Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of ReImagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

Archetypal Ecology: Drought in a Rhythmic Cosmos

“In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try anymore. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

. . . And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs.”
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath[1]

Dry earth, cloudless skies. Waiting, anticipating, counting days, weeks, months. Perhaps years. When will the rain fall? The moisture slowly leaves the soil, plants begin to die. The emotional atmosphere is defined by denial and groundless hope, anxiety and concern, worry and prayer. Dust builds, crops fail. Water—translucent and fluid, so easy to take for granted when in abundance, all one can think about when it is lacking.

DroughtWhat is a drought? Droughts are evasively difficult to define, even by those who study their patterns extensively. Essentially a drought is constituted by a lack of precipitation in a certain area, extended over a significant period of time.[2] Of course, the precipitation levels and length of time rain is absent will all vary from bioregion to bioregion, which is part of what makes a clear definition of drought so evasive. The human experience of drought is a complex interplay of unusual or unexpected natural events, such a lower precipitation, combined with the demands human beings put on water resources. Due to a variety of complicated interacting factors, droughts can have widespread and devastating consequences.

The words opening this essay are drawn from John Steinbeck’s iconic book The Grapes of Wrath, which narrates the story of migrant farming families who had to abandon their fields and homes on the Great Plains when the 1930s Dust Bowl droughts decimated their crops and whipped up blinding dust storms that choked plants and blackened skies. Many factors went into making this one of the worst 20th century droughts in North America, including a lack understanding of the Great Plains ecology, the widespread introduction of mechanized farming, and the crippling economic crash of the Great Depression that began in 1929. The deep-rooted native grasses of the Great Plains had been ploughed by homesteading settlers and overgrazed by their livestock, leaving the unanchored soil tremendously vulnerable to the wind.[3]

When the Dust Bowl droughts hit the Great Plains in three successive waves, in 1934, 1936, and 1939, vast numbers of farmers migrated across the United States to the fertile crescent of Central California to eke out a living harvesting the fruits and vegetables growing in abundance here. California’s Central Valley is still the breadbasket—or rather “fruit and vegetable basket”— of the United States, growing the vast majority of fresh produce not only for the country but for international export.[4] “No other state, or even combination of states, can match California’s output per acre,” the journalist Brian Palmer writes.[5] Yet it now seems the cornucopia of agriculture in the U.S. may be facing an insurmountable obstacle.

Now in 2015, California is entering its fourth year of drought, eleven trillion gallons of water shy of relief,[6] with only about a year of surface water left stored in the state’s reservoirs.[7] California was able to become the land of plentiful bounty through heavy irrigation, and now as the Sierra Nevada snowpack is a fraction of what it should be, farmers are turning more frequently to pumping groundwater. Groundwater is drawn from underground aquifers, massive geological formations that have held vast amounts of pristine waters for millennia. Some water experts refer to such water as “fossil water” because it will never replenish on any meaningful human timescale. As Christiana Z. Peppard writes in her book Just Water,

Most aquifers take upward of ten thousand years to refill—an extraordinarily long time, considering that just as many years ago, our ancestors were scribbling on cave walls with hard rocks. Many aquifers take much, much longer to refill—on the order of millions of years.[8]

As the drought worsens the state’s nonrenewable water sources are being rapidly drained to maintain maladaptive agricultural practices—namely highly irrigated, industrial agriculture in a semi-arid bioregion. Human actions, including continuously increasing greenhouse gas emissions that are inducing anthropogenic climate change, are exacerbating the consequences of the recent diminishment in rainfall.[9] The lack of precipitation during the Dust Bowl was only part of what made the 1930s droughts so devastating. Another major factor was the methods of mechanized agriculture, which did not take into account the basic ecology of the landscape and stripped the soil of its capability to hold moisture. Today we seem to be having a repetition of history.

Drought is often referred to as “a creeping phenomenon”[10] and “an elusive climate event.”[11] Scientifically predicting the onset of a drought cannot be done more than a month or two in advance, because prediction “depends on the ability to forecast two fundamental meteorological surface parameters, precipitation and temperature,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.[12] The historical record indicates the inherent variability of the climate, making long-term forecasts elusive because, as the Drought Center States:

. . . anomalies of precipitation and temperature may last from several months to several decades. How long they last depends on air–sea interactions, soil moisture and land surface processes, topography, internal dynamics, and the accumulated influence of dynamically unstable synoptic weather systems at the global scale.[13]

While different bioregions each have their own rhythms of wet and dry spells that repeat with varying degrees of stability, the capacity to determine the length and impact of any given drought remains evasive. As Ivan Ray Tannehill wrote eloquently back in 1947:

The first rainless day in a spell of fine weather contributes as much to the drought as the last, but no one knows how serious it will be until the last dry day is gone and the rains have come again. . . we are not sure about it until the crops have withered and died.[14]

How any given drought is defined, and its duration and impact on the land and its human inhabitants—both immediate and lasting—all shape how droughts are perceived.

Three North American droughts stand out as the most severe of the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These are the 1930s Dust Bowl drought, the major 1950s drought in the central United States, and the late 1980s drought covering the West Coast to the Great Plains.[15] Today’s drought in the U.S. West may be joining that list. “In the California and Nevada region,” recently stated the climatologist Kelly Redmond, “this is among the worst we’ve seen it in the last 120 years or so.”[16] Of course, this statement refers particularly to the region being affected by the current drought, but Redmond’s statement is nonetheless significant.

As a life-long California resident I have become increasingly aware of the drought’s impacts on my home state. Discussions of water shortage have become commonplace, ranging from wondering if the state’s mandatory 25% reductions in water usage are enough,[17] to questioning why the cuts do not apply to the agricultural sector that uses 80% of the state’s water,[18] and sitting with the real possibility that this drought may not end and California’s climate has fundamentally changed. Another issue has also come to the foreground of my attention, one that scientists would certainly not be inclined to look at in relation to drought patterns. Like factors such a temperature and precipitation, this is also a naturally recurring cycle grounded in the rhythms of the natural world, but rather than an ecosystem pattern it is a solar system pattern, a much larger scale than meteorologists take into account.

If we turn our eyes to the cosmos, we can see that currently the planet Saturn and the planet Neptune are at a 90° angle to each other, forming what is called a square aspect. The alignment began in January 2014, when the two planets came within 10° of each other, and will end in October 2017 when they pass out of the same 10° range. If one looks back at an ephemeris to see where these same planets were during the three most prominent North American droughts of the 20th century, an interesting pattern appears: in 1934-38 Saturn was in 180° opposition to Neptune in the sky, the same years as the worst of the Dust Bowl droughts; in 1950-56 Saturn was conjoined with Neptune in the same place on the ecliptic, the same years as the 1950s drought; and in 1987-91 Saturn and Neptune were also in a conjunction, encompassing the years of the late 1980s drought.

What is the significance of such planetary alignments and their correlations to these droughts? As has been argued by Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, a significant body of evidence has come forward indicating a profound correlation between the positions of the planets and events unfolding on Earth in human history and world events, individual biography and psychology, and even in natural ecological events. What emerged from this body of evidence was a revival of an ancient practice long-dismissed by the modern paradigm, re-engaged with new rigor and empiricism. As the Jungian psychologist and professor Keiron Le Grice writes,

Archetypal astrology, as this new approach been called, is based on an observed correspondence between the planets in the solar system and specific themes, qualities, and impulses associated with a set of universal principles and thematic categories known as planetary archetypes. Each of the planetary bodies, as well as the Sun and the Moon, is associated with a distinct archetypal principle.[19]

The planetary archetypes associated with each planet are expressed in world events in multivalent and multidimensional ways. As Tarnas writes,

. . . an essential characteristic of this analysis was that it did not predict specific events or personality traits. Rather, it articulated the deeper archetypal dynamics of which events and traits were the concrete expression. This is seemed to do with astonishing precision and subtlety.[20]

While Cosmos and Psyche looks at a vast array of cultural, social, artistic, scientific, psychological, and political events in relation to several planetary alignments, for this study I am focusing on one particular phenomenon—namely droughts—in relation to the corresponding planetary alignments. To begin, I am looking at the relationship between droughts and the Saturn-Neptune cycle of alignments, before looking further at certain apparent anomalies to this pattern and from there exploring the more nuanced dynamics unfolding in relation to specific drought events.

As previously mentioned, the droughts of the mid-1930s, early to mid-1950s, and late 1980s all took place under Saturn-Neptune alignments, as is our current drought in the western U.S. today. Why does Saturn-Neptune archetypally correlate with drought? The archetype of Saturn relates to contraction, negation, restriction, lack, and boundaries; it is the principle of time and structure, decay and death, loss and endings. Any archetype with which Saturn comes into relationship it will problematize, negate, constrain and create obstacles. The archetype of Neptune, on the other hand, is the principle of fluidity, boundlessness, and interconnectivity, that which unifies and merges, dissolves and dilutes; Neptune is the archetype of oceanic oneness, transcendent spirituality, the heavenly cosmos, image and imagination, illusion and mirage—it is the principle of water itself, both as symbol and physical liquid.

