“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book in your lap.” In this one sentence, in the final chapter of her book, Elizabeth Kolbert implicates you, the reader, as the cause of the sixth mass extinction of species on this planet. When reading of the human impact upon Earth, upon the other species with whom we share—or do not know how to share—this planet, it can become so easy to want to seek the source of blame outside oneself, to charge other humans with responsibility for the ecological crisis. But we have been “othering” for far too long, and it is time to take that responsibility within ourselves. So I am sitting here with this book on my lap, I am writing these words on my computer screen, and I know that this crisis is my fault. What, then, do I do with this deeply personal recognition, a recognition that must break afresh upon us again and again if we are to move forward honestly in this field?
My response to Kolbert’s book was wholly positive, a response I do not take lightly. I felt that she was undertaking a task similar to Bruno Latour’s Science in Action in which she opens the mysterious black boxes that create our scientific knowledge to reveal the specific and all-too-human processes of knowledge creation about our planet’s geological and biological history. Her research undertaking in itself was highly impressive; to make it so accessible to a wide audience in such an intelligible way I find even more so. Somehow this volume on mass extinction was not written in a depressing tone, as so much environmental literature is, but rather in an empathic human tone, taking in the emotional reality that we hold many responses to this material and cannot remain in one emotional state for long. The human response is ever changing, and the tone of this book reflected that. Yet I did grieve too: for the loss of the amphibians, the calcites, the rhinos, the coral reefs, the rainforests, as well as the ancient losses of mastodons and the other great megafauna, the ammonites, the auks, the Neanderthals. Of course, I cannot name them all here. No one has ever named all the species we have lost from Earth, nor will we ever be able to name all those who we are bringing to extinction now. But as we wake up to the reality we have created, cannot we remember Aldo Leopold’s words and recognize how far we have come as a species as well: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.”
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York, NY: Picador, 2014.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York, NY: Picador, 2014), 266.
Upon reading the first three sections of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s new anthology on the current state of the planet, I was struck by how succinct and compelling each of the short articles were that comprise the book. The volume is clearly made for a classroom setting, and I felt the content was accessible to a wide range of readers. What was particularly striking though was the continual interweaving of both hope and despair carried by the various authors’ voices. For example, Alex Steffen’s chapter “Humanity’s Potential,” while not naïvely optimistic, still gave me the sense that if we lose ourselves to pessimism we will actually be in a worse situation than if we engaged the crisis with some sense of hope. Hope is not certainty of outcome; I feel hope is something deeper, perhaps more akin to faith.
On the other hand, Stephen Meyer’s essay “End of the Wild” carries within it a true and necessary sense of mourning of the inevitable extinction of species accelerating on the planet due to the activities of our own singularly prolific species. Meyer makes the distinction that while there is nothing we can do to save the loss of the wild this is no reason to not do anything. He concludes:
The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and—given the dominance of weedy species—probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return.
His final note is clearly one of despair and grief, deep emotions we must allow ourselves to feel if we are to engage with this crisis in any realistic way.
The book opens with two essays that both address the name of the new geologic epoch into which humanity has ushered the planet: the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles Mann both speak to the meaning and uses of this term: whether to use it ironically or seriously, what the impact of naming the epoch might be, when one might date the beginning of the Anthropocene—whether from the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or even further into the future when the effects of climate change are absolutely undeniable. The question that continued to arise for me in relation to the term Anthropocene is, will it awaken humanity to the fact we have become a force of planet Earth as powerful as the geologic and hydrologic cycles and that we must take responsibility for this power, or will it reinforce the anthropocentric hubris that led us to this crisis in the first place?
Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.
 Stephen Meyer, “End of the Wild,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 57.
When I was eighteen years old my life was changed by a profound yet simple experience: I learned how to grow my own food. Working on a biodynamic farm in Northern California I learned how to build healthy compost piles, prepare beds for planting, nurture lettuce, garlic, cucumbers, melons, and an abundance of other crops until they ripened to maturity, to prune and train tomato plants to maximize their fullest succulent potential, to feed and care for cows who produce milk, sheep who produce wool, chickens who produce eggs, and draft horses who worked the land with us. Perhaps most importantly I learned how to work hard in the hot sun over long days, and to take responsibility for my own ecological footprint upon this planet.
The majority of food grown in the United States is not produced in the manner I have described above. The current food production system is dominated by industrialized commercial agriculture, which produces a small number of crops on large tracts of land cultivated as monocultures, fertilized with petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers, and continuously sprayed with deadly chemical pesticides and herbicides. The bulk of these uniformly-produced crops are distributed by a minimal number of multi-national corporations. Both the number of farms and the number of corporations are rapidly decreasing as all aspects of the food system are consolidated into a few large organizations. When few corporations are allowed to amass such a monopoly on trade, smaller scale producers, such as the farmers with whom I worked, can no longer compete in the market, and consumers are given less choice in what kinds of food they can purchase.
