Current Events, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, Poetry & Music

Twice As Much Of Whatever We’ve Become

Twitter increased the character limit of tweets this week, from 140 to a whopping 280.

I have no strong opinions on this, honestly — it was an arbitrary limit dictated by earlier technology which spurred creative work-arounds, but the pure 140-character tweet (without pics, gifs or links) has been dead and gone for quite a while now. Some folks think this spells the end of the platform, but I doubt it.

More to the point is everything Twitter isn’t doing, changes users have been begging for a long time: better handling of abuse and hate speech, the removal of neo-nazis and white supremacists, protection from mobs of trolls and harassers.

Carlos Maza covers the complexities of protecting free speech on social media platforms in a recent Vox video.

In light of these challenges (and Twitter’s inaction in rising to them with any coherent vision of what meaningful conversation might actually look like), bumping up the character limit to 280 seems largely irrelevant. What will we say in 280 characters that we haven’t learned to say in 140?

Current Events, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, peace, Poetry & Music, story

I Blame Trump on Game of Thrones

I Blame Trump on Game of Thrones

I wonder what Jung would have
to say about it, how for years now
we have saturated the collective
unconscious with stories of war,

collusion and incest, machinations
of political corruption, moral sickness
among the rich, while fire and ice
loomed, denied, debated. And now—

I know all the names of the players,
though I’ve never read the books
or seen the show, and I’ve heard
so many times the reasons why

it’s brilliant, the best, the most
throned of all the games, but
I have to admit, I’ve never heard
a single thing that made me want

to watch. Why spend time with
such monsters? Are we so bored
with singing love songs, playing
games of chance and skill where

no one dies? What makes us
think these stories can tell us
who we are? Violence leads on
to violence, and love to love.

I miss the days when we dreamed
of nameless striders in the wild,
gray-robed wizards, unimportant men
carrying the world up the mountain,

slowly, step by step, sunlight falling
on the stone heads of fallen kings,
reminding us that stories shape
the wilder, better life we long to live.

And remember, how he finally smiled
when he stepped onto the boat
at the very end, so ready to move
on to the Land of Valar across the sea

—or maybe it was Hawaii, sunny
and warm and full of waves,
where he went water-skiing every day
like a laughing metaphor for grace.

Conservation, Current Events, Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Muse in Brief, Poetry & Music

Natural Wonder

Last week, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. This poem is not about that.

Natural Wonder

In Morocco, the researchers confirmed,
hungry goats will climb into an argan tree
when they can’t find fruit at their feet
— clamber up and chow down,
ruminate a while, then spit the seed.
This is how it goes, what they call
dispersal, succession, the architecture
of regeneration: the corrosive juices of
the stomach, the bleating laughter, breaking
open and discarding what could not
otherwise long survive in an arid world —
first in the wild, then later, on YouTube.

Inspired by the article, “How tree-climbing goats help plant new trees

Photo Credit: “Argan Tree Goats,” by Mikel Santamaria (CC) [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Current Events, Holy Wild, justice


When I said I read an article somewhere about jigsaw puzzles, how they can help with the recovery from post-traumatic stress, I think maybe you thought I was being flippant, even silly. I was four corners and almost all the edges in on a puzzle of clown fish, a swarm of them in all the otherworldly colors (even green), but when I asked if you wanted to help, you only smiled. Articles aside, I didn’t quite want to tell you — we just weren’t that close — that since November I’ve been having nightmares about the president raping me and my friends. You seem like the kind of person who likes to stay on top of things, who reads all the newspapers, and resists the new normal with all the composure of a bleached coral reef. And that’s fine. Nightmares aside, I am handling my shit, I am putting the pieces of my anxiety each in their appropriate place, arranging them into piles on the table according to color and line. The thing about puzzles is, there’s a moment between when you have all the edges done, and when you have enough of the middle filled in to see what’s missing, what’s left. I’m almost there. And when I am, I expect, it will get easier to forgive you — for the smile, I mean, and for everything you didn’t do.

Current Events, Holy Wild, peace, Poetry & Music

#WritersResist: Bring the Fire Down

Remember To Look Up

Bring the Fire Down

Move through the hills unrolling
dense and shifting green below the night,
touch earth — between justice
and mercy, between nakedness and warfare,
between all that you would not do
and all you have done, unknowing —
move through the water to the streambed,
move through the mountains to the heat,
move through the empty sky, crying.
To touch the slick, smooth rocks wet
with life and blood and water;
to walk the land; to kiss the deep
echoing heart of the offering well.
Move your compassion. Move your peace.
Move slow and solemn in darkness
and do not be afraid, though their power
burns to brightness, busy, churning
life upon life, grinding colors from their bones
to paint their eyes — move, you beauty,
move, you simple world. Reach up
with your remembering. Reach up with your
longing. Reach up with your being
and your making and your singing
strength into the storm; reach up with all
the detail of the in­between, the tragic
and the torn; reach up to touch the sacred
flame exalting in the midnight earth,
reach up to touch the sun as she is rising;
reach up to show your hands are empty;
reach up to leap your dance on holy ground,
the hills unrolling, the whole earth breathing
— reach up your love, and bring the fire down.