One can see how the combination of archetypal qualities associated with Saturn and Neptune manifest as drought: lack of water, low moisture, negation of water’s life-giving properties. To draw some images from the Dust Bowl, Saturn-Neptune came through not only in the absence of precipitation, but in the dry particles of dust that flowed boundless across the land, reducing visibility and even blackening the skies. The Saturnian themes of lack, absence, dryness, reduction, and darkness are present here, combined with the Neptunian qualities of rainwater, boundlessness, clarity of vision and perception, and the image of the celestial sky (all negated, blocked, and obscured by the previously mentioned Saturnian characteristics). Another expression of the Saturn-Neptune alignment that contributed to the Dust Bowl droughts was the lack of understanding of the intricate interconnected dynamics of ecosystem structures that led to the agricultural practice of ploughing the deep-rooted grassed that retained moisture and maintained soil structure. Again, Neptune comes through as the soil moisture and interconnected unity of the ecosystem, while Saturn is present in the structures, retention and maintenance, the anchoring roots, and even the sharp cut of the metal plow. The elusive quality of droughts and the scientific difficulty in defining them also have a Saturn-Neptune quality, as Saturn relates to difficulty and definition, Neptune to the slippery aspects of evasiveness and illusion.

The Saturn-Neptune opposition came into 15° orb (recognized by archetypal astrologers as the general range when archetypally correlated events occur) in 1934, and was in exact alignment in 1936-7 when the drought was at its worst. The third wave of drought that came in during 1939 was after the Saturn-Neptune opposition had moved past operative alignment—a topic we will explore later in this essay.

An opposition between two planets is the same configuration as a Full Moon, when the Moon is on one side of the Earth and the Sun on the other. The completion of that cycle is the New Moon, when the Sun and the Moon are conjoined in the same place in the sky relative to the Earth. After the Saturn-Neptune opposition of the mid-1930s, when they were in the “Full Moon” alignment, these two planets reached the conclusion of their cycle, or the “New Moon” alignment, in the conjunction of the 1950s. Saturn started to come into 15° orb with Neptune in 1950, right as the drought began in the southwestern states, and was having a major impact on Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska by 1953 when the conjunction was exact. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,

By 1954, the drought encompassed a ten-state area reaching from the mid-west to the Great Plains, and southward into New Mexico. The area from the Texas panhandle to central and eastern Colorado, western Kansas and central Nebraska experienced severe drought conditions.[21]

While the Saturn-Neptune conjunction went out of orb in 1955, the drought ended when the 1957 spring rains began to pour down on the parched soil. Like in the 1930s, the effects of the drought persisted beyond the Saturn-Neptune transit under which they commenced—again, a topic we will explore later in the essay.

Now to turn to the third of the major 20th century North American droughts, the 1987-89 drought that severely affected the West Coast and the northern Great Plains. Although the late 1980s drought covered just 36% of the United States, compared to the Dust Bowl’s 70%, it was the costliest drought, indeed the costliest natural disaster of any kind to effect the U.S., with damages and losses exceeding approximately $39 billion.[22] As the environmental studies and philosophy professor Dale Jamieson describes,

Much of the United States spent the summer [of 1988] in the grip of extreme heat and serious drought. Fires raged in Yellowstone National Park, agricultural production declined dramatically, and water levels in the Mississippi River system dropped precariously, resulting in channel closings and ship groundings.[23]

Sure enough, beginning in 1987 Saturn had started to conjoin Neptune again, one full cycle after the 1950s conjunction. Once again the themes of Saturnian lack of Neptunian rains can be seen here, as well as the loss (Saturn) of an idealized, pristine (Neptune) national park, and the grounding (Saturn) of water-going vessels (related to both archetypes as Saturn is the container and Neptune the water) in the river systems. This was the first drought of this magnitude in the U.S. since the 1950s and it took the population by surprise, which is partially why the damage was so great.[24] Interestingly, Saturn and Neptune were joined in a rare triple conjunction by the planet Uranus at this time—archetypally Uranus relates to the unexpected, the sudden and the disruptive, which can be seen in the unanticipated severity and consequences of the late 1980s drought.

What about the intervening Saturn-Neptune opposition of 1970-73 and the following opposition of 2004-07? It happens that in 1972-73 the El Niño Southern Oscillation was particularly strong, causing droughts in multiple locations around the globe.[25] As Jamieson remarks:

The El Niño of 1972-73 brought worldwide devastation and was followed by other climate anomalies. Drought-related famine killed hundreds of thousands of people in African Sahel and in India. Drought struck other countries as well, including the United States. Crop failures brought the Soviet Union into the world grain market. . . .[26]

The patterning of strong El Niño and La Niña events (they are ranked weak, moderate, and strong) correlates with surprising consistency to two major outer planetary cycles, which we will explore more closely toward the end of this analysis.

The most recent opposition of Saturn and Neptune in 2004-08 manifested in major climate events that carried the Saturn-Neptune archetypal complex, but in many ways expressed the opposite side of the archetypal spectrum from a drought. The major climate events of the 2004-08 were the Indonesian tsunami of December 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Each exhibited strong Saturn-Neptune characteristics, as Tarnas describes,

death caused by water, the ocean as source of suffering and loss, contamination of water, water-borne and infectious diseases, numberless haunting images of death and sorrow transmitted throughout the world and permeating collective consciousness.[27]

Like under drought conditions, water is the cause of death, suffering, and loss, but in the case of hurricanes and tsunamis it is the flooding of water, rather than its lack, which brings about the Saturnian devastation. To draw a parallel image, the dust storms of the 1930s Dust Bowl drought looked like a “massive wall of blowing dust that resembled a land-based tsunami.”[28]

Even though this Saturn-Neptune opposition was characterized by such destructive watery events, a major drought was occurring in the Amazon rainforest at the same time, beginning in 2005. The Amazon drought was so severe it lasted until 2010, two years after the Saturn-Neptune transit had ended. Like the major North American droughts of the 1930s and 1950s, the Amazon drought extended beyond the Saturn-Neptune alignment under which it started. They all ended under a different alignment of two outer planets, Saturn and Pluto. While we have been looking closely at the Saturn-Neptune themes associated with drought, Pluto in relationship with Saturn has a significantly different quality.

Pluto is associated with the principle of elemental power, depth, and intensity; with that which compels, empowers, and intensifies whatever it touches, sometimes to overwhelming and catastrophic extremes. . . . It is the dark, mysterious, taboo, and often terrifying reality that lurks beneath the surface of things, beneath the ego, societal conventions, and the veneer of civilization, beneath the surface of the Earth, that is periodically unleashed with destructive and transformative force.[29]

When Saturn and Pluto align, the same Saturnian themes of constraint, obstacles, oppression, suffering, and death are present but instead acting upon the powerful intensity of the Pluto archetype described above. Saturn-Pluto alignments are associated with,

especially challenging historical periods marked by a pervasive quality of intense contraction: eras of international crisis and conflict, empowerment of reactionary forces and totalitarian impulses, organized violence and oppression, all sometimes marked by lasting traumatic effects.[30]

What is the significance of so many of the most devastating droughts of the last century ending during Saturn-Pluto transits? While the drought events themselves reflect the Saturn-Neptune themes of extended periods of time without precipitation, the long-term impacts of such meteorological changes can cause tremendous suffering on a mass scale with conditions of food scarcity leading to famine and potentially death, much more reflective of the qualities of Saturn-Pluto.

This project has been to research which planetary alignments correlated with the most significant droughts of the last century or so, for which we have the most accurate records and dates. The repeated correlation between major droughts and the Saturn-Neptune cycle certainly has compelling evidence, but anomalies to the pattern must exist. After all, because of the multivalence and indeterminacy of archetypal manifestations, the occurrence of a drought under every single Saturn-Neptune alignment would seem to indicate a fixed rigidity to the archetypal expressions that is not supported by the larger astrological evidence. As Tarnas writes, “I gradually came to recognize that, contrary to its traditional reputation and deployment, such an astrology is not concretely predictive but, rather, archetypally predictive.”[31] Noticing how the 1930s, 1950s, and 2000s droughts concluded under Saturn-Pluto alignments, I decided to look at the correlations with the other major droughts my research had turned up.

In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein draws forward evidence that every major volcanic eruption for which we have accurate records has been followed by debilitating drought around the globe. Looking at her research I recognized an additional overlying correlation: each of these events in which there was a sequence of volcanic eruption, drought, and famine, correlated with a Saturn-Pluto or Saturn-Neptune alignment, and almost always both in succession. What is archetypally significant about the relationship of Saturn-Pluto alignments with volcanic eruptions is that Pluto is the principle of volcanic, eruptive power unleashing from the underworld realm, while Saturn is the problematic and often dire consequences caused by such eruptions.

We can begin by looking at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which erupted June 12, 1991 when the Saturn-Neptune conjunction (which correlated with the devastating late 1980s western U.S. drought) was at 20° orb, the outer range of when archetypally relevant correlations have been observed for conjunctions, while the Saturn-Pluto square was entering 12° orb, right at the penumbral phase when correlations begin to be more frequent for squares (conjunctions and oppositions appear to have a wider orb of influence ranging 15°-20°, while squares have a slightly narrower orb of 10°-15°). Large sections of Africa were already suffering from drought, under the Saturn-Neptune conjunction just ending, and by 1992 when the Saturn-Pluto alignment was tightening in orb there was a 20% reduction in precipitation in southern Africa, and a 10-15% reduction in South Asia which had a negative impact on approximately 120 million people.[32]

Cycling back to the previous quadrature alignment of Saturn and Pluto, the conjunction of 1980-84, Mexico’s El Chichón volcano erupted from March to September 1982 as the conjunction was approaching exact alignment. The eruption led to low precipitation and drought, particularly affecting the African continent where 20 nations were already suffering from drought conditions.[33] While there had been a Saturn-Neptune square in from 1978 to late 1980, the African droughts are recorded to have begun in early 1981, right at the tale end of the alignment. The El Chichón eruption seems to have severely exacerbated the drought conditions, giving them a particularly Saturn-Pluto quality.

