A Love Letter to Earth in These Times

Dear Earth,

What astounds me about you is your ability to heal yourself. 30 years after Chernobyl bears and wolves and deer have returned in grand herds. When the wolves came back to Yellowstone the waters shifted toward life. Usually, when I plant a seed it sprouts and grows.

A seed the size of a fleck of pepper can grow into the biggest organism you create. That is a miracle! I’m thinking of the Sequoias and Redwoods which need fire to grow. Which makes me think of the fires that felt like the beginning of the end. Of course, for some, the end has come — I’ll never meet a passenger pigeon, a speaker of thousands of languages.

I often only hear of your magnificent ecosystems when they have disintegrated. Millions of salmon would return, feeding the whole web of life, the keystone species in Earth-honoring cultures wherever they spawned. Now many of the runs are extinct and none thriving. The Indigenous fight to remove dams but too often the steam roller of business as usual fills its pockets instead.

Do you remember the orca who carried her dead child through the ocean for weeks? I know you know rivers grieve too. And they remember.

I often wonder why you made us humans with our demand for rights without responsibility. But you did. You made us. And we can sing and dance and write love letters and plant seeds. If we’re patient we can watch a flower open in the morning and feel our own heart do the same. You have given us mountains blanketed in these flowers, opening their sweet mouths all at once.

I am the salmon trying to swim past the dam.

I am the dam.

I am the flower heart, kissing your feet with pollen.

I am a thunder cloud moments from dropping generations of separation in torrential downpour, praying with all of my being for it to nourish you even a little.

I love you.

I have harmed you.

I’m sorry.

How could you forgive us?

And yet you welcome me every single breath and tell me I belong, comfort me despite your own destruction, and ask me tenderly to join you in healing.

It is my deep honor dear one. I will with all of the magic you have gifted me.

What Happens to the Salmon

 

"What happens to the salmon happens to us."

Winnemem Wintu Chief Calleen Sisk's words have been ringing in my heart for months. The beauty of that - to be so inextricably tied to a being, and to honor and celebrate that connection. Even just hearing her say it.

"What happens to the salmon happens to us."

The motto washes through my body as water breaking down a dam – powerful, exhilarating, momentous. Bringing fierce hope and sonorous grief at once. The phrase resonates with the truth I hold in my soul – that the relationships we maintain with Earth through our bodies are the root of duty, justice, love, joy, and belonging.

Photo by  Drew Farwell  on  Unsplash

Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

Of course we are all inextricably bound with Earth. But as an approach to life, the mindset is hard to come by today, and nearly impossible to fully embody. Our economy, our culture, is built upon the certainty that someone suffers for you to gain. It is no surprise that life and justice fall away when we do not bow to our benefactors, and worse yet when we forget their names.

Remembering their names, their true names, doesn’t happen by reading, or memorizing Latin binomials. It may not even include reaching their geographical location. The map that charts how to build life-honoring relationship with Earth courses through our tissues and is drawn with imaginative power.

Photo by  Louis Maniquet  on  Unsplash

At a workshop recently the instructor invited the participants to share our names and what watershed we lived within. Many, myself included, had no idea. The same goes for most folks when it comes to the original people of the land they inhabit, the names or growth patterns of food plants, and the lifecycles of the animals they consume. This bewilderment is even more pronounced when it comes to the beings who do not bear our direct dependence or engage our sense of entertainment.

As we disengage from what sustains us and build buildings over ecosystems, we enfeeble our capacities of sensing. At one time people could, and exceptional contemporary trackers still do, detect the faintest sign of an animal passing - a bent blade of grass, a far off musk, a feeling, in the body, of the truth.  Cultures could see characters in the constellations so vividly as to dream entire mythologies from their outlines. Some people could even hear the stars singing. Today most don’t even notice the moon rise and set.  This is an abandonment of our humanness, an unplugging from our unparalleled gift – that of awareness.

Photo by  Nathan Anderson  on  Unsplash

Another of our uniquely human capacities is the ability to imaginatively inhabit the lives of others. Our development relied on this skill. To learn to hunt, we imagined ourselves as wolf, coyote, mountain lion. We entered the mind and fear of duck, dear, rabbit. We honored those beings with our deep and focused attention, and this attention engendered cultural inventions that revered the more-than-human world, and humbled us before it. Those cultural inventions have been raped, assimilated, or wrenched out of land-based people over the course of history, with most folks having no memory of those life-sustaining ways. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it

For many, any sense of emotional or spiritual connection with a landscape has been lost, without even knowing what is missing. We feel ourselves on the outside looking in, at a vibrant web of reciprocal exchanges from which we have excluded ourselves and called it progress.
— Robin Wall Kimmerer

