggest sources of suffering is dualistic and discriminative thinking. It’s like separating me from myself: categorizing ‘plant-based’, ‘not-plant-based’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘not-eco-friendly’, and ‘first-world country’ and ‘third-world country.’ That’s been my practice lately—trying to see the common ground. And not falling into despair.

Aurora Leon | The more I eat plant-based, the more compassionate I become. I started my way of eating first for health reasons. Not that I didn’t care for animals, because I love animals, but it was not in the forefront in my thinking. Now, with time, I’m more aware of that. And I send compassion to them. It is a spiritual practice, and the more I try to do it, the more I’m reversing that trauma that has been inherited.

Rhonda | Many groups, like yours, promote a plant-based or vegan diet. What is it about the Plum Village tradition of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that helps us to see this offer in a new way?

Aurora | It’s having a gentler approach. Being open and compassionate to other people. Being free of judgment. Even though I think my view will help save the world, I can be open. Instead of correct, it’s connect. And trusting that I’m doing my best, and that Mother Earth is doing her best.

Marge | We focus on really being aware of our actions, our choices, our food choices, and being aware of the life energy that has to be taken away in order for us to eat animal food. And, as we present our messages to people, we lovingly offer our perspective, our information, and then let go. We are not here to shake a stick and criticize. We would love it if everybody became plant-based, but we also know that’s not likely to happen. As we present our messages, we want to honor the choices that each person makes, knowing that each person has his or her own reasons for having chosen a certain way. So, I get not only to give my perspective, but then I get to listen deeply to the perspective of the people that I’m engaged with, be aware of what factors from their history or their current situation have gone into making the choices they do, and then not to be attached to what the outcome is, so I can be inspiring, educating, offering support, and then letting go.

Rhonda | I’d like to turn our attention to the suffering of animals through factory farming, animal testing, habitat loss, trophy-hunting, poaching, and so on. How does our treatment of animals reflect a continuation of our historically exploitative mindset?

Marge | I think it goes back to some of what Joaquin was sharing about our dualistic way of thinking—that we are different than, or superior to, the animals of the Earth. And as this theoretically more developed being, we have dominion over others. Our choices, our desires, are more important than the lives and the feelings of the animals of the world. That comes from our own suffering as a species. I don’t think we would treat other beings so poorly if we were feeling good about ourselves, if we saw ourselves as part of the whole. I see the turkeys and the fish and the cows as my brothers and sisters. And so, I want to treat them well.

Aurora | I think it also goes back to my ancestors, and the suffering and the trauma that has been passed on generation to generation. I think it’s our time, and it’s my time to change that.

And it can be very difficult to find compassion for people who are very violent to our animals. And I think that’s also my practice. If I want to have compassion for lizards and animals or plants, the question is can I have compassion for my fellow brothers? And understand that he’s suffering too? Because he suffers a lot; he’s sharing suffering everywhere.

Joaquin | We seem to forget about compassion, growing up. Many children really are compassionate toward animals, and they see their suffering. They don’t want to create more suffering. But it’s easy for our human minds to forget, to turn a blind eye and live in denial because of what we learn and see around us.

It is a systemic thing that we as humans do; it’s lack of awareness and it’s fear of the change. That’s why it’s really important to educate about the suffering caused by our actions. What happens when we eat dairy? We are promoting the death of veal and horrible conditions for cows. The first step is just being open to receiving information and trying to understand what’s going on with all of our actions. And to see if we can change. What can we change this day?

For example, I think it’s very difficult for me to give up flying in an airplane because I like to see my family in Mexico. I know that it’s contributing to my carbon footprint, and I’m aware of that. So I am choosing to make other changes in my life. It’s not denial that flying in an airplane is bad for the environment, but rather awareness of what I am choosing.

Rhonda | I’ve heard it said that the Earth may be better off without us. And this has troubled me as someone on the path of the Buddha. I do believe we have a reason for existing as a species—to be good stewards of the Earth and all the gifts we have been given. I’m wondering what you feel about it.

Joaquin | Thank you for the question, Rhonda. I’ve been observing my reaction to that view. When I’m in that state of mind—that the planet would be better off without human beings—a sense of grief and loss comes up in me.

However, as humans, we have the capacity to awaken. As long as we are staying on that path, with the intention and the aspiration to wake up, and to transform suffering, and help others wake up—I know that is a big aspiration—but if we can hold that aspiration and continue to nourish that, then there is a purpose. I think that’s my job on this Earth.

Many of the personal decisions Aurora and I have made tie into that, like not having kids, and following a plant-based diet, and living in an intentional community. Together as a couple, we try to see our impact. We are each other’s base on thoughts of mindfulness and contributing to this planet.

Aurora | I think about what our teacher says, that we are Mother Earth. That I am soil, and I am air. So, even though we’re not perfect, and we’re causing a lot of suffering, we are the Earth. I try to remember that. We might as well do the best instead of making it worse. We are already here, let’s do what we can. That’s why we aspire to foster children, because if kids are already here, why not help them to have support and love, and educate them?

Marge | I believe that humans have a very vital, beautiful role by being part of this planet—this living community. I think our role is to use our awareness—our great combination of intelligence and heart—to create a harmonious environment for all living beings and non-living beings. I think that we’ve got an unusually evolved capacity to see the needs and the wants and the desires and the importance of all beings, living and non-living. We’re here to appreciate them, to honor the diversity of sentient and non-sentient beings. We have the powers of awareness and thought and gratitude that can allow us to feel the interconnectedness, the vitality, the importance of all.

Everything arises, stays for a while, and leaves. But while I’m here, while humanity is here, we have the role, the responsibility, the right to be in gratitude, to be in love, and to care well for all beings.

I am thrilled that we are seemingly opening up to the vision of a more plant-based approach to living throughout this country, throughout the world, such as offering restaurant and shopping options that are plant-based. I’m hearing more on public radio about plant-based eating. There are websites springing up all over the world that are spreading this message of compassion and health, and connection to the animal world. There are meet-up groups all over the world sharing plant-based meals, corporate cafeterias offering plant-based options, and schools opting for Meatless Mondays. It’s a beautiful time to be plant-based.

Aurora | More doctors are becoming plant-based. Hospitals are providing plant-based meals. I think it’s really exciting. More athletes are adopting a plant-based diet and having great success. There are companies that are trying their best not to do animal testing, and also in medicine. We’re developing new ways of treating our bodies and understanding our bodies. I think it’s a great advance that people are doing what they value, what they honor.

Rhonda | Thank you, each of you, for your wisdom and your insights.