The three years with the lowest global average precipitation in the last half century were after the eruptions of Pinatubo, Chichón, and the 1963 eruption of Mount Agung in Bali.[34] Agung’s detonation occurred under the Saturn-Neptune square of 1961-64, and also corresponded with low global precipitation and drought. In the U.S. the drought was experienced most strongly in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Great Plains, and this drought too concluded under the Saturn-Pluto opposition of the mid-1960s.[35] It is interesting to note, however, that Agung did not erupt under a Saturn-Pluto alignment but rather a Uranus-Pluto transit. Further research would need to be done to discern the differences in quality and effects of this volcanic eruption compared to those that become active under Saturn-Pluto alignments.

To conclude this particular inquiry we will look at the eruption of two other volcanoes clearly connected with widespread drought: Alaska’s Mount Katmai eruption in 1912, and Iceland’s Laki volcano in 1783. While Katmai did not erupt under Saturn-Pluto, the drought-related famine hit in 1913-14 under a Saturn-Pluto conjunction,[36] killing 125,000 people in western Africa alone.[37] To look further back into history, Laki erupted in Iceland in 1783 under a Saturn-Neptune square, which was followed by famine and plague in Egypt, Japan, India, Western and Central Europe under the Saturn-Pluto conjunction in the following two years.[38] A more in-depth study than this one could explore the nuances of each of these volcanic eruptions and their related droughts and famines, particularly to see what particular differences may exist if an eruption occurred under Saturn-Neptune versus Saturn-Pluto. Each combination, while having the Saturnian elements in common, manifest quite differently in world events. Yet there seems to be a significant relationship between these two planetary alignments and the unfolding impacts of drought-related events.

As mentioned earlier in this essay, the patterning of strong El Niño and La Niña events—according to records kept since the middle of the 20th century—happen to correlate every time with a Saturn-Neptune or Saturn-Pluto quadrature alignment. In 1957-58, 1965-66, and 1982-83 El Niño coincided with a Saturn Pluto transit, while in 1972-73, 1987-88, and 1997-98 El Niño coincided with a Saturn-Neptune transit. Furthermore, the La Niña climate patterns of 1973-74, 1988-89, and 1999-2000 all aligned with Saturn-Neptune quadrature transits, and in 1975-76 and 2010-11 correlated with Saturn-Pluto.[39] The pattern is only present for the strong oscillations, however, because the moderate and weak ones are too frequent to appear to have astrological significance. The effects of each of these La Niña and El Niño events, and whether they had a more Neptunian or Plutonic impact, would be interesting to look into for further research.

I would like to look at one final archetypally correlated pattern before concluding this essay, which relates to why the Dust Bowl droughts in the 1930s were so devastating, not only ecologically but economically. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the Dust Bowl followed directly on the heels of the Great Depression, which greatly exacerbated the impact caused by the droughts. The Depression played out under a rare T-square configuration of Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto that lasted from 1929 to 1933.[40] A configuration of these three planets correlates with the collapse and breakdown of old structures, often unleashing powerful forces of destruction and transformation. As Tarnas writes, “Entrenched assumptions and expectations confront the unpredictable and the disruptive. . . . Such periods have generally been marked by critical events and cultural phenomena that both climax and catalyze longer-term processes.”[41] The instability and social collapse that followed the Depression left farmers far more economically vulnerable when the Dust Bowl struck.

The next time such a T-square alignment of Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto came into the sky was in 2008-11, lining up exactly with the economic collapse of the Great Recession. One can see the clear diachronic patterning in the breakdown of social and institutional structures, unleashing powerful reactionary forces of revolution and rebellion worldwide—from Occupy Wall Street, to the Arab Spring, to the Black Lives Matter movements and many others still playing out on the world stage under the continuing Uranus-Pluto square that will last till the end of this decade.

Not only did the 2008-11 Saturn, Uranus, Pluto T-square line up with the Recession but—to look at another pattern we have been studying—the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland in April and May 2010, sending vast amounts of ash and particulates into the atmosphere and grounding aircraft for days.[42] While Klein did not use Eyjafjallajökull as an example of a volcanic eruption followed by drought, I noticed that major droughts occurred worldwide following the eruption, still under the Saturn-Uranus-Pluto alignment: beginning in 2010-11 droughts began in the U.S., Mexico, China, East Africa, the Sahel, Australia, and the South Pacific island Tuvalu. Indeed, because so many droughts are occurring worldwide, and because of the difficulty in clearly defining drought and predicting its conclusion, greater hindsight may be needed to determine the duration and impact of these droughts that opened the current decade. What I particularly want to draw attention to is the diachronic patterning of the Saturn-Uranus-Pluto T-square followed by a Saturn-Neptune transit correlated with an economic crash and major droughts—which happened both in the 1930s and is unfolding before us today.

To fill in the picture further, I looked back to the T-square of Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto just prior to the 1930s T-square, that occurred in the mid-1870s. In North China the worst drought over the past three hundred years was unfolding beginning in 1876 right as Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto were not only in a T-square configuration, but as Jupiter aligned to form a Grand Cross[43] (Saturn opposite Uranus and Jupiter opposite Pluto, respectively) greatly amplifying and magnifying the energies. The drought led to one of the worst famines in world history, leading to the deaths of between 9 and 14 million people.[44] The haunting depictions of the famine, of adults and children alike trying to survive off grass and tree bark,[45] and allegedly at times resorting to human flesh,[46] express the most shadowy aspects of the Saturn-Uranus-Pluto alignment—societal collapse, mass suffering and death, and even the reversion to the Plutonic barbarity of cannibalism to stay alive.

Today, the drought does not exist in the western U.S. only. Globally we are entering into a fresh water crisis for which we, as of yet, have no viable solutions in place. Peppard gives a concise definition of what the global fresh water crisis is:

Fresh water is essential for every human being, society, and ecosystem. There is no substitute for fresh water. But it represents less than 2.5 percent of all available water on earth. Our current rates and types of fresh water use are unsustainable, even while demand for fresh water continues to rise. The causes of global fresh water scarcity are complex but can be traced to increased demand for fresh water, coupled with unsustainable rates of extraction and consumption of fresh water (especially from nonrenewable groundwater sources such as deep aquifers).[47]

The current Saturn-Neptune square is bringing such issues as the global water crisis and the impacts of sustained drought to the forefront of the collective consciousness. The solutions required to address such issues are complex and diverse. Peppard points out that we do not have a global water crisis, but rather crises plural:

. . . while there is a universal need for fresh water, there is no such thing as a universal solution to fresh water scarcity. The water situation facing the Sahara desert or the Tibetan plateau is simply not the same as that in Brazil or Seattle. The shape of human or ecosystem need depends very much on the particular context, and responses to fresh water scarcity will be appropriate only insofar as they take this into account. Therefore, it is more accurate to speak of fresh water crises in the plural than of a singular fresh water crisis.[48]

Peppard’s book, Just Water, was published in 2014 during the first year of the current Saturn-Neptune square. One can hear the archetypal themes in her language, the Saturnian need, scarcity, problems, and crises in the unifying, universal Neptunian realm of water.

Saturn-Neptune alignments bring such issues as the universal need for water and its impending scarcity to the forefront, yet they are also time periods that offer the opportunity to address such issues in an archetypally relevant way. Major gains were made under previous Saturn-Neptune alignments in the realm of protecting clean air and water sources: the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed 1963 under Saturn-square-Neptune, and the Clean Water Act in 1972 under the following Saturn-Neptune conjunction. Under the same alignment the Marine Mammal Protection Act was also passed in 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974; in Canada the Water Act was passed in 1970 and Clean Air Act in 1971.[49] Measures could be passed today that similarly address the need for universal access to clean fresh water.

The Saturn-Neptune archetypal complex has many gifts as well as challenges, both for those born with the alignment in their natal charts and for the collective when the transit is in the sky as it is today. Saturn-Neptune brings the ability to imagine practical solutions to concrete problems, to build a bridge between one’s spiritual ideals and the real challenges facing the human community, to bring, as Tarnas writes,

. . . spiritual values (Neptune) into practical expression and enduring embodiment (Saturn) both within and against the resistances of concrete social and political structures (also Saturn), through hard work and disciplined pragmatic organization (also Saturn.)[50]

The gifts of Saturn-Neptune can become the medicine to its challenges, providing one with the ability to see through the denial and delusions related to the current ecological crises, and to pragmatically envision a more universally just world. “In its perhaps most admirable form,” Tarnas writes, “the Saturn-Neptune complex appears to be associated with the courage to face a hard and often tragic reality without illusion and still remain true to the ideals and dreams of a better world.”[51] By recognizing both the shadow and gifts of our archetypally patterned past, perhaps now we can learn from the rhythms of the cosmos and change the course of the stream of the future—and making sure there is still water flowing in that stream as well.

