Saturday, October 03, 2009

Reflections on Thomas Berry Memorial at St. John the Divine in New York

Dear Friends,

I'd like to share my reflections with you on this memoria
l service. I took no notes, so I am relying on what stands most clearly in my memory from a week ago. These are only highlights of many remarkable expressions from the speakers and artists there. I hope it imparts something of how special this memorial was and of my gratitude to the organizers for the opportunity to celebrate, grieve, and honor a great man.

Earth is Primary, the Human Derivative:
Reflections on the Thomas Berry Award and Memorial Service
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Cathedral of St. John the Divine

As I walked through the massive front entrance of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I knew I was passing through a portal. It wasn’t just that the cathedral was a sacred space and was so inspiring in its soaring arches and stained glass. It was as
much why we were there and who we were. It was passage into sacred time as a community drawn and held by a common passion. There were familiar faces of colleagues and friends from my years as editor of EarthLight magazine, but many more were faces I did not recognize. We were all there to honor the passage of our greatest elder. To celebrate his life, perhaps to begin to glimpse a way to carry forward his work on Earth.

The program began with a processional and with dancers weaving through the crowd, trailing banners that symbolized life on Earth and the water planet. Organ strains pulsed through the cavernous space.

As people began to speak, I began to identify a unifying theme throughout: To find the wisdom to go forward, we need to go back; back to a more primal knowledge, to the source of our identity as a species.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, scholar at Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, spoke from he
r long history with Thomas – first as student, then friend, colleague, and editor of his writings. Even with the impressive scope of his intellect and depth of his knowledge as a cultural historian, she said, he never lost touch with a more primary consciousness, what she called “migratory” knowledge. By way of illustration, she spoke of the red knot sandpiper which breeds far in the northern Arctic. After they hatch and are old enough to fly, the young sandpipers begin their migration, preceding the adult sandpipers. Even so, the young birds follow the age old routes and stop off where sandpipers have always stopped. They know without learning it from their parents. They draw on their genetic inheritance.

Thomas drew on that kind of knowledge, bred in the bone, never lost touch with it, she said. And more importantly, he found a way to share it, along with his more scholarly insights. It occurs to me that this is what might be what drew so many to his writings. They touched on something age old and lost within us. (I recently gave a copy of Dream of the Earth to a colleague of mine in water conservation at the water utility where I currently work. He said that after years of environmental work and feeling burned out, this book has changed his life and given him renewed energy for his work.) In a related vein, Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm spoke of one of Thomas’s deepest insights that it was our genetic coding we need to consult for guidance, that cultural knowledge is not enough.

Brian Swimme shared both humorous and insightful stories about Thomas. He spoke of a time early on in his relationship with Thomas when Brian was excitedly telling him that what he really wanted to do was to reach “enlightenment.” Thomas looked at him and said, “ok…but why aim so low? What is really more important for the human, at this time in history, is to create mutually enhancing relations with the non-human Earth community.”

He also related a story of being at a conference with Thomas and others which focused on a discussion of the role of the Hero down through human history, including what heroes are there today, what heroes are needed? After providing what Brian said was a remarkable summation of all that was said at the conference, Thomas began speaking about Earth’s biodiversity. He ended his summation by calling attention to a singing bird outside and said, “that singing bird is the hero of the new story.”

On another occasion, Brian was passionately telling Thomas, over a cup of coffee in a café, that he had figured out the source of the problem in industrial society and what needed to be done. We don’t truly account for the cost of anything, he said. If the price we pay for things were brought into sync with the true costs, we would consume much less and we would stop the assault on the natural world. Thomas was silent for a while, then brought Brian’s attention to the waitress. Her act of bringing them a cup of coffee was one of infinite generosity. Further, he said, it took the entire Universe to bring them the cup of coffee in front of them. “Brian,” he said, “you will never be able to fully pay for that cup of coffee.”

