RUIN AND BEAUTY

DEENA METZGER'S BLOG

Category Archives: Climate Change

WHAT OUR BODIES KNOW

       … 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….

                                    From 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 causes. 

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.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Search&redirs=0&search=tasmanian%20devil%20tumours&fulltext=Search&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns14=1&title=Special:Search&advanced=1&fulltext=Advanced%20search#/media/File:Tasmanian_Devil_Facial_Tumour_Disease.png

[ii]

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 was. 

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 survival. 

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 groups. 

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 unmoored. 

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. 


[i] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17358-hidden-cancer-threat-to-wildlife-revealed/

[ii] https://www.livescience.com/18515-australia-tasmanian-devil-photos.html

[iii] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180521143853.htm

The Lost Etiquette: Sharon English Converses with Deena Metzger at Dark Mountain Project

Recently I was interviewed by Sharon English. The interview I have posted below can be found at The Dark Mountain Project.

I met Deena Metzger in 2014 when she visited Canada to teach a weekend workshop on story and healing. As a teacher and writer myself, deeply interested in how writers can address ecological and social crisis, the workshop theme intrigued me. Deena’s biography described her as “a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, teacher, healer and medicine woman” who has been devoted to “investigating Story as a form of knowing and healing.” Excitingly, her notion of ‘healing’ seemed radically extended to include “life-threatening diseases, spiritual and emotional crises, as well as community, political and environmental disintegration.” Still, I knew nothing of the extraordinary individual awaiting me, with whom I’ve been fortunate to continue learning and seeking since.

“Who do we have to become to find the forms and sacred language with which to meet these times?” Deena’s life is certainly one possible answer to her own question. Spanning many decades, her work interweaves activism, art and community building with a rare courage to cross frontiers such as the reality of animal intelligence and agency, and the reality of spirit. Her book The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them was published in one volume in 1977 with Tree, one of the first books written about breast cancer. The book coincided with the printing of the exuberant post-mastectomy photograph of Deena, called “Tree” or “Warrior”, which has been shared worldwide. It took the third publisher, North Atlantic Press, to have the courage when reissuing Tree to print the poster image on the cover. Since writing Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing (2002), which came out of a decade’s work with animals and Indigenous medicine, Deena has held ReVisioning Medicine gatherings for those trained in Western medicine who long to be healers too and also Daré, a monthly gathering for the community at her home in Topanga, California, and a practice that has spread to other North American cities.

Drawing on myth, Indigenous and other wisdom traditions that have been lifetime pre-occupations, Deena has articulated a vision of why and how we must create a culture that does no harm, called the 19 Ways to the Fifth World. She’s recently been touring her new novel, A Rain of Night Birds (2017), which addresses ecological crisis and the necessity of bridging the disparity between Indigenous and Western mind. I caught up with her on Skype in August, 2017.

Sharon English: Let’s start with the invitation which Dark Mountain made with Issue 12, which led us to this conversation: an invitation to reflect on our experience of the sacred in a time of unravelling and how that experience might call our contemporary assumptions into question.

Deena Metzger: I think the essential questions are: How is the sacred implicit in whatever possibilities exist for this time? How can our own experiences of the sacred inform our activism? I think you know that, for me, the only hope that I really see for a future for the planet and all life is following the direction and the guidance of the sacred, being aware of its presence.

SE: Yes, yet the sacred and spirit have had a very bad rap. On the one hand, because religion has been put into the service of the dominator culture, many people associate the spiritual with something oppressive or at least conforming. On the other hand, New Age spirituality seems too bound up in the individual – ‘what’s sacred to you’ – to be relevant in a time of unravelling.

DM: I would prefer not to go there. Because if we go there, we’re focusing on the human, when what we’re called to do is to listen and respond to the sacred. How you and I have experienced the sacred, without reference to how it has not been experienced, feels very important to me. What feels essential is speaking about the sacred, and the awareness that this is what Indigenous people have always known and what has sustained them. My interest is in returning to the old wisdom and bringing it back so that the planet can be saved.

Terrence Green, one of the protagonists in A Rain of Night Birds, is clear about this as he, a climatologist, faces the reality of the planet’s unravelling. A mixed blood man, he became Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies, but his grief awakens the Native teachings transmitted to him by his grandfather. This is 2007. It’s the time of the International Panel on Climate Change. In this stunning report, he finds two small references to TEK: traditional ecological knowledge. Within thousands of pages of scientific data and analysis, he finds two small references, four or five sentences. This both moves and grieves him. His response is to go to the Mountain where his grandfather took him as a child to teach him about the old ways. As he prays to the Mountain and apologises for having left the red path – even though he left it for reasons that were theoretically on behalf of his people, learning what Westerners were doing so that he could help Native people adjust to the way we are living – he realises exactly how much he betrayed his soul for entering into Western living:

He was speaking aloud, but he didn’t know to whom he was speaking, or whether he was speaking, or in a dream of speaking, or in a spirit realm to which he had been transported by what appeared to be injury, but was also something else. [The injury is the Earth’s injury and his own injury.] There was a thousand different ways he’d accepted that spirits are real although Western mind was a miasma of denial that entered through the cracks and fissures of his being, like water seeping through rock, undermining the original structure of all things. (174)

I think that’s all that needs to be said: Western mind IS a miasma of denial that undermines the true nature of the world. So then, how can we make our way back? How do we accept Spirit as reality, not illusion? And what is Spirit saying to us?

You’ve recently had a remarkable dream that is teaching you/us a lost etiquette. I’ve also had such dreams. They come from Spirit. This novel was given to me by Spirit. These gifts are our “evidence”. They offer guidance. They teach us what is important to bring forth. When I heard your dream, I knew that you were being guided and were dreaming in the old ways, which means not for you personally or psychologically, but as a teaching for all of us.

SE: I’ll retell it now for readers. The dream came early this summer:

I’m attending a council of Indigenous people held inside an orca. First, I’m shown that the orca has two spaces: a small opening in its body that has something to do with healing, like a healing chamber, and also a larger opening like two skin flaps that part and lead into a sizable circular chamber, like a tent, with a floor and walls of black and white orca skin. I enter.

Inside, a group of Indigenous people are sitting in a circle around a simple altar of animal skin with objects placed on it. An elder sits on the far side. I sit down in the circle, directly across from the elder. I’m the only non-Indigenous person. It occurs to me that I’m not sitting in the right place, that maybe I shouldn’t be facing the elder so directly, so I change places in the circle so I’m more to the side. I feel like I’m being invited here for the first time and am learning the protocol.

One of the biggest teachings for me, in opening to the sacred and spirit, has been coming to understand dreams as language or communication that aren’t only about the isolated individual. That dreams can hold meaning for the community, and come through us, not only from our own psyches.