Works Cited

Bramall, Chris. Chinese Economic Development. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009.

California Drought. “State Water Board Adopts 25 Percent Mandatory Water Conservation Regulation.” May 5, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2015. http://ca.gov/drought/.

Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund. The Great Famine. Shanghai, China: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1879.

Cook, Benjamin I., Toby R. Ault and Jason E. Sperdon. “Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains.” Science Advances, February 12, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2015. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400082. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400082.

Famiglietti, James. “California Has About One Year of Water Stored. Will You Ration Now?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html.

Gillette, H.P. “A Creeping Drought Under Way,” Water and Sewage Works, March 1950.

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Le Grice, Keiron. “The Birth of a New Discipline.” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 1 (Summer 2009): 3-29.

Loughlin, Sue. “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption, Iceland.” British Geological Survey. Updated August 9, 2010. Accessed May 13, 2015. http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/volcanoes/icelandic_ash.html.

National Drought Mitigation Center. “Predicting Drought.” 2015. Accessed May 11, http://drought.unl.edu/DroughtBasics/PredictingDrought.aspx.

National Drought Mitigation Center. “What Is Drought?” 2015. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://drought.unl.edu/DroughtBasics/WhatisDrought.aspx.

National Weather Service. “The ‘Black Sunday’ Dust Storm of 14 April 1935.” Updated February 12, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=events-19350414.

NOAA Paleoclimatology Program. “20th Century Drought.” November 12, 2003. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_history.html.

NOAA Paleoclimatology Program. “North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective.” November 12, 2003. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_story.html.

NOAA Paleoclimatology Program. “Why Are We Concerned About Drought?” November 12, 2003. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_alleve.html.

Null, Jan. “El Niño and La Niña Years and Intensities.” Golden Gate Weather Services. Updated May 6, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://ggweather.com/enso/oni.htm.

Palmer, Brian. “The C-Free Diet: If We Didn’t Have California What Would We Eat?” Slate, July 10, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/07/california_grows_all_of_our_fruits_and_vegetables_what_would_we_eat_without.html.

Peppard, Christiana Z. Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.

Phillips, Tony. “Needed: 11 Trillion Gallons to Replenish California Drought.” NASA Science: Science News, December 16, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2015. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/16dec_drought/.

Reyes, Emily Alpert. “Brown Defends Not Requiring Water Cuts for California Farmers.” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-gov-brown-agriculture-water-restrictions-20150405-story.html.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992.

Tannehill, Ivan Ray. Drought and Its Causes and Effects. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Tarnas, Richard. “The Ideal and the Real.” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 1 (Summer 2009): 175-99.

Vekshin, Alison. “Drought Transcends State Lines as U.S. West Turns Ever-More Arid.” Bloomberg Politics, May 11, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-05-11/drought-transcends-state-lines-as-u-s-west-turns-ever-more-arid.

Wilhite, Donald A. and Margie Buchanan Smith. “Drought As Hazard: Understanding the Natural and Social Context.” In Drought and Water Crises: Science, Technology, and Management Issues. Edited by Donald A. Wilhite. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1992), 3.

[2] Donald A. Wilhite and Margie Buchanan Smith, “Drought As Hazard: Understanding the Natural and Social Context,” in Drought and Water Crises: Science, Technology, and Management Issues, ed. Donald A. Wilhite (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), 5.

“What Is Drought?” National Drought Mitigation Center, 2015, accessed May 11, 2015, http://drought.unl.edu/DroughtBasics/WhatisDrought.aspx.

[3] Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4-5.

[4] Brian Palmer, “The C-Free Diet: If We Didn’t Have California What Would We Eat?” Slate, July 10, 2013, accessed May 12, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/07/california_grows_all_of_our_fruits_and_vegetables_what_would_we_eat_without.html.

[5] Palmer, “The C-Free Diet.”

[6] Tony Phillips, “Needed: 11 Trillion Gallons to Replenish California Drought,” NASA

Science: Science News, December 16, 2014, accessed February 23, 2015, http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/16dec_drought/.

[7] Jay Famiglietti, “California Has About One Year of Water Stored. Will You Ration

Now?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2015, accessed March 23, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-famiglietti-drought-california-20150313-story.html.

[8] Christiana Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 26.

[9] Benjamin I. Cook, et al. “Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains,” Science Advances February 12, 2015, accessed May 13, 2015, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400082, http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400082.

[10] H.P. Gillette, “A Creeping Drought Under Way,” Water and Sewage Works, March 1950: 104-5.

[11] “North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective,” NOAA Paleoclimatology Program, November 12, 2003, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_story.html.

[12] “Predicting Drought,” National Drought Mitigation Center, 2015, accessed May 11, 2015, http://drought.unl.edu/DroughtBasics/PredictingDrought.aspx.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ivan Ray Tannehill, Drought and Its Causes and Effects (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), 597.

[15] “20th Century Drought,” NOAA Paleoclimatology Program, November 12, 2003, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_history.html.

[16] Kelly Redmond, qtd in Alison Vekshin, “Drought Transcends State Lines as U.S. West Turns Ever-More Arid,” Bloomberg Politics, May 11, 2015, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-05-11/drought-transcends-state-lines-as-u-s-west-turns-ever-more-arid.

[17] “State Water Board Adopts 25 Percent Mandatory Water Conservation Regulation,” California Drought, May 5, 2015, accessed May 13, 2015, http://ca.gov/drought/.

[18] Emily Alpert Reyes, “Brown Defends Not Requiring Water Cuts for California Farmers,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015, accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-gov-brown-agriculture-water-restrictions-20150405-story.html.

[19] Keiron Le Grice, “The Birth of a New Discipline,” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 1 (Summer 2009): 5.

[20] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), 66.

[21] “20th Century Drought.”

[22] “20th Century Drought.”

[23] Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 31.

[24] “20th Century Drought.”

[25] Jan Null, “El Niño and La Niña Years and Intensities,” Golden Gate Weather Services, updated May 6, 2015, accessed May 11, 2015, http://ggweather.com/enso/oni.htm.

[26] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, 25.

[27] Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 471.

[28] “The ‘Black Sunday’ Dust Storm of 14 April 1935,” National Weather Service, updated February 12, 2015, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=events-19350414.

[29] Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 99.

[30] Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 209.

[31] Ibid, 67.

[32] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 272.

[33] Klein, This Changes Everything, 274.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Why Are We Concerned About Drought?” NOAA Paleoclimatology Program, November 12, 2003, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/drought/drght_alleve.html.

[36] This Saturn-Pluto conjunction aligned with the beginning of World War I, just as the Saturn-Pluto square that concluded the 1930s droughts aligned with the beginning of World War II, and the Saturn-Pluto opposition of the mid-1960s that concluded the early 1960s droughts aligned with the Vietnam War.

[37] Klein, This Changes Everything, 274.

[38] Ibid, 273.

[39] Null, “El Niño and La Niña Years and Intensities.”

[40] A T-square consists of a 180° opposition and two 90° squares.

[41] Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 479.

[42] Sue Loughlin, “Eyjafjallajökull Eruption, Iceland,” British Geological Survey, updated August 9, 2010, accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/volcanoes/icelandic_ash.html.

[43] A Grand Cross consists of two 180° oppositions and four 90° squares between them, creating a cross with the Earth in the middle.

[44] Chris Bramall, Chinese Economic Development (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009), 139.

[45] Committee of the China Famine Relief Fund, The Great Famine (Shanghai, China: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1879), 71.

[46] China Famine Relief Fund, The Great Famine, 66.

[47] Peppard, Just Water, 21.

[48] Peppard, Just Water, 35.

[49] Klein, This Changes Everything, 202.

[50] Richard Tarnas, “The Ideal and the Real,” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 1 (Summer 2009): 186.

[51] Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, 477.

Walking the Fine Line: The Ethical Divisions of Eating Animals

“There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”
– Gary Snyder[1]

A couple years ago I participated in the slaughter of two young, male goats on a farm in Big Sur, California. The goats were named Sweetie and Peaches, and were “culled” to keep the herd of dairy goats on this farm to a manageable size. The female goats provided fresh milk that could be consumed raw or made into cheese, yogurt, or even caramel, but after a certain age the male goats served their human caretakers most by having their lives taken and becoming meat. Participating in the slaughter of these goats, which was carried out in the most painless and respectful way possible, brought home for me in a new way issues surrounding the human consumption of not only animal flesh but also the other biological products of their fertility, from milk to eggs to even honey. To witness death in this beautiful setting also brought to mind all of the animal deaths that take place behind closed doors, in slaughterhouses where no respect or thanks is given for the life being sacrificed.

Goats at the FenceReligious and cultural traditions have provided the guidelines for the ethics of food consumption for much of human history, dictating rituals and taboos for the preparation and eating of non-human animals. Yet with the dawn of the secular age and the globalization of culture and economy, such rituals and cultural guidelines have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of economic efficiency and endless growth, leading to such cruel institutions as the factory farm that supplies cheap, abundant meat to a consumerist public. In this essay I will be focusing not on the evils of the factory farm, but rather on the ethical dilemma faced by the human omnivore who wishes to engage the question of eating from a non-dogmatic stand-point. What guidelines can we follow when making the choice every day of what to put into our bodies? Are there ways of finding deeper connection with our food, and the myriad creatures who become that food?

