… Danger everywhere, signs and portents,
miracles and catastrophes. The hammer of one ambition against another, fusion
and fission. And then an unending firestorm in the mind. Enter the grim reaper
of the death of spirit. Alarmed, I put my hand into the poultice of earth.
At my feet,
a wild trapezoid of new grace, her legs angling away from her body in a stretch
of memory holding snow, the midnight sun, the blue continuous night in her
paws, and despite that radiance, Isis, the great white wolf of the Arctic, is
helpless against the disappearance of the time before, the time before, the
time before, endless time disappearing.
To walk into
the unknown to make it known may not be the way. To open the door underground
and pass through, flooding it with Herculean light, may not be the way. To
streak in a straight line into the sky, trail of gases blazing, may not be the
way. Traveling forward in a straight line to the end of the universe without
looking back, afraid even of the opalescent curve at the end of the shell of
time, may not be the way….
Star Walk, Ruin and Beauty, New and
Selected Poems, Deena Metzger, 2009
Writing that poem more than twenty
years ago, I was aware that the great suffering of the animals, already
visible, was precisely related to the way we live our lives. In this instance, the Wolf’s history, her
ability to rely on instinct, habit, Wolf
custom, the past, what she had learned from her mother, what had been
transmitted through thousands of years of ancestor wisdom, was disappearing.
Now she had to live by her wits confronting situations her Wolf people had
never known or imagined and also had to develop the ability to understand the
unnatural preferences and intentions of two-leggeds from whom her people had
always happily distanced themselves.
Though she lived with us, with human people, though she did not live in
captivity, was not confined against her will within a house or an enclosure,
both entirely alien conditions imposed upon her pups and their progeny, still,
she died in pain, of cancer, a human condition imposed upon her. We did not attribute her death to natural
Last week, I made a list of people whom I am carrying in my heart with daily prayers because they are deeply afflicted, with cancer, other life-threatening and mind-threatening illnesses, or great emotional suffering. Within a six-week period, six people in my kinship network were diagnosed with breast cancer while several others began facing other grave illnesses. I made the list because the numbers are increasing drastically and I didn’t want to forget anyone or any being… or any being. I had also learned that one out of three dogs will have cancer and 50% of those over ten years old. Cancer is no longer rare in the wild and threatens the existence of some species . “Long-term monitoring of the beluga population in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada has revealed that 18 per cent of deaths in this particular population are caused by cancer – making it the second leading cause of death. A further 27 per cent of adult animals that were found had tumours.” Tasmanian Devils, the marsupials of Australia are similarly threatened with extinction because of cancers that develop first on their face and the move to other parts of their bodies.
The Belugas and Tasmanian Devils are far from the only species threatened. “We are changing the environment to be more suitable for ourselves, while these changes are having a negative impact on many species on many different levels, including the probability of developing cancer. … a team of international researchers, point out many pathways and previous scientific studies that show where human activities are already taking a toll on animals. These include chemical and physical pollution in our oceans and waterways, accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere from nuclear plants, and the accumulation of microplastics in both land- and water-based environments. In addition, exposure to pesticides and herbicides on farmlands, artificial light pollution, loss of genetic diversity and animals eating human food are known to cause health problems.”[iii] Very recently, another Whale died, its belly laden with eighty-eight pounds of plastic bags.
In a recent dream, a Mountain Lion was locked onto a glassed-in porch opening to a circle of trees at the edge of a meadow, She was throwing herself against all the walls, trying to get into the house or out onto the land but without seeing a way to freedom. In fact, we had just come upon mountain lion tracks in that meadow and decided, after the dream, to cancel a planned quest so that the lion could have free access to territory having lost all in the Woolsey fire
.In 1977, I thought that illness, as a messenger, would be the catalyst that would inspire us to change how we live in substantive ways that would benefit everyone. People responded very thoughtfully when asked, Why is this illness, in particular, occurring to you, in particular, at this time in your and our common lives? And how, then shall you live to bring healing to yourself and to others? What are the underlying causes of the illnesses which are afflicting so many? Consistently, people found meaningful answers that revealed social, political, environmental, spiritual issues at the core of their lives. Accordingly, healing required them to make significant changes to the ways they were living that could also have impact on others. I thought then that we would change our personal lives and our common lives. That we would change culture and society so that everyone could be more alive. I thought we would find the underlying causes of our afflictions – the social, political, environmental causes – would admit the dire effects of the Anthropocene and devote ourselves so that the healing activities on behalf of any one individual healed all. Seeing the extent of the pain and suffering that was emanating from our life styles and which we were each suffering, I thought, hoped, that each person’s healing path would affect everyone. I would heal – you would heal. The wolves would heal. One action and one beneficent consequence for all being
It seems that is not what happened. Seemingly, the more people felled by cancer,
the greater the panic that is generated and the more docile the population
becomes in acquiescing to how we live our lives or to the medical treatments
that do such harm to the earth, inflicting our suffering on future
generations. Chemotherapy and radiation,
despite the torment of the treatments, have become commonplace. People wrestle
with which tortures to select, not whether one will undergo such, not whether
it will also be inflicted on the earth and our descendants. The sign in the UCLA oncology bathroom says
flush twice to protect the porcelain. Protect
the toilets! What about protecting the water and the earth? Ourselves? When I ask the physicians who prescribe
medications for me how the environment will be affected, they shrug. My physical response will be monitored, the earth’s
responses will not.