Over the last half century the number of farmers has decreased while the size of farms has increased. In the 1960s, government policies pushed for fewer farmers working larger tracts of land because technological advances in farming equipment could make farms more efficient than human labor alone. As of 1997, 61% of agricultural products grown in the United States were produced on only 163,000 farms. Of these farms 63% were contracted to larger corporations which processed and distributed their products. Today the number of farms is continuing to decrease because the same policies have been pushing for greater economic efficiency on farms. The current U.S. farm system, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, could not survive if it were not for the support of government policies. Changing government policy in regards to food production is key to decentralizing and reforming the system to make it more sustainable and resilient for both the land and its farmers.
The governing laws, policies, and world view of the United States is oriented entirely toward the health and well-being of the economy, not the ecosystems or even the human population who give the nation its substance and meaning. If the United States, along with the rest of Earth’s nations, is to survive the current ecological crises—climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, pollution, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, and a host of other issues—policies will have to be changed to recognize not only human and corporate rights, but rights that acknowledge the entirety of the Earth community as well. Such a shift to Earth-based governance is recognized as Earth Law or Earth Jurisprudence, a movement inspired by the work of the geologian Thomas Berry, and promoted by Cormac Cullinan, Linda Sheehan, and others involved with the Earth Law Center. Earth Law is slowly entering the legal world through the discussion of Earth Rights, and the writing of such historical documents as the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, released on Earth Day in 2010. The Earth-centric perspective inherent to Earth Law gives ecosystems the right to be healthy, which translates to the right to exist, persist, and sustain itself. The importance of recognizing the rights of “Earth Others,” as the ecofeminist Val Plumwood calls nonhuman beings of the Earth community, is to begin to move away from the anthropocentric perspective that is currently degrading the health of our planet. Currently all of our laws serve, first and foremost, human interests.
Food is a particularly compelling issue on which to focus because it is a symbol and daily reminder of our dependence upon a healthy Earth. The food we put into our bodies is comprised entirely of other species, whether plant, fungus, or animal, and is nourished by the complex interactions of solar radiation, the hydrologic cycle, bacteria, minerals, insects, and many other factors. The quality of our food determines the quality of our health, and in the long run our ability to survive. In terms of Earth Law and questions of the rights of Earth Others, how might food be produced if the plants, animals, soils, and waters on which we depend each had their own right to health? What if agricultural land had rights? For example, the right of soil not to be eroded, of aquifers and ground water not to be depleted and contaminated, or of land to be free of contamination by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? What if human beings were given the right to always have access to healthy, uncontaminated food with higher nutritional value?
There are many different ways these issues might be addressed, but it seems that implementing some kind of shift to universal production of organic agriculture would be necessary in order to grant the right of health to agricultural land, and the right for human beings to have access to clean food. Organic agriculture can be a sustainable endeavor when it is designed to mimic a natural ecosystem on a small scale. Examples of such biomimicry techniques include animal husbandry—using composted animal manure to fertilize fields—and intercropping—in which multiple plant species are grown together in harmonious symbiotic relationship—among many other practices employed on organic and biodynamic farms. Usually the costs of transitioning to organic production, and of acquiring organic or biodynamic certification status, are born by the producer, which can be a barrier for many small-scale farmers and open the door for large corporations to come in and take over the organic niche market. Scale is an important factor because the larger the farm the less likely it is that the farm will be able to maintain ethical and sustainable practices in the long term. Land cannot be cared for if efficiency is the bottom line, and large-scale farming production tend to prioritize short-term efficiency over long-term attention and care.
In a world governed by these ideals of capitalist efficiency, the initial costs of converting a conventional farm to organic production can be quite high and discourage farmers from changing. One major drawback to organic agriculture is the need for more human labor if the practice is to be sustainable. Organic farms that try to remain competitive in a corporate market usually rely on machines to till large tracts of land and suppress weed growth. To decrease fossil fuel use and implement sustainable practices, farmers would either have to pay their workers a higher salary for more labor or employ more farm hands, both of which would be a high increase in expenditure.
Unavailability of arable land is another obstacle to organic farming, but this can partially be overcome with the use of urban plots and green roofing on city buildings. Green roofing is a method of covering the roofs of urban buildings with gardens. It is a simple and effective idea that keeps cities cooler in summer by converting much of the cities’ carbon dioxide emissions back into oxygen, and helping clean the air of other pollutants. The gardens also contribute to the food consumed by urban dwellers, which otherwise would have to be transported across the country. Green roofing would cut transportation costs and energy usage.
Food is essential to all human beings in a way that no other commodity is. Therefore, reconnecting people to food production is vital to changing attitudes toward farmers and the cost of food. In order to overcome the shortage of farm workers necessary to convert conventional industrialized farms to organic agriculture, I am proposing a required civil service system that could be implemented in the United States for all young people when they graduate from high school. This plan is not dissimilar to European civil service policies, called Zivildienst, in such countries as Germany and Austria, where conscientious objectors to the required military service can opt to do community service instead. Such a solution is radical and would require a fundamental change in values, but it could also bring about the kind of change needed to fix the food system in the United States.
Under this policy, when a U.S. citizen turns eighteen she or he would be required to submit a form demonstrating eligibility for farm service. She or he would work either on a farm in a rural area, or on a green roof plot in a city. On the service form citizens would indicate their future plans, such as whether they would be attending college or university, or working at a job outside of their farm work. They would also be able to show preference for an urban or rural working environment. Distribution would be based on state, so that people would not have to be taken far from their families. If someone wished to work out of state that could also be arranged.