Paul Winter was there and played an awesomely beautiful saxophone solo that broke me open. His music also seemed to be a journey back to a more primary knowledge through sound. I looked upward and around and thought of Thomas’s image of the throat of the wolf howling, so like the soaring cavern of the cathedral. It was an image that many evoked during the service and is also the image on the cover of a new anthology of writings. Produced by Herman Greene (who was present at the service) and friends at the Center for Ecozoic Studies, the anthology is a moving tribute to Thomas Berry by dozens of people from all walks of life.

What I noticed throughout the service, was a realization that Thomas represented an older, deeper, more primary source of wisdom, one we need so much today. He brought that out in people, gave expression to the unexpressed in so many of us, made us feel less alone, less alienated, perhaps a little less sorrowful and more hopeful about what we can do about the desecration of the planet.

A few days after I returned from the service, I was experiencing some despair over what I considered to be some key failures in my life. I was grieving lost opportunities, times when I was overcome by fear and shrank back from truly engaging with life, regretting decisions and actions that seemed shortsighted as I thought back on them. I was trying to give expression to all of this to Diana, my partner. She listened, then simply asked me, “what would Thomas tell you?” I was silent for a while, and then it came to me: go to the Earth for guidance. Trust the Universe, because you are the Universe trying to give birth, through you, to one more strand of its diverse expression. There is no need to be afraid.

Then Diana asked me, “and what does the Earth tell you?” After a few moments, what came was so clear. It seemed like the kind of older wisdom that so many were referring to in the memorial for Thomas. Let me share my response as a poem:


Be like a tree. Stay rooted in the dream.
Give yourself fully to the changing seasons.
There is a time to leaf and flower,
A time to release and be dormant.

A tree doesn’t worry or fret
about whether it is an oak or a bay laurel,
a sycamore or an elm.
It gives itself fully to its aliveness.

A tree doesn’t worry about success or failure,
because they don’t exist.
They are only concepts in the mind.
Be like a tree. Hold your limbs upward
to beseech the sky.

I am grateful for the healing vision Thomas has given, both for my own healing and for that of the larger culture. May it endure for generations to come.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Poetry book now available

A collection of 95 of my poems is now available in a single volume. Most of these poems were composed over the past five years, but some are earlier works. They range from the sublime to the humorous, from the contemplative to the playful. A common thread runs through them all—a celebration of the natural world and the human spirit as an integral reality. I hope you'll find some inspiration and meaning in this first collection of my poetic work.

If you'd like to order the book, here is the link to my storefront.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cave Paintings


There was the great dark lake to cross.
Our torches sparkled its surface,
Brought forgotten news of how the Sun
has made a habit of hide and seek.
We knew we were moving toward a prayer
That would be rediscovered some day.
We smelled of burnt fat
And only had words for the firm things.
Names had their own lives
that came to us like visitors.

One day this hunch began happening.
A seam of rock stirred into the curve
Of stallion back or spiral of ibex horn;
haunch of auroch grew from a bulge of rock.
We held in our hands
The charcoal from our hearth
And the powder of ochre and oxide.
Fixed with their blood and our saliva.

We stood in the big room
Until some of us began dreaming of them—
The shapes of the above-world,
The herds moving as one body,
The chase and graze and buck,
The gambol and slink,
The kill and dying gasp and first suck.

Then there was the first reach
Or the first blow through a tube
Toward the rough, scarcely breathing rock,
Which received the pigment
Through pores made of light.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Spiritual Ecology: A Practice of the Heart

Spiritual Ecology: a Practice of the Heart

I am sitting along the shoreline of San Francisco Bay. As I pass the afternoon in contemplation, the mudflat before me slowly widens with the ebbing tide, drawing willets, stilts, curlews, and godwits in growing numbers. Brown pelicans and least terns cruise the shoreline, periodically free-falling into the water to feed on small fish. The air is alive with the smell of the sea and the sounds of gulls, and a fresh wind cools me. An occasional flock of sandpipers throws itself into the sky like a cast net, then circles, swooning back and forth over the silvery water of the channel several times before settling, each bird in perfect synchrony with the others, onto the shore again.

