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A WGREN Meditation for the Week of January 25, 2009
In a recent BBC special on Scotland the narrator Neil Oliver describes the coronation rite that the prospective monarch had to undergo during the Middle Ages. At a certain point the priest who oversees the ritual marries the monarch the land. The marriage here is literal, rather than figurative or metaphorical. Through this rite the monarch becomes, at one and the same time, lord over the land and servant to the land.
There was a similar idea during the Middle Ages that there was a direct connection between the land's health and the monarch's health. When the land was infertile, when there were climatological disasters, or when disease was rampant it was seen as a spiritual or moral failure on the monarch's part - in particular the failure to live a moral life and to administer the kingdom with justice and compassion.
While such a connection might sound ridiculous to our more modern and scientific sensibilities, I believe that it is perhaps time to once again to resurrect this venerable doctrine. Since modern science's emergence in the late Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution that was its inevitable result, human beings have seen the natural environment (and all this lives within it) as little more than resources to realize their own purposes. The environmental damage that continues to be the result is seen as unfortunate (when we bother to consider it at all) but nevertheless essential to human progress and well-being.
The problem is that what drives this 'progress' are often purposes and practices that serve trivial desires, rather than essential needs. As a consequence the current environmental crises - climate change, overpopulation, pollution, desertification, deforestation - threaten to undermine the environment's health. Indeed entire ecosystems and countless species have been lost as testaments to human progress. The simple truth is that the damage to the natural environment reflects our own spiritual and moral failures - the failure to be responsible stewards and consider the generations who will come after us, the failure to control our resource use and consumption, the failure to live sustainable lives, the failure to see all sentient life as having moral status. To the Native Americans the idea that the land could suffer was an obvious empirical truth. That human beings could cause it to suffer (and thus had an obligation to avoid such actions) was no less obvious.
So when we consider the earth's environmental crises what we must do is to recognize our own instrumental role in those crises and realize that unless we change our behavior the earth's deterioration will continue to reflect our own moral decline. In Oscar Wilde's The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, the character Dorian lives a dissolute life though never ages or experiences the least inconvenience, rather it is Dorian's portrait that undergoes a gradual decline in appearance. The natural environment is our canvas, while we mine the earth's resources to pursue that elusive material happiness, it is the environment that continues to degenerate in direct response to this pursuit. We purchase our happiness and the environment's expense. The problem is that we seem to be no happier, indeed appearances suggest the reverse.
Perhaps it is time to recognize the fundamental connection between ourselves and the natural environment and to realize that there is no need to live life as a zero sum game. Human happiness and the environment's preservation are compatible aims. What is essential though is that we each own that we are responsible and that we refuse to continue to be complicit in the environment's destruction. Will this be simple or painless? No, it will require radical changes in our mindsets as well as our behaviors. The essential realization though is that unless we do change there will be a point in time after which the environmental destruction will no longer be reversible and the inheritance we leave to future generations will be a mortgage beside which our current economic crises pale in comparison.Mark H. Dixon
Department of Philosophy & Religion
Ohio Northern University
A WGREN Meditation for the Week of January 18, 2009
At the end of last fall I seemed to be doing a lot of raking between the winds. Undertaking a needful task in circumstances that, shall we say, are not supportive? I'm sure you know what I mean. Someone observing this activity might well say, "What is that woman doing?" What they really want to know though is why I am doing this now, here, against the prevailing wind. There's a short answer to that question. Two, actually. It needs doing. And I'm tired of waiting for the "appropriate moment." I'm well past the age at which I believe in ideal circumstances. These days, my time and experiences are marked by conditions that were you reading an advertisement, say for pharmaceuticals or cars, would be both signaled and obscured by asterisks. I'm not tossing caution to the wind. Nor do I battle futility. What I'm attempting is the full engagement with the necessary under trying conditions. Bringing small piles of leaves together, gathering them up in my hands if all else fails. Acting with care and struggling to meaningfully use the prevailing winds.
Although the Wind
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
- Izumi Shikibu
Kathleen M. Dixon
A WGREN Meditation for the Week of January 11, 2009
I have been asked, lately, about the disposition of my papers.Papers
What do I say?
Between you and me, I do a lot of tearing up and starting fires.
So I put off answering.
Then I heard this, from a wonderful person/writer who,
when he's finished, takes all the revised pages into the forest and buries them.
Always there are people in the world
who can teach you something better
than your own best ideas.
in Portland, Winter, 2008, page 8.
Mary Oliver's wise humor in this poem can teach us a great deal. We can direct our thoughts along many paths using Oliver's metaphors as starting points. Which path shall we choose? Since most of us are accumulators of one sort or another, perhaps we could benefit from considering the ethics of accumulation. Many of us are "collectors." We accumulate books, stamps, dolls, even ideas, into collections which we proudly display, and just looking over the items in our holdings fills us with a satisfying joy. Many people, instead, are "storehouses." They accumulate for the joy of the chase, but afterwards look for the nearest space in their closets to store their trophies before starting on the hunt again. Many people are "growers," accumulating materials and objects as fertile earth from which their own creations might develop. Some people choose to be "pipelines:" For each item they accumulate, they give up ownership of one item. Whether we are collectors, storehouses, pipelines, or growers, though, the question ultimately arises about the disposition of our stuff. Certainly recycling, as Oliver wryly points out, merits our consideration. But the ways of letting go are as varied as the reasons for accumulating, and we can certainly learn much from others. We can also learn much from Nature which has given us the raw materials of our accumulations. Here in January we are in the middle of Nature's great season of recycling. Let me suggest a leisurely stroll through some wooded area one afternoon this week. Take some time to quiet your busy thoughts and then become mindful of all the ways you see Nature recycling. When you return to the warmth of your home, some of what you have learned may inform your own cycles of getting and letting go. You might even develop your own answer to the question: Shall I burn or bury?Bill Fuller
Department of Mathematics
Ohio Northern University
A WGREN Meditation for the Week of January 4, 2009
I heard an unusual knocking in the wood today. Not the clacking of the top branches of neighboring trees brought together by the wind. This was a deeper and more resonant sound. Pausing, I thought, "That comes from within the tree." But it is too early and too cold for the sap to be rising. Walking further, I realized the sound reminded me of one my femur makes when it shifts unwillingly in the socket of my pelvis as I move through asana. Was this wood also being slowly cracked open?
I heard the sound again from a tree beside me. I stopped to listen and searched the length of the tree for its source. Would getting closer help? I put my hands on each side of the trunk and brought my ear closer to the wood. I realized I was holding myself stiffly away, as though I were awkwardly clasping an old but now distant friend at a reunion. I allowed myself to soften to the tree, now in an intimate embrace. As I waited for the sound, I examined its surface. The runnels of its bark were deep enough to hide my probing fingers. Release of a full breath pressed my cheek against its dark calluses. I didn't hear the sound again. Perhaps the warmth of my body made some subtle difference. Who can tell? But this exploration revealed remarkable sensations, a deep and mutual touching.
As I moved away, I looked with care at the old trees around me. I have a natural affinity for them. No longer straight myself, I am similarly weathered by time and storms. No crows' feet mark this wood, but their skin is stippled by turkey tail fungus. Instead of love handles, plate fungi provide a resting place for small mammals. I paid special attention to the many holes in their trunks made by insects and birds. Tiny and shallow indentations girdled the wood. Quite a few had subsequently been widened by the avid teeth of the squirrels. Some were opened further by time, which will when we allow it, make a place inside us for others to safely dwell. May all our scars be thus redeemed.Kathleen M. Dixon