Each citizen would serve the equivalent of at least two years, with the time distributed according to one’s school and work schedules. A person could work full-time on a farm project and complete his or her required service in two years. Those who chose this method would receive a salary based on the income of an average job in their living area. This money would be provided by the government from the funds currently spent on crop and fossil fuel subsidies. If the farm workers already had employment to which they would be returning after their service was complete, they might also opt to be on a sabbatical salary at those jobs to secure their positions.
A part-time arrangement could be made for those currently holding half-time civilian jobs, so that they would not need to leave their work positions. On the other hand, full-time students would be able to work every summer for four years, or every other summer for eight. Those who chose to work in a rural area would usually work full-time, whereas those working in urban areas could work either full or part-time depending on their preferences and skills. If a person wished, he or she could serve one year and then spend their second year training new farm hands. After two years, those who wished to continue farming could do so on a full-time salary.
Living arrangements would be made according to each person’s lifestyle, work, familial situation, and marital status. Those who farmed in a rural area would live on or near the farms. Those who farmed in the city would have the option of living anywhere in or near that city. If possible, it could be arranged for workers to live in the building under their allotted green roof. Persons or families who have houses with green roofs or personal vegetable gardens could have the possibility of exemption from the farm service if they fulfilled a certain quota of food production.
According to Lewis Mumford, the benefits of smaller-scale agriculture, in the hands of more people, brings diversity and stability:
The small scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill . . . [while] remaining under active direction of the craftsman or farmer, each group developing its own gifts, through appropriate arts and social ceremonies, as well as making discreet use of wide diffusion and its modest demands . . . [These methods have] great powers of adaptation and recuperation.
An increase in gardens and workers would make U.S. cities into partially self-contained ecosystems able to provide much of their own food. A larger proportion of the carbon dioxide and pollution in city air would be converted to oxygen or decreased, and more green spaces would be available for citizens to enjoy. Furthermore, the universal availability of organic produce would start to make the overall population healthier, and undermine the corporate control of the majority of our current food system. The generations of young farm workers would be given the same opportunity I was at age eighteen, of learning to use the skills of my body, mind, and heart in service of the Earth and a healthier humanity, connecting not only with plants and animals, but with soil, water, and weather as well.
A number of changes such as these over the next few decades could make the United States a country with partially self-sustaining cities and small-scale rural farms that produce organic food that is both less expensive and safer to eat. This plan would not be easy to implement within the current world system, and would have to be adjusted in many ways to fit the diversity of this country. However, major, radical changes do need to be made to change the practices of food production and the education of most citizens in regards to their food. I believe that the education provided to youth by working on farms will begin to foster a more Earth-centric world view that will help nurture in young individuals the love of our planet so greatly needed at this time.
Currently there are no policies in motion to introduce a plan such as this in the United States. However, it possible to begin to implement it on a smaller scale to test out how it works in certain areas. The San Francisco Bay Area might be an ideal location in which to attempt such an experiment, not only because the Northern California climate is ideal for growing many kinds of produce but also because San Francisco has been called “the place where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance.” Furthermore, several organizations in the Bay Area are already doing work in this field, and likely would be open to experimenting with such a program: for example, the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, a project of Literacy for Environmental Justice, or the Food First organization in Oakland. At a different level, the farm service proposal could supplement the work already being done by such programs as Americore or Teach for America. The slogan for such a campaign could possibly be “Empower You(th), Feed A Nation!”
Ultimately, the goal of instituting a youth farm service program would be to change the way Americans are interacting with the Earth. Food is an issue that affects every single person, indeed every organism, and indicates the interconnection between all beings on planet Earth. Introducing every young person in a country to the means by which their nourishment is created would empower them to be self-sustaining and to know that their survival is in their own hands. The education provided by such a program could literally be life-saving. But it would also foster a care for other species, for the plants and animals with which these youth would interact daily for at least two years. Learning to farm would also fundamentally change the human relationship to waste, teaching that there is no such place as “away” to which waste can be thrown. Rather it would bring ideas such as composting and reuse into the everyday rhythm of life. After a few generations of such a program I can imagine that the policies passed by the adults who have learned to grow their own food would be far more Earth-centered than our current policies today.
Cullinan, Cormac. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.
Raynolds, Laura. “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks.” In Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System. Edited by Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan, 49-61. Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006.
 Frederick Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 101.
 Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 102.
 Ibid, 117.
 Cormac Cullinan, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011).
 Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 146.
 Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 113.
 Laura Raynolds, “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks,” in Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System, ed. Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006), 52, 57.
 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 159-60.
As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.
“Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain.” – Second reflection of Buddhist practice
“When did we become human? One second to midnight.” – Joanna Macy
I am walking through a world of accelerating decay. I am walking through a world of exquisite beauty. I am living a life of sorrow and suffering. I am living a life of boundless joy. Somewhere, and at some time, I know my death is out there. We wander along life’s twisting roads, our paths occasionally coming breathlessly close. We almost know that we have met, but not quite. Sometimes I feel as though I am stalking my death, sometimes my death seems to almost deliberately be avoiding me. But then, one day, after walking around an inevitable bend, we encounter one another. Time halts.