Watching this movement of birds gradually draws me into a state of reverie, and I remember one of my early inspirations. As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I had been fascinated by the relationship of landscape to the human imagination and was voraciously scouring everything I could find written on the topic. One day, I attended a talk by writer Barry Lopez, just after he had completed his book Arctic Dreams. Drawing on a passage from the book, he spoke of being at Tule Lake in the Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon border. He spoke of the flight of flocks of snow geese numbering in the tens of thousands, and how the sweep of one flock across the sky would interlock with that of a second flock with perfect grace, not one bird colliding with another.

My imagination soared with the simple elegance of this image. There was an intelligence there, and a spirit, I felt. (When I visited Tule Lake, years later, and witnessed the flight of snow geese, I felt it anew.) I thought back to my own experience of countless hours in the fields and forests of my home bio-region in the Midwest. I especially recalled a bright October day on the banks of the Des Moines River when migrating birds passed all day overhead, moving in and out of my sight and hearing like thoughts and images in those fragile moments between sleep and waking. Their movement and presence changed me.

I left the talk that day with a sense that I had found my calling. As a writer, I couldn't imagine a more compelling work than that of attempting to communicate the sacred interplay of landscape and human imagination. That calling would eventually converge with the mission of EarthLight, a magazine of spirituality and ecology started by West Coast Quakers.

EarthLight was founded from a conviction within the Friends community that the environmental challenges facing the Earth community are spiritual at their root. It was felt that this reality needed to be explored, discussed—and, more importantly—deeply felt, for lasting cultural transformation to take place. From that conviction, EarthLight grew to be a bridge-builder in many ways, with the practice of spiritual ecology as the common ground. I've come to know spiritual ecology as a practice that anyone, from any cultural background, religious tradition, or spiritual inclination can adopt. I also believe that it is a practice that can help us to face the tensions of our time in creative ways.

More than just a theory, spiritual ecology describes a way of being in the world. It is very ancient in the sense that peoples have lived it in many times and places. It is contemporary in that it integrates the discoveries of science and a new sense of our evolutionary story. It draws both from knowledge of the ecology of the planet and from deeper sensitivities to the spiritual dimension of the Earth. As such, it forms the basis for an ethical code of conduct. It brings us out of the trance of our human-centered wonder-world, expanding our circle of concern to include other species. We begin to see a relationship between our spiritual condition and the planetary ecological crisis. And from this discernment, we seek to cultivate a conscious, sustainable lifestyle of simplicity and ecological integrity.

These are some of the basic ideas of spiritual ecology. However, it is its actual practice that makes a difference in people's lives. One can speak of the spiritual ecology, for instance, of growing food. A diet which nourishes us, our gratitude, the health of growers, workers, and the land, the relationships of plants, pollinators, weather, soil, water, and energy flows through the system are all part of the spiritual ecology of growing of food. It is both ecological and sacred work. One can also speak of the spiritual ecology of child-rearing, communication, lovemaking, and city design through which our spirituality becomes integrated into everyday life.

For many indigenous peoples whose cultures are relatively intact today, spiritual ecology is such a practice, although these cultures would not generally use the term to describe what for them is a way of life. While you can't really apply all practices equally to the cultures of all indigenous peoples past and present, it is possible to distinguish a consistent orientation toward spiritual ecology as a way of life within these cultures worldwide. These include a sense of kinship that extends beyond the human, a systematic observation and knowledge of plants and animals passed from generation to generation through story and myth, the notion of a living planet and of Earth as Mother, sacredness of place, humans seen as just one part of a created order, and shamanic rites which draw on the primal powers of the natural world. These are present in all of us to some extent as indigenous mind.