Indeed, the position of separation from, and the disregard of other beings, is necessary for the development of an industrial growth society. If we can imagine what it might be like to smell water, asking the unmistakable aroma of home to diffuse in our blood. If we can imagine turning instinctively toward that knowing, heading upstream. If we can feel our determined body navigating to our distinctive place, swimming through waves of nausea as our scales slough off on the rocks. If we can rejoice in spawning and the gift of our death. If we can know in our bones what it is to be salmon, if we can experience the epic and arduous journey, it is not so easy to enslave them, alter their life ways, or fish them to near extinction. Indeed it is hard to withhold elaborate celebrations on their behalf.

Photo by  Diana Simumpande  on  Unsplash

I’m in disbelief even as I write this. Embodying a fish?!

I was as surprised as any of you would be when I felt salmon swimming in my blood. My ancestors weren’t salmon people, at least not of my knowing. And when it happened I was in the desert for goodness sake! But there was a river.

I hoisted myself between two boulders, drew a deep breath, and plunged headfirst upstream. The river was only knee deep, but the force incredible!  Lacking gills, I broke the surface to breathe, then plunged again. And again. And again. My arms ached from holding me in place. Just from holding me in place! And my belly ached, from the deep, soulful laughter.

Two nights before I had danced as the salmon, but possessed rather than pretending. Racing heart, determined, I swam round and round the circle, running, countering the force of the ocean. Drums beating, rattles rattling, the hooting of humans inhabited by who knows who – the trance dance, an ancient invitation to Mystery. I imagine there were other dancers but I felt alone, one thought only – home. By the time I made it, my throat tingling warning of vomit, I collapsed, ragged, empty, dead, returned at last to my spawning ground.

These experiences lead me to believe that it may be more than a simple allegiance between the Winnemem and the salmon, rather a visceral inseparability. They say, “We are born from the water, we are of the water.”

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Our capacity to experience life as others and to witness the wonder of others is the basis of our moral development and our integrity as a member of the democracy of species. When we forget the true nature, the splendor, and the generosity of other beings, when we forget how that feels in our own bodies, sea lice infestation among farmed salmon is unavoidable and annoying, rather than a symptom of our betrayal of the world.

Unspeakable things become commonplace – pipelines through water, malls built on burial grounds. We forget that Earth is our larger body, not our servant or trash pile. With the state of global ecosystems at the hands of people, it is not hard to see that also, what happens to humans happens to salmon. As of now the trend is toward domestication, destruction, and insularity. We’ve strayed from our wild sensory humanness and hold other beings captive, isolating them from their true nature. Together we suffer.

Photo by  Ramin Khatibi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ramin Khatibi on Unsplash

The rites and dances performed for the salmon, for the rain, used to be widespread, and it was believed those ceremonies were instrumental in the bringing of water, of abundant harvest. Earth-based ceremony and ritual kept us tied to the cycle of life, to the witnessing and celebrating of other beings on whom we rely. Colonialism dismissed those notions as pagan fantasy.

As California winters go by dry, plastic grows faster than fish in the ocean, and land falls into the sea, it is becoming increasingly clear that those rituals were not just wishful thinking. A deep relationship with the beings on whom our lives are built is crucial to the survival and health of people and planet. The more-than-human world needs us to show up in our whole humanness. We must remember the pathways to connection and reciprocity; we must reignite our capacity for sensing and imagining. We must remember how to smell the water.

That we’ve forgotten, with most having forgotten that we’ve forgotten, is a great wound of colonialism. It has created a world in which we feel alone, in which we are stranded from the animal, from the landscape, that makes up our identity and needs us to survive. Which humans needed the passenger pigeon and now languish, dead inside, soul journey extinct? How are the chaparral people living, while the wild bushes breathe without their human hearts?

Colonialism’s wounds are still fresh in (and continue to be inflicted upon) the lives of native peoples, whose stories and ways of being survive, no matter how tarnished. I am so grateful that they remember, and for their fearless defense of Earth throughout time.

Most settlers have totally forgotten that somewhere on this planet there is a being that needs them, on whom they depend, that swims through their blood, or slinks under their skin. In a time when a single life may traverse continents, when ties to a specific plot of land is so rare and so privileged, I’m imagining, perhaps, a metaphorical being, a relationship with whom this wound of separation between our creative sensual selves and Earth can be healed. Or maybe it is the songbird in your backyard, or the wheat plant. May the relationships build a future where our bones speak, saying, “what happens to the salmon happens to us.”