I am writing this essay from the perspective of an American citizen, raised in Northern California. The reason this fact is pertinent is because the culture of food in the United States is one that is constantly in flux, altering with the latest consumerist fad or medical study. Diets in this country change with great rapidity, which the food writer Michael Pollan takes to be a “sign of a national eating disorder.”[2] Such instability in a nation’s eating habits “would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.”[3] Pollan goes on to describe the “American paradox”: “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”[4] Why is it that so many Americans struggle with knowing what to eat, or more importantly, what it is right to eat? The complexity of questions surrounding food not only arises from a loss in understanding of what is healthy for our own bodies, but also what is healthy for the bodies of the organisms who we consume. Is it possible to find an ethical way to live and eat on this Earth, or must we always be compromising our moral standing with each meal? Is there one right way for human beings to sustain themselves, or a multiplicity of ways? Or could it be there is no right way at all, no pathway to ethical purity, and rather we are meant to learn from the complexity of being incarnated in bodies that must consume other bodies, of animals or plants, in order to survive?

Humans in most parts of the world have inherited a traditional culture which “codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions”[5] that act as guidance when it comes to consuming other species, particularly species of non-human animals. The nutrition researcher Sally Fallon draws on studies from a diversity of traditional cultures from around the world for her book Nourishing Traditions, in which she argues for a return to a diet rich in animal products, including fats, organ meats, raw dairy, and bone broths.[6] Her argument, based on the research conducted in the 1930s by Dr. Weston A. Price, is that these isolated populations subsisting on ancient, traditional diets were far healthier—with stronger bones, lack of tooth decay or degenerative diseases, and with greater longevity—than their Western counterparts.[7] Yet while she demonstrates the importance of animals as food for human health, Fallon does little to address the impact such a diet has on the non-human animals consumed. She naturally advocates for choosing products from animals who are pasture-raised and organic, but she does not address the larger issue of killing animals, or the loss of each individual life when an animal is slaughtered for consumption.

On the opposite side of the spectrum of healthy eating is Frances Moore Lappé, who first wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. Lappé is addressing, especially in the first edition of her book, the issue of feeding the surplus of grain and soybeans produced in the United States to cattle as a means of making a profit on large quantities of cheap and fatty beef while also disposing of the excess grain grown by industrial agriculture. She exposes the wastefulness of the system by giving a few shocking numbers: it takes 16 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce one pound of beef,[8] and while that one pound of beef translates into about 500 food calories it takes 20,000 calories of fossil fuel to produce it.[9] Lappé also quotes the famous Newsweek statement that “The water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer.”[10] She is advocating for a turn away from the American diet built around the presence of meat at every meal to a plant-based diet that relies on the protein complementarity of grains and legumes to provide the adequate amino acids for a healthy lifestyle. Interestingly, it was the later turn away in the early 2000s from the low-fat, minimal red meat, grain-based diet that Lappé advocates that inspired Michael Pollan to write his own book on food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

A simple summary would say that Fallon and Lappé are arguing for nearly opposite diets, although both advocate for eating high quality, organic produce grown locally and preferably on a small, sustainable scale. As Lappé and her daughter, Anna Lappé, write in their book Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, eating organic and local food is a decision that is “defining of who we are.”[11] One major contrast between Fallon and Lappé is that Fallon’s dietary recommendations are focused more on human health, while Lappé’s are focused on ecological health. Yet they are at times completely at odds with each other in what foods they recommend humans should be eating for optimum physical health. For example, Lappé says that she has come to find “that human beings need eat no flesh to be healthy,”[12] and that one could completely eliminate all meat and fish and still get enough protein.[13] Meanwhile, Fallon argues that fat and protein from animal products are the essential building blocks of the human body, and that the vitamins A and D supplied by animal fats are necessary for the body to even assimilate protein.[14] Furthermore, Fallon points out that animal protein is the only complete protein, meaning it supplies all eight essential amino acids not synthesized by the human body.[15] Lappé has a direct argument against the need to eat animal products for complete protein because certain plant foods can be combined to create “protein complementarity,” when the deficiency of amino acids in one food is made up for by an excess in another and vice versa, such as with grains and legumes.[16] Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, have written that there is no difference in the quality of soy protein in comparison to meat protein.[17] However, Fallon describes in some detail that soybeans have a higher phytate content than most legumes and contain potent enzyme inhibitors making them difficult to digest unless fermented. Relying on unfermented tofu and soymilk as a protein replacement for meat and raw milk can lead to mineral and enzyme deficiency.[18]

Yet other ways in which Lappé’s and Fallon’s argument directly contradict each other are in the discussion of saturated fats and cholesterol. Lappé cites studies which have shown that diets high in animal protein can lead to atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries caused by deposits of fatty acids on the artery walls.[19] She also writes that high blood cholesterol is correlated with an increase in the ingestion of cholesterol and saturated fats, both from animal products and in the latter case also from tropical plant oils.[20] Her recommendation is instead to consume polyunsaturated fats from plant sources, such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybeans.[21] Singer and Mason point out that some studies have found that those who eat a diet low or entirely excluding meat tend to live longer.[22] Fallon argues the completely opposite case, pointing to a study in which subjects who ate more saturated fat and cholesterol were healthier overall, and that “weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet.”[23] By explaining the molecular structure of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats Fallon demonstrates how the unstable nature of polyunsaturated plant oils easily go rancid and should never be heated or cooked with because of their molecular instability.[24]

Fallon points to the high quantity of animal fats in the traditional diets of the Japanese, Swiss, Austrian, Greek and, of course, the French, among others, to demonstrate the health and longevity of these groups of people when following their traditional cultural cuisines.[25] Even in reference to the traditional diets of our human ancestors Fallon and Lappé report opposing views. Lappé writes, “I advocate a return to the traditional diet on which our bodies evolved—a plant-centered diet in which animal foods play a supplemental role.”[26] In diametric opposition Fallon writes,

Our primitive ancestors subsisted on a diet composed largely of meat and fat, augmented with vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts. Studies of their remains reveal that they had excellent bone structure, heavy musculature and flawless teeth. Agricultural man added milk, grains and legumes to this diet.[27]

Fallon also gives archaeological evidence against eating a primarily vegan diet: “Skulls of prehistoric peoples subsisting almost entirely on vegetable foods have teeth containing caries and abscesses and show evidence of bone problems and tuberculosis as well.”[28] Yet there is also much research that has been done on healthy ways to eat primarily plant-based diets, and Singer and Mason argue that a well-planned vegan diet can support the human body at any stage of life.[29] Since the time when our ancestors were living on either plant-based diets supplemented with animal products, or meat-based diets augmented with vegetation, human beings have come to learn much about the world we live in, including about the nature of our bodies and the food we put into them. Our lifestyles have also changed, for better and for worse, since our primitive ancestors lived on their simpler diets of whole, unprocessed foods.

With so many contradictions, are we any closer to solving the omnivore’s dilemma of what we are meant to eat and how? Lappé says people often find it surprising that she does not consider herself to be a vegetarian. “Over the last ten years,” she writes, “I’ve hardly ever served or eaten meat, but I try hard to distinguish what I advocate from what people think of as ‘vegetarianism’.”[30] Professor Lindsay Allen also speaks to how ideology can get in the way of conveying a more important message. In conversation with Singer and Mason she said,

“I’m not against veganism, I’m against people who, often because of an animal-rights ideology, don’t take the trouble to learn about what they should be eating. People come out with self-righteous attitudes and lots of pure malarkey about how you can get vitamin B12 from plants or from the soil.”[31]

Perhaps, while the specifics of what and who we eat is important, the way in which we approach eating it is just as essential. Lappé supports this by saying, “A ‘correct diet,’ one centered in the plant world, one based in less processed and nonchemically treated foods, is not a ‘should’ as much as a freeing step.”[32] Lappé puts the human relationship with food into a larger context, in which our diets become a symbol and practice for the role we wish to play in the world.

A change in diet is not an answer. A change in diet is a way of experiencing more of the real world, instead of living in the illusory world created by our current economic system, where our food resources are actively reduced and where food is treated as just another commodity.[33]

Further into Diet for a Small Planet Lappé elaborates on this point more deeply:

What we eat is only one of those everyday life choices. Making conscious choices about what we eat, based on what the earth can sustain and what our bodies need, can remind us daily that our whole society must do the same—begin to link sustainable production with human need.[34]

On these last two points I believe Lappé and Fallon would at last come into agreement. How we choose to eat is a profound statement about our complicity or lack thereof with the larger economic and political system. It is the most intimate way to take actions that directly affect others, because every single morsel of food that passes our lips is comprised of another species. That is interconnection, that is dependence.