Few seem to have the free attention to be interested in the story as messenger, in the
story the illness is telling except when it points to how to get well. There is little encouragement to discover why,
really, we are ill, but there is much emphasis on getting through the
treatment, returning to the old life, the one that is making so many ill.
The authority of the physician seems to be increasing even
as his or her distance from the individual patient increases also, not by
choice, but by institutional fiat. My
country doc tells me his son has just finished his medical residency and has
become a hospitalist in one of our city’s largest hospital. My doc, who is taking his time, regaling me
with tales, who knows healing relies on relationship, who has retained an old-fashioned
private practice, says his son is interested in “efficiency.” I silently vow to
stay out of the hospital. I make a note
to add to my medical directives that I do not want to be treated by a hospitalist
and I do not want to die in a hospital. Chemotherapy, often as extreme as any
torture, is taken as inevitable. Also
radiation. Treatments, again, no matter
how extreme are integrated into one’s life schedule even one’s work schedule. A
friend gets up early to go to radiation treatment and then on to work. When I refuse routine x-rays, radioactive dyes
or CT scans, my doctors are concerned, some will not treat me. They do not understand that I am hoping we
will remember the ancient art of bone-setting or other Indigenous ways of
knowing. It is possible that my life
will be foreshortened by this refusal to accept certain diagnostic procedures
or treatments but the life of the Earth may well be extended
It begins to seem like the only life we can have is the one
that is killing us. Presented with an
application for a rescue Dog, I was asked whether I will provide all necessary
medical treatments despite the cost.
There was no room to say, I will only do what I will do for myself. There was no room for me to refuse what I
will refuse for myself. I did not
qualify for the dog. Fortunately,
another rescue appeared. My new Dog, GentleBoy
will not be tortured and I will do what I can so that he lives a life aligned
with his animal nature.
I have been greatly affected by a story I heard years ago of
an American lineage carrier for a Siberian shaman who told an audience that she
most probably would not take the shaman’s place when he died. She said, his daily job was to tend all the
souls of the community in the soul hut and she was not sure she was able to
carry such a responsibility. When I
heard the story, I didn’t know if I was or would be capable of such a spiritual
task but I hoped that as I developed as a healer that I might approach it. Accordingly, I certainly didn’t want to
forget any of those on my personal list which is very long for the moment
though relatively short given the list of lives threatened by Extinction and
Climate Collapse and I certainly don’t want to forget any one of the species
whose life is threatened by the ways I live my life. My body, our bodies, the animal bodies, the
trees, the wind, the water, the earth.
Carrying the souls of the community …. Today when I think of
such a task, I know that I have to include the souls of the non-humans who are
suffering such extreme anguish. And the
Elementals. How do I know? I know it in my own body and through yours. And through the Earth actions we call
weather. As the Earth is a living being
… what do these fires, floods, storms, extreme droughts tell us…? Isn’t the
Earth living in extremis from our activities?
Maybe it is not too late for the changes that might spring
from empathy? That is, maybe it is not
too late for such changes which could save the planet and all life?
January 6, 1999. That
was a moment in my personal history when, without understanding fully the
change of mind I would undergo, I said to an Elephant, we were in a few minutes
to recognize as an Ambassador, “Your people are my people.” I didn’t know then that I had stepped across,
as is required for these times, from a human-centric belief system to a more
appropriate ecological understanding of the reality of kinship among all
beings. Mitakuye Oyasin. All my
relations. Or, your people are my
people. I was not taught or directed to
say these words. They did not come to me
from my culture, nor from a teacher nor from anything I had read or
studied. They came in the moment,
through what can only be described as a Spirit, or spirits directed
experience. The exquisite orchestration
of wonder in a moment revealing the true nature of reality that could not be
communicated by any other means – it had to be revealed to be known and it
Once animals lived with the natural order – then death was
part of the cycle. In Botswana, I watched the young lion walking through a herd
of impala who barely moved out of his way.