While it is important not to overly idealize these cultures, we can recognize that their experience is an indispensable part of our human heritage, and a wisdom source we need very much to draw on at this time in history. There is indigenous mind in all of us. We all come out of some lineage, some ancient culture that was, at one time, in alignment with the powers and graces of the natural world. We don't need to go back to hunting and gathering and living on the land to access that wisdom. Just spending a little time in the natural world can awaken us from our psychological, cognitive, and spiritual sleep, opening us to the sacred wisdom that surrounds us.
We need this wisdom source to help us face the tensions of our time creatively. One of the deepest tensions we live with today is the one that arises from simultaneous feelings of profound grief and joyful inspiration.

We all have a sense of the loss and destruction brought to the planet by human activity. E.O. Wilson and other scientists have estimated that we are losing 20,000 species a year to extinction. "Ecological overshoot" has become a reality. Humanity now consumes over 20% more resources than the Earth can produce, causing rapid declines in wild animal populations. Human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations. Sixty per cent of the planet's ecosystem support systems have been severely degraded. The wetlands, forests, savannas, estuaries, coastal fisheries, and other habitats that recycle air, water, and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. Nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff has led to coastal dead zones measuring thousands of square miles. An estimated 12% of bird species, 25% of mammals and more than 30% of all amphibians are threatened with extinction within the next century. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater running off the land. Flow from rivers has been reduced dramatically. For parts of the year, the Yellow River in China, the Nile in Africa and the Colorado in North America dry up before they reach the ocean. An estimated 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators—tuna, swordfish and sharks—has disappeared in recent years. Since 1980, 20% of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20% badly degraded.

Our hearts are broken again and again when we hear these facts. "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?" writes poet Stanley Kunitz. Spiritual ecology is way of cultivating heart, of finding the courage (from the French coeur, or heart) to act. Instead of simply broken, we are broken open and become big-hearted and courageous, qualities needed to face loss creatively.

At the same time, there are sources of joyful inspiration which come from the growing community responding to the crisis and from having, for the first time, a common story of our origins. Scientifically based, this story tells us that the Universe isn't simply a place or a vast mechanism, but a sacred story, an event in which we play a meaningful part. It's a story that continues to unfold with greater beauty and complexity over time. Points of transformation in this story have brought about moments of grace in the face of crisis; we may be living in just such a moment. We are key characters in the narrative of the Universe, a purposeful event permeated with intelligence. Perhaps even more importantly, we have seen the planet as a whole. We've seen the NASA photos and they have permanently shifted human consciousness.

We can also take heart in evidence of a kind of "Earth sangha," to draw on a Buddhist term for spiritual community, that I saw mature over the ten years I was privileged to edit EarthLight. I've seen this "sangha" forming through the acts of hundreds of individuals. I've seen it in the emergence of initiatives like the International Forum on Globalization, an alliance of activists, economists, scientists, and writers from over 20 countries that formed to question the assumption that globalization is inevitable and to explore local, community-based economies as an alternative.

The Bioneers conference, organized by Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, is another such initiative that took root during this time. EarthLight was a partner with Bioneers from their very early years and served to bring a spiritual influence to the conference's "visionary and practical solutions for restoring the Earth." The conference has grown to over 3,000 participants each year and now organizes satellite conferences in dozens of other locations simultaneously.

The Forum on Religion and Ecology grew out of a series of conferences organized by religious scholars (and EarthLight advisors) Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim on the topic. The conference series, focusing on eleven major world religion traditions, led to the publication of books on religion and ecology based on each tradition.

When I first began this work in 1995, there were only a handful of centers like Genesis Farm in New Jersey, founded by Dominican sister Miriam MacGillis, that integrated ecology and cosmology into a spiritual vision of the land. EarthLight, in its final four issues, published a directory of over 60 such centers. More have been identified since then (see the link on my website at

These and other initiatives comprise the growing movement dedicated to cultivating "mutually-enhancing relations" with Earth's community of species, as envisioned by cultural historian Thomas Berry years ago. Like the elegant sweep of birds in the Klamath basin, we are all part of a larger body of unique voices and sensitivities dedicated to the well-being of the unborn. We are brought together in the communion of the whole through our shared love for the planet.

