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Searching for the Spiritual Connections to Landscapes in
In the throws of Breakdown
Before the children of Europe took these hills, the people who walked here believed stones to be alive because they carried heat, changed their forms, and moved if you watched long enough. To them, rocks were concentrations of power and life; all over the world, where people have not forgotten the wisdom of primitivism, they touch sacred stones to bring fertility. But here, when a bottom farmer limes his fields with "inert" granulated rock, in his chemistry there is no informing poetry, no myth. Yet, to think of rock can be to dream origins and be reminded of the old search for the philosopher's stone, that elixir basic to all substance.
—William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth: A Deep Map, 1991
Since its inception, industrial society has moved in increasingly rapid cycles of production and consumption. This leaves little time for cultivating deep relationships to landscapes and the things in them. This is very much the opposite of the attentive culture William Least Heat-Moon describes in his book PrairyErth. Least Heat-Moon’s focus is on stories of population and economic decline in rural counties in Kansas in the 1980s, and the counties’ remaining European American inhabitants. His understanding of the gulf between an intact indigenous land ethic—informed by thousand year spiritual connections and awareness—and the dislocated ancestors of European colonizers with their religion from another landscape and sense of self as Modern, is applicable to the United States in many places. This relationship defines where I live in rural Indiana—where I find myself trying to negotiate many different senses of time and spiritual relationships to land and its use. Least Heat-Moon's reflections upon the gulf between an indigenous understanding of place and that of the current inhabitants are highly instructive. Those who remain are industrial society’s refugees and they are crippled and unable to fix their problems; their logic no longer corresponds to the world they find themselves in. There are many large gaps in language and understanding, some obsolete and others in severe parallax, that we will have to overcome if we are going to build culture and rethink land use in order to survive climate breakdown. The banishment of story and myth from their embodiment in our landscapes—set adrift in the spaces of entertainment and consumption—has created a gap in our understanding of where we are; it has helped us to destroy too many possible understandings and resources already.
Entering into a forest or putting one’s hands into the soil are acts that calm and heal us.(1) A spiritual connection to a place is an important part of our deep evolutionary heritage, though many of us have been too acculturated by the petroleum-based lifeworld we inhabit to let this intuitively emerge from the relationship without a lot of work.(2) The healing, nurturing power of forests, swamps, rivers, deserts, has a direct correlation with spirituality and the profound sense of well-being we get when relating to spaces that are not exceedingly disrupted by human use. A spiritual connection to a place can be a powerful motivation to protect or restore its diversity in large part because places restore and maintain us. There are many forms that spiritual connection can take here in the Midwestern U.S., from an ancient indigenous land ethic, to shamanism, paganism, Buddhism, druidism, and the many versions of Christianity that you encounter.(3) Spiritual connection to land or a place is a powerful motivating force for. It is important to embrace work with the people who have spiritual connections to where they live.
Spiritual connections organize a complex set of relationships to place that are radically other then the relations organized by something like industrialized-rational-petro-subjectivity—a subjectivity which is only one recent myth of how we are in the world. Story telling, myth making, imagining ourselves as participants in some other version of the world that is ancient both into the deep recesses of preceding time and well into the geologic future, emanates from our encounters with things that are not at all concerned with humans and what they think or feel. The great English story teller, mythologist, and leader of wild initiation ceremonies, Martin Shaw has this to say about how we participate or can understand the many stories we encounter that have very little to do with what we want them to be about:
The patterning of crows over a winter field is an oracular thought of mud, sky, and bird; the elegant procession of the reindeer across a spring meadow is part of some epic train of imagination that has been running for tens of thousands of years. The swift dive of the killer whale is a new vision from an ancient sea. Thought is not just contained in language, not even for us humans. But it is all story. The animals are myth-tellers in the way that they are. The hundred ways the otter gleefully crosses a stream is the same way the tellers splash their routes through a story: the same destination but differing currents, details, and varying intensities of stroke. These images are more than just metaphors for our own condition but, entered respectfully, offer a glimpse of the great, muscled thoughts of the living world. It is always thinking.(4)
Myths and story telling are at the core of how we perceive the world. Animal tracker and survivalist Tom Brown Jr. has many training exercises that draw this out directly from our perceptions of the world. One of my favorites for demonstrating this is as follows: make a square on the ground with sticks in a forest or field, preferably about a meter or so squared. Start by looking at the square and what inhabits it from a standing position—try to notice everything you can. Then sit and do the same thing. The next step is lying down on the ground to observe the space. The final step is to stand up and look at the square and to reflect on how your perspective, and the stories you created in your head to explain what is there have shifted.