I look deeply into my death’s eyes, seeing the beauty present in this moment, embodied in her. My death. And for her too I am death, the bringer of this life’s closing. We lock eyes. A smile plays across my lips, and a light giggle escapes on my breath. What is this? A sense of utmost relief. A release from the hold of incarnation. We reach up to touch each other’s hands and then, as if this was always meant to happen, we fall into a deep embrace, sinking into the comfort and warmth of each other’s presence.
Quietly we take each other’s hands and walk slowly together to a place where we can gaze out over the world, to take in all that we are leaving behind. I feel calm, at peace. Then, just as quietly, we sit down together, still hand in hand, our knees touching. She puts my hand on her heart and as we breathe together it feels as if every good deed, every kind gesture, each moment of grace in her life passes out through me and into the cosmos. As her life continues to flow through me our positions change, and her hand is upon my heart: now I too feel the release of letting all that I did and all that I was pour forth into the universe. And then there we sit, just two beings, outside of time.
As a culture, the West seems to have a disengaged relationship with death. We are often raised with little confrontation of the knowledge that this life someday will end. Somehow we see death as a possibility, rather than a certainty. Death is the greatest certainty we have in life, and yet it remains the greatest of mysteries as well. It is an ever-present reality to us, whether we acknowledge it or not. As Sean Kelly writes,
The natural and cultural dimensions of the human experience, however, cannot of themselves circumvent the fact that this Earth and all of its life forms, as indeed our sun and the entire physical cosmos within which they are embedded, are finite beings, with beginnings in time, and bound to inevitable death.
For much of human history, when we contemplated the inevitability of our individual deaths, we had the comfort of a sense of continuity, remembering our ancestors behind us and our descendents whose lives await in the future. Continuity, perhaps, was as much an inevitability as our own death. Yet now humanity has entered a new period in which that continuity is no longer certain. The devastation of the ecological crises endangering every region of our home planet has made that continuity questionable. As Joanna Macy writes, the deleterious effects of the industrial growth society—from species extinction, to mass deforestation, to ocean acidification and climate change—“are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us.” As Kelly remarked, all finite entities of our physical reality will have an eventual, inevitable end, but the time scale on which Macy is speaking is one that could be experienced in a single lifetime: a reality so terrifying it has the ability to either stop us in our tracks in fear and apathy—or to give rise to the greatest creativity humanity has ever expended in service not of preserving our own personal lives, but of offering some hope to the very existence of future generations.
When we allow the realization of our potential collective death—as individuals, as a species, and as a planet—“to become conscious,” as Macy explains, “it is painful, but it also jolts us awake to life’s vividness, its miraculous quality, heightening our awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of each object and each being.” Awareness of death not only awakens the possibility for our highest creative potential within life, but also brings up questions of what exists after the threshold of death: questions of personal and collective continuity not only on Earth but beyond this lifetime as well. It is in this context that Macy’s exercise, the Meditation on Death with which I opened this essay, was conducted.
The sense of peace, release, and well-being I experienced during the meditation with my death echoes many of the stories told by religions and spiritual traditions, and by individuals who have survived near death experiences. Contemplating one’s own personal death can lead to a beautiful acceptance of the inevitable, a realization that it may not be a doom but rather a gift. But shifting the contemplation of death to a collective level presents us with a great paradox: for while one’s own death may come to seem acceptable, or eventually even welcome, the idea of our entire human species, or the entirety of life on Earth, coming to an end is beyond the scope of tragedy. It feels impossible to transfer the sense of post-mortem peace to the loss of billions of individuals or whole species.
The severance of our continuity as a species, the “future canceled” as Macy writes, has only been realized as a global possibility since the atomic bomb was first exploded 1945. As Robert J. Lifton explains, the possibility of species annihilation seems to have sliced the currently living generations off from any sense of connection to future descendents, but also from our ancestors who likely lived with a collective sense of species survival. Lifton argues, “We are thus among the first to live with a recurrent sense of biological severance.” Interestingly, the remembrance of individual death under natural circumstances provides the opposite sense: not a severance, but a thread tying the generations together, as the elderly pass away and leave the world to their grandchildren, who will one day do the same for their own grandchildren.
Besides the biological continuity of familial generations, many cultural and religious traditions contain an understanding of spiritual continuity as well, in the form of the ideas of reincarnation and karma. From the perspective of reincarnation, as Christopher Bache puts it, “Death is but a pause that punctuates the seasons of our life, nothing more.” Being able to see that some part of us carries on through multiple lifetimes releases us from the constraint imposed by the limited time of a single life. It makes death less of something to fear and more of a milestone upon a long, evolutionary journey. Yet death is much more than mere punctuation because, from Bache’s perspective, “the concept of reincarnation actually challenges the notion of personal survival because it ruptures the category of personal identity itself.” Bache and Kelly both write of the need to understand reincarnation without retaining the image of an individual, atomistic soul being reborn in life after life. Bache continues, “We must eventually move beyond the atomistic vision of separate souls reincarnating for their individual evolution and begin to grasp the larger intentional fabric that our lives collectively express.” Such a perspective shifts the focus away from the individual human being and broadens the horizon to include the collective: at the community, species, and possibly even planetary levels.
