Tag Archives: ecology

Fire: Fuel, Flames, and Aliveness (Sermon)

30 Days for the Earth at Throop: Challenging False Separations

As part of our religious community at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, we spend thirty days each year intentionally focused on rededicating ourselves to people, place, and planet. To kick us off this year, we focused in on the watershed of philosophical, structural, and systemic culture that we find ourselves swimming in.

We reflected on the ways that the dominant culture’s—white, Western, European, colonial culture – relationship to the “natural” world is one that has at its root a belief that informs all else: some of this world is alive, some of this world is dead. Some of us are classified as beings, some of us are classified as non-beings. Non-beings, that which is dead, that which is without power, that either needs to be useful to that which is alive—laboring, procreating, reproducing—or at least needs to be protected because it is interesting, exotic, and useful for its purity to us.

We acknowledged that this even informs how we approach “getting back in touch with nature” today: that even as we resist over-exploitation (i.e. the idea that nature and the wilderness is something to be used and consumed by human beings), that the tendency was towards “conservation, preservation”—that suddenly these wilderness landscapes needed to be protected, preserved, pure, virginal, untouched.

These options: exploit, use, and abuse or protect, defend, and maintain as pure—don’t have anything to do with being in actual relationship. Both of these postures, the posture of “you’re mine and I’m entitled to you” and “you need to be protected and only I know what is best for you” have at their root, a common ethic: the ethic of control.

There is something more generative, more worthy of our worship, and more real than control: an interdependent web of life is not about control. Living in the web of life is about saying “I am related to you.”

We are asking ourselves these 30 Days: how do I remember and re-embody my profound relatedness in the body of all life? How do I remember my place as part—not as separate from, or seeking to transcend out of—this world? What does it mean for how I live my life—my relationship to people and planet—to live with this knowing in my bones?

California: “Land of Fire” and the Fire Suppression

Giant Sequoia

Plant scientist Kat Anderson writes that early Spanish colonizers saw the “California poppies set a tilted mesa north of Pasadena aglow with their blooms in springs” it was actually visible by ships more than twenty five miles away. They called the coast “The Land of Fire.”[1]

Anderson tells us that fire shaped this land:

  • Fire was common—the same acre was expected to burn every ten to fifty years.
  • California species survive fires and some actually require fire in order to complete their life cycle and remain generative—one ecologist postulated that fires were responsible for shaping ¾ of all California’s vegetation.
  • Pyrodiversity—the diversity of “frequency, scale, season, and type of fire”—leads to biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples in California had maintained the art and science of controlled and regular burns, right alongside fires by lightning strike for centuries.

But, lets just say that hasn’t been state policy.

Laura Cunningham, a field biologist, tracked these state policies. By 1905, the Forest Service outlawed fire on public land. One “early-twentieth century federal forester disdainfully described Indian burning as ‘Ancient notions of ‘Piute forestry’ whose deep fire-scars remain upon so many of our giant landmark pines and sequoias.’ He disparaged this ‘unscientific’ old way of setting ‘light surface fires’ aimed a ‘producing a smooth forest floor.’ They wrote:

“The Forest Service is solidly opposed to every sort of ‘light burning’ because they have seen it in practice many times, under all sorts of conditions; so are the foresters of all civilized nations… The underlying principles of all scientific forestry however, are these: Save the young growth as well as the mature trees; protect the soil; encourage reproduction; fill up all possible gaps in the forest cover—do not make more by surface fires—fight all fires to a finish.”

Do you hear those key words? Save. Protect. Reproduce. Fill up. Fight.

By 1935, there were state and federal governments that began a paramilitary-like program to quickly stamp out wildfires through “rapid mobilization of firefighters, equipment, and technology.”[2]

But why?