Reversing the destruction of climate breakdown, fixing the problems we have created—cleaning up toxic sites, reducing our society’s carbon emissions to zero, living with as little impact as possible—will need to happen in the vast spaces on our planet that are not cities. Cities, dense concentrations of people, are one of the key factors in creating spiritual disconnection from rivers, forests, mountains, and other eco-systems, that is destroying our planet; this has never been more true as there are larger numbers of people in cities than outside them. I believe it is in our interest to talk about and work towards dismantling these machines of destruction, systemic violence, and disconnection, and to spread out, making smaller concentrations of people that relate more directly to their land bases to meet their needs in ways that do not destroy them or steal from other landscapes in order to benefit humans. What is required is a completely other language, ethics, embodiment, and sensibility; one that is capable of shifting you out of whatever your seat of comfort may be.
You will have a hard time f indin g allies unless you cultivate an awareness of and a respect for deeply held beliefs that may be at complete odds with your own. At the same time, it is healthy and important to question a spiritual system that can be bent and twisted to justify almost anything. There are countless sects of Christianity. There is a big range of positions on climate breakdown amongst them. A version I have talked about with family and friends who is how they are quite accepting of all the chaos and collapse that is already happening, and that will spiral out of control in the coming decades, as it is proof to them that Biblical end times are upon us. There is another version of this story that denies anything is different and just carries on hoping that someone will make everything great again. People in this category do not want to take responsibility or assign responsibility to the ones who have made the planet a mess. One also must be vigilant against the most vile manifestations of Christianity represented by people like Vice President Mike Pence—formerly the Governor of Indiana—who championed some of the most extreme Christian-driven legislation in the country’s history, discriminating against LBGTQ people, criminalizing trans people, even seeking to make women have funerals for miscarriages along with other repugnant inhuman awfulness.
It is good to keep in mind that the nuances and differences in Christian spirituality are varied; I know dedicated Christians here in the Midwest fighting for a version of their religion that puts emphasis on stewardship and care for the land and its creatures. They are deeply inspiring and have been powerful collaborators. I do have many reservations that I want to share: Christianity is a tool and colonizing religion that brutally accompanied empire building wherever it went– spreading with swords, disease, displacement, guns, and the idea of property. From the Roman Empire to the US military’s 750+ bases, armed conflicts around the the world, the War on Terror (that really should be called “War on Islam”), Christianity is all too frequently a form of alienating and not of healing. It violently wiped out spiritual sensitivities that were deeply connected to and emanated from places like the glaciated terrain that surrounds my home. This detachment is in part why “good” Christians have industrialized, polluted, and ravaged most of my state (and many others) leaving us with the most polluted waterways in the country. This is not the religion of deep spiritual connection that claims, for example, “all water as sacred”—voiced by recent water protector efforts in North Dakota to halt a dangerous and destructive pipeline that threatened indigenous burial grounds, sacred landscapes, and water (life).