A major component of Macy’s “Work That Reconnects” is engagement through practices and exercises with the future generations whose potential existence we strive to bring to reality. Including the concept of rebirth in the practice of visualizing our future descendents can draw us even more personally into working for their well-being; not only might we be paving a smoother way for our great great grandchildren to walk, we ourselves in some form may be walking that path. Drawing from his research on reincarnation and the bardo, Bache suggests that rebirth may not be affected by linear time in the way we perceive it while incarnated. The possibility may exist for one to be born into any historical period, or even perhaps to be living multiple lives simultaneously. “Each life,” as Kelly writes, “. . . however seemingly distant in our past or future—is always and already ensouled, is inalienably associated with its own soul, whose personal and singular drama is ever unfolding in the Eternal Now.” The future is already present within us: biologically—in our ovaries, gonads, and dna, as Macy points out,—but also possibly spiritually—in our souls. Our present personality, along with our past and future personalities may coexist or participate in soul, an entity greater than anything with which our present personality can identify.
The other side to the equation of rebirth, the yin to reincarnation’s yang, is the concept of karma. Kelly writes,
The series of lives is said to be bound together by the law of Karma or its analogue, which, whether or not one believes in a transmigrating soul, provides continuity both before and beyond an individual life, and therefore also gives a ground for its value and meaning.
The karma of our actions ripples forward into the future, affecting not only ourselves but all those who may come after. Nuclear waste and ecological devastation, Macy argues, may be the clearest physical example of how karma, in this case negative karma, ties together thousands of generations. Yet karma is not a fate engraved in stone, and how we choose to meet our karma will positively emanate into the future as well: as the Buddha said, if we cannot alter our karma, “all effort is fruitless.” The fruit born by our effort is a selfless gift given to those who will inhabit our future world; yet it is also a gift to ourselves for the future we will inhabit. Bache describes a vision he had of that future with the following words: “I could see that the future we were creating was a future that we ourselves would participate in through future incarnations. We were doing this for God, for others, and also for ourselves.”
“The Bestiary:” Macy’s poetic eulogy of those species leaving, or on the brink of departing, our planet forever—each name spoken, punctuated by the harsh beat of the drum. Boom. A species erased. Boom. Yet another lost. The punctuating drum marks their permanent death. The accelerating drumbeat of extinction does not feel like a simple pause punctuating the seasons of life. Extinction is an irreversible loss, a diminishment of the wholeness and the creativity of our living planet.
The only sane response seems to be despair. Yet somehow despair is not the collective human response, at least at a conscious level. Macy observes, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear warfare, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” Our cultural inability to confront death has extended to the numbness we feel in place of mourning, as the presence of thousands of our ecological companions is erased forever. Macy continues, “The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.” By turning our empathy into apathy we seal ourselves off from the collective suffering of our planet: we either become numb or experience the world’s pain as solely our own, expressed in our personal pathologies, depressions, and diseases. Releasing the experience of one’s isolated suffering, while simultaneously living into and owning the despair that is such a real presence upon the Earth, unleashes the energy suppressing one’s grief and also may help release some of the suffering of the collective. Bache writes on this latter point saying, “Instead of seeing ‘my’ pain as existing separately from the suffering of ‘others,’ it becomes more natural to see it as a distinct nodal point within a collective field of suffering that runs throughout the species”—and, I would argue, throughout planet Earth as a whole.
We are learning to confront grief and despair and to make it part of who we are. We are facing our mortality, learning to reinhabit death as a part of life and maturation. Macy writes, “We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood.” Much of Western civilization has lost the ritualized initiation rites that serve to guide young people into the responsibilities of adulthood. Such rites of passage usually involve immense pain, a real confrontation with one’s mortality that helps forge the adolescent into the adult they will become. As Macy, Bache, and many others have suggested, the human species as a whole may be confronting such an initiatory rite in the imminent potential of our collective demise. “The specter of global death,” Bache writes, “that hangs over the postmodern era may be fueling a profound psychic transformation of our species.” Bache goes on to describe what the container for that profound transformation seems to be:
The crisis of ecological sustainability is even more lethal than the nuclear crisis because it is not being generated by an overzealous military minority but by the very fabric of modern civilization. . . If there is a species ego-death in our immediate future, I think it will be triggered by the impending ecological crisis of sustainability.
The ecological crisis forces us to face not only the mortality of our species and our planet, but also the deep shame that comes with the realization that we have done this to ourselves, shame that is more difficult to accept and perhaps even more repressed than our grief and despair.
I would argue that the rite of passage presented by the ecological crisis is not only an initiation for the human species, but for every species on this planet and perhaps even for the Earth itself. There may be an ego death of industrial civilization, but much of the suffering and confrontation with mortality of this rite of passage is being borne by the thousands of species going extinct at far too rapid a pace. They have borne the pain of this initiation far longer than we humans. To fully understand the depth of this rite of passage I believe humanity has to recognize that it is an initiation for the planet as a whole.
