Sacred Matter
Chapter 8 of David Suzuki’s “The Sacred Balance”, 1997

Soul clap its bands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

Meeting basic, inalienable physical needs is just the beginning of human well-being. As we have seen, denial of love, companionship and community causes serious, sometimes fatal damage to a developing human being. But beyond physical and social needs, we have yet another need, one that is just as vital to our long-term health and happiness. It is a need that encompasses all the rest, an aspect of human life that is so mysterious it is often disregarded or denied. Like air and water, like the love and companionship of our kind, we need spiritual connection; we need to understand where we belong.

Our stories tell us where we come from and why we are here. In the beginning, these stories say, there was water, and then there was sky and fire, there was Earth, and there was life. We humans crawled out of the womb of the planet, or we were shaped out of clay and water, carved from twigs, compounded of seeds and ashes, or hatched fr om the cosmic egg. One way or another, we were made from the sacred elements that together compose the Earth. We are made from the Earth, we breathe it in with every breath we take, we drink it and eat it, and we share the same spark that animates the whole planet. Our stories tell us this, and so does our science.

According to our myths we were made for a variety of purposes. We are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, like all other living things; to rejoice and give thanks to the creator; to name and care for the wonders of creation, or simply to give voice to them. Spider Woman in the Hopi myth says to Sotuknang, the manifest god: “As you have commanded me 1 have created these First People. They are fully and firmly formed; they are properly coloured; they have life; they have movement. But they cannot talk. That is the proper thing they lack. So 1 want you to give them speech. Also the wisdom and power to reproduce, so that they may enjoy their life, and give thanks to the Creator.”

Creation stories create, or re-create, the world human beings live in, shape what we see and suggest the rules by which we should live. Unbelievably numerous and diverse, these tales of the Beginning of Everything are considered by the peoples that live by them the most sacred of all the stories, the origin of all the others. Myths help us to reconcile conflicts and contradictions and describe a coherent reality. They make a meaning that holds the group together and express a set of beliefs; even in our skeptical society, we live by myths that lie so deep we believe them to be reality.

As well as telling us where we come from, our myths also tell us that something went badly wrong, that we humans have been exiled from home, ousted from the garden. Many different stories describe how we lost our place in the harmony of creation. the first man and the first woman ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, believing it would make them like gods. Prometheus stole the sacred fire that was reserved for the gods, and drew down punishment on men. Many African myths tell a similar tale: “All the animals watched to see what the people would do. They made fire. They rubbed two sticks together in a special way and thus made fire. The fire caught in the bush and roared through the forest and the animals had to run to escape the flames.” In this story from the Yao in northern Mozambique humans brought fire and killing to “the decent peaceful beasts.” This cruelty drove the gods themselves from the face of the Earth. Most belief systems include such stories, describing how we disobeyed the go ds, tricked them, tried to be like them, flouted. heaven. Acting differently from the rest of creation, separating ourselves from divine will, we broke the harmony. Because the story of our fall is common to most cultures, the problem must be human, not cultural. We live in a world where things go wrong, where conflict and tragedy are common, where we are often lonely and confused, and our myths give us reasons for this disorder.

What makes us so different from other creatures on Earth? Disobedience, quarrelsomeness, ambition, greed-these are the crimes, we tell ourselves, that have set us apart from the rest of nature. But they may be the consequences of being conscious. Consciousness and its creation, culture, are the primary adaptive tools of human beings. Our giant brain allows us to see patterns by discerning repetition, similarity, and difference. From this we gain history and we gain foresight — we can plan. Because we can learn from experience, we can teach our children more than we knew when we were their age. We can change more rapidly than evolution would allow us to, responding to threats by drawing from our experience and deciding to alter the way we live.

Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
-T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land

But consciousness has its drawbacks. Conscious of time, we know our origin and our destiny: we know that we are doomed to die. That knowledge is always with us: the precious I, me, myself, the centre of each consciousness, will eventually disappear.