Economics drove land relationships, land classifications, land science, and land policy. Increased density of trees led to more money for foresters. Fighting fires to a finish led to saving buildings—saving private property. I also imagine that there is something so powerful, so sacred, so transformative, so unwilling to be controlled by fire, that it was an affront to an ethic of domination and control. If you do not have a relationship with being out of control, if you are used to being in control, you won’t make friends with fire.

With land relationships driven by a belief in the inherent separateness of beings and non-beings, with the removal and genocide of indigenous people driven by a belief in separateness and non-being, and with economics in the drivers seat—California lands, California trees, lost one of their primary partners in creative collaboration: human beings.

The ecological results of fire suppression were enormous. Forests clog. Young saplings, unchallenged by regular fires, suck up all the water leaving old trees stressed and susceptible to attacks by bark beetles. In one study, fire-suppressed San Bernardino had 300 trees per acre—a similar stand of trees in Mexico, left for natural fires, had 60 per an acre. The Mexican trees were healthier and survived the beetles. One biologist called the number and mortality of North American trees “stunning”—revealing the underlying attitude of our culture that more is somehow always better. Catastrophic fires, thriving on the build up of twigs, branches became the new norm—but do not have the same benefits. Their heat, their magnitude devastates rather than regenerates.

And what about those very trees, those Giant sequoias, that all those men tried to save and protect from other men who might use, log, and exploit?

Those trees require fire to release seeds from their cones. The cones require ash and open gaps in the forest. Due to fire suppression, “small cones hung on the trees for years, waiting for the heat of a fire passing below to open the cone scales and release a seed rain as great as eight million per acre.”[3]

As a result of these policies, Sequoias stopped producing.

The trees needed sky to set fire, or they needed humans to set fire. They were in a relationship. The very trees that some men set about to protect from other men who set about to exploit them, are the very trees that required the co-created generation of sky fire (lightening) or people (fire).

Without interdependent relationship, without fire, no Sequoia. No relationship, no tending, no transformation, no heat, no flame, no Sequoia.

It appear that that pristine wilderness landscape that had enchanted so many, that so many people wrote about, photographed and painted… and then protected from human beings… was actually, Anderson writes, a cultural landscape.[4] It had been co-created.

Prescribed burn, Sequoias

The Fire Inside

What does this mean for us, in relationship now, here, in this place, with this people?

My friend Daniel Francis has been working with fire for most of his life, particularly fire by friction. Fire by friction reminds us that at the heart of any fire, is the art of teasing out the sun’s sacred energy from another being.

Daniel writes:

“The sun’s energy is stored in the body of all living plants as carbon. This reminds us that in the body of all beings lies a transformational potential. Fire-making teases out this stored energy (carbon), transforming it into heat and light. This is how all of ancestors managed to get us this far: fire to cook our food, to warm ourselves, to protect us from predators and to illuminate our way through the dark. Equally so, we need fire for ceremony, to see this same cycle as fundamentally a part of our own cycle. From a star’s light, to a living plant, to a burning flame, to ashes and back again. Magic.”

Fire refuses a philosophy of separation: that some is dead and some is alive. Fire says: I’m in everything, it is all alive.

And saying, “It is all alive” is a theological commitment.

To believe and to treat this world and other people as fundamentally alive—as on fire, as transformational, as powerful— is a theological commitment.

Noticia

What are some ways to live with that commitment to an alive world in our bones?

Depth psychologist Joe Coppin, speaking of the work of archetypal psychologist James Hillman, once described to me that to be in an “alive” world requires moving in that world with a kind of sensibility that imagines that the world might have a better idea of what you should be doing than you do.

This is captured in archetypal psychology in the phrase “noticia” – which literally means “to notice.” It means you are available to the world because matter is wise. For example, you might leave here today and walk by the nasturtiums in the Throop Learning Garden. And you will be struck by those nasturtiums. But you will not be struck by them because you noticed them—you will be struck by them because they noticed you. It is a quality of availability to the world where your baseline assumption is that the world is alive, the world has wisdom, and that which is Other to you in the world has a right to your attention.