Whatever reconnection Christianity offers in a place like the Midwest pales in comparison to the understanding indigenous people had of the terrain and all of its more-than-human inhabitants. One of my favorite organizations, Blue Herron Ministries (an explicitly Christian ecological organization), restores prairies, wetlands, forests and other landscapes to what the indigenous people had managed and shaped for over 10,000 years since the last ice age. They understand this method to be a more diverse, ethical way of relating to the other-than-human world. Christianity does not offer a thousands year old connection to any place in the U.S. The language, food, culture, land use, and religion of NE Indiana were imported, they did not emerge from direct relationships to the land; they were imposed on this place through various waves of colonization and the violent displacement of indigenous populations. There is a profound difference between loving where you live (and many here love the landscape and want to fight for it) and literally emerging from where you live and having to do so in relation to what is present in order to survive and flourish. But making up the difference between what is lost and what we have is the task at hand.
If you think humans will adapt [to abrupt climate change], think again. The rate of evolution trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000.
—Guy MacPherson, Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind, 2015
Now in our time, these three rivers—anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs and ancestral teachings—flow together. From the confluence of these rivers we drink. We awaken to what we once knew; we are alive in a living Earth, the source of all we are and can achieve. Despite our conditioning by the industrial society of the last two centuries, we want to name, once again, this world as holy.
—Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life, 2014
How do we build enduring relationships to place that mitigate colonizing mindsets and concomitant approaches to land use and eachother? How do we create a culture that will help us survive the bleak scenarios that lie ahead? The Work That Reconnects (WTR), the efforts of eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and others, offers some direction in this regard. The organization has been actively running workshops across the U.S. where people can address their fears around climate breakdown and practice empathy towards other-than-human creatures, processes, and places. I attended a WTR workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Church in West Lafayette. Unitarians that were Christian, Buddhist, shamans, pagans, and a rich mix of other things came from all over the region; it was not at all a mainstream Midwestern religious gathering. These folks were engaged with various approaches to understanding how spirituality and place are interrelated, variously inspired by Druidism as they were Eastern religion. Joanna Macy, and people engaged with WTR, talk of The Great Turning, “[A] name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
One of the exercises we did during the workshop was the Mandala of Pain where we gathered in a circle; four objects were placed into the center of the circle, and we could use them to help express the anger, sadness, hopelessness, and other emotions we had in relationship to the trauma we individually and collectively are experiencing as our climate starts to rapidly break down. The participant’s release of anguish through the workshops was one of the most intense things I have ever encountered.
It is clear that majors shifts are underway in our social order on the global level; the climate will continue to change and exert extreme pressures on us in the coming decades, perhaps bringing about what conservation biologist Guy McPherson talks about: near term human extinction, abrupt catastrophic climate change, and The Great Unraveling. The uncertainty causes us much anguish and provides no clear steps to take. I think that we must move towards a more spiritual engagement with where we live and start to think and be in radically other ways that open us to thinking like mountains and feeling like glaciers, and empathizing with all the things wecount on to survive but have learned to exclude from our consideration. We need to work with others who can be healers and to help fix the damage humans have done, rather than continue to destroy. It is not enough to talk, write, make symposia, about these things, but to get out and embody them and to actively destroy your petro- self, dismantle the city and your relationships to it, and spring into other time frames and emotional landscapes.
1. There are numerous articles and scientific research extolling the psychological benefits to humans of digging in the soil to encounter bacteria that functions as an antidepressant— http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/66840.php —as well as articles telling us what we intuitively know, but needed to prove to ourselves with MRI scans, that walking in the forest is good for our health— http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/. (back)
2. I have written extensively about this in Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self, BKDN BKDN Press, 2015. It can be downloaded here: https://www.breakdownbreakdown.net/books_press/ (back)
3. My own search for spiritual connections to the places I encounter has been via the directly embodied processes of Deep Listening—I am a certified instructor—and The Work That Reconnects; both offer meditational practices that help one build empathies with anything one can want from communing with clouds hundreds of feet over head to exploring the evolutionary history held insides one’s body.(back)
4. Shaw, Martin. A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2011, p. 63.(back)