About Joaquin Carral

Joaquin Carral is a physician, member of the Order of Interbeing, and a resident member of Morning Sun Mindfulness Center. He started his plant-based journey inspired to help endangered species and the environment and soon after found the health benefits of this way of living. He has volunteered with PCRM and with Dr. John McDougall and considers both Dr. Barnard and Dr. McDougall his mentors. He was trained on preventive cardiology and currently practices primary care medicine in a rural community that serves mostly underserved patients.

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About Marge Wurgel

Marge Wurgel is a Buddhist practitioner in the Plum Village Tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and was one of the founders of the Plant-Powered Earth Holders in that tradition. She sees her most important roles in life as learning to live consciously, healthfully, spiritually, and lovingly toward herself, others, and the planet. She puts a lot of energy into eating well and shows her sacred connection to the Earth by making daily plant-based food choices that honor her animal brothers and sisters and the planet itself. Marge teaches vegan cooking classes and supports people in moving toward a plant-centered diet.

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About Aurora Leon

Aurora Leon was born in Mexico. Right now lives in Connecticut where she practices as a plant-based primary care physician. Every weekend she goes to MorningSun Mindfulness center which is a lay practice center in the Plum Village tradition. She loves to hike and run. She is an OI member, helps facilitate sanghas, was a co-founder of Wake Up NY, participates in the plant-powered branch of the Earth Holders Sangha, Sangha de las Americas, organizes retreats in MorningSun and helped to organize the Wake Up tour in Latin America in 2014, Mexico in 2016, and Appalachian Trail Retreat in 2018.

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The Stones Will Cry Out

Article Living Earth

The Stones Will Cry Out

 

Climate Change is Colonialism

Today we have entered the fateful epoch of the “Sixth Great Extinction” – a geological time period similar to the last mass extinction event when the dinosaurs were wiped out tens of millions of years ago.  Vertiginously, we are climbing a dangerous staircase of global warming-driven “tipping points” – catalytic chain-reaction events, such as melting permafrost, that could trigger widespread and sudden catastrophe within the heretofore self-regulating global climate system.

Smoke pollution produced by Pittsburgh factories

Unsustainable, mechanized civilization has dumped billions of metric tons of carb0n into the atmosphere through fossil fuels burning since the onset of coal-fired industrialization in the mid-18th century. Heavy consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas, along with continued deforestation since the start of the Columbian Age, is causing global temperatures to escalate astronomically – anywhere from three to seven degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, to as high as seven to ten degrees by the century’s end.

Attributed to Gysbrecht Lytens (1586-1656)

Climate change driven by carbon dependence is the direct result of the extractive worldview that came ashore in the Americas with the arrival of Columbus in 1492 CE.  It is easy to think that contemporary global warming is an exceptional apocalyptic event spawned by the Industrial Revolution.  In fact, the first instance of global climate change occurred within a hundred years of European colonization of the New World.  Set in motion by initial contact between indigenes and settlers, European diseases and armed conflicts killed upwards of 56 million Indigenous people, causing large human communities to be evacuated as well as great swaths of farmland to be abandoned and then reforested.  The resulting increase in trees and vegetation triggered a massive decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere, enough to cool the Earth by 1610, in what is called the Little Ice Age.  Tragically, Native genocide was only the beginning of the ecocidal birth pangs that have led to the catastrophic climate sorrows of our own historical period.  We are not unique. The Great Dying in the Americas five hundred years ago has now led directly to the Sixth Great Extinction of our own time.

As the planet becomes hotter and cascading waves of extinctions are the inevitable result, our reliance on fossil fuels continues apace.  This carbon addiction stems from our exploitative settler colonialist posture toward the natural world.  Earth, to use philosopher Martin Heidegger’s formulation, has become an extensive “standing-reserve” of inexhaustible power for modern industrial development, and our exploitative disposition toward the planet belies any hope we might have of extricating ourselves from our fundamentally abusive orientation toward the life-giving systems on which we all depend.

As an unfeeling standing-reserve, Earth for us is no longer a “living being” or “feeling organism” with its own subjective moods and affective propensities.  It cannot feel pain, or experience loss, or undergo the suffering, some claim, that only we so-called higher forms of life and other sentient beings can feel.  Our techno-supply vocabulary for Earth has effectively rendered our living planet numb and silent – a dead zone of inert matter, a fixed deposit of energy to fuel commercial development at all costs.  As Indigenous biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer warns, “In English, we speak of the land as ‘natural resources’ or ‘ecosystem services,’ as if the lives of other beings were our property.” As a lifeless thing, as an impersonal, mechanized repository of useful materials, Earth, in the terminology we consistently use and with which we feel most comfortable, is now, in its most basic essentiality, a “resource” of “services” to supply the needs of human society – or, perhaps more accurately in a market-driven economy, a “commodity” to be bought and sold in the financial marketplace, like toothpaste or pork futures or stock options.

But understood from a different perspective, Earth can be reimagined as a living community of intersubjective persons, all of whom have their own emotional lives, capacities for relationship, and distinctive roles to play in maintaining the vibrancy of the wider web of life.  This worldview is often referred to as animism.  As a traditional form of knowledge, it ascribes personhood to all members of the web and regards them as “life-forms” or “beings” rather than as “things” or “objects.”  Animism locates human beings in an expansive family of kinfolk that includes “bear persons” and “rock persons” along with “tree persons” and “human persons.”

This sensibility is both ancient and modern.  Today, for example, animism is enshrined in the language of Bolivia’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth on Earth Day, 2010, wherein humankind and otherkind are described as environing members of “Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny.”  In antiquity, animism is the angle of vision that underlies Jesus’ comment in the Gospel of Luke that if his followers were to become silent about his mission then the rocky earth itself would cry out and proclaim his message.  “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, then the stones will shout out.”  Native theologian George “Tink” Tinker makes this same point.  He argues that even “rocks talk and have what we must call consciousness,” and then continues, “The Western world, long rooted in the evidential objectivity of science, distinguishes at least popularly between things that are alive and things that are inert, between the animate and the inanimate.  Among those things that are alive, in turn, there is a consistent distinction between plants and animals and between human consciousness and the rest of existence in the world.  To the contrary, American Indian peoples understand that all life forms not only have consciousness, but also have qualities that are either poorly developed or entirely lacking in humans.”

The mysterious God head in the rainforests of Stanley Park

Animism, therefore, flattens commonplace ontological distinctions between living/nonliving or animate/inert along a continuum of multiple subjectivities:  now everything that is is alive with personhood and relationality, even sentience, according to its own capacities for being in relationship with others.  Or as Pagan scholar Graham Harvey says, “Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is lived in relationship with others.”  All life-forms are persons, only some of whom are human, because all beings are differentiated members of a community of relationships, only some of whom are recognizable as living beings by us.