The great danger at the core of Western thinking is our belief that we are the world, the centre of things. So when we respond to the crises in our world we assume it’s up to us to figure them all out – the very kind of self-involved thinking that got us here. We have no sense of living in a field of relationships with other creatures who possess their own traditions, wisdom, consciousness and agency. That when it comes to our world crises, everybody, human and nonhuman, needs to be at the table. At this point it’s we who need to be guided by whales and spirit, or Spirit-as-Whales.

DM: The dream is about more than being guided by Whales. In the dream, you enter into the Whale, and the council is taking place inside the Whale. In other words, in the dream, Whale consciousness is the sacred world we enter. That’s the territory in which this Indigenous council is taking place. As the Whales or other beings live in our consciousness, we are now living within the Whales’ consciousness.

Furthermore, you are aware that you don’t know how to deport yourself in this setting. As more of us experience the presence of the sacred, we have to figure out the protocol, the etiquette for approaching this realm and those within it. We have to re-learn what our Indigenous ancestors knew and also discover how to proceed at this time in history. Here the sacred is within the body-mind of the great ones, in this case, Whale. We have to go into the internal place where the field exists, the consciousness we need. In a sense like the story of Jonah – except we hope to keep living there, not leave.

When a dream like this comes as a teaching for the community, it’s not going to be an easy dream to understand. We’re going to have to sit with what it means. You and I may not know all its dimensions as we’re speaking to each other, so we carry it for as long as necessary, bringing it to others who might help to reveal its profound mystery. We do this because we understand that such dreams can be the source of wisdom. In the old, old days, no matter which Indigenous culture one was part of, if there was something going on that was really difficult or terrible, one would ask for a dream. The community of elders would gather and hope that a dream would come, or someone would come and say they’d had a dream, and people would gather to listen to it. This happened with your dream: you responded to it in the old, old ways by bringing it to me. We talked about what it might mean, and then I suggested that you take this dream to the community. And you did. Those you’ve shared it with have pondered it with you. We are not asking the personal meaning of the dream, ‘What is this dream for your life?’ Rather we’re considering, ‘What is this dream telling us?’

I had an experience this weekend that feels related: I went Whales watching in the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. There were so many Whales, such a profusion of wildlife, that the guides on the boat were astonished. Again and again they marvelled that they had never seen anything like it. I’ve been speaking with friends who live along the coast who’ve also been seeing a remarkable profusion of Whales this summer. Stan Rushworth, a Native novelist, author of the remarkable book Going to Water, speaks of the surprising occurrences of Whales coming in close to the shore and breaching over and over when he is walking on the beach. Cynthia Travis, who founded and directs the grassroots peace-building NGO in Liberia, everyday gandhis, and who lives overlooking the sea in Ft. Bragg, CA, has also been startled by the profusion of Whales.

Cynthia was on the Whales watching boat with me as was Cheryl Potts, with whom I share my land in Topanga. Cynthia and I have travelled to Africa to meet with the Elephants many times. At the moment when we found ourselves among several different kinds of Whales, and kinds of Dolphins and Sea Lions, Cynthia wondered if the Whales were coming to us deliberately in the way that the Elephants came to us. So maybe your dream isn’t accidental, but part of a consciousness being held by Whales that’s alerting us humans to what’s happening on the planet – and to the fact that there’s a protocol required. That’s the sacred knowledge being transmitted: first, that we’re within Whales’ consciousness, and second, that there’s an etiquette we have to learn.

SE: In Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he notes how various thinkers have begun to use the word uncanny in relation to macro ecological events because, he says, they’re recognising what we’ve long turned away from: “the presence and proximity of the nonhuman interlocutors” (30). Having to learn the etiquette for approaching the nonhuman and the sacred – that’s such a different teaching than this idea that ecological events are uncanny, a concept that suggests the world of the nonhuman is unsettling, inexplicable, and even creepy. There’s a great humility required to accept that we’re being called to learn, not to figure things out, but to learn or recover the ways of relationship to the sacred.

DM: It’s important what you said, “not to figure it out”. We don’t have the capacity to figure it out, and that’s humbling. We learn some from the old, old ways: we learn things about making offerings, about meeting the nonhuman and the sacred with profound respect and honour, and then, we listen deeply to the teachings that come. So your dream was the thing-in-itself and also about it: you went into the sacred and were taught how to approach the sacred.

SE: Yes. In approaching the sacred, council seems integral, as was pointed out in the dream. And your process, whether in Daré or ReVisioning Medicine or writing workshops, is to teach by holding council. Can we talk about what council is and why it’s part of our relationship to the sacred?

DM: It goes back to what you said, ‘It’s not about us figuring things out.’ When I was visiting a nganga, a medicine person in Zimbabwe, Mandaza Kandemwa, alongside whom I worked as a healer on many occasions over ten years, he said something that’s guided me since: “When human beings sit in council, the spirits sit in council as well.” His sense is that the sacred is a council: it’s the interconnection of all the different points of light. It’s the net of Indra. A field of knowing constituted of all the different parts in interrelationship – that is what the sacred is.

When you sat in council within the Whale, you were with those elders who’d been informed for generations and generations about the way to meet the sacred. They had their own individual and collective experiences, and so we understand that you have to meet the sacred wholly, and then the holy is there. Part of the relationship with Spirit involves stepping away from the horrifically narcissistic dangers of individualism. Everywhere we locate the sacred, we also find interconnection, as in the natural world.

SE: When you bring up the problem of individuism, I think about how challenging it is to get people to think broadly and collectively in terms of what’s good for all humanity, let alone all beings on the planet. There’s this fear reaction of collective action and purpose or identity, really a kind of twisted up notion of collectivity as entirely negative, group think, et cetera. Sorry, I know you don’t want to focus on our problems.

DM: Because we keep refocusing on ourselves, it’s important to keep coming back to ‘Let’s not talk about our problems’ precisely because it’s so hard to stay away from focusing on ourselves, whether as individuals or as humans. So this is a practice of looking at what’s been invisible to us, which is the presence of Spirit. A practice of going back to what was shown, rather than what we didn’t see or don’t want to see.

Was there an initiatory event that opened you to recognizing your materialistic way of thinking? How did Spirit reveal itself to you?

SE: For me, following the writer’s path has meant that I’m always making meaning my focus, my purpose, and attuned to listening to and observing the world, trying to see and feel the patterns. So although I come from no spiritual tradition – on the contrary, an anti-spiritual tradition via my upbringing, education and culture – I think being an artist primed me to be receptive to the sacred.

Now I can look back and see how Spirit has guided my life, if I view it that way. There wasn’t a key initiatory event, but what did open me up most consciously to the sacred was spending more time in nature. I did a great deal of that after writing my second book, in part because I’d become injured and needed to stay off the computer, in part because I felt evermore compelled to immerse myself in nature. I found myself growing desperately alarmed at the ecocidal path that our culture is on, and it seemed to me that we were never going to come to our senses without recognising our own limits and narcissism. I came to see and feel, deeply, that the human is not the centre of reality but part of the whole, and that the whole is animate, conscious, intentional – everything we are and more. As well, I’ve always paid attention to dreams, and about a decade ago I experienced a couple that were powerfully, undeniably spiritual in tone and images. These helped push me into humbly recognising the arrogance and limits of my materialist mindset – and also the tremendous loss of spiritual and life wisdom from our ancestors that’s happened as a result of our obsession with mechanical, materialistic thinking.