I lift my voice in wailing. I am afflicted, as I remember that we must leave the beautiful flowers, the noble songs; let us enjoy ourselves for a while, let us sing, for we must depart forever, we are to be destroyed in our dwelling place.
It is indeed known to our friends how it pains and angers me that never again can they be born, never again be young on this Earth.
Yet a little while with them here, then nevermore shall I be with them; nevermore enjoy them, nevermore know them.
Where shall my soul dwell? Where is my home? Where shall be my house? I am miserable on Earth.
We take, we unwind the jewels, the blue flowers are woven over the yellow ones, that we may give them to the children.
Let my soul be draped in various flowers; let it be intoxicated by them; for soon must I weeping go before the face of our Mother.
-Aztec Lamentation, in Margot Astrov, editor,
American Indian Prose and Poetry

Some deaths we understand to be temporary. As Earth rolls around the sun the seasons roll with it, and humans have learned from them that nature’s death precedes rebirth. Perhaps the Eden of our myths was the tropical region in which we first evolved, where the sun never slips down the sky in winter, the air is always warm and humid, and the trees bear fruit in a measured endless sequence. Since we dispersed into temperate regions and beyond we have watched the leaves fall, endured the grip of winter and learned that spring will come again, with the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. But we have also seen age darken into death, watched children struck down, endured the loss of beloved individuals. Unlike the deaths of nature, our loss is permanent. As Shelley expresses it in his elegy Adonais, “Ah woe is me! Winter is come and gone,/ But grief returns with the revolving year.” Time in nature is cyclical or cumulative; human time is linear. Because of this contradiction between the recurrence of nature and the finality of our own fate we reach for something eternal, something absolute, unchanging, outside time: the essential me-ness of me, the soul, the spirit. Without water, air, energy, food, without other forms of life and other human beings, we die. But we are just as crucially dependent on the idea of spirit. Without that we are truly doomed, drowned in time and change, forced to watch the gap between now and the end as it inexorably shrinks. Friends, family, all the joys and beauty of life are threatened by time and death, and we need spirit to heal that sorrowful knowledge.

“Spirit” is a powerful, mysterious word; in English its meanings spread like an invisible web through every level of existence. It is air, as we saw in an earlier chapter, it is breath, and by extension it is life and it is speech. It is the power of divine creation, moving over the waters, and it is divinity itself-the Great Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Lord of All. Spirits are volatile, invisible, powerful, and some are eternal. They may intoxicate, invigorate, inhabit, haunt, or they may express the essence of something. Above all, they animate the world-make it holy. “Spirituality,” as we conceive it, is the apprehension of the sacred, the holy, the divine. In our modern world we see matter and spirit as antithetical, but our myths reveal a different understanding. They describe a world permeated by spirit, where matter and spirit are simply different aspects of the totality: together they constitute “being.” All cultures have believed in power beyond human power, in life beyond death, in spirit. Many have believed in an animated, inhabited, sacred world surrounding them, the natural world that constitutes reality. These beliefs restore our sense of belonging, of being-with, which is threatened by our dividing, conquering brain; they provide us with rules and rituals for restoring the harmony, for re-entering and celebrating the world we are part of. The mythmaking of our mind, its ability to find coherence in chaos, to create meaning, may be our species’ antidote to the risks of consciousness-a cure for death.


Traditional cultures live in an animated world. Mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, winds and the sun may all have their presiding deities, while each tree, stone and animal may have, or be, a spirit. The spirits of the dead, or of the unborn, may also be eternally present, acting powerfully in the living world, part of the endless circle of time. Such worldviews may see all death, including that of humans, as simply one stage in the continuum of birth, life, death and rebirth that we see in nature. Human beings are included in this totality of creation, participating in various ways in the creative mind of the living Earth. Instead of being separated from the world because of their unique consciousness, they belong to a conscious world in which everything interacts with everything else in a process of continual creation. Contained within this worldview are the rituals that allow wrongs to be righted, spirits to be propitiated, the world to unfold as it ought. These rituals are the responsibility of the human part of creation (perhaps because the disruptions are often caused by us).