Feral Rock Religion

If animism tells us who we are in relation to the family of living beings around us, then these beings are now revealed to us not as unfeeling things but as bearers of personhood with their own deep emotional registers.  Take, for example, the stone wall that runs along the level of my eye outside my study window as I write these words.  Fixed and impassive, how could this squat, rocky enclosure be anything other than lifeless matter?  In what sense could it be said to be a living, feeling being with dispositions and moods like the rest of us?  My rock wall is made from Wissahickon schist, a beautiful, and, at one time, ubiquitous local stone, flecked with quartz and mica, that has given Philadelphia and its surrounding architecture a uniformly earth-toned and stolid appearance.  But while Wissahickon schist is aesthetically pleasing, in what sense can it be said to be affective and alive?

In response, let me suggest the following:  the rocks in my wall are living beings – as are all of the rocks strewn across the stony face of the planet – precisely because they are vital structural elements in the geochemical processes that support their own, and my family’s existence in our common Swarthmore home.  In this sense, my rock wall and I subsist together:  our mutual personhood is co-generated by the subtle and abiding interactions we enjoy within the village habitat of Swarthmore borough.  My seemingly inert and immobile rock wall is actually part of a living, swirling ecosystem that energizes everything around it with interlocking vitality.  Covered in lichen and micro-organisms I cannot see, my stony barricade holds together the teeming community of a/biotic life-forms that sustain my immediate niche within the larger eco-zone we co-inhabit together.  By controlling soil loss through sediment trapping, for example, my wall holds steady much of the biomass that insures the well-being of our collective existence along with my family’s household.  This biomass, including my yard’s surrounding thicket of trees, shrubs and groundcover, also plays a role in Earth’s carbon cycle as one of the many links in the photosynthetic food chains that make all planetary life possible, in my bioregion and elsewhere.  Among other critical functions, the absorption of carbon dioxide at my particular home-site, and the corresponding production of oxygen, now stabilized by the rock wall outside my study window, is essential to my and my family’s, and all other beings’, survival.

The Gaia Hypothesis

Are rocks, then, not dead things, but vital members of the life-web necessary for existence?  Could Jesus and the Bolivian Declaration be right that Earth itself is a vital “actant,” to borrow a term from social theorist Bruno Latour, with its own affective tendencies and relational capacities?  Paleontologist James Lovelock argues for the intrinsic value of all of Earth’s living elements – including, by implication, my Wissahickon schist rock wall – in the maintenance of the functional integrity of the biosphere writ large.  Lovelock theorizes that the planet is a “superorganism” in which all of its biological, physical, and chemical components are “alive” and necessary for the support and regulation of global biodiversity.  Lovelock calls the living Earth “Gaia,” named after the ancient Earth goddess of the Greeks, to signal the quasi-mystical powers of the worldwide biochemical interactions between animals, insects, fungi, algae, air, water, trees, soil and rocks to create the ideal living conditions – including the ideal climate – for all inhabitants of the planet.  He calls his cosmology “the Gaia hypothesis,” and frames it this way:  “The entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.”

According to Lovelock, our particular human role in the biosphere is to understand how Earth’s or Gaia’s biophysical interactions create a steady state fit for life, and then to support the capacities of this “single living entity” to maintain optimal ecosystem functionality for diverse communities of species.  Lovelock writes:  “The more we know, the better we shall understand . . . the consequences of abusing our present powers as a dominant species and recklessly plundering or exploiting [Earth’s] most fruitful regions.”  In reference to Lovelock, my corresponding point is that when we devolve into “abusing our present powers” and degrade the abilities of Gaia’s interweaving elements to achieve their natural ends – in other words, when we cause any of the constituent members of diverse ecosystems to suffer needless harm – then we do injury to the vital organisms and processes that make our self-regulating planetary life-system generative and sustainable.  It is in this sense, therefore, that we can say that when we assail Gaia’s ecosystemic balance that we are causing Earth, as an organic being, as a “single living entity,” to quote Lovelock, to suffer harm, to feel pain, and to undergo trauma.

If Lovelock’s Gaia cosmology is accurate, then Earth is a living, feeling being who cries out and suffers injury from the depredation brought about by human malice.  But why is this animist insight – the recognition of the common personhood of all life-forms who suffer repeated injury – so crucial to our well-being on the planet?  It is crucial because the existential awareness that we ourselves are not the only bearers of apperceptive suffering compels us to re-situate ourselves – ontologically and ethically – in the wider personhood of Earth itself who, like us, is a living being with emotion and purpose unto itself.  It is crucial because this insight into our wider belonging to a living being far greater than ourselves compels us to re-imagine ourselves as integral members of a cosmic body, a supreme organism, an all-encompassing life-form whose needs and requirements surpass our own, and to whom we owe our ultimate loyalty and devotion.

Bird Totem

It is crucial because this recognition of Earth’s vital essence forms the basis of more-than-human sacred kinship relationships and rituals wherein all beings are now regarded as sharing a common existence together as equal co-participants in the web of life.  And it is crucial because once we sense the longing of creation to be free from chronic suffering – once we sense nature’s capacity to experience depredation in a manner similar to how we too experience loss and injury – then we will feel an inner drive to live our lives in harmony with all of God’s creatures, all of whom, including ourselves, subside and flourish in Mother Earth’s loving embrace.  Or, as Lovelock puts it so succinctly, once we recognize Gaia as a “single living entity,” we will then feel the “compulsive urge to belong to the commonwealth of all creatures which constitutes Gaia.”

About Mark Wallace

Religion Professor Mark Wallace describes his research and writing as “an exercise in the emerging field of religion and ecology—a promising new line of inquiry in religious studies.” Mark Wallace is the author of  When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World, (Fordham University Press, 2018), Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Fortress, 2005), Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation (Continuum, 1996; Trinity, 2002), and The Second Naïveté: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology (Mercer University Press, 1990, 1995).

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Cooperation with Wild Boars in Palestine

Essay Coexistence

Cooperation with Wild Boars in Palestine

The fertile crescent was once an immensely productive region which included today’s Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, a part of Iran, and even Kuwait. The colonial system destroyed people’s social relationships, their contact with nature, and their knowledge of how to handle the Earth properly. Today, most of this area is desert. There is a dream that people of all the area’s religions, cultures, and historical backgrounds live together again to rebuild the fertile crescent.

The problem of the wild boar in Palestine is a useful example of the obstacles that have to be overcome in order to achieve peaceful coexistence in the area. Since the early 1990s, especially after the Second Intifada, the erection of the wall, the road blocks, and the increase in gated Israeli settlements, the number of wild boars has grown in our area. Israeli settlers even began to abandon wild boars in our areas. There are photos and videos documenting this. We had no trouble with wild boars in Palestine before that. My grandfather, who was 107 years old, had never heard of wild boars in our area. But today, we have a big problem with them destroying our fields and gardens.