This right to your attention, and this aliveness, is also some of what

“Water is Life” by JustSeeds

is core to the most sacred and important justice movements of our time right now. To say, “Water is Life” at Standing Rock is a theological commitment that the world is alive, water is alive, and that indigenous people have a right to self-determination of their own, and for those of us who are indigenous, our own, lives.

To say, “Black Lives Matter,” is a theological commitment that believes black bodies—all black bodies: black trans, queer, disabled bodies—are alive, are wise, are self-determining and have a right to people’s attention, and have the right to change you—or, for those of us who are black, trans, queer, and/or disabled, that we have a right to self-determination and the power to transform you and this world.

To say: It is alive. They are alive. We are alive. I am alive. And we will transform this, and we will be transformed, and you will transform, and I am transforming. These are theological commitments about how you will be in the world.

Response-Ability

And here is where our responsibility comes in. To tend a fire, to create fire, to keep fire, you have to be in a responsible relationship with heat and transformation. To build it from something small to large, to keep something going, to soothe, to excite; you have to be responsive to what is actually in front of you. To notice the world, you have to be responsive to the relationship that is actually here.

When I say “responsibility” I do not mean moralistic duty. I mean it in the way of sacred responsiveness to one another.

Elephant Couple, from Mississippi North

Philosopher Kelly Oliver actually splits that word into two: “response” and “able.” Response-ability asks this: is what I’m doing creating the possibility of response from the one who is in front of me? Is the way I am approaching, speaking, showing up, noticing, responding, creating possibility—or closing off possibility?

Is what I am doing opening up, like a seed rain, the possibility of transformation of me from the one who is in front of me?

Is what I am doing making it possible that I will hear the call of a world and a people that have a right to my attention and a right to change me?

This is, as Oliver writes, what “love beyond domination” looks like. And this is our task as a people swimming in a culture of domination: we are learning to love in new ways and old ways that do not require us to rely on false securities of being “in control” for us to be in relationship with people and planet. We are learning to love beyond domination.

If the root of an ethic of separation is control, then the root of our ethic of relationship is the possibility and willingness that I will be changed by you; that you and I co-create each other; and that I will act in service to the possibility of that co-creation.

It means I will act in service to the possibility that you will transform me.

It means for social relationships that have been harmed by domination and histories of control, I will act in service to tending the harm, to healing, such that trust is possible, such that response-ability is possible between us, such that transformation is possible.

It means I will notice you, I will respond to your call, and I will go with you.

Conservation biologist Edward Grumbine writes, “Biological diversity will not be sustained if new ways of managing nature do not transform how we experience our place in nature…”[5]

We have a theological statement to make and practice together: that our place is to be part of an interdependent planet, not separate from it.

May fire guide us,

may we resist suppression,

may we respond to each other,

and may we be touched by the world.

 


Works Cited: 

[1] Cunningham, “State of Change,” p. 17

[2] Anderson, “Tending the Wild,” p. 120

[3] Cunningham, p. 192

[4] Anderson, p. 148

[5] Anderson p. 362

For more from Kelly Oliver, see Witnessing: Beyond Recognition.

For more on the separation of “being” and “non-being,” see Nelson Maldonado-Torres “Outline of Ten Thesis of Coloniality and Decoloniality.”

We’ll Build a Land: 2 People. $2200 each. By April 22nd.

March 22, 2014

Two People. $2200 each. By April 22.

Help us buy 1 acre in 1 month before Earth Day 2014!

Sristi Land Visit
Sristi board members, including youth and adults, visit the potential site of the village.

Dear Friends and Family,

What would you do if less than 1% of people who were like you could find employment?

For nearly 10 years, my close friend Karthik has been asking that question. He has served as the director of Baby Sarah’s Home Orphanage in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India—a nationally-recognized community for children who have been orphaned due to intellectual or physical disabilities.  During his time there and during my time as the Executive Learner at CLP, Karthik and I worked alongside Indian young adult leaders to do intentional, inclusive leadership programming for youth from his orphanage and surrounding communities.