DM: We’re at a critical moment, and it’s a moment of consciousness. Stepping into a world where Spirit exists – stepping into, finally, the real world, being able to remember it as Indigenous people have known it forever – is for us Westerners as great a mental shift as it’s possible to make. Like the consequences for Copernicus and Galileo when they understood that the Earth went around the sun.

SE: An apt analogy!

DM: Yes, the sun. It’s not that Spirit is the sun; it’s that Spirit is the entire universe, and we circle a light that it shines to us and that keeps us in relationship to others who are circling this light, and are warmed by it, and have life because of it. Because we’re at a certain distance from it, but not too far, the structure of the solar system as we know it isn’t a bad analogy, though not the whole.

But here’s the important moment: we either talk about what we didn’t know, or we talk about what we see. Once you know the reality of ecocide, once you say that word, nothing else has to be said except what follows from that knowledge, what you now see/understand differently: what you see in the natural world that’s different, what your experiences from Spirit have been – that’s the mind shift. I can’t emphasise how important this is. If we continue to look at and articulate and be obsessed with what’s wrong then we find ways to meet it that are familiar in terms of how we solve problems, and they’re not working. I’m not saying leaving them altogether, for some people have to focus on familiar problem solving, but for those of us who have felt and experienced and seen the irrefutable presence of Spirit, the next step is learning how to listen and take direction. We really don’t know what to do to restore the natural world and sanity without Spirit’s teachings; everything we have ‘done’ until now has brought us to this place of devastation. So your dream comes: Learn the protocol; enter into the mind-body-being-universe of Whales. Then …? Then we’ll see what becomes possible and how.

In 2010, I had a dream: I won a contest, and the prize was that I would go to New York and be part of a program, after which I would be or think like and move in the world like an Indigenous elder. When I woke up, I understood, after sitting with the dream for some time, that it was instruction. Not about going to New York, but learning how to be an Indigenous elder. I enrolled myself, so to speak, in my own program, and as I think back upon it now – I didn’t realise it until this moment – I changed to a great extent what I was reading. I started reading far more Indigenous literature and thinking than I had before; I started listening even more deeply to my Indigenous friends and colleagues; and I asked myself at every moment when I had to make a decision, How might an uncolonised, Indigenous elder respond to this situation? In part I’m doing that with you now, coming back again and again saying, What do we see, what are our experiences? That dream, and my understanding that it was instruction, changed me, and we would not be having this conversation if I’d not responded to my dream in that way.

Before writing A Rain of Night Birds, when I was in the desert and hoping for the next novel, I heard a voice saying, ‘You know. Her name is Sandra Birdswell and she is a meteorologist.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know!’ Yet even as I responded, I knew that I was being given something by Spirit and had a mandate to write whatever came, which required enormous research, thinking, listening, yielding and daring. Daring to say the book was given in that way. Daring to write things that I knew would be challenged if not ridiculed. But it was what was given, and the next six years verified that it was given because of all the other events and revelations that came and made a whole of the book.

If there had just been a voice one time and I never heard anything again, that would be meaningless. But when we listen and enter into a field, a council if you will, of events and synchronicities and revelations and experiences that we ourselves could never have created on our own, then we know we’re in the domain of the sacred.

SE: In this sense holding council, even with just one person, seems crucial to yielding to the sacred. We need support for daring to listen to, take seriously, and follow our experiences of the sacred in these times. Even you, with all your years of following the sacred, still had that feeling of, Wow, I really have to say things that might seem totally out there to people! Yet you did, and it seems to me that having a council and/or a spiritually focused community made that possible.

DM: It’s essential. When you sit in a circle with people and the conversation is about Spirit, and how Spirit has come or how Spirit is directing, the fact that Spirit exists is the ground. So, everything you say is enhanced by or grounded in Spirit’s existence, and our relationship to it, and the possibility that that kind of alliance might in fact save the planet. You have the assumption that you want it saved and that you’d give everything to do that – that forms a different kind of conversation. Our conversation right now is grounded in the councils we’ve been in and those assumptions. We don’t step out of that when we step out of those councils.

SE: It’s beautiful and supportive what you just said, that once we sit in council, those councils go with us. You’ve spoken of the field as a kind of container as well.

DM: The field is composed of all of us and we emerge out of it, as if born out of it but never leaving it. It is of us and we are of it.

In January 2017, when I met with the Elephant people in Thula Thula, South Africa, I understood that our interactions could only occur because we were in a field of consciousness together: we were brought to a meeting place and had an interaction that was articulate and specific.

SE: And that field existed because you responded to the call of Elephant?

DM: Right. And again and again over 18 years. In retrospect, I understand that I had to show up all those other times, and every time I did, there was an interaction, the field was being built. It wasn’t only that I showed up, but that the Elephant people showed up as well.

When I went to Thula Thula in 2017 and could say, without awkwardness, ‘I’m going to meet the Elephant people,’ capital E, I understood that I could no longer write ‘Elephant’ with a small ‘e’ any more than I would write Canadian with a small ‘c.’ But then, I could no longer write ‘Cow’ with a small ‘c’ either because the experience with the Elephant people taught me that they are as humans are: conscious beings who exercise spiritual intent.

As I write these days and capitalize the different species or peoples, my consciousness changes. Because then, I’m always in a kind of council with them, a council that extends because we sit in council with the humans as well as the nonhumans, and our human minds change.

SE: How powerful it is to make that seemingly small change on the page: from small ‘e’ to capital ‘E.’ I’ve been disturbed for a long time now by our human-centric narratives in literature, how these reinforce a poisonous and frankly wrong-headed worldview. Amitav Ghosh observes that although the nonhuman had and has agency in many narrative traditions, in modern Western literature nonhuman agency has been relegated to “the outhouses of science fiction and fantasy” (66). Making that shift in capitalisation loosens our grip on the narrative, so we start to perceive and tell different kinds of stories. It’s a radical change, and also a return to the old ways and understandings.

DM: Suppose an Inuit man or woman said, ‘I had this dream and Bear came and talked to me about how to walk out on the ice and fish.’ She wouldn’t say ‘a bear came’ but Bear came, capital B implicit. When you read that, you’re getting an entirely different understanding just by that capital: Bear came, a profound spiritual being, and it really happened. To incorporate that into our literature or writing or speaking is to change our minds, to create a literature or conversation through which the earth and our consciousness can be restored.

Imagine if we began to think of our writing and speaking as having to do with connection and relationship rather than indulging a language that’s so combative and therefore constantly honours combat. There are many things we can do to undermine war, but one of them is to stop thinking in terms of war and to stop referencing war constantly.