We used to have a sophisticated technique of cultivating grain, grapes, fig trees, and summer vegetables without irrigation. This is how much of the food needs of the villagers were met. We were even able to export wheat to Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Then, the wild boars came and destroyed our fields. The farmers put up fences, but the boars simply broke through. Nothing helped. People hunted the animals, secretly shot them in the night. They risk being discovered by the Israeli authorities who do not allow them to have weapons. Then the farmers came up with the idea of poisoning water ponds. But boars are very smart animals; they do not drink water without first testing it. When the farmers set up a new water tank, one of the boars approached it. If something happened to this animal, none of the others would drink from it. In the meantime, most farmers have given up. Today, we produce almost no grain.

For me, it was never okay that we killed the boars. We humans must be intelligent enough to deal differently with living beings. Killing them seems to be the simplest solution, but it is also the most stupid. I never wanted to fight against animals or plants. I do not want to deliberately kill anything, not even ants or other insects; I do not want to go against animals.

I found a similar attitude to my own in Tamera. Instead of fighting the boars, the attempt is made here to live peacefully with them. Once, together with gardeners from Tamera, I got so close to the wild boars that I could touch one. The problem of the animals destroying part of the fields is not fully resolved in Tamera either, but the way people treat the subject here has encouraged me to try new ways. I have found the courage to address this issue publicly in Palestine, starting with people in my region.

Until now, the statement had been that the boars do not belong to Palestine, that they are not a natural, original part of this habitat and that we have to get rid of them. This view is supported by the negative image that religious leaders have given to pigs. However, the Qur’an only states that it is forbidden to eat pork. It does not say anything against pigs and wild boars. But to persuade people not to eat pork, religious leaders have given a number of reasons to keep away from the pigs. They have said that pigs are dirty, that the males do not take care of the females, that the animals do not sweat and are therefore very dirty inside, that they smell bad, and so on.

tire fence

I started saying that we should no longer kill wild boars but instead find solutions for living with them. The animals are here; we cannot get rid of them. Animals that feel threatened produce even more offspring. This is the nature of nature. Then I came up with an interim solution. In Palestine, we have a big problem with the disposal of old tires so I started building fences out of tires. It was enough to tie the tires together with some wire. The boars respected the fence—it worked! More and more people try this method now, so far with much success. The erection of these fences was already a new kind of solution—a step away from the old belief in the need for material barriers—because it was, of course, clear to the farmers that the wild boars could easily overcome these fences.

Then, I left an opening in the fence in my garden. I said to the farmers, “Boars are living creatures, hungry like us and in need of food.” I created a corridor for the animals that leads to a mulberry tree. I know how much wild boars like and need the fruit of this tree. They could easily get into the rest of my garden from there, but they cooperate. I offer them the mulberries, and they respect my garden.

But unlike animals that respond quickly to a friendly solution, people do not change their habits so quickly. The religious campaign against pigs continues. However, as the Qur’an only states that we should not eat pork, I once asked one of the religious leaders, “Maybe Allah wants us not to eat pork to protect this animal. Have you ever thought about that?”

 

 

Tamera Peace Research & Education Center’s recently-published book, Defend the Sacred: If Life Wins, There Will Be No Losers, contains this essay and many others. Tamera invites you and activists from around the world to participate in their upcoming conference on resistance and regenerating the community of life, in Tamera, Portugal, August 16–19, and join this work.

 

 

 

About Saad Dagher

Saad Dagher is Ambassador of GEN (Global Ecovillage Network) in Palestine, agricultural engineer and environmentalist, and has specialised in agricultural ecology for 25 years. He is also a yoga teacher, Reiki master, and beekeeper. Dagher introduced the concept of agrarian ecology into Palestine and has recently set up his own agro-ecological farm (The Humanist Farm—Ma’azouza). He is also helping to build the first Palestinian eco-village—Farkha —in the West Bank.

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Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon

Conversation Global Commons

Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon

Kosmos | When you talk of Awakening the Dreamer, what does our collective ‘dream’ say about our modern habits and addictions? And what are the historic seeds of our delusion?

Bill Twist | There are several answers to that question. Ego, separation, a dream of individualism. We see ourselves as separate players, independent players in life. That’s a fantasy we have created and been born into and live in. Through our work at Pachamama Alliance, we have had the privilege of working with indigenous people in the Amazon. And they don’t see the world as made up of separate, independent players.  It’s confusing for us at times, seeing how they make decisions and how they work. It challenges our own understanding of the world.

However, when you have a chance to go deeper with the indigenous people we work with, you get their sense of the connection of all life, of all beings—beings that are in the rocks, the rivers, the trees, and all around. And I think that’s what modern humanity is beginning to understand. There have always been a few people—visionaries or mystics—who have known that, but it’s becoming more general knowledge now. That’s what the work of Awakening the Dreamer (an educational program at Pachamama Alliance that explores challenges and opportunities currently facing humanity) has been. It’s awaking people from a trance of individualism and separateness, to seeing that we’re actually all deeply connected and integrally a part of some great process, some great guiding wisdom.

Belén Páez | The ‘dream’ is a complete disconnection from nature, and it’s sad in a country like Ecuador with important biodiversity in many different areas: the highlands, the coasts, the Amazon region. For 40 years, delusion led us to base all our economic solutions on oil extraction without taking into account the pollution and the destruction, not just of the ecosystems, but also humans—indigenous peoples. We have already lost several indigenous tribes that used to live in the forest.

So we have become more and more detached from our biodiversity and from the wisdom heritage of our indigenous peoples.

Kosmos | I think it was about 10 years ago that Ecuador was the first to pass a Rights of Nature policy?

Bill Twist | It’s built into the constitution of the country, the only country on earth that has that. Other countries have adopted laws pertaining to Rights of Nature, but have not formally added it to their constitution.

Kosmos | So, has that been a tool that’s been helpful? 

Bill Twist | That was a bold and innovative move by the country of Ecuador to build into their constitution, into the governing structure for the whole country, that nature has an inherent right to exist and flourish. It was monumental that it went in, but slow in its implementation. One of the very first places where that constitutional provision got tested was with a proposed huge mining project. It was probably the wrong place to first test it because the government saw it as a threat to its national development plans. Although the mining project would obviously be a violation of nature’s rights, the government basically chose to set aside that provision of the constitution as not, in that case, being in the national interest.

