contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Ecology

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.

The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.

Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.

The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.

The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.

The third root question asks: can circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.

Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)

(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BOOK REVIEW: UNLIKELY ALLIANCES

Highly recommended. Unlikely Alliances (1) is set in the years 2029-2033, in a fictional town on England’s south coast. It offers a degree of hope about the climate crisis, presenting a positive response to its challenges at the global, national and, especially, local levels. Towards the close of the book, one of the characters reflects on a benign economic austerity that includes social justice: “limited food in the shops, clothes and shoes having to last many years, trips abroad requiring special license … but look around us, are we really worse off?” The answer is a qualified no, on the grounds that everyday life has become less constrained and less stressful, thanks to the choices that have been made.

Unlikely Alliances offers a gentle, compassionate and good-humoured lens on a subject that can seem grim and edgy. The title refers to the changing political, professional and above all personal relationships of people working on adaptation goals in their Bourne Valley community. They are from a wide variety of backgrounds, including local government, academia, trade unions, churches, the voluntary sector, management consultancy, the hospitality industry, sports organisations and farming. Unexpected synergies are generated. The novel shows how its band of protagonists find themselves, each other and a new sense of purpose in this work. As fiction, the book has the space to be about lives as well as issues. New culture, adapted to new times, is created in the lived experience of friendship, romance and community building.

The Climate Action Plan of a progressive coalition government provides a political framework, drawing on ideas from the US 1930’s New Deal and the UK reconstruction post World War 2. It is in power because of a wake-up call resulting from a huge inundation in the Netherlands and the presence of a large number of Dutch refugees in Britain – a disaster too close to ignore. For the first time since the mid twentieth century, serious wealth taxes are in place. Food and fuel are rationed: everyone gets at least something at an affordable price. There are new approaches to housing. A Civilian Community Service Corps provides training and jobs for the unemployed and a two-years national community service for school and college leavers.

In crisis conditions, this government is broadly popular. Even so, it is vulnerable to defections within its own Parliamentary ranks, the vigorous opposition of vested interests and those who speak for them, and the violence of militant climate denialists on the street. These struggles are not minimised, and they are vividly portrayed in the book. But most of the focus is on resource and resiliency building at the local and regional levels, and on the changes in the lives of the main characters, as they open up to each other’s influence and affection. It is their efforts that prevail, since they come to make practical sense to more and more people.

A brief review cannot do full justice to a book that deals with a civilisation at the edge, presented from a stance of generosity and warm commitment to human flourishing. Tony Emerson has long experience of working with environmental issues and is also an accomplished storyteller. I found Unlikely Alliances heartening and enjoyable to read, and a well-informed glimpse into a possible near future.

(1) Tony Emerson Unlikely Alliances https://FeedARead.com 2021 – e-book created by White Magic Studios – http://www.whitemagicstudios.co.uk 1922. Available on Amazon (UK and USA).

REBLOG: ’10 THINGS I LEARNED FROM EATING VEGAN FOR A YEAR’

I’ve been ‘plant-based’ or ‘mostly vegan’ for several years now, since coming to understand the role of livestock on the climate. But towards the end of 2020, my son asked if he could be properly vegan. I joined him and we have done it together. I haven’t mentioned this before on the blog. I see […]

10 things I learned from eating vegan for a year — The Earthbound Report

BOOK REVIEW: SACRED ACTIONS

Highly recommended. Sacred Actions* is an excellent resource for developing sacred relationship with the earth in dedicated spiritual practice and acts of daily life. Pennsylvania-based author Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the U.S. homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen Within in 2018. In a recent blog post in Druid’s Garden (https://druidgarden.wordpress.com) she describes Sacred Actions as presenting “a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainability and permaculture practice”.

The book is built around the wheel of the year and its eight festivals. O’Driscoll begins with the Winter Solstice, where her theme is the ethics of care applied at both the private and public levels. New life practices are supported by specific exercises and rituals. She continues the same approach with the other festivals: Imbolc – “wisdom through oak knowledge and re-skilling”; Spring Equinox – “spring cleaning and disposing of the disposable mindset”; Beltane – “sacred action in our homes”; Summer Solstice – “food and nourishment”; Lughnasadh – “landscapes, gardens and lawn liberation”; Fall Equinox = “earth ambassadorship, community and broader work in the world”; Samhain – “sustainable ritual tools, items and objects”.

To prospective readers I suggest an initial reading, followed by more intensive engagement with the individual chapters, season by season. Use this text to identify what inspires and moves you and has the power to bring a richer sense of ‘sacred actions’ into your own life. Sacred Actions is a powerful source of ecological and ethical inspiration, and a fine addition to Druid literature.

* Dana O’Driscoll Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices Altglen, PA: Red Feather, 2021

 

SUZANNE SIMARD: FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

Dr. Suzanne Simard grew up in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, in a family of low impact traditional foresters. She worked for many years a researcher in the Canadian Forest Service, before moving into academia. She is currently Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. Throughout her career she has had a leading role in changing the way that science thinks about trees and forests. Her research on tree connectivity, communication and cooperation – and their impact on the health and biodiversity of forests – has shown how the imposed monocultures of commercial forestry are a disaster for forests, forestry and the wider ecology of the planet.

Her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest was published by Penguin Books in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia in 2021 in paper, kindle and audio versions. It describes both a personal journey and a scientific one, and shows how the work Simard came to do grew out of the place and culture in which she was raised. It is as if her achievement had her name on it even at the beginning. I highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in ecology and the sentience of trees.