The traditional worldview of Hawaiians is just one of innumerable examples of this kind of worldview. Michael Koni Dudley summarizes a portion of these beliefs: “Hawaiians traditionally have viewed the entire world as being alive in the ,same way that humans are alive. They have thought of all of nature as conscious-able to know and act-and able to interrelate with humans.... Hawaiians also viewed the land, the sky, the sea, and all the other species of nature preceding them as family-as conscious ancestral beings who had evolved earlier on the evolutionary ladder, who cared for and protected humans, and who deserved similar treatment (aloba'aina [love for the land]) in return.”

Similarly, Australian Aborigines live in a land that is constantly created, partly by their agency. The Ancestors sang the world into existence in the Dream Time. Now, as ecologist David Kingsley describes, contemporary Aborigines “have the responsibility of perpetuating the sacred character of the land by re-creating it, or remembering it,” using the same songs, handed down through the generations. An Aboriginal woman becomes pregnant when she passes a sacred part of the landscape and a spirit ancestor decides to enter her. The spirit grows to term and is born into the world as a human being. “That is, every human being is in some essential way a spirit of the land, a being who has an eternal, intimate connection with the land. He or she is an incarnate spirit of the land, living temporarily in human shape and form.” To know that person’s true identity, Aborigines have to discover from which sacred site the spirit ancestor came. “A person is not simply the offspring of his or her physical parents. Each individual is primarily an incarnation of the land, a spirit being who belongs intimately and specifically to the local geography. Their beliefs concerning spirit impregnation are an unambiguous statement that human beings are rooted to the land and will become disoriented, suffer, and ultimately die if uprooted and transported outside the location of their birth.”

All religions explore the place of people in the natural and social worlds around them. They provide explanations for mysteries such as death and disorder, and use myths and moral teachings to relate human and, non-human spheres. The earliest forms of contemporary world religions, such as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, presented an animated, integrated world similar to that of traditional worldviews. As Lao Tzu puts it in the Tao Te Ching:

The virtue of the universe is wholeness, It regards all things as equal.

But some of those world religions have shifted ground over the past centuries, supporting the development of a very different picture of reality and our place in it.


Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems not-holy. We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in e high places and along the banks of the sacred streams. We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism.
-Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

Here in the West we have exorcised the spirits and cut ourselves loose from the living web of the world. Instead of seeing ourselves as physically and spiritually connected to family, clan and land, we now live chiefly by the mind, as separate individuals acting on and relating to other separate individuals and on a lifeless, dumb world beyond the body. Applying our mind to the matter around us, we have produced an extraordinary material culture: cities and highways and toasters and blenders, computer technology, medical technology, paper clips, assault rifles and television sets. But we find ourselves separated, fragmented, lonely, fearful of death. We have coined a word for this state of mind: “alienation,” which means being estranged. We are strangers in the world; we no longer belong. Because it is separated from us we can act on it, abstract from it, use it, take it apart; we can wreck it, because it is another, it is alien. We may feel despair, grief and guilt about the damage we cause-but we seem unable to change the way we live. How has this happened? Is it because we have lost our religion? Or is that a consequence rather than a cause? Perhaps it is the inevitable consequence of “modernization,” as human societies have moved away from immediate dependence upon the land.

That movement away from the natural world was made possible by a quite remarkable train of thought-the ideas that shaped our civilization. Today we take those ideas so much for granted that we see them not as ideas (which can be rethought, revised, discarded) but as reality. Many thinkers trace the origins of our particular and violent fall from grace, our exile from the garden, back to Plato and Aristotle, who began a powerful process of separating the world-as-abstract-principle from the world-as-experience-dividing mind, that is, from body, and human beings from the world they inhabit. In the process they laid the groundwork for experimental science.

Through Galileo, who identified the language of nature as mathematics (an abstract language invented by humans), and Descartes, who learned to speak that language powerfully, the modern world emerges. Descartes’s famous definition of existence (“I think, therefore 1 am”) completes a new myth about our relationship to the world: human beings are the things that think (the only things, and that is all they are), and the rest of the world is ma de up of things that can be measured (or “thought about”). Subject or object, mind or body, matter or spirit: this is the dual world we have inhabited ever since-where the brain’s ability to distinguish and classify has ruled the roost. From this duality come the ideas we live by, what William Blake called “mind forg'd manacles,” the mental abstractions that seem too obvious to question, that construct and confine our vision of reality.