But there’s a huge amount of work that has been done now over the last eight or nine years in Ecuador to build Rights of Nature cases from the ground up, and start building a structure of jurisprudence. Every time there’s a chance to bring a case on behalf of nature, it shifts consciousness. There’s been steady progress in Ecuador around the issue of Rights of Nature. There are many more lawyers now who understand how to bring cases; and people in their communities understand that it is possible be an advocate for nature. It hasn’t stopped oil development or mining, but I think it will be a significant policy tool for the future.

Belén Páez | During the last 10 years, we have had more than 17 Rights of Nature cases in Ecuador regarding ecosystems close to the sea, to some rivers and mountains, and even endangered species. The courts ruled in favor in only three of these cases, meaning that we are still facing a lot of judges and people in the courts who don’t understand very clearly yet what Rights of Nature are.

So, as Bill was saying, there is a path and we have a tool that we are promoting to engage more and more people at the national and regional levels. Ecuador is leading the region, and the whole Amazon Basin, in this regard. This is acknowledged by the United Nations and the international community, and there are now hundreds of members under the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. It is becoming a powerful community of citizens engaged in ethical tribunals to defend the rights of Mother Earth everywhere.

Kosmos | How aware are the indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru of the loss of species worldwide?

Bill Twist | The area where we work, which has been called The Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon, is the most biodiverse area of the Amazon Basin. It’s still very resilient—there has been minimal human encroachment—but the indigenous people are aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world. And they know that if industrial-level extractivism moves into their territory, they will face species extinction and degradation of their territory’s natural ability to support life just as has happened in so many parts of the world. They are fiercely committed that that doesn’t happen in the area of the Sacred Headwaters.

Belén Páez | I think that it is clear we are facing the Sixth Mass Extinction on Earth, and that’s affecting every ecosystem on the planet. There are deep studies in Ecuador about how biodiversity is threatened in the Galapagos, in the Andes region, and in the Amazon. There is a critical relationship between the Andes and the Amazon. Certain fish are not migrating anymore, vegetables and plants are changing. Many indigenous people are letting us know that things are changing in the forest.

For example: One friend has been taking pictures every month of caterpillars in different stages and he has been able to show that the larvae are not becoming butterflies at the end. The Achuar people say that even our thoughts and our brains are facing these changes, and that it is very important to protect the sacred places that remain on Earth—these places of ‘nature intelligence’ that could be expanded to the next generations if we are able to protect them.

Kosmos | Different tribal peoples likely have different ideas about what to do next. Is there some consensus about what needs to be done and what direction to move in?

Bill Twist | For years, the various indigenous nationalities of this region, in addition to defending their territory, have been developing a vision for the future of their territory. This work has pretty much been done independently by the various groups.

We are now supporting all of the indigenous nations to come together to forge a common vision for their area, the Amazon Sacred Headwaters—nearly 60 million acres and 18 nationalities. The task they are working on is to build a common “life plan”—an indigenous inspired development plan—for this region. They all know that each of them working individually is not going to be anywhere near as powerful, or as effective, or as important for the world, as all of them coming together and working on behalf of a common vision.

What is particularly inspiring about this initiative is that the indigenous groups, although clearly working to protect their territories, also see that this project is for the world and that it is setting a conservation example for the world.

Belén Páez | And this is different from what was happening 10 years ago or even five years ago. The governments were still able to divide the organizations through money, through false promises about what is ‘good development,’ and offers of housing or relief. All these political promises have a way of dividing the wisdom.

But nowadays, through the Sacred Headwaters Initiatives, there is a clear result—different indigenous nations and nationalities between Ecuador and Peru have been coming together. First, they tell the country and the region that the Amazon is one of the most important forests and ecosystems for the world; second, they really are visionaries, ancestral people with a lot of wisdom, telling humanity what to do to confront climate change; and third, they are resisting. I mean they are resisting to protect life, to protect their territories, to protect their collective rights. They have shown during the last year—and they will be showing us during the next years or decades—that they are going to give their lives and not allow any oil and mining and monoculture industry inside of their sacred lands and territories. Because they truly believe that at this moment of life, they need to give their own lives to protect this part of the planet for the future generations.

 

Kosmos | I’d like to shift now a little bit from talking about outward things to experiences of inner transformation—beginning with your own. What has transformed in you, doing this work?

Bill Twist | Getting a sense of connection to the Earth and being a part of the web of nature. That’s an understanding that is available to people anywhere, but it’s particularly dense in the communications that are going on in the Amazon forest—there’s so much life and so much information being exchanged. Being in the middle of that, you do get a sense that you’re embedded inside something that’s aware, that responds. It’s not like nature’s out there and you’re here. You’re in the middle of it, you’re part of it. Experiencing that is a great gift.

Belén Páez | During the last Ice Age, the Amazon region was not covered by ice. What happened in the Amazon is that a lot of intelligence of life itself—plants and animals—was able to maintain its evolution. Every time that I have been in the Amazon, I could feel that. I felt in my body, in my mind, the truth of that. Everything happening, maybe thousands of years ago, is still coming through the earth and the air that I was breathing. I found that I was connected with not just the surrounding time, but with all times.

Kosmos | Wonderful. How beautiful to be connected to that prana, the living energy of the planet. And when you bring people on these journeys to the Amazon, this is the transformational experience they have too?

Bill Twist | It’s almost universal that the people who come to the Amazon and spend a week in the forest with indigenous people—participate with them in their daily life, doing ceremonies, hiking through the forest—are fundamentally altered by it. You almost can’t help it. I think it’s something you don’t forget, like riding a bike. You can activate it again by going out into nature almost anywhere. But trips to the Amazon make a huge difference.

Kosmos | And do you feel people can still live in a state of pure connection to the Earth? Or do you feel that we’re losing it by the very fact that we’re encroaching upon it?

Bill Twist | It clearly still exists. There are people in the headwaters region who still live voluntarily in isolation from the outside world. And, at the same time, in many of the communities where we work, civilization is much closer. People can leave and go to the town to try to earn money. And, of course, there are examples of people losing their connection to the culture. But still, in all the communities, there’s this deep, deep sense of connection to the natural world.

Just a quick story: I was in the rainforest just recently with a group of visitors. They were going to do a ceremony in a community that night and they had prepared well. They’d fasted, visited a sacred waterfall, done a tobacco ceremony, sat in silence in the forest and meditated, and were back in the community sitting in the dark in preparation to meet with the shaman. About this time, a jaguar was spotted on the periphery of the area where the ceremony would take place. It was almost casually observing and it was astounding how close it was to so much activity. For the Achuar, it all made sense. The jaguar is a powerful carrier of Arutam, the highest and most potent spirit of the forest. The jaguar had sensed the energy generated by the extensive and pure preparations for the ceremony. In right reciprocity, it brought its power to the participants.