SE: Part of what’s so unbearable about listening to mainstream news, political discussions, economics, and so on is the incessant repetition of military metaphors, a combative way of looking at each other and the world. What you’ve called the Literature of Restoration offers a way changing our stories, our language.

DM: Changing our stories, changing our paragraphs, changing our sentences, changing our words. The Literature of Restoration is not something developed yet; it’s something I’ve been thinking about and gave a name to, an opportunity for all of us to discover what it might be. I can’t do it alone and shouldn’t attempt it. Perhaps, there’s nothing any of us should do alone except to be in solitude with Spirit at times when we need it.

I was in a circle with a woman who was trying to think about how she might speak differently. She was speaking of a woman she’d been with in Nicaragua, and said, ‘Listening to her, I was held captive.’ And then she said, ‘Wait a moment. Held captive? No, that’s not what happened.’ She had to find language that did not speak of violence in order to honour.

The Native American writer Robin W. Kimmerer, who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks of how the English language is so full of ‘I’ instead of we, and how it makes Spirit an object. She notes that the Anishinaabe language does not divide the world between he, she and it, but between animate and inanimate. This distinction asserts an entirely different world. Here’s what she says:

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.’ We might snicker at such a mistake, at the same time that we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as ‘it.’ Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. ‘It’ robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing. And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way, as ‘it.’ The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth […] In our language there is no ‘it’ for birds or berries […] The grammar of animacy is applied to all that lives: sturgeon, mayflies, blueberries, boulders and rivers. We refer to other members of the living world with the same language that we use for our family. Because they are our family.

SE: So in learning the protocol for approaching the sacred, we have receiving certain dreams as spiritual communication and guidance for the community; approaching the sacred wholly by sitting in council together; entering into a conscious field with our nonhuman family; and finally, changing our language to shift our minds.

One more thing feels important to speak about: beauty. In your book Entering the Ghost River, you tell a story about coming to understand Spirit through beauty. Beauty is central to your work and what you’ve articulated in the “19 Ways to the Fifth World”. Beauty seems to me one way – maybe the way – that everyone feels the sacred, though they might not call it that. Does part of the protocol we’re learning involve honouring beauty?

DM: Beauty is experienced in many different ways. But the visual is also at its heart, and the ability to see beauty is a great gift. I’m using the word ‘see’ very deliberately because seeing is so important to English speakers. Visually, from my point of view, there is not a single millimetre on the Earth – the part that hasn’t been touched by human hands – that isn’t beautiful. Beauty is a force, and it’s also how Spirit reveals itself. In terms of a path, seeing beauty and then honouring it is a way of recognising the presence of Spirit.

The story I tell in Entering the Ghost River happened in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. My ex-husband brought me there for the first time, knowing it was going to be an incredible experience. As we were driving, we hit incredible storms and went through one of those initiation stories: the rains come, the mud is thick, everything is dangerous, you can’t get there, the car doesn’t go, you run out of food, you meet a stranger, you stop at a little hut and ask for directions and the directions they give you are impossible to follow, so you keep going and trying, and you pick up this old man … [Laughs.] I’m so scared at this point, the roads are so slippery and we’re on a cliff, that I get out and walk while Michael is driving the car and this elder, this Native American Diné man is sitting in the back of it eating the nuts that we gave him – it was all we had to offer – and he’s laughing!

We dropped him off about 1,000 yards from the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, and when we got to the very entrance, the road was completely dry.

Michael then did this amazing thing. He blindfolded me and took me to this outlook, and I looked out at this extraordinary canyon and the mountains around it. It was sunset, and the lightning and the colours of the sunset and clouds were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. We’d arrived at a moment that could not have been choreographed, that would not have happened if we hadn’t arrived exactly at sunset because we had gotten stuck in the mud – one of those. I looked at the cliffs, which are rust colour and blue from the copper, extraordinarily beautiful, painted, and I knew: This Beauty comes from a great Heart. Love – heart – are at the very core of creation. Beauty and Heart are the same, just different ways of seeing, different manifestations.

That was so powerful an impression – and I mean it pressed itself into my consciousness – that I’ve been marked by it. It’s a living mark: I’m always aware of Beauty, the beauty that’s the essence of the natural world, and that’s changed my life as much as anything, and confirmed the reality of the Divine. Our collective task, as I see it and expressed it in that book, is to re-establish the sacred universe and render the signature of the Divine visible – beauty.

To read or hear other interviews with Deena go here.

OUR MOTHER IS DYING – ECOCIDE

Ecocide.

So we are sitting with the Mother. Our Mother. She has been mortally wounded. We are at Her bedside. You know this place. We wonder if She can recover or if She will die. One way or another we have to be with Her. We can’t just hire a nurse or a technician to be with Her. We can’t leave Her in the hands of anonymous physicians who cannot possibly understand the full story of Her terrible illness.  We seek advice, yes but we must be with Her and bring healing to every aspect of Her pain and suffering.  If She is going to heal it will be because we are with Her each critical moment.

We are a large family and we all gather so we can bring all our gifts. Some of our siblings did research and found out what is poisoning Her, what adverse side-effects of Her / our lives are taking Her down. We stopped the poisoners. Some of our siblings found out who was beating Her and wounding Her. We stopped them too. Some of us discovered those who are plotting against Her and we are stopping them cold.

We are also gathering the community to sit with Her. We sit with Her day and night. Some of us drum and sing to Her. Some of us make her laugh,  Some of us pray and do ceremony, day and night. Some of us wash her body and ease her broken body   Some of us bring her food and drink, what will nurture her.  Some of us ease her fevers.

Some of us tell stories so she will remember and the memory of how she lived once, how we lived together will revive her,  We take her outside,  We bring her to the trees and the animals.  She feels the wind blowing again.  We bring her to the living waters and immerse her.  We sit her before the sacred fires.  Each action helps her toward health.

Somehow our lives change and become about being with our Mother full time so she can rally. We take turns but she is never alone, never without her family, never without those who love her. Not any one of us is away more than a day or two and even then we are always with her.  We discover, this is a good way to live.

This is what I mean:

This news about Trump and the other criminal murderers – can’t go the way of other headlines and news bulletins, We can’t succumb to  distraction, the next obligation or the next emergency.

She, our Mother, is who we must attend, no matter what else, every moment of Her/our lives. This pis the conundrum – Our Mother is dying and if she dies we die too. No one will survive Her dying, No one and no thing.

So we gather at her bedside. All of us. All the children and the grandchildren and the great grandchildren

And we do our work of changing the climate, which is killing Her and restoring a climate in which She can survive.

And we do it ceaselessly. 24/7. 365 days. For millennia, if necessary.

Nothing else matters. If She dies, we die and our children die. All beings die.

If She lives, then there will be life.

That simple.