In a meditation to “re-story our identity as Gaia” Macy offers the experience of imagining the entire existence of the Earth taking place within twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight. For much of the day the Earth is undergoing large-scale geologic processes, and not until five o’clock does organic life emerge. The evening is dedicated to the evolution of all living beings, and not until the last half hour of the day do mammals even evolve. “When did we become human?” Macy asks. “One second to midnight.” In that one second before the clock strikes midnight all that we know of human existence takes place: every tribe is formed and reformed, every civilization rises and falls, every religion flourishes, every human to ever be born lives and eventually dies. The expansion of time felt by embracing a belief in reincarnation is suddenly compressed into that one second before midnight. Could that really be the time human souls have reincarnated within? If a spiritual continuity does exist between human lives, would not this continuity carry back throughout more of the twenty-four hours of our earthly evolution? Were we present with the beginning of life? The beginning of Earth? Might we have some spiritual continuity beyond even that beginning? And if so, what happens moving into the future, when the clock does eventually toll midnight?
A rite of passage is often related to the notion of the dark night of the soul. Perhaps it is only fitting that humanity would emerge during that dark night, in that one second before the midnight hour. Bache writes of his own personal understanding of our significance as a species, in connection with the greater whole of the cosmos:
How blind a species we are. How noble. How deep and profound the evolutionary currents that carry us. Sometimes the darkness stands out for me, sometimes the dawn. Increasingly it is the dawn.
The midnight hour is the hour of mortality, death, the crossing of a threshold. It is the hour of transformation. Humanity may be undergoing a rite of passage but I believe it is an initiation in which we are one of many participating members. If we learn to support our fellow initiates, our fellow species, ecosystems, and biomes, then some of us may pass midnight. Eventually we, in an expanded sense of the term, may see the dawn.
Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Kelly, Sean “Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival.” Integral Review. 4. No. 2 (2008): 5-30.
Lifton, Robert J. The Broken Connection. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.
 Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 76.
This series of four paintings is a visual response to the content of Chris Bache’s course The Birth of the Diamond Soul, offering different images of the reincarnating soul both inside and outside the influence of time and space, as well as an homage to the devastation of the ecological crisis and how it may be the catalyst for the forging of the Diamond Soul.
The Oversoul is a term used by Bache in his book Lifecycles to describe the larger soul overseeing, but also incorporating, each incarnating human life. It is simultaneously a single entity, but also a family of entities nested within each other, and ultimately nested within the larger and larger spheres of existence. This painting is one representation of the Oversoul, pictured as a nautilus, an image Bache provided in class. The chambers of the nautilus each represent a human incarnation, yet the whole shell is the full soul. I have depicted a waiting fetus gestating within each chamber as a symbol of these lives. The life about to be born resides in the outermost chamber, with a diamond in potentia within his heart. The diamond represents the Diamond Soul being forged slowly over the course of each lifetime. A second diamond resides in the center of the nautilus representing the ultimate birth of the Diamond Soul at the end of the incarnational process.
The pantheon of planets within the nautilus and the zodiacal signs surrounding it indicate the archetypal influences on each life and upon the soul as a whole, each chamber of the nautilus having a different perspective and relationship to the signs and planets that characterize that particular life. The baby about to be born residing in the outermost chamber is within the realm of Pisces, both as a fetus in the aquatic realm of the womb, but also as a symbol of our current times since we are in the Age of Pisces.
The vision of this painting came to me nearly in complete form when I began contemplating the nautilus as a metaphor for the Oversoul. To my delight, each of the zodiacal signs took on a life of their own as I painted them, as I had not pictured their exact form before drawing them in. I was particularly surprised by the form Sagittarius took, as a horseshoe doubling as a bow with an arrow. The animals also each took on their own personality seemingly independent of my intentions for them. The real surprise came as the baby being born into the Age of Pisces, for it was pure synchronous chance that the nautilus opened into the sign of Pisces, yet it seemed to fit perfectly with the concept behind the painting.
THE DIAMOND SOUL NEBULA
In an effort to visualize the concept of the Diamond Soul, Bache introduced us to several images from the natural world that might represent parts of the Diamond Soul, ranging from blossoming flowers to nebulae. This particular nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, is one that conveys the idea in an especially evocative way, with its ethereal explosion and heavenly sacrificial blooming. The core of the nebula, as can be seen in all the images captured of it, is a pure white space resembling a diamond.
I found in my attempts to paint this nebula with watercolor that portraying the light and darkness, the veiled colors of the celestial event, was much more difficult than I had previously expected and took more than one try. When one looks at a photograph of a nebula it is the qualities of the whole that are so compelling, but in painting it I had the experience of becoming intimately familiar with each part, trying to understand where the colors blend and where they do not, yet also attempting to capture the whole as well. The only adjustment I made from the image as I painted it was emphasizing the diamond at the heart, forged in the layers upon layers of light and color.
DROUGHT AND HOPE
This painting of a drought-ridden desert with a single sapling growing in it is less an image of the Diamond Soul, but rather of the birth canal humanity seems to be entering before such soul transformation is possible. The painting is a representation of the changes rapidly being wrought upon the globe by human-induced climate change, and was particularly inspired by Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben provides the data that clearly demonstrates that global warming is no longer a future threat, it is a current reality. On a personal level this understanding was reinforced by a road trip I took across the American Continent this July while creating the concepts for this gallery. From Nevada to Michigan temperatures soared above 100° F, usually averaging at 104° but sometimes even reaching 108°. Fields were dry and often barren, and many cornfields showed yellowing leaves coated in a layer of dust. Yet oil wells continued to pump in these same fields by the roadside, and every building we entered was blasting arctic temperatures of air conditioning, all fueled by coal and oil burning power plants.