Once upon a time-but this is neither a fairy tale nor a bedtime story-we knew less about the natural world than we do today. Much less. But we understood that world better, much better, for we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.
Most of us have wandered far from our earlier understanding, from our long-ago intimacy. We take for granted what our ancestors could not, dared not, take for granted; we have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons. Nor, acknowledging our loss, can we simply reverse course, pretend to innocence in order to rediscover intimacy. Too much has intervened.
-Daniel Swartz, “Jews, Jewish Texts and Nature”

This divided world places each of us as a mind inside the limits of our bodies. This, we believe, is the edge of me, this layer of skin; this is the organism I propel through the world, surrounded by things, receiving sensory messages-smells, tastes, sights-through various orifices and nerve endings, which may help me to know the world outside, or may turn out to be dangerous misconceptions. This idea of the body as a machine-quite new in the history of our species-has produced technology to remedy its limits: more machines to extend the reach, accelerate the motion, and magnify the strength and sensory acuity of this body-machine as it acts on the world beyond. Mind within body-the ghost in the machine — that is what our culture teaches us we are, what we accept as obvious and normal and real.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, “You are not true. “
-Richard Wilbur, “Epistemology”

Trapped in this body, we are caught in the very thing we fear most-mortality. Although modern medicine does its best, it too is part of the same cultural worldview; it works within the separated dual world. Modern medicine has no limits or boundaries to guide its path. Instead, its overriding imperative seems to be if it can be done, it must be done. For medicine, biological limits are a challenge to be overcome-when a 1-kilogram premature infant can be helped to survive, a 0.5-kilogram infant becomes the next possibility. If surgery can correct congenital defects in an infant, then the techniques that are used enable foetal surgery to take place. Cesarian deliveries, hormone-induced multiple ovulation, in vitro fertilization, embryo transplants- they all elevate the scientist-doctor to a directing role in the intimate process of reproduction and development. At the other end of our life, the process of ageing is often portrayed as a disease, a breakdown of organ, tissue or genetic systems, a flaw in the machine. Once it is viewed as an abnormality, ageing becomes a challenge or a disgrace rather than an honourable and admirable stage in human life.

For perhaps the first time the landscape of meaning is supplanted by the landscape of fact. Before the Renaissance human beings, like other creatures, occupied a qualitatively heterogenous world, riddled with significant places. Only the offspring of the Renaissance have ever imagined it to be all the same, neutral matter for transformation and exploitation. This they accomplished by scraping all traces of value from the environment and vesting it solely within the boundaries of the ego. The result is an aggrandizement of the individual human being and the creation of a bare and bleached environment.
-Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien

Eventually the body must weaken and die-the machine wears out. When it does, the ghost must disappear. These are the consequences not of mortality but of the way we think about it. Divided from each other, we try to make contact beyond our own limited selves, struggle to construct and maintain a community in a world designed around the individual, search for lasting connection. Separated from the natural world, we are lonely, destructive and guilty-but our solutions to environmental destruction are crafted within the frame of mind that created the division and isolation. “Saving nature” because it makes economic sense, because the natural world may contain drugs to heal human ills or even because doing so is “natural justice"-these are all arguments from the Cartesian world, where mind acts on the world, observing, analyzing, quantifying. Above all, they are arguments, and in every argument there is a winner and a loser.

Cold and austere, proposing no explanation but imposing an ascetic renunciation of all other spiritual fare, this idea [that objective knowledge is the only source of truth] was not of a kind to allay anxiety, but aggravated it instead. By a single stroke it claimed to sweep away the tradition of a hundred thousand years, which had become one with human nature itself. It wrote an end to the ancient animist covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in the place of that precious bond but an anxious quest in a frozen universe of solitude.
-Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity

The scientific method is a refinement of the way we in the Western world learn to see and understand the world from the beginning of life to its end, cleared (as we are taught) of all the confusions and irrelevancies of transitory personal experience. Modern science confirms and re-enacts this picture of reality, examining and exploring nature piece by piece, in the hopes of reassembling it into an intelligible, rational abstract system that contains everything-that-is. It is as if we have embraced the risks of consciousness, sent ourselves into exile to abstract the meaning and the value of the world. At the same time we have repudiated the forgotten rituals and sacrifices that would heal the wound.