We Will Not Commit Ecocide

Mr. Trump has crossed the line. He has committed a grave criminal act. I will not cross that line.
Mr. Trump is a criminal. Mr. Trump is committing ecocide which is murder times the number of living beings on the planet. There is no greater crime possible and his actions will not be tolerated.
Mr. Trump cannot prevent me, can not prevent any one of us individually from adhering to the Paris Climate Accords. He cannot because I will not / we will not commit ecocide. Because I will not / we will not murder the Mother.
If he burns coal, we will not use it. If he releases carbon, we will rebury it in the earth. If he poisons, we will transform it to nectar. We will not steal from the future. We will not covet the resources that belong to all beings.
We will protect the earth, we will protect the future.
When I am lost or confused without knowing what to do, I will plant trees and like the true elders on this planet we will listen to the spirits, we will pray and do ceremony and we will stand with water.
I have to repeat this. We will not commit ecocide. We will not murder the Mother. There will be a future for all beings. The earth will be protected and restored. Mitakuye oyasin

This Earth Day, Let’s Not Forget the Long Environmental Plight of Native Americans

From uranium mining in the Four Corners to the Hanford nuclear site, the U.S. government has consistently treated First Peoples’ land with disregard.shutterstock_64893586

Uranium mine tailings clean-up near Moab, Utah.
Photo Credit: Gary Whitton/Shutterstock

In March 2008, a small group of medicine people, healers and health professionals accompanied a native woman back to the Four Corners Reservation in Arizona after 22 years of self-exile. She had been suffering from leukemia, and then kidney failure from chemo, as a result of unknowingly playing in uranium tailings as a child. Yet she was healing despite stopping chemo, and she knew enough from her tradition that physical healing depends also on spiritual and soul healing, and so the journey was arranged.

The first morning in Tuba City, Arizona, we were surprised to meet members of the U.S. Geological Survey team who were looking to discover hidden uranium tailings poisoning the waters. As it happened, the woman had such information from her childhood, and in turn the survey team directed us to a private back road so that from above, we could view the now covered pit where she had played.

It was an extraordinary visit and significant for each of us in different ways. I was deeply rattled at the very beginning when we stopped at midnight at the entrance to the reservation in the tiny town of Cameron. We wanted to approach this homecoming with formal respect. It was necessary to do ceremony. We exited from the cars although it was bitter cold, and I bent down to touch the earth. Running my fingers through the sand, I was astonished to find they were hot. Cameron had been a major mining and storage site for uranium, but uranium is not hot. Nevertheless, on this cold night in March in Arizona, the sands were hot.

I could not forget that moment. It persisted in my thinking for years. In 2011, I began writing a novel, A Rain of Night Birds, about two climatologists, one native and one non-native, who upon meeting each other had to face the emotional and spiritual anguish of their profession. Unsurprisingly, the non-native woman goes to Cameron and discovers that the sands are hot. Her professional training doesn’t help her solve the mystery, but she pays respect to the profoundly wounded earth.

Writing a novel is a mysterious process. Fiction requires the bedrock of truth to be of value and truth requires fiction to translate its deepest meanings and implications. When I was writing the novel, I found myself seeking the bedrock through which the story of the characters’ love for each other and their anguish for the world would be revealed. In October 2013, I visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum and was captivated by the First Peoples exhibit on the history of the original people who lived in the area of the Gorge.

Like the burning sands of Cameron, I could not forget these First People. I was also puzzled by the focus of the museum, at once on the First Peoples and their ways of life, myths and wisdom, and also on the local history of transportation in the modern era. It is a disconcerting juxtaposition of soul and steel. The next August, I had to return; the Columbia Gorge and the Four Corners Reservation were becoming important sites in my novel. I had two visits in mind: the first to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the second to the Yakama Reservation.

The U.S. government has the audacity to call Hanford a “reservation” after expropriating Lalik (Rattlesnake Mountain), sacred to the Yakama, for use by the Manhattan Project, which built the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, which made Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Hanford is decommissioned now, but it cannot be cleaned up. It is one of the 10 most toxic sites in the world and the most toxic in the United States. It affects the entire Columbia River and its watershed.

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Aerial view of the 100-B Area with Reactor B, the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. (image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

When my traveling companion and I applied for reservations for the tour of Hanford, we were told they were sold out until 2012. But the day before we left for the Northwest, two tickets became available, so we took the tour into hell. The following day, we met with Russell Jim, an elder of the Yakama Nation, head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program.

Jim spoke with us about the devastation of the land, how it is affecting the Yakama Nation and about the environmental impact of the radioisotopes that were released into the areas surrounding the B Reactor and the other nuclear reactors aligning the Columbia River. He spoke of the radiant salmon hanging to dry on the porches of the local people, and the radiation experiments enacted on non-consensual local natives. “But we will not leave our way of life,” he said. He was determined that his people would not become like the conquerors, or like those who created Hanford and nuclear bombs.

At its best, literature allows the reader to enter another world and experience another being’s life. In order for this to come about, the writer herself must enter the reality fully. In 1977, I had breast cancer. In 2008, I put my hands on the earth on the Four Corners Reservation and discovered the sands were hot. In March 2011, at the time of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, I lay down in my imagination within the body of the Earth Sea Mother to feel the radiation burn she cannot escape. On Aug. 11, 2014, I took the public tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where an accidental release of a plume of radiation burned into my body, evidenced by extreme C-reactive protein levels that took months to cool. For the next years I lived in the body of my imagination or the imagination of my body or both of the realities of the two climatologists whose lives I was coming to know and chronicle in my novel.

We will not survive as people or as a planet if we do not learn each other’s reality in every cell of our bodies. We will not survive if we do not look unflinchingly at the grave harm we are doing. Empathy and the willingness to experience common jeopardy may help us heal our psychotic condition. Writing this on April 6, 2017, I learn that our infantile and demented president has sent 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto the bleeding soil of Syria. This Earth Day, I offer you an excerpt from A Rain of Night Birds. May our Earth Mother survive us, somehow.
September, 2007, Canyon de Chelly. It was just weeks since Terrence had collapsed. As they drove in the long about way she and her father favored through Cameron, Tuba City, Kayenta, Many Farms to Chinle, Sandra’s thoughts inevitably flitted to the earlier trip. She had never gained an understanding of the hot sands. She couldn’t set it entirely aside because she believed that Terrence had buckled when he penetrated, with his piercing eyes, the history that led to the contamination of sacred land at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He had looked through Wy’east (Mt Hood) to see it, in the way he had looked at the 2007 IPPC report through the wide-angle multidimensional lens of his mind.

Alone at Massacre Cave Outlook, where the brutal Kit Carson and his men had slaughtered mostly women and children in order to eradicate the Diné, the sands dribbled back into her consciousness. Terrence’s precarious condition had seemingly allowed her to set aside the entire spectrum of ills from the Anthropocene – from war to the poisoned earth – to focus on him. And also his condition had raised her alarm to orange alert. Worried about him, she turned away from the hot sands, but she could not forget them when standing at Adah Aho’doo’nili (Two Fell Off).