Ultimately, spiritual ecology comes down to what we each can do, from moment to moment, to support this vision. Perhaps the most simple and yet most powerful act of spiritual ecology is the bow. The bow is an act of humility and reverence and it can be carried out anywhere, at any time. It draws the recipient into our compass of gratitude and says: "I hold you, as part of the sacred community, in my widening circle of compassion and concern." For the significance of the bow, I return again to writer Barry Lopez: "The bow is a technique of awareness. We often address the physical dimensions of landscape, but they are inseparable from the spiritual dimensions. It is in dismissing the spiritual dimensions that we are able to behave like barbarians. If the land is incorporated into the same moral universe that you occupy, then your bow is an acknowledgement of your participation in that universe and a recognition that all you bow to is included in your moral universe. If you behave as though there were no spiritual dimension to the place, then you can treat the place like an object."

In the spirit, I bow to the Earth and her family of species, and with that gesture, I both celebrate and grieve with my larger family, the one that sustains me and is the richest source of my imagination.

Spiritual ecology is a creative response in a time of crisis and opportunity. I end with one of my poems about the source of that creativity, the wildness found in both our inner and outer landscapes. The interplay of those landscapes with the human imagination can form the fertile ground for a new way of being human.

The Good Story

The wild will come to you
Like a good story
Peopled with creatures
If you are still long enough

Like a gift of grace, a giving
That renews the marrow
And provides a home

For those occupied with alien stories
For those distracted by the search.

We have too long been occupied and distracted with the alienating story of greed and consumption. May we find the stillness that, through a practice of spiritual ecology, will allow a new story to live among us.

This essay is the introduction to a new anthology based on writings from EarthLight, the magazine I edited for ten years. For more information and to order the anthology, go to

i. The Living Planet Report, issued by the World Wildlife Fund in September, 2004 using scientific analysis from the Global Footprint Network.
ii. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a report issued by the United Nations in May, 2005, involving over 1,300 researchers from 95 nations. The report is the most comprehensive survey ever into the state of the planet.
iii. Sierra Magazine, Nov./Dec 1998, "On Sacred Ground: Writer Barry Lopez Respects Alaskan Environment," by Nicholas O'Connell.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tule Coyote


In the light of early evening
I see their dark shapes move
Like the shadows of clouds move
Across the shorn golden fields.
Probably deer, I think,
Until they turn, and their
Intelligent, hunted faces
Pierce me with a gaze
That says it has learned
The power of the gun
In just three short centuries of war.

Here, where 100,000 acres
Of water rose and fell,
Came and went
In a rhythm
That called millions of birds,
that shaped migrations,
that had a mind,
The coyote stalks
The cultivated rows
the edges of history,
the dikes that create a new frame
Around ancient cycles,
around what is left,
just 13,000 acres.
Their dark shapes hunt the dry brush,
Muzzle through grassy havens,
Size up the new contours
Of marsh, crop, roads.

Overhead, scattered wisps of a once
Great body of geese
Snake across the face
Of the moon, rising.
Wheeling over phantom waters,
They search the land below, remembering,
as the coyote remembers,
as something inside me remembers.
How the vast mind falters,
While the waters
Wait like faithful dogs,
Listening for the master's return.

—Tule Lake, Calf., February, 2006

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Water Ouzel

I wrote the following poem after spending over an hour watching a bird that is common to the Sierra streams called the water ouzel. The ouzel is very much at home in the fast, churning waters of the high Sierra streams, so much so that I called the poem "Ouzel Country."