Today there are many signs that our culture is starting to reconsider its drive to colonize and exploit the rest of the planet. The search for spiritual reconciliation is taking many different forms: finding virtue in crystals, looking for guidance from the movement of the planets, submitting to the demands of sects and cults, seeking rebirth in new forms of old religions, making pilgrimages, gathering at sacred sites. All these, and many other expeditions into the “ supernatural “ or “ paranormal, “ represent a widespread, deeply felt longing for wholeness and purpose on this Earth. Theologians and ecologists are finding common ground as they explore the need to recognize the -sacred in the here-and-now, rather than in the hereafter, and try to help human beings return home to their place in creation.


Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They ... have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, their dreams.
-Lame Deer, quoted in D. M. Levin, The Body’s Recollection of Being:
Phenomenal Psychology and the Deconstruction of Nihilism

Millions of years of ancestral experience are stored up in the instinctive reactions of organic matter, and in the functions of the body there is incorporated a living knowledge, almost universal in scope....
-Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness

How can we re-enter the world, restore its spirits and celebrate the sacred? Psychologist David Michael Levin believes we must begin by re-entering the body, exploring the way technology has cut us off from the body’s wisdom. All human stories work to weave meaning and order out of disjunction and confusion, but the story told by the Western world specifically excludes human experience as a source of truth. We assert an “objective reality,” made of abstract universal principles, which is more correct, more accurate than the messy sensory world we experience daily. But that sensory world is the one we are part of, which penetrates us, and which we create and re-create continually. just a moment’s thought reveals how “subjective” the world actually is. Walk your garden in midsummer and watch how it moves and changes around you. Each plant has a history known to you-where it came from, who brought it to the garden, where else it has grown, how it has thrived. Each plant is dense with relationships made and sustained by your consciousness, like a field of meaning extending through time and space. Flowerbeds grow other meanings as well: some speak directly to you-of success, perhaps, or reproach for weeding or pruning still undone-others hint at possibilities, at relationships with other parts of the garden world. Do the colours changing on that leaf describe the chemistry of the soil, or do they signal the arrival of another organism-a mildew, perhaps, or a fungus? Ants always crawl on the peony’s fat buds; how do they affect the flower? A multitude of living beings, including the gardener, create and maintain that field of meaning-butterflies, birds, insects, soil organisms, moving and acting in their own sphere, intersecting with each other, intent, purposive, beautiful. Is this “objective reality"? Of course not. Is it reality? Of course.

For if our body is the matter upon which our consciousness applies itself, it is coextensive with our consciousness. It includes everything that we perceive; it extends unto the stars.
-Henri Bergson, quoted in D. M. Levin, The Body’s Recollection of Being: Phenomenal Psychology and the Deconstruction of Nihilism

Attending to our experience, putting spirit back into the fingertips, allows us to redefine consciousness-instead of being trapped inside the mind it becomes a reach, a region of care, the conversation we have with the garden around us. “The conversation of mankind,” according to ecologist Joseph Meeker, “is an open and continuing dialogue that connects our bodies and minds intimately with the processes of nature that permeate all life forms.” Like any other dialogue, it requires attention, he believes:

Learning to converse well with the world can begin by listening carefully to the messages sent ceaselessly by our bodies and by the other forms of life that share this planet. The best conversations are still those that play variations on that great and ancient theme, “I'm here; Where are you?”

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your band,
And Eternity in an hour.
-William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

We long to escape death, so we reject the mortal body and its communication with the world around it and search for abstract, eternal knowledge. But science-as well as our myths-tells us where immortality lies: it lies in the world we belong to, in the matter we are made from. Matter is not mortal; as we have seen earlier, matter is not transitory, it is transformational, it moves through time and space, from form to form, but it is never lost. We know about this kind of immortality. our intimations of it take a million bodily forms-the curve of the child’s head inherited from his great-grandfather, the familiar posture of the woman sweeping, passed down since time immemorial, the hand raised in farewell, the curve of the lips smiling a greeting; these are the genetic and social ways we humans endure forever. But the transformation of our personal matter extends beyond the genetic and social world of humans; the material each one of us is made from comes from and goes to the, world around us. In “Transformations” Thomas Hardy expresses a homely version of this endless process:

Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew, Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife, A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot....