She could see into the earth to its fiery core and as far as the sun, as he could see forward and back seven generations and widely to the origin of the wind, its destination and return, to the swirl of currents, rising and falling, emerging and diminishing, an unending circle encompassing the globe.

Now she – so much had they become one – had to hold alongside Terrence’s collapse looking at Hanford, the inescapable fact, though she did not understand it, that the sands at Cameron had been hot at midnight on a cold March night, 2005, just before the advent of the spring equinox.

Returning to Africa and the Elephant Ambassador

I am refering you to the essay The Language of Relationship: Engagement with Elephants again (see below) because it is the reason I am going to Africa with Cynthia Travis of Everyday Gandhis. Not for my / our own sakes, but because we are so heartbroken about the world. As you, who are reading this are, as well. While I am alive, I will not accept that we cannot save all life from the current trajectory of global destruction. Certain realities have not made enough of a difference in our behavior: that the climate is changing drastically, that we are responsible, that our disregard for the earth is criminal, and that modern warfare is a primary culprit. And so I return as a humble seeker to see if something unexpected and, perhaps unprecedented, might emerge from a soul and mind alliance with another most intelligent and similarly heartbroken species, unable, as we are, to change current non-indigenous human activity and violence. Some synergy on behalf of all species.
My first journeys, as chronicled below, confirmed elephant (animal) intelligence and agency, incontrovertibly. Understand that the elephants in the wild met me/us four times on four separate occasions, over twelve years, but at the same time in the same place! At a certain tree, in Chobe Wild Animal Park,between 5 and 6 in the afternoon in Botswana. Cynthia Travis, Valerie Wolf, Michael Ortiz Hill and I were together in Botswana on one of those occasions when the Elephant Ambassador met us directly and threw us the most precious gift possible, a bone of one of his ancestors.
Elephant culture speaks loudly of heart and relationship. We humans are not the experts in the realm of the heart. The encounters with the elephants speak to their spiritual and psychic awareness and skill. But now, what feels like an urgent journey, is on behalf of the possibility of a spiritual and pragmatic alliance between members of different species so that we, who the Kogi call, and rightly so, the younger brothers, might somehow shift all our ways.
I am /we are praying that the elephants will appear, that the Ambassador will come again, and that this meeting will, in ways I cannot predict or imagine, actually serve to align our human species’ heart, to re-tune, entrain us, that it will …. I do not know what, but that some way will appear that will serve all life, all our relations. I am going to this other species as a supplicant.
We will be in the Wild in Africa from January 4th to the 19th. Please keep the elephants in your hearts and prayers and open yourselves to whatever may be asked of us on behalf of all life. I had a dream some months ago in which I was recruited by the Radical Elephant Movement to participate in actions on behalf of the earth that were far beyond any ideas I had of how we might proceed at this time. This journey arises from that dream. And from our belief that such dreams are sent by the spirits and so we are deeply called to listen.
In hope and prayer, Deena.
(Feel free to share this if you think it might have value beyond ourselves.)

THE LANGUAGE OF RELATIONSHIP: ENGAGEMENT WITH ELEPHANTS

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of bodies on…
deenametzger.wordpress.com

Realities Enter Our Lives: Fukushima and the Future

Every morning when I awaken and see the amber light on the old dying elm and the vigorous eucalyptus, the one that bled crimson sap one season I think, ‘Beauty is still here.’  Relief and gratitude.  Life as I have been living it – shall I call it – life as usual – goes on.

I can meet the day.  I determine to go on living my life as well as I can.  The early morning light is beautiful as it was yesterday.  Today will be hot again, but the nights are cool and clear.  We are meant to sit under the stars. 

Life as usual, what is it?

At this momentarily quiet moment, it is: Pray, eat, write, work, water, feed (the wild), dog, walk, read, family, friends, solitude, sleep. Again and again.

But also at this hour and every hour, deadly radiation – 300 tons of toxic water per day – is leaking from the storage tanks in Fukushima.[1]

“The water from the leaking tank is so heavily contaminated with strontium-90, cesium-137, and other radioactive substances that a person standing less than two feet away would receive, in an hour’s time, a radiation dose equivalent to five times the acceptable exposure for nuclear workers,” Reuters reported.

TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company has finally admitted what we, and they, have known from the beginning: they do not have the means or the knowledge to remedy the situation.

An hour later, the light is stark and will remain so all day.

After twenty-seven years, I am divorced.  The reality of this great loss enters my heart.  I did not expect to have to re-imagine and rebuild my life at this age.  One prepares for the death of a life partner, but divorce is an unnatural death blow to the heart.  After divorce, I have to assess what life is, so I can reconstruct a pattern that is a life.  The essentials are there: Pray, eat, write, work, water, feed (the wild), dog, walk, read, family, friends, lots of solitude, sleep.  Now Fukushima is here.  Drone, and dissonance.  It adds another dimension to the question: How does one go on?  How am I to live?

These are not the questions I expected to ask at this time in my life.  But now I must ask them.  The personal and the global coincide.  Fukushima, only one of the myriad horrific consequences of the ways we are living our lives.  How do we go on?  How are we to live?

1985.  A dear friend died.  I was inconsolable.  Driving on the freeway one gray morning, a disembodied voice said, “Forgive those who have left early.  Who could not stay to witness the end.”

I protested that I was also unwilling to stay to witness the end, but I would stay as long as I saw that I might make a difference.  I was not fifty yet.  Too young to know that one doesn’t win when trying to bargain with the spirits; I thought I had made a deal:  I would stay. We would all work to change consciousness and there would be no end to Creation.

I was certain or I was determined: The human could not (would not) overcome the Holy.

Last night, August 24th, I was anguished about Fukushima, climate change and the Rim Fire “swallowing everything in its path.” as it approached Yosemite . My own personal pain and unexpected loneliness, miniscule and irrelevant before the anguish of the earth. Losing a soul mate is not the same as losing a planet, even though it raises similar questions about how to live and what has meaning.

“A raging California wildfire has grown to 200 square miles and is so large and burning with such force that it is creating its own weather patterns, making it hard to predict where it will move,” fire officials said. “As the smoke column builds up it breaks down and collapses inside of itself, sending downdrafts and gusts that can go in any direction,”

She is really angry” a Native American friend says.  “No telling what She will do.”

I went to bed asking for wisdom, which only rarely comes to me in dreams.

I dreamed a friend has decided to commit suicide.  Her husband and I are accompanying her as witnesses.  We are facing her as we sit on the ends of a small couch, a large space between us.  She is speaking to us but she is speaking in absolute silence.  She is standing, restless, as she reveals her decision.  She does not have to explain.  We know.  We understand.   Sometimes my friend suffers what the world is suffering in her body.  We see that she cannot bear the pain.