After 10 years, Karthik has watched the children of his community grow up into adults who have few options for sustainable, life-giving employment as they aged out of the orphanage. Nationwide, less than 1% of people with different physical or intellectual abilities in India receive viable employment. This community makes up nearly 31 million people in India’s population.

After nearly 10 years of this, he had an idea.

His idea is SRISTI—a word in Sanskrit that means “creation”—and the new name for his innovative venture into life-giving, regenerative and inclusive community. With his team of fellow social workers and youth from his orphanage who are now adults, Karthik has began the purchase of nearly nine acres of farm land in Tamil Nadu, South India with one plan—a safe, inclusive, ecologically sustainable and financially secure community for all people, of all ages and all abilities to live out their entire lives.

This vision, Sristi Village, is a creation of love and passion. There are no communities like this in South India that combine the principles of ecological sustainability, intentional community and social justice for the marginalized due to ability—and Karthik is using his passion and innovation in permaculture (sustainable and regenerative design) and youth-led participation to make it happen.

During Daniel's and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.
During Daniel’s and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.

After years of planning this and talking to me about this over coffee, he is doing it. He left his job, moved into a small office near the available land, and started sharing his vision with friends—and people immediately jumped on board. He found the land—nine acres with nearly 50 mango trees, a water source on site and plenty of space to grow. A European foundation already made the commitment of 30,000 Euro to help him get the purchase started.

Unfortunately, due to international regulations between international non-profits, this money has been stalled—leaving Karthik empty-handed and half way through building relationships with the landowners as he begins to design and prepare the site to begin. To completely secure the purchase of this incredible land and to build good will with the landowner, Sristi needs a minimum of $13,300.

Luckily, individual citizens can help.

What Karthik is doing is truly innovative—and Karthik is a leader in his field. After a January 2014 visit to India, my best friend and colleague Daniel Francis and I saw a way to support this powerful vision—Daniel has provided several hours of permaculture design consultation and Daniel and I have committed to each raising $2,200 before Earth Day on April 22, 2014.

Luckily, an anonymous donor has offered to MATCH our money—for every $100 Daniel and I each raise, this donor will add an extra $100 until up to $2,200.

$2,200 (Samantha) + $2,200 (Daniel) + $2,200 (Match) = $6600

$6600 is enough for Karthik to purchase one more acre of land, putting him even closer to his goal of $13,300 and making Sristi a reality.

All support—from $10 to $100 – makes a big difference in putting Sristi on the map and demonstrating the power of inclusive, intentional and ecologically-inspired community with transnational support.

Would you be willing to make a donation?

We really believe that these two people can raise $2200 each before Earth Day on April 22nd—and with a really wide web of friends and fellow believers we can buy one acre of land in one month towards the creation of Sristi.

With gratitude,

Samantha and Daniel 

Donate Now




When are we more alive in our work?

My colleague, Daniel and I will be going to India in January 2014 to present at a Jain Concerence in Rajasthan. The conference is the 8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action (ICPNA). This year’s theme is “Towards a Nonviolent Future: Seeking Realistic Models of Peaceful Co-existence and Sustainability.” It is hosted by the Anuvrat Global Organization.

This year’s theme looks at the intersection of sustainability and non-violence. Daniel and I are looking towards sharing what youth mentoring, leadership and organizing has meant in the context of nature connection and the Cultural Repair Movement in California.

I’m new to this concept– but I think I’ve been part of the movement for awhile, especially among those who see activism as wholeness, as living out lives that, in the words of Ivan Illich, are “alive enough to be shared.”  Even in creating this blog, inspired from my Public Scholar Activism course at Claremont School of Theology, my professor was assisting me in making more concrete what it exactly I wanted to speak to. Her suggestion has grown on me: it is about people learning to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before they try to “help” someone else. 