Photo by  Bruno Perrin  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bruno Perrin on Unsplash

There is a wild river somewhere smelling of home for each of us. We won’t remember the scent unless we look deep within ourselves and out through our imaginative animal senses, until we listen to the salmon and welcome them back to our bodies.

To join the movement to welcome the salmon home, contribute to Run 4 Salmon, the campaign organized by Chief Sisk and the Winnemem Wintu tribe of the McCloud River watershed.

 

Overwhelm as a Gateway

 

Let’s be serious. If you are living in the world today and never feel overwhelmed you are probably psychologically unwell or a guru.

Of course there are beautiful moments when we feel we are a part of something special, when we know in our hearts things are changing, or feel in our bones a connection with Earth. These are the gifts of the great turning, the peaks.

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But the valleys of business as usual are deep, and social and mainstream media dig into familiar ruts, bombarding us with tweets from our abysmal president, photos of emaciated polar bears, news of another innocent black police killing.  If we watch sad story after sad story scroll by, or replay the sad components of our lives in our minds, feelings of overwhelm, disempowerment, and depression are not far behind.

It is so easy in those moments to turn on the television, crack open a beer, or find cute cat pictures. Of course there is time for all of those things in our varied and exciting lives! But changing the subject doesn’t get us anywhere with the overwhelm, it just reschedules it for another day. 

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For me, feeling overwhelmed is one of the worst emotions, the one I’m most likely to try to avoid. But just like anger or grief, avoiding overwhelm is a recipe for more of the same only worse, moving away from your experience and your true self, and never feeling much better. All emotions are gateways to knowing yourself better, seeing the world with new eyes, and to opening our full capacities as whole humans. If we can welcome overwhelm, something beautiful can emerge.

I think of it like Rumi’s poem The Guest House.

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There is a lot of messaging in our culture about good emotions and bad emotions. Happiness, joy, sexiness, confidence, are all good things to feel. Sadness, despair and loneliness are bad. No question that feeling sexy has more positive sensations than despair. But life isn’t about being happy. Life is about feeling so deeply that we are changed.

Never feeling sadness or despair is not only impossible, it’s not human. Feeling overwhelmed is as much a part of humanness as is joy. When we deny the “bad” emotions, we are saying “no” to an aspect of ourselves. We are telling ourselves, “feeling this way is not okay” or  “you shouldn’t feel this way,” when it is the most natural thing in the world.

Actually, a congratulations is more in order. Lots of things aren’t going well, but you are present enough to be a witness to the world. The overwhelm means that what you’ve been witnessing has had an effect on you. You know totally and completely that something is wrong. Lots of folks today have no idea, are still invested in business as usual. But you are in touch with your humanness such that you know. This is incredibly healthy and powerful!

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We might also revel in the wonder that we can be overwhelmed at all! We have a uniquely human capacity to see the larger picture and be sad for it. No other creature sees how the whole Earth is interconnected in one magnificent ecosystem. No other being can see how the plights of peoples on opposite ends of the globe are related. It is our responsibility to feel on this planetary level. No one else can.

And no other human feels it exactly as you do. The intricacies of your overwhelm speak of your unique vulnerabilities, the place where the world touches you. Overwhelm is an opportunity to access the parts of us that are most distressed with the times, in other words, most fully in love with beauty, justice, and ecological sanity. It is from this most vulnerable and most devoted place that we become agents of change. If we are able to accompany ourselves through our overwhelm, we can explore those tender facets of ourselves. Those facets have a lot to say about who we are and where to go from here.

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When we reach the point when we’ve witnessed too much and haven’t allowed the emotions in, they pile on until we break down, overwhelmed. Overwhelm is a message that says, “you love the world too much to see this and not feel it”.

So let it in – feel the emotion of being overwhelmed, let it wash over you. Sit with it quietly alone. Or maybe you want to yell or cry - go with it. Awaken your compassion and comfort yourself. Not reassurance that everything will be okay, but reassurance that you are feeling what you are feeling.

If a child felt overwhelmed you wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. You might say to her, “Wow, I hear you are feeling overwhelmed. There is a lot of upsetting stuff going on. It can be really overwhelming.” You could give yourself some affectionate pats and say, perhaps out loud, “This is an overwhelming time.” And just give yourself the space to feel that emotion, to sit with yourself as you feel it. We need our emotions to be felt and validated.