My friend is living in a neighborhood where violence, always a constant, has suddenly escalated.  She is aware that the escalation in her neighborhood is an analogue of the global escalation.  She is not willing to respond personally without also considering the global dilemma.  So she speaks, without words, of the local incidents, the murders and break-ins, and the parallel events in our country, and around the world.

The communication between us is entirely silent and precise. We could elaborate, but, in the dream, we are committed to short hand:

She is thinking of the violence in her city, the violence in our country, the violence in the world.  Personal violence, national violence, global violence.  Murder, massacre, terrorism, war.

I am thinking of climate change, global warming, nuclear accidents, oil spills, extinction.

She is considering suicide.  We are immersed in ecocide.  We are each holding everything the other one is holding.

She and I have declared our houses as sanctuaries for the community of human and non-human beings.  Now sanctuary is threatened.  Sanctuary , a quality of earth, is threatened everywhere.  In the dream, the reality of the loss enters her heart.

At first, neither her husband nor I interfere.  It is, after all, her life.  We know her anguish.  But then it seems, I do question her decision and she falters.  She cannot stand her ground about suicide.  It seems she decides to live.  Or rather, she decides not to take her own life.  In the dream, I am now responsible to her for the unbearable pain she will have to bear.

She will ask the question:  How shall I live?  She will ask that even if there are no remedies that she knows.  No remedies for her pain.  No remedies for the disasters the world is facing.

I am trying to follow the wisdom and direction of the dream.

On August 23d, NPR played an interview with climate scientist Judith Curry, who in 2005 predicted that hurricanes were going to get more severe due to climate change.  She also did diplomatic work behalf of the IPPC, the United Nations, International Panel on Climate Change.  This spring, she testified  to a house subcommittee that “If all other things remain equal, it’s clear that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will warm the planet, but all other things may not remain equal.”  She didn’t feel certain about the outcome and so she recommended taking no action.  “I have six nieces and nephews who have recently graduated from college,” she says. “Not easy finding jobs in this economy. Are we going to jeopardize their economic future and they may not even care?”

Leaked material from the soon to be published IPPC 5th Assessment Report declares that scientists hold humans 95% responsible for climate change.  Until we are certain of this, do we indulge business as usual for the imagined economic benefit of our relatives without considering all the other beings, human and non-human on the earth?

Native Americans have an answer to this.  In Lakota, it is mitakye oyasin, all my relations.  Ideas are not abstractions.  Embedded in culture, they, like the force that turns sunflowers always toward the sun, magnetize and focus our energies in particular directions.  These two words, alone reveal the great gap between a culture that lives for a technology that created Fukushima and a culture that lives through a reverent love of the earth.

As it happens, I am writing a novel , A Rain of Night Birds, about an atmospheric scientist.  The novel was ‘given” to me.  I would never have conceived of it, nor could I have developed it, by myself.   I have been writing it for two and a half years, faithful to whatever is given me, listening, listening, listening, deeply involved and yet not knowing.  I have given the summer to it and in turn I have been guided in ways that bring me to my knees.

Because of a series of accidents and complications, I was seated in my car and turned on the radio, just as the interview with Judith Curry aired.  Had this been an ordinary day or hour, I would not have heard her.

These are the last days of the writing retreat.  When the novel came to me, I knew no more about climate science than the average well educated citizen.  Frustrated with trying to write intelligently about  characters whose work and knowledge are central to the story while I do not share their understanding, I set out to query several scientists for a reading list of books I could understand without having the math background necessary for environmental sciences..  Years ago I had managed to learn what was necessary to bring Daniela Stonebrook Blue, an astrophysicist in my novel, The Other Hand, to life.  The research had taken a year or two, but afterwards I could write in the language of the stars.  Maybe I still have a year or two to learn enough of the environmental sciences to satisfy the integrity of my characters.  Within a few hours, and before I wrote to anyone, a reading list appeared with articles I could understand that cover the entire field: “Welcome to Resources in Atmospheric Sciences.”  Welcome, the title says.  Welcome!

I do not generally associate technology and magic but I see that the spirits use any means necessary to communicate with us in ways that we can accept.  They use dreams and they use Google.  The combination is breathtaking.   And a little humorous.

Earlier in the week, other strange circumstances connected me with the IPPC 4th Assessment Report.  I had never read it.  A brief section startled me: The Role of Local and Indigenous Knowledge in Adaptation and Sustainability Research.[2] “Research on indigenous environmental knowledge has been undertaken in many countries, often in the context of understanding local oral histories and cultural attachment to place. A survey of research … outline the many technical and social issues related to the intersection of different knowledge systems, and the challenge of linking the scales and contexts associated with these forms of knowledge. With the increased interest in climate change and global environmental change, recent studies have emerged that explore how indigenous knowledge can become part of a shared learning effort to address climate-change impacts and adaptation, and its links with sustainability.”

How did this report come to me?  The novel called it forth.  The inner world and the outer world, experience and the imagination, life and spirit, they are always in resonant exchange.  This report came to me because its material is central to the novel.  Every environmental /earth scientist will read the Assessment, so will the characters in my book.  But perhaps, the Assessment came so that I, as a citizen, will read it.  So that it can be brought to your attention here.  So that you , and I, will learn something of what we are facing AND that spirit exists.  Both and together.

I do not know how to restore the earth any more than I know how to write this book.  But I do know that it is necessary to take signs seriously and listen deeply.  This is one of my commitments to these times.

And so the dream.  I am trying to follow the meaning and implication of the dream.  In a strange way, Judith Curry is part of the dream.  As so are the characters in the novel I am writing.  Environmental scientists.  Earth scientists.  How do they bear it?  How do they live given what they know?

Often dreams pose questions rather than answering them.  Dreams focus our attention in new ways.  Here are some questions the dream may be asking:

How do we live if there are no known remedies?

Are there changes we are being called to make whether or not we know in advance whether anything will make a difference?

What might it mean to give up life as usual to actively face and meet these grief times?

How do we shift, if we don’t know what to do?

At least for this moment, let us agree.  Let us not live life as usual.  Let us not live  business as usual. Let us not allow life, our lives, to be beholden to commercially designed, media driven, technologically determined life style.

How, then, will we live?  How will we live each moment with integrity?

I had breast cancer in 1977.  I sought out the life force, as a healing strategy, in the face of threat.  In 1997, I wrote a journal of healing, Tree.[3]  In it, I named the life force, Toots.  It was a proclamation. The question I asked then:  What are the forces in me that say Die and what are the forces in me that say, Live?

The answers were so easy then.  So personal.  I had to change my life and I did it.  At that time, a dream that alerted me that I had cancer, instructed me to step out silence.  To speak. That was one way.  I was a feminist; I understood how essential this was.

That dream in 1976  centered on fascism.  It was set in Chile under Pinochet.  It featured the Dina, the Chilean secret police, and a Nazi matron from Dachau who intended to use torture to silence me.