Belén Páez | What I see is that they are still really connected with the spiritual world for healing purposes and to understand what is going on in their lives, to hear the advice of their family or their community. Youth are coming back to listen to their grandparents or to their parents, and in order to interpret their dreams. They are really into dreams and spiritual life.

Kosmos | Yes the spirit world must feel very close there. I haven’t been, but a friend of mine, who accompanied you, came back transformed. He had never experienced the ‘spirit world’ directly before. And I’m wondering … this is a mystical kind of a question, but do you feel that the spirit world is working to help guide us through this very difficult time humanity is facing? Do you feel the spirits are with us, or in fact, that they are us?

Bill Twist | I think there’s something that is guiding us; there’s something that’s reacting, that is trying to wake us up. There’s something that’s responding to the assault that’s been going on against our living Earth.

My sense is that Mother Earth, Pachamama, is trying to figure it out and is getting more skillful at reaching out—and thankfully we’re starting to do a better job of listening—to get us humans off our butts and into action to honor and protect her. It is a kind of immune system that’s activating, and we’re a part of it. The human species is a critical, important part of shaping and being responsible for the immune response that is being called for.

Kosmos | Do human beings have a purpose on Earth?

Bill Twist | Yes, I think we are here for something. We have amazing powers. Because of our toolmaking ability and our ability to coordinate and collaborate, we’ve left scars and damage and destruction on the Earth, yet those same powers are now so strong that they can be used to steer the process of evolution on Earth. ‘Steer it toward what?’ is a great question to live in.

Belén Páez | At the beginning of the Earth, a great spinning of matter was required for fusion to occur. This great spinning is the power behind creation and all the cycles on Earth, all this circle of Life going around and around. We already have many answers to solve the problems that we are confronted with now, and we will be able to do something creatively that will allow us to stay longer on this beautiful planet. We are not just something separate in the Universe. We are part of this huge turning creativity, which is Life within us. That’s why we are given opportunities to keep going.

Kosmos | Wonderful. Thank you both so much.

About Belén Paez

Belén Paez has been the President and Director of Fundación Pachamama, a nonprofit organization founded in Ecuador 1996 to protect the rainforest and advance the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Belen directs the implementation of women’s maternal health programs, clean energy, community ecotourism, and legal programs to defend collective rights and the rights of Nature. Belen is serving as the secretariat responsible for strategy implementation for the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative aimed at protecting this vast biodiverse region on the Ecuador-Peru border in the headwaters of the Amazon River.

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About Bill Twist

Bill is one of the co-founders of Pachamama Alliance and serves as its chief executive officer.

“I am generally referred to as a founder of Pachamama Alliance but more truthfully I am the beneficiary of a process that “founded” me. Since its inception in 1996, Pachamama Alliance has provided a rich and constantly expanding environment for my personal education about the world at large and has provided a powerful opportunity to live a life of service and contribution. It has been a gift.”

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Sam Lee | Birdsong Hits the Charts

Music Living Traditions

Sam Lee | Birdsong Hits the Charts

Sam Lee is a British singer of traditional folk songs, a collector, an archivist, a conservationist, and a radical re-interpreter of the British folk tradition. He is the driving force behind the eclectic, award-winning folk club The Nest Collective, which has brought traditional music to all kinds of unusual stages and venues. Sam is also the founder of a burgeoning song collectors’ movement that inspires a new generation of performers to draw on living source singers rather than books and records. In 2012, he was a Mercury Prize nominee for his debut album, Ground Of Its Own. Since then, he has taken his music worldwide to more than 20 countries and reached an even larger audience with his BBC Radio 4 performance, on May 19, 2014, of The Tan Yard Side to the accompaniment of a nightingale. This remarkable recording marked the 90th anniversary of the very first BBC outside broadcast by cellist Beatrice Harrison (accompanied by nightingales) on May 19, 1924. Sam’s newest album, The Fade in Time, is impassioned and hugely ambitious in scope. Recently, he was a key player in some of Extinction Rebellion’s most noteworthy events and happenings. He is also choir director for Fire Choir, a political song choir that performs songs about social justice and uprising.  

We are extremely grateful to Sam for taking time out from choir practice to answer some questions for Kosmos. (Kari Auerbach | Music Editor, Kosmos)


Lovely Molly

Kari Auerbach | I have a quote of yours: “We are nature and we need nature as much as it needs us, these songs of and about the land are declarations of our dependency on Earth.” I’m wondering how this quote ties in with our theme, which is the Lakota phrase, “Mitakuye Oyasin” which means “all my relations”—our relationships with plants, nature, animals, birds, each other.

Sam Lee | I love that Lakota phrase so much, and it’s one I hear used a lot in this country within ceremony. It’s one that, in many ways, encapsulates everything that I am saying and believing, but because we don’t have the Lakota equivalent, my entire practice is about trying to say that, those words, in any way I can, that gets that message through.

Kari | In song, in practice, the way you live your life, the way you deal with the world around you… right?

Sam | I see it exemplified in Navajo. I’ve made a documentary about the Navajo people for the BBC, so I’ve spent a lot of time with Navajo. You name the community—South American First Indigenous Amerindian—all over, their songs say exactly that. We are all related in one way or another. Their prayers are their songs, their songs are their prayers. We’re in a situation where we’re losing everything about our identity. Our nature is such a part of our identity, so here is a musical form, which, at its heart, is speaking about an identity through the landscape and through the love of it. Although it’s all there in my old music, the eruption hadn’t really happened yet, the Extinction Rebellion hadn’t happened, the climate emergency hadn’t really been such a unified voice across the world. It suddenly all came up in the album I’m going to release this October, which I’ve spent a couple of years making. It’s all about taking these songs and reforging the sacredness within them, to say, these are our declarations of our love for the land and each other, and that implicit relationship of how we are dependent on it, not just on it for food, but for keeping us human, too. We have an absolute need for this right now because we’re in a climate emergency. Here in the UK, we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the whole of the world, devastated by species and habitat loss at an unprecedented rate, due to monocultural aggressive agriculture.

Kari | Why are we losing so much treasure?

Sam | It’s all through loss of habitat and culture. Once upon a time, we had millions of songs. Many of them were the same song, but they all were sung in different ways. The habitat is the environment in which that is propagated, developed, shared, and allowed to be expressed. You see it within species diversity and taxonomy—branches of animals that look a lot like each other, or come from the same family, but actually have very different roles in their ecosystem, how they behave, what their services are. So it is for songs, too. Songs existed in different families, holding a different potency, moral, and idea behind them. They’ve all disappeared, been forgotten; people have died and taken them with them. They haven’t been passed on and those genetic lines have ended. It comes down to the fact that nobody wants to listen to the old songs anymore. Those that do only want to listen to the old songs in the old way, a much more limited repertoire; there isn’t the same allowance for evolution to happen. When you see the models of languages lost—they say we lose a language every two weeks! That decline, around the world, is happening at such a similar curve as species loss, and that graph is charted at the same angle.