Cultural repair isn’t about self-centered people getting high on their own oxygen masks, but it is about remembering what it was like when we were living more grounded lives– the culture itself was the greatest source of oxygen, our communities, work, families weren’t places to escape from or left us depleted but places that nourished us.

Cultural repair speaks to that aching hunger to return to … something. Something that feels like it is in our memories, something that we catch glimpses of at pot lucks of compassionate friends, circles of allies or sweet moments when our work feels like a creative process that brings more life to ourselves and the world. It reminds us that there are natural cycles that pattern the natural world, and we, as part of that, have cycles, processes and ways of being that we have neglected– the importance of inspiration, the role of focused work, the rejuvenation of timeless siestas and playfulness, nourishing food and the role of story-telling around the fire under a night sky. These things are not luxuries, these are spiritual necessities– deep within us we are aching to return to this memory of well-being.

This movement, most often associated with the work of Jon Young and the Eight Shields Model, is not just about deep ecology and nature-connection– it is also about personal transformation and social justice. In the words of Young, it is about “optimizing the human operating system.”

Can you imagine an organization or faith community or campaign that leaves you feeling more alive than when you joined it? Where the process of gathering is as important as the potential “products”– the voting rights maintained, land conserved, unjust laws repealed are enhanced by the community of intention and care that worked towards them? Where we paid attention to the design of our gatherings, our meeting spaces, our meals, our personal lives and yearnings? Where we started and ended in gratitude?

That is cultural repair. It is about repairing our culture to be naturally healing, sustaining and life giving.

So, Daniel and I are off to India with these questions: what does this movement mean in social justice? What does social justice have to teach this movement? What does this say of the spirit? Further– how does the movement frame itself in a way that includes or excludes different communities of people? When this knowledge is recognized as coming from brown and black bodies (much emphasis is placed on the wisdom from the bushmen communities of the Kalahari to the wisdom of council in indigenous North and South America), yet few folks of color are present at workshops, what does this say of the need to re-design, re-learn and listen more deeply ahead as we acknowledge the classism, racism and exclusion of our environmental movements?

The Jain community of North India will be dynamic conversation partners in this effort. Jainism is well-recognized for its emphatic focus on the life of all beings and the inherent, explicit interconnectedness of all life– physically and karmically. Furthermore, the Jain concept of anekantavada  or “non-onesidedness”/”many-sidedness”, has much to say to the adversarial antagonism of movements for justice that claim absolute truth or prescriptive answers to complex realities.

Our proposals are below– and we are hungry for feedback: what does a movement like this raise for you? Where have you experienced work and life that is “alive enough to be shared” and what made it that way? 

—–

Presentation Title: “Bird Song and the Listening Spirit: Growing the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In the United States, fragmented movements for ecological and social justice face language of scarce resources and adversarial needs—as social justice movements work diligently for the rights of human beings, ecological justice movements give voice to the inherent aliveness of nature and warning to our self-destruction. Both models, however, often lack the spiritual tools and self-reflection to sustain themselves in the midst of financial, social and political strains and embedded injustice in our society. An inclusive approach to the Cultural Repair movement is a response to this hunger for what sustains us by including earth- and human-connection and fueling (through living) in regenerative ecological communities of care. This paper will examine these philosophical foundations, current manifestations, opportunities and challenges for growing the movement to repair our world.

Workshop/Experiential Learning Segment: “Children and Youth: Our Radical Teachers in the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In Southern California, social and ecological justice activists have come together in common movements to provide learning spaces for diverse youth to reflect, connect, dialogue and take action in healing their community, ecologically and socially. These best practices are part of larger movements, returning to indigenous and ancient wisdom, that engage people in reconnecting to the earth, to themselves and to their own spirits through outdoor activities and community living. This workshop will share (and practice) some of these best methods in case studies from California in which youth and children serve as leaders and teachers in re-discovering what keeps them, and us, alive.