Conscious eating, as Lappé says, is based on two essential factors: ‘on what the earth can sustain’ and ‘what our bodies need.’ Neither of those factors can be determined universally, because every situated ecosystem is unique and every body is unique. Thus what is best to eat within one ecosystem will not be in another; likewise, the best balance of plant and animal foods for my body will be radically different from the needs of someone who was raised in another part of the world, or who has an entirely different ethnic background than I do. Part of the human project of relearning to eat in a way that the Earth can sustain is by recognizing and respecting the unique differences between all of our needs and situations. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama, who one might expect as a Buddhist to be a vegetarian, in fact is not. While Buddhism does not prohibit the eating of meat, it does indicate that animals should not be killed for food. The Dalai Lama had been living for some time as a vegetarian but became severely ill, with complications worsened by hepatitis. The Dalai Lama’s physician recommended he begin eating meat, and within a short period of time he regained his health.[35]

The Dalai Lama’s situation is one in which he had to make a decision against the rules ascribed by the religious tradition in which he participates. Yet for many people worldwide, and for countless generations into the past, it was the religious and cultural traditions that guided how human beings ate, particularly in relation to animals. Paul Waldau writes in his essay, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk”: “Religious traditions, with their impact on worldviews and lifestyles, influences not only the way adherents think, see, and talk about the world, but also the ways they act toward ‘others,’ whether human or otherwise.”[36] This holds true particularly in terms of the human relationship with animals. Waldau also writes, “The first of the central inquiries in the religion and animals field is, thus, about matters we generally call ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’.”[37] Religion has provided the moral guideposts for millennia, but in a country such as the United States in which multiple world views and beliefs reign, no such guidelines are universal—unless it they are the guidelines of the market, which have given us factory farming and Pollan’s American paradox.

One of the rituals practiced in multiple religions worldwide was that of sacrifice, particularly non-human animal sacrifice. To focus on one religious lineage, in the biblical world sacrifice was an “unquestioned given,” according to Jonathan Klawans.[38] But as Klawans, David Fraser, and others are careful to point out in their assessments of the Hebrew sacrificial tradition, the moment of the animal’s death is but one step in a long process, beginning with a lifetime of care for the flock from which the sacrificed animal is chosen. The emphasis on care for the animals gives birth to what Fraser calls the “pastoralist ethic.”[39] The only way one can really understand what it means to sacrifice an animal, to take the life of another being on behalf of God, is to first understand what it means to be a shepherd, a loving caretaker, of those animals.[40] This sense of care is what we have lost in the industrialized food system in which farm animals are referred to as “units of production,” commodities who have absolutely no laws governing their wellbeing whatsoever.[41] According to animal welfare laws the farm animals raised for slaughter in industrial agriculture are not considered to be animals at all.[42]

Scripture dictates that “the feelings of animals should be taken into consideration” when they are prepared for food and sacrifice.[43] This is why Leviticus and other voices in the Old Testament lay forth dietary laws to guide how religious adherents prepare and eat their food. Shechitah is the Hebrew term for the kosher slaughtering of a non-human animal, and because of its strict guidelines is considered to be the “quickest and most painless way to kill animals.”[44] Although not conducted by a shochet as rabbinic tradition would require, the killing of the two goats Sweetie and Peaches in which I participated followed the guidelines of shechitah fairly closely. This specifies exactly which parts of the animal are cut and how, as Ronald L. Androphy writes:

Most importantly, the act of shechitah not only severs the trachea and esophagus but it also severs the jugular veins and carotid arteries. The result is a sudden and voluminous outpouring of blood and immediate and acute anemia of the brain thus rendering the animal senseless instantaneously.[45]

During the deaths of Peaches and Sweetie I witnessed this moment of the blood pouring forth, how quickly the life ended and how, apparently, gently. I will quote a small section of what I wrote in my journal later on the day of this process:

Swiftly she brought the knife forward and sliced into the jugular vein. Crimson blood welled from the opening, pouring and pouring forth. I came forward to catch it in a clean, glass bowl. The animal’s fading pulse seemed to pass from him to the very air itself, beating through everything. I was grateful to stand so close, to look into this little animal’s beautiful deep brown eyes, to thank him, and to recognize the moment when life left him. The eye transformed. No longer a window to the soul it became a glass bead. The blood still poured forth.[46]

Practicing the act of killing with such intimacy makes it nearly, if not completely, impossible to not have a powerful emotional connection with the animal whose life is ending on behalf of the human beings who are sacrificing him and who will be eating his flesh.

Beyond the religious significance, there are many ideas of what the Hebrew practice of sacrifice is meant to dictate in regards to the actual eating of animal bodies. Because there was only one temple in which animals could be sacrificed, this has been seen by some scholars as an imposed limit on the amount of meat that should be eaten.[47] The eating of animal flesh is also seen by some as a condition of being in a fallen state, since in Genesis humans do not eat other animals in the Garden of Eden.[48] Some scholars see this as an indication that the ideal state would be a vegetarian one. However, Klawans points out that in the story of Genesis not only were no animals eaten in Eden, no cooked food was either.[49] If one were attempting to eat a diet based solely on what was consumed in Paradise one would have to live entirely on raw foods—which our evolutionary ancestors did at one point in the distant past, although we had not yet evolved into our modern Homo sapien form.

The desire to live upon the Earth as purely as possible may have some roots in this cultural longing for a golden age, a time when humans were living in a mythic paradise. Yet our every move in this world causes some harm to other beings, no matter how much we try to prevent it. To be in denial of our own continual causation of suffering is to deny the pain of others. Donna Haraway writes in her book When Species Meet, “There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace.”[50] The problem lies, in the end, less in what we did not do, what we abstained from, but rather in what suffering we caused that we then denied to acknowledge. Haraway also writes, “Caring means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning.”[51] Caring about our human place in the world and the impact we necessarily have on other species, “Earth Others,” as Val Plumwood calls all other non-human beings,[52] is recognizing that we cannot extricate ourselves from the mess of being alive—“mess” being a particularly appropriate term because of its use as a term to refer to food. Haraway refers to other species—our companion animals, the species we eat, the bacteria in our gut—as messmates.[53] As long as we eat we are always in the mess. Furthermore, the term “companion” comes from the Latin cum panis, meaning “with bread.”[54] All species with whom we eat, who we eat, and who eat us, are in some way or other our companions.

Forgetting that we can never extricate ourselves from the suffering caused, in some form, by eating may be a product of the human denial that we too can be eaten. Plumwood speaks of this in her powerful essay “Being Prey,” in which she describes her experience of surviving a crocodile attack in the bush in Australia. She says, “It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain.”[55] When arguing whether or not it is right to kill another species for food, it can be important to remember that all beings must, at some point, die. As a culture, Westerners are in active denial of this profound fact. Haraway writes, “I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing. But also get better at dying instead of killing.”[56] If there is one thing I learned from actively participating in the deaths of Peaches and Sweetie it was the importance of going through the act of taking life, of witnessing death, if we are going to consume the flesh, or even the milk and eggs, of non-human animals. With the world structured as it is today, perhaps we need not personally take life for every body we consume—although this may be the most ethical preference for some. But I do feel it is important to remember and honor that moment of death with each meal that is composed of the life of Earth Others—and that is every meal because, as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”[57]

Biodiversity is one of the gifts of the Earth, the “iridescent variation of aspect”[58] through which our planet manifests its eternal creativity. Biodiversity does not just occur at a species level, but within species as well; one aspect of that diversity is the myriad ways human cultures have developed relationships with the species that become our food. If you find yourself facing the omnivore’s dilemma of what and how to eat, I would offer that the answer may lie in learning to listen: to the suffering of the species we eat, to the bioregions in which we live to understand what these ecosystems most love to produce in abundance, to the quiet voices of our own bodies—our intuition and our messmates—who will tell us what we need to eat and how. Food is the most daily reminder we may have that we humans are utterly dependent on the Earth because of the many species we consume. Instead of seeking spiritual or ethical purity, perhaps we might choose to sink further into the spiritual mess of embodied life on this Earth.

 

Works Cited

Androphy, Ronald L. “Shechitah.” In Judaism and Animal Rights. Edited by Roberta Kalechofsky. Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1992.

Cerulli, Tovar. “The Dalai Lama: On Meat and Moral Gymnastics.” A Mindful Carnivore, October 15, 2010. http://tovarcerulli.com/2010/10/the-dalai-lama-on-meat-and-moral-gymnastics/.

Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001.

Findlay, John, “The Logical Peculiarities of Neoplatonism.” In The Structure of Being: A Neoplatonic Approach. Edited by R. Baine Harris, Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1982.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Lappé, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1991.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006.

Plumwood, Val. “Being Prey.” In The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova. Edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

–––––. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge,

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. United States: Rodale, Inc., 2006.

Snyder, Gary. “Grace.” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984).

Sunstein, Cass and Martha Nussbaum, eds. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tarnas, Becca. “Of Blood and Stars.” Essay for Hill of the Hawk course, October 24, 2012.

Waldau, Paul and Kimberley Patton, eds. A Communion of Subjects. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006.

 

[1] Gary Snyder, “Grace,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984): I.

[2] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006), 2.

[3] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 4.

[6] Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001), xi-xii.

[7] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, xi-xii.

[8] Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1991), 9.

[9] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 10.

[10] Ibid, 76.

[11] Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, qtd. in Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, Inc., 2006), 140.

[12] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxviii.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 29.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 160.

[17] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 232.

[18] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 62.

[19] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 122.

[20] Ibid, 123.

[21] Ibid, 124.

[22] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 225.

[23] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 5.

[24] Ibid, 8-9.

[25] Ibid, 7.

[26] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 209.

[27] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 26-7.

[28] Ibid, 27.

[29] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 224.

[30] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 13.

[31] Lindsay Allen, qtd. in Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 226.

[32] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxix.

[33] Ibid, 26.

[34] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 107.