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound in the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain, And the energy again
That made them what they were!

Not dead matter, but alive as nerves and veins, senses and energy, the human couple is still participating in the consciousness, the being of Earth. Re-entering the body reanimates the world around us; the spirits return to the sacred grove.

Obituary, May 8,1994

Carr Kaoru Suzuki died peacefully on May 8th. He was eighty-five. His ashes will be spread on the winds of Quadra Island. He found great strength in the Japanese tradition of nature-worship. Shortly before he died, he said.. -I will return to nature where I came from. I will be part of the fish, the trees, the birds-that’s my reincarnation. I have had a rich and full life and have no regrets. I will live on in your memories of me and through my grandchildren.


Today we can see the beginning of a new way of thinking about the world-as sets of relationships rather than separated objects which we call ecology. We tend to think of a tree as the brown and green bit sticking up above the ground. Even if you include the roots, you are excluding most of the tree. The air that moves around it, the water that moves through it, the sunlight that animates it, the earth that supports it are all integral parts of the tree.

What about the insects that fertilize it, the fungi that help it draw in nutrients, and all the rest of the life involved with that tree? Is the visible solidity the only “real” part, or does it exist as process, relationship, connection as well? We know the answer very well; a life-size model made in materials indistinguishable from those of an actual tree would hardly fool us for a minute-we know a tree when we see one. We know it is more than our cultural definition allows, and today some ecologists are co-opting the language of science to give us a fuller description of our world.

A tree, we might say, is not so much a thing as a rhythm of exchange, or perhaps a centre of organizational forces. Transpiration induces the upward flow of water and dissolved materials, facilitating an inflow from the soil. if we were aware of this rather than the appearance of a tree-form, we might regard the tree as a centre of a force-field to which water is drawn .... The object to which we attach significance is the configuration of the forces necessary to being a tree.... rigid attention to boundaries can obscure the act of being itself.
-Nell Evernden, The Natural Alien

This redefinition of something as familiar as a tree at first rings strange. But we can recognize the more-than-tree-form it describes, just as we know that a forest is more than just the trees that grow there, and that our intercourse with the world extends beyond the edges of our skin. Our language falls short of our apprehension because of the way we have been taught to identify the world. We belong to, are made of, that world that surrounds us, and we respond to it in ways beyond knowing.

0 chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
0 body swayed to music, 0 brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
-W.B. Yeats, “Among School Children”

The world, you may say, is not a garden, and thinking like a leaf was not the way that humans invented elevators and vaccinations. Indeed, the world we have created is an extraordinary, unprecedented achievement, constructed out of the awesome power of our abstracting, pattern-making brain. But it has lacked the ingredient we discover we depend on to thrive-the idea of wholeness and connection we call spirit. Human beings have always believed in power beyond human power, life after death, and spirit-among-us (the sacred, the holy). But our cultural narrative does not include these beliefs, so our experience of them is stunted, truncated, painful. The consequences are threatening indeed-the denial of value, the negation of being. But if we look carefully, we will see that that original story is still telling itself within us and around us, even in our de-spirited culture.


Let the heavens rejoice, and let the Earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the fields exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the LORD, for be comes, for he comes to judge the Earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.
-Psalm 96:11-13

The psalm asserts the song of the Earth by singing it. Giving voice to Earth’s voice has been a specific human task since the beginning, according to the stories we tell ourselves, the songs we sing, our rituals and our poetry. Repetition, rhythm, rhyme, patterns of gesture, movement and language: these are the ways we speak out and give coherence to experience, assert our connection with everything else. These repetitive, echoing forms of speech and movement shape meaning out of randomness, mimic and embody the cyclic, interdependent processes that create and maintain life on Earth-the web we are part of. In place of the linear time of mortality, dance and poetry beat out a circular .measure, keep time with the world.