In the painting a young woman is bending over an olive sapling, seemingly watering it with her tears. It is ambiguous if this is the last plant left growing in this barren desert, or if it is the first that has managed to survive. I chose the olive as this single plant because of the great lineage of symbolism connected to the olive, particularly in the Western tradition. The olive is the tree of Athens, mythically a gift from the Grecian goddess Athena who gave it to provide wood, oil, and fruit to the people of Athens. In return they named their city-state after her. Athens is the birthplace of democracy and as such the olive may also symbolize the democratic process. The olive is part of the painting to pose the question of the role of democracy, or perhaps its absence, in the onset and unfolding of the ecological crisis.
The olive is also a symbol from the Hebrew tradition, a sign of hope in the Old Testament. When Noah sends a dove from the Ark to search for signs of land, the dove returns upon the second journey with an olive branch. The olive thus is the first growing plant after a devastating environmental catastrophe, the Great Flood, and also able to emerge out of a desert, but in the biblical case it is a desert of sea water.
The woman’s body is painted in a multitude of colors to represent all races that will be affected by the ravages of climate change, yet it also has an ethereal quality to it, almost resembling the sparkling surface of a diamond, as perhaps she is approaching the stage of a Diamond Soul.
Finally, the labyrinth in the background represents the circuitous route of the human journey, of the soul’s journey, and of our pathway to learning and wisdom.
Breathing Time was inspired by a meditative exercise presented by Bache during the Diamond Soul course in which each breath we took represented one hundred years, or approximately one human life. Eventually we brought the movement of our hands into this meditation, each expansion and contraction of the hands representing a lifetime. The energy created by this movement we slowly gathered into a sphere at our centers, then held it like a ball of light, before pressing the energy into our hearts and letting it fill our bodies. This painting is a visual representation of that meditation as I saw it during the exercise itself.
In the painting, within the arcs of energy created by the breath and the moving hands are revealed faces, each one the face of a previous life. The faces are the color of the murky, nebulaic background indicating that the air may be packed full of these faces, full of lifetimes, but only the ones that are swept over with the meditative energy are revealed in that moment. There may be an infinity of faces present, just as we likely have an infinity of lifetimes to our souls.
Bache, Christopher M. Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life. New York, NY: Paragon House, 1994.
Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Grof, Stanislav. The Cosmic Game: Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.
One thousand, four hundred miles in two days, from the rolling wooded hills of Ohio, through the dry tabletop flatland of Kansas, deep into the rapid ascent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt has been a heroic driver. And because of the exhaustion of such an expedition, we have decided to spend an extra day in the idyllic beauty of Aspen, enjoying the sight of high green and red mountaintops, fluttering aspen leaves, and glittering hummingbirds feeding outside the window.
The much-needed rain began to descend as we departed Cincinnati Saturday morning, and we were met with a sudden downpour and pools of water on the poorly constructed Ohio highways. Traffic slowed immediately to a crawl as we appeared to be going through a car wash machine without soap. Soon, however, we left the shadow of the rain clouds and entered drier land. Meanwhile a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton, over the existence of God and the need or lack for religion, played out on the speakers. At many times they seemed to be having parallel but separate arguments, Hitchens focusing on the evils of religious interpretations, and Sharpton pushing the issue of the existence of God without religious trappings, a point which Hitchens seemed to generally avoid. From there we turned our attention to a lecture given by Chris Hedges, not to be in any way confused with Hitchens, who spoke of religious fundamentalism, the Christian Right in America, the economic despair that drives people to such extremist faith, and the “epistemology of television” which suppresses critical thinking. With his words reverberating in the car we passed large crucifixes in the cornfields, anti-abortion posters, and billboards with images of a pale white, effeminate Jesus blessing the drivers of I-70.
While passing through Indiana we listened to a rousing talk by Helen Caldecott given in 1982 on the threats of nuclear war; she drew an analogy between the state of our planet and the plight of a terminally ill cancer patient. The horrific images she painted of nuclear war, and the insanity that the governments who build these weapons have not thought of the ultimate consequences of their use, reminds me of the same delusional denial the world’s leaders take in regard to climate change and the ecological crisis. We stopped briefly at a gas station where I saw a woman dressed as a clown filling up her car—a perfect image to capture the direction in which this country is going. Not long after, we passed for the second time on this trip a concrete cross at least ten stories high, towering over the yellow straw of drought-ridden, eroded agricultural fields on the edge of desertification.
Matt and I returned to Lake Quivira near Kansas City for the night, the place we stayed ten days before on our outward journey. Early the next morning, we left the comforts of a familiar place to embark on the longest stretch of the entire trip: 782 miles from the eastern edge of Kansas up into the Rockies to Aspen, Colorado. Although we crossed just two states, unlike the day before when we had traversed five, the day totaled thirteen hours of driving.