The Nest Collective banner reads: In halls, on stages / In field and forest / Through concerts and campfires / Ceilidhs and choirs / We bring people together / To share in music / New and old / From around the world / The sound of community.

Kari | I wanted to ask about the outdoor concerts that you do with the nightingales; I didn’t realize that you’ve been doing those for four or five years now. Can you talk a bit about how you came to do that? Beatrice Harrison’s recordings were kind of an early influencer; you can talk about her or some of the other factors that led you to do that type of really unique gig.

The Fade in Time by Sam Lee

Click to stream or purchase: The Fade in Time – Sam Lee and Friends 

Sam | Well, it all comes from before I was a singer. I trained in wilderness work, bushcraft, nature studies, and of rewilding people to nature. That’s always been my first passion and great love. For years, I’ve been listening to nightingales sing; I would go hear them in springtime when they arrive back to do their mid-April and end of May courtship song, which is so famous. It’s been a pilgrimage that I make, on my own or with friends, in England and sometimes in central Europe as well where nightingales are more prolific. I’ve always known about Beatrice Harrison and her recordings, but what I noticed was the 90th anniversary coming up! That first recording she did was in 1924. I casually wrote an email to the BBC, saying, “You’ve got quite an important anniversary, I don’t know if you’re doing anything about it or acknowledging it, but I know a few folk songs about nightingales, maybe I could do something.” I expected nothing to happen. Within 48 hours, a documentary was commissioned, which is record breaking! This is like a month or less before the anniversary; there wasn’t a year or more to go through commissioning rounds of the bureaucratic leviathan that is the BBC.

Kari | The wheels turned a little faster than normal for that one.

Sam | Absolutely! Suddenly, I found myself in the forest with a radio producer who I knew, Julien May. What a lovely man, great documentary-maker. And I’ve brought a couple of musicians with me that play in my band, to play the song, The Tan Yard Side, which has a nightingale in it. It’s a song that connects the human and the nightingale in a very beautiful and, in some sense, tragic way, which is a longer story for another time. We start playing and suddenly the bird starts singing with us. He doesn’t shut up and fly off as I expected, but he starts singing in time and coming into the rhythm and adapting his song in recognition of us. This is blowing my mind. We’re 10 feet away from this bird, and he’s singing so loud that my ears are throbbing, the waveform patterns just pulsing, and you can feel it through your body, everything is vibrating when he hits these certain notes. It’s like being inside a lion’s mouth when it roars.

KariYes! When they hit those really low notes, even in recordings, it vibrates your body, like throat singers. It’s amazing.

Sam |Yes, that harmonic throating, that’s how I start singing with a nightingale now. I do the overtones, and the nightingales lock in with that. They love that pure tone of the harmonic. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is magic, I’m going to bring people to hear this, I’m going to do little concerts!” I invited people to the forest and slowly developed an understanding of what that ritual is. It’s about immersing people in nature in a way they don’t ever do. People go for walks in nature, they cycle, but they don’t get to take in the core practices of nature—the immersion, silence, slowness, lots of deep listening. And so I use the evening as a sort of journey. It starts at 7:00 pm, but we don’t go to the nightingales until about 11:00 pm. First, there’s this whole time of stories around the fire, and getting people to settle into the springtime forest. It’s always beautiful, everything’s alive, and birds are singing like crazy—the evening chorus. We go into the dark, we don’t use artificial light—flashlights are forbidden—just the firelight. When we come to the nightingales, which is about half an hour’s walk from the campfire, we’ve walked single file through the forest and it’s a meditation. We hear the nightingales in the distance and it gets closer and louder. Suddenly, we’re sitting all gathered underneath this bird and people start crying and some even go into trances. It’s medicine.

Kari | I love that the beacon is the sound not a light; you’ve got this sonic beacon.

Sam | Yes. That’s exactly the term I use. There’s a story I tell that I love: In times gone past when nightingales were everywhere, young lovers would clandestinely meet up and the way they arranged to meet up after dark without lights was to use the nightingale as a sonic beacon in the thicket a couple of fields away. That’s how they knew where to meet!

Kari |  What setbacks or challenges have you faced in these interspecies collaborations/campfire gigs, since you started going out and communing with the nightingales? How have things changed?

Sam | You know, it’s really funny, even when the nightingales don’t sing, which happens two or three times a season, for one reason or another… they’re not up that night, or they won’t start until much later, that’s not an issue. The issue for me is the music, and it’s about the personality of the musician who (hopefully) can release themselves to the bird. I sometimes have nights where I struggle in staying present. When the conditions come together, it’s extraordinary what happens—that sense of magic and wonder in the air and the spectacle that’s happening. For me it’s about letting go of expectations and that’s really hard.

Kari | I wanted to talk about Let Nature Sing, the single you co-produced with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), that beautiful two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of wild birdsong…groundbreaking, first of its kind ever to get into the Top 20 on the radio. It made it to Number 11! How did that collaboration come about?

Let Nature Sing (RSPB, co-produced by Sam Lee)

Sam | The RSPB is 130 years old, and has 1.2 million members. Every decision on the whole project had to go through about six different committees, and, luckily, the person who is really the pioneer of that birdsong, Adrian Thomas, had come on the Nightingale Project to see the nightingales the year before last. The hard work of making the various recordings was done by Adrian. It only took two and a half or three hours to make. For me, the really fascinating and exciting bit was getting people aware of it because suddenly here was a very simple, powerful concept. We’re going to do something radical, we’re going to get nature to Number 1 (or close) in the British pop charts. It happened at the same time as Extinction Rebellion. On the fifteenth of April, when the Rebellion started, environmentalism went from naught to 60 in less than two weeks. There was this phenomenal shift in our entire society that none of us ever dreamed would happen, and the single, Let Nature Singcame out right in the middle of that, as something that was a playful, soft, musical bit of romance. It’s whimsy, but at the heart of it, is a really simple message that birds are the canaries of the mine. The population of birds has dropped since 1966 by 40 million. We are about to lose many of our birds; many species are set to go extinct in the next 25 years. We’ve got to wake up!

Kari | You were talking about something I really wanted to get at, which is Extinction Rebellion. How did you come to work with that movement? Was it through the bird single, Let Nature Sing?