Mortals leap and dance in obedience to the Earth, the elemental presence of ground; mortals leap and dance with a rhythm of power, a rhythm which gets its measure from the immeasurable ground which stands under their feet. Being skilful, the gestures of dance are celebratory. They commemorate and give thanks. They surrender the ego’s will to power, giving it back, as the acceptance of our mortality, to the all-powerful Earth, ground of our body of understanding.

Human language was the gift of power, an instrument of creation analogous to that of the gods, as Spider Woman suggests, in the Hopi myth at the beginning of this chapter, when she asks for “speech,” “wisdom” and “reproduction” for the First People. Similarly, the Creator of Genesis assigns the power of naming to Adam:

So out of the ground the LORD GOD formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

Naming a thing creates an identity; names establish values and functions, give something life, a separate existence. We are our names in ways we cannot describe; we hear ourselves called across a noisy room, we feel as though the very letters are somehow ours. Language weaves worlds of being and meaning; but this is a double-edged sword. Calling a forest “timber,” fish “resources,” the wilderness “raw material” licenses the treatment of them accordingly. The propaganda of destructive forest practices informs us that “the clear-cut is a temporary meadow.” Definition identifies, ‘Specifies and limits a thing, describes what it is and what it is not: it is the tool of our great classifying brain. Poetry, in contrast, is the tool of synthesis, of narrative. It struggles with boundaries in an effort to mean more, include more, to find the

universal in the particular. It is the dance of words, creating more-than-meaning, reattaching the name, the thing, to everything around it.

My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and Earth and fire and air.
-Seamus Heaney, “The First Words”

Since poetry began, poets and songwriters have been fighting the mind/body dichotomy, singing their sense bf the world, of the body and spirit moving together through the world eternally. Poetry takes the fractured, mortal, longing human creature and reshapes it into be-longing. Crafted words attempt to resolve the contradictions of consciousness, catching speech (as insubstantial as air, as transitory as breath) as it comes and goes, tying it into the eternal.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
-William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

As the Cartesian view of the world tightened its grip on the West, poets, writers and philosophers mounted a counterattack, using their personal experience of nature as a weapon against the abstracting principles of science. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain and Europe, the Romantic Movement produced extraordinary poetry, then and now often discounted as sentimental or anti-rational. In fact the best of Romantic poetry was deeply subversive, attacking the conventional wisdom of that time and of ours. Poets such as Blake, Schiller and Wordsworth insisted on the reality and primacy of human perception, and the crucial insight it brings.

Artists of all kinds tend to see their work as similar to, even identical with, the work of the natural world and its continual process of creation. “Great works of art,” according to Goethe, 44 are works of nature just as truly as mountains, streams, and plains.” Thomas Huxley, the great Victorian scientist, reversed the comparison: “Living nature is not a mechanism,” he insisted, “but a poem.” All creation was Paul Klee’s source for his paintings: “I sink myself beforehand in the universe and then stand in a brotherly relationship to my neighbours, to everything on this Earth.” In many societies art is practical (because it is powerful), a design embedded in the necessities of life: carved posts that hold up the roof and guard the dwelling place, rituals for healing, rain dances, sand paintings. These are ways of rendering visible the designs of the universe, the cables that tie us to Earth. In our society this intrinsic value has been expunged from art. In some cases a monetary value has taken its place, as in the bidding wars for .Van Gogh’s Irises or the cost of tickets to the ballet. In other cases the official story is that the objects or processes are valueless-the round games of children, the marching songs of soldiers, bedtime stories, sandcastles (those most contradictory objects: fortified, embattled structures that will vanish on the incoming tide). These are just games, we say, just pastimes; but as we say it, we know quite well another more fundamental truth. The world is no more, and no less, than a pastime too-the game of life, matter and spirit playing together. We are players in the game, voicing it, telling its story. We speak, therefore we communicate. We sing, therefore we join the song of creation.