The skin of the stream stretches
and contorts across the fine
shapely tracks of its bed.
Taut and smooth over the young pools,
then wrinkling forth
into a confusion of rocks,
dividing into cracks like pine bark.
Hormonal rapids spew passsion
across shoals, their gush
dies out into liquid ease.

The ouzel negotiates all this
water busyness with insouciance
in the face of ripple and roar.
A quick rock curtsey, a flutter
of underwater wings, vestigial
oars and rudder tail. She rifles
through riffles, dives into that
conversation between snowmelt,
granite, gravity, current,
bobs up and out...and in again.

The lodgepoles drop in their triplets
of brown needles, and above, the aspens,
their perfect leaves, yellow
as infant suns, turning.

In our chairs on the bank,
feeling it all swim, we are
in some world that prevails,
fed from the tick of rock,
the tock of ice, the glacial
heartbeat, old, measured.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The New Stewards

Today I took part in a ceremony in Dimond Park near my home in Oakland. This event wasn't a celebration of a holiday or a birthday or the usual kinds of park activities. It was a celebration of one of the park's residents. And not just any resident, but, one might argue, the elder of this diverse Oakland neighborhood. People came together to honor what many believe to be the oldest live oak tree in Oakland.

The tree drew attention after a City of Oakland crew showed up one day and began preparing to cut the tree down. Certain resident s noticed, temporarily halted the work, and word spread that the oldest tree in Oakland was in jeopardy. The city claims it is diseased to the point where it will fall on its own. It could hurt someone. Some claim the tree can be saved and are attempting to rally the local city council member to their cause.

People shared stories about growing up with the tree. Some recited poetry. One woman offered a list of names, part of the "hundreds of names this tree must have had over the years": oldest oak, champagne oak, dying oak, and chickadee oak among them. Others gave tobacco offerings and burnt sage and sweetgrass in gratitude for the tree's presence. Native peoples from the local area came, drummed, and chanted, then spoke eloquently about trees as "standing people" and spoke knowledgeably of the ecology of oaks and their connection to the larger family of beings.

A Native American woman spoke of the history of the native peoples of the area, their intimate relationship to the oak, their presence when it began growing. She spoke also of the cruelty of the conquering Spaniards, driving the people out of the area, offering 25 cents per scalp. "The pain of this ground is still here because of the denial of the injustice and suffering of the past," she spoke. Then she started a beautiful chant asking the blessing of the tree and blessing it in return.

Her final word was of gratitude to the people in the neighborhood who had gathered, who cared about the fate of the oak, and had come to honor and bless it. "They are the new stewards of this land," she said, "the elders are gone. We are the one who must be the new stewards."

That people could come together in the midst of a city as troubled with violence and injustice as is Oakland and honor an other-than-human elder is remarkable. The old oak, whatever its fate, has brought together a community, has elicited a new sensibility that is itself perhaps now just an acorn beginning to sprout. That is the sense that we can be of the Earth again, that we can care for the land, that we will remember the value of each member of the Earth community, and remember what has come before.

I circled the tree with my hand trailing across its rough and crevassed bark. The tingle in my hand brought up the memory of a poem I wrote some years ago. It was a poem about listening to the life passage of trees to remind us that we are the planet's dream as it conceives.

A poem:


The old ones,
The ones who move among trees
As if through conversation, said:

While we are here,
Be mindful.
The Earth is conceiving
And you are the dream
Never before dreamed
Moving as you are: upright
From the brooding thought of forest
Onto the sunlit imagination of savanna.

Be mindful; The heron knows
Your passing, even as her eye
Is to the stone
And the watery dance
Of shadow with minnow
At her feet.

Be mindful; If you want to know
The security of roads, leave them,
Let your skin dance
With the hiss of grasses,
Lie back on the embrace of breezes.

Be awake. The Earth,
Is conceiving and you are
Now the passing dream; take time
To listen to the migration of lone trees,
To their unending conversation
With soil and sun, with the sheltering sky.