Sam | No, they started in September of last year. Lots of friends of mine are involved, and I’d been getting their emails and watching it develop on social media as a sort of coming together of an idea—a name, a brand, a visual look that is cool and unlike previous environmental campaigns, which I’ve been long supportive of. I went to their first declaration at Parliament Square. George Monbiot, the great British writer, was there with Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, plus about 800 of us. I had my daughter who was only 6 months old with me, and we just sat down in front of Parliament and said, “No, we’re not moving.” That was the beginning, and I felt a really fresh energy about it. They had a plan, they had a vision, they had a forward thinking process of direct action—nonviolent, but direct, action. The next happening was already planned, and someone said, “Sam will you come and sing at it?” I sang one of the songs that I had just recorded for the new album, which is a sort of hymn to the world in some ways. I sang it as they started to dig the grave in Parliament Square, for the coffin that represents our children’s future. I sang this hymn, this lament, and then finished, stepped down, and the police surged in. Ironically, the police were trying to protect the land from being dug up. I knew at that point that this movement was going somewhere. I got involved and it just kind of grew from there. We had a wonderful moment during it when the word got out that you’d taken over Brooklyn Bridge.

Kari |  YES!

Sam | It filled our hearts with joy, seeing that New York has been taken as well.

Sam Lee with the City of London Sinfonia

Live performance of The Tan Yard SideSam Lee and Friends 

Kari | I did want to talk to you about a really great event you organized with Extinction Rebellion—the Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square event and the ensuing rewilding of Mayfair in London. Since you were at the epicenter of that—the idea man, speaker, and singer—I’d like you to take us to that day, because that was such a great event.

Sam | It’s an idea that I’ve had for years and years, and every year, I’ve been in touch with the council in Westminster and each time, they’ve said, “ It’s 15,000 pounds per hour to rent the square.” I’d just spent two weeks with Extinction Rebellion taking over London. I thought, “Hold on a moment, we can finally do it! We’ll just GO into Berkeley Square!” I put the idea to Extinction Rebellion and it obviously fit perfectly. The rebellion was supposed to be two weeks but they didn’t really have a closing event. We worked together to devise the event so that it was playful and didn’t have any political speeches to it. It was all about the love of nature, but also about extinction itself because at the heart of it, that was so important. In many ways the animals, the birds, the invertebrates, the plants and trees were not being mentioned enough. It was a time for us to pay some attention to the things we were trying to save, so we did a requiem for extinct species and I reworded the song, A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. There was an open call to any musicians who wanted to come, and everyone played a nightingale recording out of their mobile phone from a link on our website. We got people to go off into clusters, and musicians would move from cluster to cluster like bumble bees pollinating flowers—go and play a song, move on to the next one, read a poem, sing a song, whatever. Suddenly Berkeley Square was filled with 1500 people and about 100 musicians, all just singing and playing with the nightingale blasting out like a rainforest. It was so surreal.

Photos by Hugh Warwick | Hugh is a photographer, author, ecologist, podcaster, and educator with a particular fondness for hedgehogs.

Kari | What a day! I really wish I had been to that event. I also am curious about The Nest Collective. You formed that group a long time ago, and it’s dedicated to folk music in unusual spaces. Of course, the Extinction Rebellion Berkeley Square event really fit in with that ideology. Can you tell me a little bit about The Nest Collective group? Does it have revolving members? Do people join? What kind of group is it? Do you only do folk? And what sort of unusual spaces have you had gigs in?

Sam | So, the Nest Collective is a collective in many ways, and in many ways it isn’t. I’m the artistic director and founder, and I’ve been running it essentially for 13 years. I have a team of about seven of us now, and it’s a not-for-profit. The collective aspect of it works in terms of a collective of musicians who are involved—there’s no official affiliation—and I also bring in a lot of other artistic voices to decide on, and inform, the way things happen. On Saturday, we had our twice annual festival. We took over a seventeenth century palace on the banks of the River Thames next to Greenwich—the master shipwright’s palace where the whole British naval fleet was designed and built. It’s a very historic house, and every year they let us take over the grounds with amplified music. Every Friday, from May ’til September, the Nest Collective has the Campfire Club, which is all in green spaces, unamplified, around the fire in green sanctuaries.

Kari | Like the nightingale gigs without the nightingales.

Sam | Exactly like that except in the middle of the city. They are ways of getting people outdoors, the intimacy of being around a fire and also unusual venues—a lot of old churches plus some regular music venues. Our music is a whole range of traditional music, folk music, international world music, acoustic, stuff that we feel is coming from a tradition and a legacy. We invite the audience to experience music in a more communal fashion.

Kari | With the oral tradition woven in, conserving cultural representation and heritage…I wanted to ask before you go, did David Rothenburg ever come sing with the nightingales?

Sam | Yes, lots and lots, he’s been there for quite a few years.

Kari | He sent us a short written piece, an update from Berlin about his many nightingale projects and I thought, “There’s no way those two don’t know each other.”

Sam | He’s doing amazing work, so I’m glad you’re profiling him!

We said our goodbyes since Sam had to rest up for a Fire Choir gig the following day. His choir would be singing songs of rebellion and political protest in Parliament Square outside the Houses of Parliament in London to mark Trump’s visit to the UK.


Goodbye My Darling

Footage of the assembly in the Square and most of Sam’s performance at the Berkeley Sq event.

 

And check out another great artist who collaborates with nightingales. Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, Survival of the Beautiful and many other books, published in at least eleven languages. Read his essay in this edition of Kosmos Quarterly.


About Sam Lee

As an artist Sam traverses many worlds, challenging and pioneering folk music in diverse places and ways. Not just an award-winning singer with two highly decorated albums to his name and a sound incomparable to his contemporaries’; his work fostering live music in the UK has been instrumental in the explosion of folk of the last decade. Sam reinvents not just the way these ancient songs should sound but how they can be sourced, exist and thrive, from conscientiously gathering them in Gypsy Traveler camps to singing them for the Hollywood big screen.

Sam’s debut album, ‘Ground of its Own’ was conceived after winning the prestigious Arts Foundation Prize in 2011 and nominated for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize. His second album, ‘The Fade in Time’ (2015) has been equally feted. At the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2016, Sam was presented with ‘Best Traditional Song’ for his version of the song ‘Lovely Molly’. During the ceremony, he performed the song live, backed by the 40-piece Roundhouse Choir, in front of a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

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About Kari Auerbach

Kari Auerbach is Music Editor at Kosmos Quarterly. She grew up all over the world learning about music and working as a jewelry designer. Currently living in New York City, she is social media director for several recording artists and a jewelry instructor for the New York Institute of Art and Design. She enjoys her many roles as a teacher, artist, mother, mentor, as well as advocating for artists, children, and a better, cleaner world.

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