Beyond Economic Value

Nobel Prizes are awarded to economists who are attempting to put economic value on everything that matters to us, not just labour and material goods, but human relationships, family, divorce, children, love and hatred. This phenomenon reinforces the notion that economics is the dominant feature of modern life and that nothing lies beyond its reach. Yet there are many things that are priceless, beyond any reckoning in dollars and cents. Each of us has such treasures-love letters from the past, a trinket that belonged to a great-grandparent or favourite aunt, a scrapbook filled with childhood memories.

A real estate agent’s letter urging me to sell my house because of a heated market made me reflect on what 1 value about my house, the things that make it home. The lot is located on the ocean with a spectacular view of English Bay, downtown Vancouver and the mountains behind West and North Vancouver. But the things that really matter to me are beyond value. There is a handle on the gate that my best friend carved when he stayed with us for a week to help me build the fence, and each time 1 pass through that gate, 1 think of him. Each year 1 pick asparagus and raspberries that my father-in-law planted for me because he knew they are my favourites. The English garden he has created is his pride, and every time 1 pause to enjoy it, 1 can picture him standing, with his foot on a shovel, puffing his pipe.

We buried the family dog, Pasha, under the dogwood tree in a patch that my daughters have turned into a cemetery for a hamster, a salamander and other dead creatures they've found in the neighbourhood. In the branches of the dogwood is a tree-house I spent many happy hours building and many more watching my children use. A clematis plant has climbed along the back gate. When my mother died, we scattered her ashes on it, and when my sister’s daughter died, we added some of her ashes to Grandma’s. Now when the purple flowers bloom, the pain of the loss of my mother and niece is softened because 1 feel they are nearby.

Inside the house we still use a kitchen cabinet that my father made for Tara and me when we were first married. We salvaged it from our apartment, and it is a bit of my father and our early years together. Everywhere throughout the house are reminders of my wife and birthdays, Christmases and Thanksgivings we've shared.

In the real estate market, none of these things adds a cent to the value of the property, yet for me they are what make my house a home and represent value beyond price. What I'm talking about are things that exist only in my mind and heart, memories and experiences that matter to me, that enrich and give meaning to my life. They are spiritual values. No economist Will ever be able to factor them into an equation, but they are just as real as and far more important than any amount of money or any material object.


An ethical system soundly based on ecology is the next crucial step. First we need to reconcile the painful contradictions of our lives. Although we know who we are, where we come from, what we are for, we give that knowledge no weight; our culture tends to deny or conceal that insight, and so we are left alienated and afraid, believing the truth to be “objective” instead of embodied. A world that is raw material, resources, dead matter to be made into things, has nothing sacred in it. So we cut down the sacred grove, lay it waste and declare that it does not matter, because it is only matter. just so the slavers of an earlier cen tury declared their merchandise to be incapable of “proper human feeling.” just so generations of experimental animals have been sacrificed in the name of research. Pesticides poisoning the lakes and rivers, fish disappearing from the oceans, rain forests going up in smoke-this is the world we have spoken so powerfully into existence, and we will continue to live in it unless we change our tune, tell a different story.

We know very well what matters most to us: the people we love, the place where we live. “Home is where the heart is” embodies the felt truth. We also know what we fear most: separation, loss, exclusion, exile and the final exile, death. Spirituality may be our chiefest local adaptation-the means by which we touch the sacred, hold together against disintegration. The forms and varieties of spiritual belief and ritual among cultures on Earth may be another example of evolution’s incredible, extravagant invention of ways for life to survive. We cannot return entirely to that earlier worldview that embedded us so firmly in our ecosystem; too much has intervened. But we might return to some of our oldest questions and find their answers staring us in the face. What is the meaning of life? Answer: life. Why are we here? Answer: to be here, to be-long, to be. The world does many things-it cycles water, builds soil, grows mushrooms, creates bacteria, invents gold, granite, electromagnetic radiation, chestnut trees. And through us it becomes conscious. If we can see (as we once saw very well) that our conversation with the planet is reciprocal and mutually creative, then we cannot help but walk carefully in that field of meaning.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
-Pablo Neruda, quoted in R. S. Gottlieb, This Sacred Earth

Spirit, Money & Modernity