The long expanse of Kansas proved to be flatter than a pancake, with the largest fields of wheat and corn I have ever seen. It felt like an alien landscape, with a mile of corn suddenly giving way to gray dirt and clumps of yellow grass as suddenly as if a wall had been built to separate the two. The highest objects in sight for hours were the plastic signs advertising fast food joints and gas stations. Occasionally a stream would meander over the land, and an oasis of green followed the track of the water. When there was variation in the topography the road would occasionally dip into a cut in the soil, revealing red and white striations of earth layered like a cake beneath dry grass icing. Our own oasis was provided by a set of tapes recorded in 1992 of Robert McDermott, who gave a lecture series on spiritual masters while he was president of the California Institute of Integral Studies. We heard the first three of those lectures, on Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, and Simone Weil.
After leaving behind us the Oz Winery, a massive wind farm of white turbines, and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, we entered the tiny town of Hays and knew we needed to stop for lunch. It was 106°. As Matt put it, it felt like a breeze blowing straight out of Hell. It was not hard to believe the large billboard we had seen earlier that stated “Hell Is Real.” Hell is the havoc we have wrecked on the climate that is producing this massive drought and soaring temperatures. The small oil wells we had seen along the roadside, pumping oil up out of the barren fields, seemed like some kind of a mockery of the weather.
As we entered Hays I could not help but wonder what life was like in this small town. What is the primary form of income? What makes people happy? What do they dream about? To our delight we found a local brewery called Gella’s Liquid Bread, and were able to sample their award-winning oatmeal stout and American wheat ale with our afternoon meal. Here certainly was one expression of creativity in the town of Hays.
Hours after lunch was digested we crossed the chalky Colorado border. Feral sunflowers grew by the sides of the highway. Black calves followed their mothers through fields. Train tracks led to nowhere. Small houses from a bygone era stood alone, each with their own forgotten history. Who had once settled this piece of land in the name of freedom, so many decades ago? Still the land was flat.
Then, in the far western distance, clouds began to gather. A deep azure shadow blurred the once clear edge of the horizon. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the land. Planes trafficked the air, criss-crossing the skies. Denver. A city, trees, hills, mountains, then thunderheads, each layered against the next. In a matter of minutes the plains were a mere memory.
I can barely begin to describe the feeling of ascending into the Rocky Mountains after hours upon hours and miles upon miles of flat grassland. It is like drinking in the sweetest draughts of color and texture, light and shadow, like paintings unfolding beneath the artist’s wrist of the Divine. The rapid incline was accompanied by flourishing conifers and carved red boulders. The foothills grow into mountains like seedlings into trees, children into adults. These ancient mountains are decaying; after millennia of shooting skyward with the pressure of tectonic upheaval, they now are slowly crumbling, their peaks rounding and smoothing under the centuries of rain and snowfall. Yet still they are great majesties.
It began to rain. Sunlight seared through the falling water creating a world of white and platinum, the road and trees cast silver in the shifting light. A tumbling river tore through the rock on the left of the road, sparkling in the sun’s rays. Then, without warning, we left the shadow of the rainstorm and entered a dry realm higher still. Red barns and soft meadows, indigo lakes and laughing streams. We crested over a pass between the mountains, then descended into a wide grassy plain, the High Plains filled with horses and foals, likely an ancient lakebed drained long ago. I saw a highland cow, a red, long haired, horned creature I had only ever seen in the Scottish Highlands. Yet here one was in the Rockies. We were taking an alternate route, along highway 285, because there was a sink hole in the usual road to Aspen on 24. Though it was 25 miles longer, we would never have encountered the High Plains if we had gone the normal route.
After the plains we passed the town of Buena Vista, and saw several signs protesting a Colorado Springs plan to dam this valley for a reservoir. It was hard to imagine these canyons and valleys sunk below placid waves, a lake that would most likely surrender to silt build-up in less than a century. Our route turned on to 82, and we circled a still, blue lake, reflecting the high peaks in exact mirror image. The road climbed ever higher, making sharp turns on the mountain’s face, leaving the bottoms of my feet with that hollow tickle that accompanies a slight fear of heights. The evening sun rises and sets constantly in the mountains as new views open beyond each passing peak. Yet at last it set for good, and our road became ever dimmer.
Finally, no more mountains obstructed our view and we rose above the world at Independence Pass. We stepped into the crystal air at 12,095 feet. Immediately we were short of breath as we walked about a glass pool reflecting the dusk sky, the tundra foliage bedecked in miniscule wildflowers. The descent into Aspen grew ever darker, and the road twisted and turned beneath overhanging rocks and aspen branches. Moths flew continuously into our headlights. Then, out of nowhere, a pale brown bunny leapt into our path, so close to the car there was literally no way to avoid it. We hit it instantly and I prayed it had died quickly. I cried all the way into Aspen. There was literally nothing we could have done, yet I could find no way to justify it. I have seen many things on this trip that humanity cannot justify, and this one act I felt so personally.
Rarely have I felt the kind of exhaustion we both felt upon arrival in Matt’s aunt’s beautiful home, decorated with exquisite relics from her world travels. We ate peaches and cherries, a sweet relief from American road trip food. I long to go on the kinds of adventures that I see captured as memories in every part of this house. But for now, my only adventure will be into the dreamworld of sleep.