I cannot do justice in to this inspiring book and its thesis in a single post. Instead, I refer readers to a TED talk on How Trees Talk To Each Other (1), which Simard gave in 2016, summarising her work and its implications in just over 16 minutes. If the talk whets your appetite, the book will likely satisfy it. It says more about Suzanne Simard’s personal and family journey. It describes her ground-breaking (though also fraught and frustrating) time within the Canadian Forest Service in some detail. It also says something about the ecological wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the forest and takes Simard’s own research up to 2020.

(1) http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en/

BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM

“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.

The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.

On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.

After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.

I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.

(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020

(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/

(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/11/rainmaker/

RAINMAKER

The story of the Rainmaker, below, is from Hebridean ecologist Alastair McIntosh‘s Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. I will the review the book as a whole in a later post. The story was originally recounted by Richard Wilhelm in the early years of the twentieth century. Wilhelm was a long-term resident in China whose German translation of the I Ching included a foreword by C. G. Jung. McIntosh’s context for the story is a discussion of spiritual groundedness in the application of Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s way of peace and social transformation.

“In the province that surrounded Tsingtao there befell a terrible drought. The grass scorched, the animals were failing, and the people knew that they’d be next. In desperation, they called upon the Protestant missionaries, who came and presumably said their prayers and read their bibles and gave suitably long sermons. No rain.

“So then they called the Catholic missionaries, who came and presumably said Hail Marys and prayed with rosary beans and sprinkled holy water. Still no rain.

“So they called the traditional Taoist and Confucian priests, who came and lit some joss sticks, and set off guns to frighten away the hungry ghosts that presumably had caused the drought. But not a single drop.

“Finally – and interestingly, as the last resort – they called in the Rainmaker. The Rainmaker was a wizened little old man who lived far away. He had to walk a considerable distance from a neighbouring province. ‘What do you need?’ they asked when he arrived.

“’I need nothing,’ he said. ‘Just a hut to go and sit.’

“After three days, there was an unseasonable fall of snow. It melted and relieved the drought. The peasants soon resumed their normal lives. But Richard Wilhelm, being not just any old scholar but a German professor, wanted to know exactly what the little old man had done.

“‘I did nothing,’ said the Rainmaker.

“‘Oh come on,’ said Wilhelm. ‘Was it magic spells, or incantations, or did you just hit lucky that you only had to wait three days?’

“‘None of those,’ he sad honestly.

“‘Well, what was it then?’ demanded the exasperated Wilhelm.

“’It’s like this,’ said the Rainmaker. ‘When I was in my home province, my spirit was in the Tao, the cosmic harmony. But when I got to this province, I found that it no longer was in the Tao.

“’So I went and sat inside the hut, and when my spirit settled back into the Tao, that’s when the clouds began to form.’”

Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2020

DOG DAYS

The dog days of summer are by reputation hot, sultry and ill-aspected. As high summer becomes late summer, we can fall out of love with the season. We may find ourselves less comfortable than we would like to be, on the edge of storms that may or may not break. Nature can seem rank and overblown. Insect life is busy, in ways not always to our taste.

Yesterday I walked on the banks of our local canal between Stroud and Brimscombe. I had not done this walk since early March. At the height of the Covid crisis, I decided to leave the narrow towpath alone. For a long stretch of time through spring and summer this section of canal and I have gone our separate ways. It was early in the morning and not especially hot. The canal itself gave me my dog days feeling. What I noticed was a wild, rank fecundity, not conventionally photogenic. It is as if the space were resisting the (interrupted) attempts to make it navigable once again, sustainably beneficial to us. A different ecology had established itself. In my feelings, and imagination, the ‘dog days’ energy became a counterpoint to convenience conservation.

I like convenience, and I like walking on the towpath. I respect the restoration project, and the volunteers who are making it happen. I also respect the ever-renewing power of nature. I look at the picture below, where evidence of canal can barely be seen – just a suggestion on the far bank. I reflect that this stretch of water was once deep and wide enough for trows, traditional canal boats used on the Severn and Wye rivers. Brimscombe Port was as far east as they could go. The canal going on to Lechlade had a narrower gauge, and cargo had to be transferred to Thames barges. That early industrial world has long gone. The new development, whilst making inroads, has not yet ocupied this space. In the meantime, nature is free to be inconvenient, and to some people doubtless unsightly, whether we like it or not.

GREEN MAY

On 1 May I strode out with a spring in step, for my statutory walk. I was stir crazy and determined to meet the day. I made sure to take my camera with me. I wanted both to savour and record the fresh abundance of the green. Although I was in a familiar landscape, both the look and the feel of it had changed. I was in places I hadn’t been in for a week or more, and the world seemed dynamically verdant with a new intensity. I had a transformative hour of it before returning home.

In his Green Man (1), William Anderson reminds us that the Green Man utters life through his mouth. “His words are leaves, the living force of experience … to redeem our thought and our language”. Anderson’s Green Man speaks for the healthy renewing of of our life in and as nature.

He also suggests that the emerging science of ecology – the study of the house-craft of nature – is one such form of utterance. It gives us a language of inquiry into the interdependence of living things. My sense is that 1960’s images of Earth from space have also provided support to concepts like that of a planetary biosphere, and for the revival of Gaia as an honoured name. As a species, quality knowledge, rooted in quality imagination, is our greatest resource. Anderson’s book was published in 1990, based on ideas that had already been maturing over many years. I am sad that we are where we are in 2020. But the message of hope still stands, and the energy of a green May bears witness to it.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth London & San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

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