Today, as I remember the dream, and our need to identify our real lives, Daniel Ellsberg declares “”We have not only the capability of a police state, but certain beginnings of it right now,” Ellsberg told The Huffington Post Wednesday.[4] “And I absolutely agree with Edward Snowden. It’s worth a person’s life, prospect of assassination, or life in prison or life in exile — it’s worth that to try to restore our liberties and make this a democratic country.”

In my dream of August 24th, 2013, my friend and I speak silently of everything that is bringing us to grief.  Somewhere in our hidden conversation, teaching us how to live in such times, are Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.

Here is another question inspired by the dream and the gravity of this time:  If we have the courage and capacity to consider everything that is threatening us at once, might there be responses that can help us meet everything at once?

What would it mean to hold and consider everything at once?  In the dream, my friend wants to die because she cannot bear it but later it seems she capitulates to the need to live and bear everything.  What is everything?  We each have our own list:

It is probably divided between the deliberate killing and the concomitant dying.   The wars we are waging and the victims we have become of those wars.

(Please stay with me, with us.  If you’ve come so far, please read this list, create your own and stay present to it.)

The development, sale and use of weaponry and the victims of these weapons..  Nuclear weapons and the dangers of nuclear power.  Hiroshima / Nagasaki and Chernobyl /Fukushima.  Syria and the new potential for horrific war sparked by the U..S. Arms sales and rapes and murders.  Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Drones., Surveillance, poverty and prisons.  Sexual abuse, domestic violence, torture. Home foreclosures and city bankruptcies.  Hurricanes, tornados, and fire storms.  Monsanto, Keystone XL pipe lines, fracking, drilling, mountain top removal, coal,  and mining,   The melting glaciers, the release of methane from permafrost, the rise in carbon dioxide levels, the holes in the ozone layers, the rise of seas, the deaths of the polar bears …  Our maddened and suffering children.  All our losses and disconnections.

We murder and we die.  This is who we have become – murderers and victims, both and at once. “I have become death, “Oppenheimer declared.  That recognition did not save us.

Here is the challenge – for me and for us:  If we have the courage and capacity to consider everything that is threatening us at once, and every way we are living that supports it, might we find ways that can truly help us meet everything at once?

And what if no answers come that guide us to know what to do?  What if there are no remedies?  How will we live our lives?

So often, I come to writing thinking that there is something new and urgent that I must set down.  And then, I find myself, as at this moment, at the same insight.  But once again, with urgency.  Perhaps that is what writers and artists do.  We are given an essential form or insight that is ours to continuously examine and perfect.

Remember the classic story of the renowned Japanese carver who had saved a very particular log.  Being more than eighty, he told a friend, that after a lifetime of study, he  thought he might be ready to begin to carve.

Mitakye oyasin as a response, as a standard, meets everything at once.

The repeating, on-going, continuous, relentless, insistent understanding:  if we change out lives, if we step back entirely from those forms and habits that directly, if inadvertently, lead to Fukushima or any of the horrors we faced above, then … then … we still might save Creation.  Everyday, the need to change and the radical nature of the change gets greater and more urgent.  And even so, if there are no carbon emissions for the next year, the seas will not freeze over as before in a year or two.  But we do not know what might result from such a united and complete offering to Spirit.

Judith Curry wouldn’t speculate on global warming because she can’t calculate all the factors.  Or perhaps, she hit despair. When we hit despair, we go on with life as usual, in its most diminished form.  We continue to insist on what we, individually need and what we individually want.

Unlike Judith Curry and like all the contributors to the IPPC 5th Assessment, we can assume that global warming will get worse and we are responsible.  Therefore …

Just after 9/11/2001, I wrote in Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing (Hand to Hand):

“At the time when the planes hit, seven of us … were engaged in fierce ritual work.

“Two stories intersected in that moment: a story streaming toward destruction and a story streaming toward healing.”

The path toward destruction has gained momentum.  Fukushima may mean that destruction is imminent.  And yet …

I don’t know what is at the end of that last sentence.  I will let you finish it.  But the dream implies there are right responses even if we do not know them.  And that we are to choose life.  I am asking myself and all of us, what does it mean to choose life?

Are we willing to change our ways, to live in what Native Americans call the good ways, to step away from what leads to the tragedies we have each listed, even if, ultimately, it may not save our lives?  Are we willing to make those radical offerings?

At the end of When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes: “An albatross on Midway Atoll, dead and decomposing, is now a nest of feathers harboring plastic from the Pacific gyre of garbage swirling in the sea.  We can kneel in horror and beg forgiveness. Or we can turn away.  But the albatross crying overhead, buoyed up by the breeze, is now suspended in air by her vast bridge of wings.  She is the one who beckons us to respond.”

Terry learns that she has a tumor close to the language center of her brain.  Surgery might threaten her understanding or her speech.  Doctors giving second opinions “all asked the same question: ‘How well do you live with uncertainty?’

“’What else is there?’” she said.

The friend from the dream and I have just had a conversation.  “I have made the pledge to live twice,” she said.

“I have as well,” I answered.  “But I made it conditional upon reversing the terrible disorder of things. Perhaps the dream calls me to make the pledge unconditionally.”  As I write these words, I wonder if this is the offering?

My friend says, “You will not be alone if you choose life. We will help each other bear it.”

***

Since I was young, I have been told that we can’t go back to the way it was.  (Also that this way is better –  that is not worth bothering to refute.)  Don’t be a Luddite, I was advised – or warned.

This is the other theme explored here:  Everyone of us comes from an indigenous culture. That means we all come from people who knew the spirits, loved and interconnected with the earth and all its beings.  It means we have the love of the earth, beauty, art, song, healing, vision within us.  It means we have access to deep peace and respect for all beings.  It means that we can all follow the African way of Sankofa, the mythical bird that flies forward by looking back.

It means we can go back.  it means that, as in the dream, we can falter in our determination to kill ourselves and destroy all life.  It means we can gather the wisdom we need to live real lives.  It means we can be freed from what has taken us over. It means we do not have to continue on this death march of our own invention.

When Fukushima first exploded, I journeyed to Her, to the one who I called the Great Earth Sea Mother.  I didn’t dare do this in what is called real time, but I could do it through the ways that Spirit has given us to reach across from one realm to another.  I wanted to comfort Her of course.  She did not allow me to ease my heart that way.  “Be with me,” she said.  So I was as extensively as I was able.  Imagine then, the pain of the on-going nuclear reaction within her, the unimaginable fire, the continuous, relentless agony.

We don’t know how to decontaminate the waters.  We don’t know how to ease her pain.  A hundred years estimated to repair the nuclear facility?  How many years until the radiation is spent?

But we also don’t know what will be possible if we go back to the original wisdom and live accordingly.  I don’t think any indigenous people on the planet have the intention of  saving  us.  But living in the old ways, that they have so carefully and respectfully preserved, may save the earth.

Mitakye Oyasin.

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