He was not hungry. They were not
prey. Similarly, the Elephants on the
veldt in Kenya paid no attention to a young lion who was, from our human
perspective, stalking the newborn just behind the mother’s legs. Filled with
anxiety and disturbed by the mother’s seeming oblivion, we still adhered to out
pledge not to interfere even when he crouched.
We could see the taut energy in his limbs as he prepared to spring, the
baby surely doomed, when the mother, just before he might have been mid-air,
turned on a dime and reared as casually as we might swat a fly. She had known he was young, and practicing,
not skilled enough yet to be of concern.
She returned to grazing, her little one remaining behind her massive
legs and the lion, seemingly chagrinned, ran off.
The non-humans have not until now carried the fear of death
the ways humans, or at least modern humans carry it as an on-going anxiety, as
beings whose survival seems threatened increasingly (though by our own hands – our adamant species
auto-immune response and so organize their lives to ward off danger by carrying
weapons, gating communities and setting up surveillance systems, the private
equivalent of waging on-going war, building walls between nations and spying on
each other’s every move with increasingly pervasive and invasive technology. And
fear, we know, begets fear.
Though all animals do
not respond the way we do; the animals know that their species are threatened. One sign is the new herds of Elephants in
Namibia who no longer have tusks, another is atypical behavior of Elephants
such as young bulls sexually aggressing on Rhinos, or the desperate Polar Bears
who invaded Belushya Guba in Russia
The body knows and
changes accordingly or it is altered by the untenable forces acting against its
Some people on my list were recently given a temporary
reprieve – that is all any of us get.
But others joined the list. We are living in a world of sorrow and
pain. Grief groups and grief counseling
burgeon dramatically – a sign of the times. People have always died but now our
grief and anxiety seem inconsolable and entirely disabling. Are we suffering something more than we have
in the past? Is our extreme pain and
accompanying dysfunction a symptom of our unconscious perception of the tragedy
of this time? People have always been
dying but the grief in the atmosphere seems to increase with the carbon
content. And if we track shifting animal
behavior in the wild, we must surmise that the animals are also consciously
suffering the grave threat to all life but without the benefit, if there is any,
of easing the pain with anti-depressives, opioids, individual therapy or grief
A veritable mental health specialty has been created in the
last years to counsel those who are suffering loss. The death of loved ones, spouses, friends,
parents and siblings seem to induce
breakdown, disabling depression, overwhelming anxiety and lack of
ability or desire to function. Are we so
devitalized by loss because we no longer live in villages supported by each
other’s presence or because this personal loss signifies the greater loss, not
only of our own life in the impending near future but of all life? And when the future disappears from view,
then meaning, associated with posterity, disappears and we are left
A friend suffered
several bouts with different cancers a year ago. He has recovered
physically but despite his developed consciousness and deep meditation
practice, he is the victim of childhood memories which rise unexpectedly in
response to relatively slight provocations. And it seems to be increasing
in these times. He viscerally re-experiences the times in his life when he was
the young victim of violence and aggression in his family, plus racial and
other violence in the neighborhood, and life in general. He was born into
family and street violence in a violent time. 1946 was a violent time.
Perhaps that war which had supposedly ended, never ended though the future is
being foreshortened. Perhaps that war is still with us – on-going
Holocausts and nuclear explosions persist calling into their vortex the World
War before it, the Civil War, the invasion of North America, all the wars
against the Indigenous people, the Crusades against the Muslims and the Inquisitions
against the Jews and the subsequent wars which followed those and are cohering
in the present moment so that the body mind cannot hold itself intact.
My friend can no longer separate his current life from its violent
history, as I cannot separate my life from the on-going desolation of all the
non-humans around me. We are, no matter our species, anguished by the
threat to all life. To live in constant fear and trembling of a disaster
that cannot be prevented seems to have become the human and non-human condition.
We have two alternatives.
Pervasive sorrow and fear can lead us into increasing self-involvement so
that our focus becomes our sorrow and not the myriad unbearable affliction
suffered by all the beings. Or it can
open us to the great wisdom of compassion.
To live in response to the knowledge that our unbearable grief results from mourning all
life changes the quality of pain.
Suddenly it is has to be bearable so we can stand with the starving Bear,
the hunted Wolf, the homeless Puma, the starving Whale, the cancerous Tasmanian
Devil, the harried Coyote who have no recourse and greatly diminishing
resources for their survival.
Oddly enough it is in our best interests to focus briefly on
our own grief, long enough to create an alliance with the other suffering
beings. Pain can do what pain is designed to do – create awareness of the cause
and source. My broken heart, the
exquisite nature of hartzveitig,
takes me to the suffering of the natural world.
If I bear witness without turning away, I may learn how to live and act
and on whose behalf.