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At this point, you might go deeper into it and ask – what is the heart of the matter here? And lean into that feeling. Maybe underneath everything that feels overwhelming is the sense of utter lack of reciprocity with Earth in mainstream culture. Feel the sadness of that, the grief. Feel the longing of relationship with Earth in your own life, and for humankind. Feel the hurt of the beings who suffer because of this abandonment.

Or maybe what really stings underneath it all is the inequity of our civilization. Lament for the people whose lives have been dictated by the school to prison pipeline, for our culture that is suffering without their wondrous contributions. Whatever it is that is at the heart of your overwhelm in this moment, meet yourself there. Meet the total sadness of it, or the terrible heartache.

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It is helpful to do this work out in nature or with others. Earth can hold such big feelings. Find a place on the land that reminds you of what it is at the heart of your overwhelm, or perhaps a place where you feel totally held and supported.

Sit there and take the place in – open yourself to the possibility that it has something to share, or some way to comfort you in this moment. Tell the land what is troubling you, give the Earth your tears. Speak out loud all the ways this hurt is touching you. Then take some time to listen. Listen to the wild ones around you and to your own body. And be a witness to how these feelings move through you, and are received by or mirrored in nature.

This is a simple recommendation. It is kind of hilarious actually. You tell me you’re overwhelmed and the remedy I’ve proposed is an invitation to feel overwhelmed!

But this process changes you. It makes you more human. It makes you more yourself. It helps you realize what is really important. And it sends an essential message to yourself, “It is okay to feel however I feel”. “When I feel something, I’m invited to really feel it”. “I have the strength and compassion to meet myself where I am”.

Where you are is your unique place in the world. Feeling overwhelmed can be the gateway for sharing this unique place. Perhaps the center of your overwhelm cracks you open wide and breaks your heart. Heartbreak is one of the most transformative things we can endure, if we are willing to show up for it. The world doesn’t change because you truly allowed yourself to feel, the world changes because you are now a different person birthed from that allowance.

Interested in how you can work with your most feared emotions to shed light on your unique gifts?

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The Lost Language of Magnolia

 
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More than one hundred million years before the birth of the first human ancestor.  Long, long before Pier Magnol, in a time before bees were even being, trees we now call magnolia began their lives on Earth. Their spiraled flower parts and primordial petals setting them apart from their fellow angiosperms, and forever marking them as ancient forbear of dogwood, plum, and crampbark, oak, birch, and lemon.

I envisage dinosaurs anticipating the bloom and feasting on its ephemeral flowers. A pack of stegosaurus, sensing with the secret knowing we all possess, that some miles away, fuzzy buds are filling. As they travel, pointed petals part those wooly cheeks and slowly reveal their fragrant throats.

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Used as medicine by humans for thousands of years to calm the spirit and uplift the mood, it is not a long hypothesis that the flowers could have a similar effect on other animals. And what of the streams upon which they float, as the blossoms give way to fruit?

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I can’t speak for the water, but I do know how it feels to have petals strewn across me, scattered by spring winds. Learning from a squirrel, I know the aromatic crisp sponge of the petals on my tongue. Imagine a time when humans knew, instinctually and by learning from others, what was good to eat, which flowers blessed a new born, which tree to be buried beneath. For most of human history, this was our experience, the language of the living land coursing through us.

This shared language was proof of our divine connection with all of creation. Without it, we are lonesome. Having forgotten the secret inexplicable knowing that weaves us into the web of life, we are estranged. Humans who feel unloved by the world behave without compassion, without reciprocity, without humility. If we allow ourselves to feel this terrible sadness, if we let the tears come with abandon, we might taste the old words in our mouths.

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If we want to speak magnolia again, and I do, if we want to feel the buds budding, we must listen. Her voice is soft and gentle, her medicine easy to swallow.  There’s not a human who can look upon a tree of blossoms without marveling at the beauty, not one who can pass beneath M. alba without breathing deeply of its perfume.  

If you get close enough, perhaps you’ll experience what I have – the visceral sensation of a blooming heart, effervescent joy spreading over your soft face, a deep belonging pulled up through the bottom of your feet. Watching the Earth change, flower to seed to seedling, 3,000 times longer than humans have lived, it is not so hard to believe that magnolias have joy, compassion, and peace far beyond what we can bring up alone.

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This isn’t some esoteric art form or an excerpt from erotic literature; this is simply the power of human curiosity, and the openness and tenderness with which the world greets us. Nor is it a gift only for ascetics and naturalists; it is a human birthright. It is born through us when we explore the world with awakened senses. I believe our future, yours and mine, and the Earth’s one hundred million years from now, depends on us learning to sense the magnolias preparing to blossom.

This post was inspired by a simple practice of noticing the world around me each day.

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