[35] Tovar Cerulli, “The Dalai Lama: On Meat and Moral Gymnastics,” A Mindful Carnivore, October 15, 2010, http://tovarcerulli.com/2010/10/the-dalai-lama-on-meat-and-moral-gymnastics/.

[36] Paul Waldau, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk: Features of the Contemporary Landscape of ‘Religion and Animals’,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 53.

[37] Waldau, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk,” 41.

[38] Jonathan Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel: Pure Bodies, Domesticated Animals, and the Divine Shepherd,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 66.

[39] David Fraser, “Caring for Farm Animals: Pastoralist Ideals in an Industrialized World,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 548.

[40] Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” 67.

[41] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxviii.

[42] David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan, “Foxes in the Hen House – Animals, Agribusiness, and the Law: A Modern American Fable,” in Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, eds. Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 206.

[43] Dan Cohn-Sherbok, “Hope for the Animal Kingdom: A Jewish Vision,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 83.

[44] Cohn-Sherbok, “Hope for the Animal Kingdom,” 85.

[45] Ronald L. Androphy, “Shechitah,” in Judaism and Animal Rights, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1992), 76.

[46] Becca Tarnas, “Of Blood and Stars,” essay for Hill of the Hawk course, October 24, 2012, 4.

[47] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97.

[48] Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” 73.

[49] Ibid, 74.

[50] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 295.

[51] Haraway, When Species Meet, 36.

[52] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 146.

[53] Haraway, When Species Meet, 17.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Val Plumwood, “Being Prey,” in The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova, eds. David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[56] Haraway, When Species Meet, 81.

[57] Gary Snyder, “Grace,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984): I.

[58] John Findlay, “The Logical Peculiarities of Neoplatonism,” in The Structure of Being: A Neoplatonic Approach, ed. R. Baine Harris (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1982), 1.

Bridging Our Attitudes Toward Nature

“Phusis kruptesthai philei”

For twenty-five hundred years the concept of Nature has evolved through the writings of Western History. The myriad meanings of the Greek word phusis have unfolded through history as Nature personified, Nature divine, Nature hidden, Nature secretive, nature separate from humanity, nature inclusive of humanity, nature as dead matter, Nature as art, Nature as All. Pierre Hadot traces this winding history in his book-length essay The Veil of Isis by examining the famous aphorism attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, “phusis kruptesthai philei,” usually translated as “Nature loves to hide.”[1] Using these three cryptic words, whose meaning it seems also loves to hide, Hadot explores the many different ways this aphorism could be—and has been—translated, and the various effects such interpretations have had upon the continuing relationship humanity has with the world into which we each are born. Hadot perceives how traditional metaphors such as Heraclitus’ phrase will

hold sway for centuries over successive generations like a kind of program to be realized, a task to be accomplished, or an attitude to be assumed, even if, throughout the ages, the meaning given to these sentences, images, and metaphors can be profoundly modified.[2]

He goes on to note that “To write the history of a thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.”[3]

Isis Veiled

Why is it that Nature loves to hide? What is it she—for in Hadot’s traced lineage Nature is always unquestioningly personified as female—is hiding, and from whom is she hiding it? History has offered many answers, from Nature as divine mystery, to Nature as weak and inferior and thus wrapped up in shame, Nature as clothed in imagination, Nature as malicious toward humanity, Nature protective of humanity: all of these and more have been reasons given for why Nature’s veils have been deemed so difficult to peel away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the veils and the secrets of Nature never ceases to fade, until it gives way to amazement before an unveiled Nature, which, in Goethe’s expression, henceforth became “mysterious in full daylight,” in the nudity of her presence.[4]

The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time.

Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic. In Hadot’s own words, these approaches or perspectives can be understood as follows:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[5]

The Promethean attitude is based upon a notion of progress in which humanity will some day attain all of nature’s veiled secrets so that they might be put to use for the betterment of the human species. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end. In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite.

The Orphic attitude takes the approach that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[6] In many ways the Orphic is an antidote to the Promethean, although it extends far beyond that as well. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. Hadot’s archetypal analysis of nature is itself an Orphic approach, in that he draws on myth and art to unfold the meanings of humanity’s changing relationship to the natural world.

In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction. If we do not have an understanding of what humanity has perceived nature to be throughout history then we have little chance of knowing how to heal our relationship to that which we call nature. Although in The Veil of Isis Hadot seems to favor more of an Orphic approach, in that it is more holistic, contemplative, non-violent, and non-exploitative, it could be that finding a bridge between the two perspectives is a better way forward. Although a deep chasm has often separated the two, Hadot offers examples of individual thinkers who embody both perspectives within themselves. For example, to dive back toward Western philosophy’s beginnings, Hadot demonstrates how Plato carries both a Promethean and Orphic attitude within his works. In the Timaeus, “Plato represents the world fashioned in an artisanal way,” but that world can also be understood through mechanical, mathematical models.[7] Plato saw phusis as divine art.[8] For Hadot, the view of nature as art is in itself part of a solution for overcoming the division of human and nature that has contributed to create the ecological crisis.

If. . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[9]

Hadot’s work is not prescriptive, yet he indicates that finding bridges may be what is needed: a bridge between Promethean and Orphic, a bridge between humanity and nature—and in many ways art is able to fill this bridging role.

 

Work Cited

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

 


[1] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[2] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, xiii.

[3] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 14.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[6] Ibid, 91.

[7] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 97.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 92.

Towards An Imaginal Ecology: Presentation for PCC Integrative Seminar

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.

Integrative Seminar Symposium Flyer

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2010.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

From Mother Earth to Lover Earth

Presentation at the PCC Cosmology of Love Conference with Matthew Segall.

To Have a Dream

I have a dream
I have dreams every night
I have a dream
But these dreams aren’t right
I have a dream

Filled with fear, pain, and death
They strangle my voice
Cut off my breath

I have a dream

Waking dreams are hopes
Visions of new dawns
Unbound from oppressing ropes

Whence is the source
Of this word, dream?
A dual-edged course
An image unseen

I have a dream
Where waking sleep blends
I have a dream
When suffering ends

For one moment upon one day
Each earthly voice is raised in song
Stopping work, ceasing play
Weaving rhythms short and long

The whale, songbird, wolf, and stone
Bear, fish, leaf, and sea
Vibrating Earth with each tone
Until Gaia’s voice bellows free
And the galaxies all hear her glee

In that moment she will be healed
By the hopeful song her children wield

I have a dream
I have dreams every night
I have a dream
But this one we may get right.

Dream of Disconnection

“We cannot make a blade of grass. Yet there is liable not to be a blade of grass in the future unless it is accepted, protected, and fostered by the human.”[1]
Thomas Berry

I had a dream a few nights ago, one which seemed to carry a deep and powerful meaning, bearing both my fears and hopes for the future of the earth and the future of humanity. I was aboard a spaceship, a translucent, streamline vessel made of glass and white metal. Despite its sterile futuristic qualities the ship was filled with growing plants, their green curling leaves contrasting the stark white of the craft. Six of us were on board, and each person seemed familiar although I could not now say who they were. They each had a particular characteristic that defined them, more of an archetypal person than a dynamically complex human being.

In the ship we were orbiting the earth, not too far from the ground, on a dark, murky night. We were above a vast, endless city, one that covered the entire surface of the earth. It was soiled by pollution and waste, with no growing thing in sight, not even a blade of grass.

The moon began to rise, enormous in the sky. Yet the lunar sphere was too enormous, and was quickly growing in our sight. It seemed that the gravity that had kept the moon at its precise distance from earth no longer operated, and now the moon was drifting over our horizon and through the earth’s atmosphere.

Suddenly we found ourselves in our ship hovering directly above the moon. Moments later we landed on it. For some reason we expected the surface to be hot, yet it was not. Instead the moon was dead dust, no longer luminous. It was no longer reflecting the sun’s light, and thus was cold. The cosmic connections had been broken.

Without the sun, we soon realized, nothing would photosynthesize on earth, and the last of the earth’s oxygen was quickly being used up. Our supply on board our ship would keep us alive far longer than those on the ground, but not indefinitely. Somehow, we had the vital, and time-limited task, of creating a way to perpetuate our supply without any support from earth. And if miraculously we succeeded in that, we would have to attempt the impossible task of reseeding the oxygenating process on earth.

To complete the task we landed the ship back on earth. One person on our crew wanted to leave to find something important in the city, and when she and I stepped outside we could feel the constraint in our breathing as the last of earth’s oxygen was being used up. We knew life was dying everywhere.

I do not know if we succeeded or not in our task.

Work Cited

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.


[1] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 21.

Open Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

I am writing this letter to the man for whom I cast my vote three years ago, the man who sailed the ship of change with the power of the winds of hope. I am writing on behalf of those who voted for you, for the future generations whose right to well-being and even existence are in jeopardy, and most importantly, on behalf of the planet earth, which is our only home and the source of all our nourishment and capacity for survival. I hope the man who reads this now can receive these words, not just as a political official in the most powerful position on the planet, but as a human being gifted with the ability to courageously take the steps required to effect the deep, fundamental changes so desperately needed at this critical juncture.

Your time in office has been fraught with a disintegrating economy and fiscal crisis that cannot be mended by any unanimous solution between political parties. The corporate industrial economy which you are trying to revive is based primarily on the assumption of unlimited access to petroleum. As we passed peak oil in 2010, it has become rapidly clearer that an economy which relies on extracting a finite resource is ultimately terminal.[1] The earth processes under which petroleum formed will never exist again, at least within the timescale of human economies.[2] Currently every aspect of life in the United States is dependent on oil, from our electricity, to our transportation, communication, and food systems, to name just a few. Although it is known that the resource on which these systems depend is limited and non-renewable, there is currently little to no support for those few who attempt to create alternative modes of living. Any alternatives to the norm are usually labeled by mainstream media as utopian or unrealistic, yet these alternatives are addressing the far more unrealistic vision of an economy that will continue to thrive on a single resource whose end is in sight.[3] The collapse and lack of recovery of the economy is a clear sign that the industrial system is dissolving, and to attempt to revive it without rewriting the foundations of the system is to assure certain failure.[4]

To assume that only slight modifications to the current system will set it back on course will ultimately lead to such a severe collapse that no attempt at a recognizable recovery will be possible. A time will come when there will be no choice as to how the system will have to change, and any progress in that area will come at much higher cost both monetarily, and also in human life and well-being. Any worries now about the government deficit are incomparable to the deficit we are continually drawing from the earth.[5] The earth is treated as merely the backdrop to human affairs, a supply of free resources which can be extracted from endlessly.[6] Any part of the earth left untapped, from the last old-growth forests, to the freshwater aquifers, to the buried oil fields, is considered economically wasted.[7] Ironically, the utilized resources which are not wasted are quickly turned to irreversible waste within the disposable consumer economy, left to sit in mountainous trash heaps to decompose into toxins, if they can decompose at all. The earth is richly abundant, but only if humans create limits for themselves to allow for its self-renewing processes to take place.[8] If we do not form these limits we will ultimately encounter them by drowning in our own waste, if nothing else.[9]

Over the course of Western history a primary driving ideal has been human progress, a betterment of the human condition through acquisition of knowledge, and wealth and possessions for a more leisurely existence. At the foundation of progress is the idea of unlimited growth, which seemed like a real possibility through colonial expansion and the European discovery of abundant landscapes. Yet, as industrialization has allowed the human population to double three and a half times in the last century, that population has also met the unarguable reality that this planet is finite. As such, the definition of progress has actually come to mean a severe degradation of the earth in exchange for abundant consumer products, and excessive profit in the pockets of transnational corporations.[10] Monetary gain has become the top value in our society, allowing for limitless consumption of landscapes and the destruction of their intellectual, aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual values.[11]

The corporations which reap excessive wealth from the environment share little of the cost that comes from the destructive patterns of their production. The vast amounts of waste, much of it highly toxic, produced by corporate industry is not accounted for in their production costs.[12] Indeed, the weight of that clean-up usually falls to public services, paid for by tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations are not only exempt from taking the responsibility to clean up after themselves, they are not even required to contribute monetarily to that clean-up by paying taxes.[13] What money they do contribute to government is solely for the purposes of securing their own interests to continue unlimited extraction of resources from the earth, no matter the harm it causes to the environment or wider human community. If corporations, which are not human beings, are given personhood and legal rights, then the same rights should be given to the rivers, forests, soils, and all other species of this earth who have an equal right to exist as humans.[14] If humans can represent a corporation in court, humans should be able to represent the land in court as well.

One of the arguments on behalf of corporate business is that corporations provide jobs for millions of workers, allowing the population’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met. Yet those basic needs cannot be met if the earth is mined and destroyed until it can no longer support human life, even at a level much lower than that enjoyed by many in first world countries today.[15] The economic recession and high unemployment have shown that the way our economy has been functioning cannot provide enough employment as it is. A new economic structure is desperately needed, one that is aligned with the economy of the earth and is based on renewal and responsibility.[16]

The dire need for jobs is evident, but providing immediate employment at the cost of the health and functioning of the environment will only cause far more severe unemployment in the future.[17] Destroying the ecosystems on which human life and economy depend will ultimately destroy the economy, as it is already beginning to do. The debates over the Keystone Pipeline project are one such example, for not only is this project extracting a finite resource, it will pose great risks to the workers toiling in a toxic environment. The pipeline will permanently destroy vast amounts of land and water for a temporary gain, and the effects of extracting and using this oil will likely be the tipping point for the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.

Fortunately, there are other ways to employ the U.S. population that can flourish sustainably into the indefinite future, if they are supported and encouraged. We desperately need solutions for aligning the human economy with the earth’s systems, and investing in the creativity of environmental entrepreneurs will provide growing employment into the future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

One key area which needs reformation, and which could provide far greater employment than it currently does, is in the field of agriculture. The industrial agriculture system, which relies heavily on petroleum, has shown itself to be far more expensive and less productive than once hoped.[18] The chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the large machines suited only to monocultures, destroy the life-giving properties of soil and erode the topsoil until it can no longer support any crops.[19]

A major disconnect lies between U.S. citizens and where their food is grown, food that is harvested primarily by immigrant workers who are rapidly being deported while crops rot unpicked in the fields. If the argument for deportation is that illegal immigrants take American jobs, why is it that the high percentage of unemployed U.S. citizens are not taking up the work of growing their food? The industrial system has stripped the dignity of the art of food production, as it has taken the dignity of many other forms of employment as well. One way to fundamentally change the disintegrating economy would be to restore the dignity and artistry of the most essential jobs that sustain human life.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The growing, preserving, packaging, transporting, and marketing of the current agricultural system is expensive and wasteful, as food must travel long distances to reach consumers’ mouths.[20] By localizing the food economy most of these expenses would be cut, and dependence on oil for food production would decrease tremendously. Greater emphasis could be placed on the quality and variety of crops since they do not need to be engineered for transportation, which would ultimately lead to a far healthier population overall. Finally, with more U.S. citizens working with the land, the American people would have the opportunity to reconnect with the North American landscape in a way that would inspire a deeper care and respect for the earth.[21]

The most immediate and disastrous consequence of our civilization’s addiction to oil is the exponentially increasing saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Humans have become a force of nature changing the very chemistry of the planet in a few centuries, on a scale that previously took millions of years.[22] It is this composition of our atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of life on this planet, and we are altering it faster than we can calculate its effects.[23] While the predicted consequences of climate change appear to be taking place far more rapidly than the most pessimistic models once indicated, the U.S. government has disregarded this knowledge and has consistently taken no action in any international climate agreements.[24] Although the U.S. has contributed most of any country to polluting and altering the planet’s climate, the government has chosen to put short-term economic gain, for the benefit of a few corporations, before the welfare of the human population, including its own citizens. Humanity has gained the power of a geologic force, but has not shouldered any of the responsibility that comes with such power.[25]

The amount of money poured into defense spending against potential, and often self-generated, international threats will be as nothing compared to the cost of defending against the real and imminent threat of the retaliation of an abused earth.[26] Ecosystems function in such a way that if any single species becomes too numerous and sets the system out of balance, the environment will no longer support the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. While humanity has managed to avoid such natural population suppression with our innovative technologies, it is those very technologies that are now triggering such a potential die-off on a global scale if immediate action is not taken.

The effects of climate change can already be observed worldwide, and the ultimate damage will be determined by whether the U.S. government can extricate itself from the pockets of greedy corporate lobbyists, and take a true leadership position against the greatest challenge to ever face the human species. Addressing climate change and the environmental crises will soon be beyond the disparities between political parties, and of far greater consequence than the outcome of the 2012 election, or any subsequent election. Whether you have one year or five in the most powerful position in the world, your actions in this moment will determine the course of the future for generations to come. If the U.S. takes the lead to responsibly address climate change, every country in the world will follow suit. If not, many other countries such as India and China, will choose not to either.

The darkest periods in history have proven to be the most creative, and you have been given the opportunity to bring about the fundamental change this planet so desperately needs if we are to survive.[27] The pain of making the necessary changes now will be far less than the pain all of humanity and the earth will suffer if we sit idly by and do nothing.[28] As a planetary community we will either all survive together, or the entire earth will die. The earth is an irreplaceable gift which will not exist in the same way ever again.[29]

The geologian Thomas Berry, who dedicated his life to speaking on behalf of the earth and who was the inspiration for this letter, wrote: “While Earth’s resources are finite, what is not limited is our desire to understand, to appreciate, and to celebrate the Earth.”[30] Your decisions while in office will determine the ability of the next generations, your daughters and all those who will come after, to live in the exquisitely beautiful, awe-inspiring, miraculously habitable earth community that you live in. This is the future that is at stake. Please handle it with wisdom.

With hope,

Becca Tarnas

Bibliography

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty- First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.


[1] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.

[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 156.

[3] Berry, The Great Work, 109.

[4] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 29.

[5] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 72

[6] Berry, The Great Work, 22.

[7] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 155.

[8] Ibid, 154.

[9] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 66.

[10] Berry, The Great Work, 62-63.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 66.

[13] Berry, The Great Work, 130.

[14] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 133.

[15] Berry, The Great Work, xi.

[16] Ibid, 60.

[17] Ibid, 113.

[18] Ibid, 134.

[19] Ibid, 139.

[20] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 64.

[21] Berry, The Great Work, 160.

[22] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 63.

[23] Ibid, 47.

[24] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 201.

[25] Ibid, 42.

[26] Ibid, 76.

[27] Berry, The Great Work, 9.

[28] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 159.

[29] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 175.

[30] Ibid, 132.