This post is part of #WritersResist. Thank you to Melanie, for spreading the word.
Photo Credit: “Remember to Look Up,” by Cat Burton (CC) [source]

Current Events, Holy Wild, Mythology & History

Can Clowns Save Our Souls?


“He was nobody in particular, yet everybody all at once.”

— Conrad Hyers

It is said that the Irish god Manannan mac Lir likes to travel in disguise. He roams from town to town, sometimes entertaining kings with heavenly music, other times baffling onlookers with clumsy feats of buffoonery. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” he declares, as if to explain away his conflicting reputation as both wiseman and fool. His disguise is a familiar one: a hat full of holes, shoes that squish with puddle water when he walks, threadbare striped clothes, a cloak of many colors that shimmers like mist in the sun. It’s a wonder we don’t recognize him immediately. Figures like him have been with us since the beginning, holding up a funhouse mirror to our ordinary lives, mocking our heroes and transfiguring our bums. In short, Manannan mac Lir is a clown.

Clowns need no introduction, says professor of religion Conrad Hyers in his book, The Spirituality of Comedy. When they appear on the scene, everybody recognizes immediately what they are. “There are clowns who are silent and clowns who are subtle, but there are no incognito clowns.” And yet clowns are, by definition, difficult to define. Almost defiantly contradictory, they take upon themselves the myriad aspects of human society and human nature, throwing all of these elements together in astoundingly irreverent and incongruous ways. “In a kaleidoscopic identity,” Hyers writes, “the clown is many people and many moods, formed and reformed out of the same disparate pieces of humanity.” The clown is the Everyman, recognizable despite or, more accurately, because of his make-up and his mask. The clown is the familiar stranger: the god who travels in disguise under an assumed name, yet whose reputation always precedes him.

Big Shoes To Fill: A Walking Contradiction

Over the past few months, we’ve watched this pattern of embodied contradictions and oscillating opinions play out in real-time as a Creepy Clown Epidemic took the American media by storm. In earlier articles, I traced the evolving nature of this phenomenon — from the Phantom Clowns of urban legend, to the mischievous Stalking Clowns confounding police, to the public backlash and its impact on the professional clowning community. As media coverage returned again and again to this strange but eerily familiar figure, interpretations of the Creepy Clown’s meaning have swung back and forth, each new claim reacting against and building upon those that came before it. Were the clowns real, or just a hoax? Old urban legend, or new media meme? A coordinated effort by marketers, or a grassroots trend of rumors and copycats? Attention-seekers, or anonymous pranksters? Political commentary, or frivolous distraction? Harmless fun, or serious threat? Criminals, or victims?

The answer, of course, is all of the above…. and then some. “Clowns are not ‘simply’ anything,” Hyers writes. “The clown as ‘Everyman’ is the representative of the many-sidedness of our existence and the tensions between sides — not any side or set of characteristics. The clown is omnivorously human.”


This undiscriminating lust for life in all its forms can itself be disturbing (think: the exaggerated mouths and the smiles full of sharpened teeth in so many of today’s creepy clown Halloween masks). There is something unsettling about the clown’s willingness to poke fun at anything, to upset the status quo. We might wonder: is nothing sacred? Yet throughout history, the spiritual role of the clown has always been that of trickster, the Wise Fool who can challenge social norms and bring the shadow-side of ourselves and our community out into the open to be confronted, laughed at, integrated and transcended.

In his exploration of the clown as a cultural and spiritual figure, Hyers notes that there are two distinct manifestations of the clown as a mediator of opposites. The more “complex and ambitious” type of clown, Hyers writes, is the solo clown, who brings these opposites together in his own person and contains the tension of polarity within a single figure. The motley, multi-colored outfits of these clowns speak to this radical inclusivity of contradiction. “If they wear oversized shoes, they will like as not wear an undersized hat. If they give themselves a gaudy smile, they will probably also add a tear. If they are graceful one moment, they will likely be jerky the next.” They might take exaggerated care to tiptoe across the stage, only to trip noisily at the last minute; or precisely measure the swing of their giant hammer, only to miss the nail and smash their thumb instead. One day sweet, the next day sour.

478px-paul_cezanne_060But there is another kind of clowning: the comic duo. Here, polar opposites are exaggerated and separated, embodied in two different characters who are nevertheless bound together, played against one another to hilarious effect. From the Koshare spring-summer clowns (sprouters of grain) and the Kurena fall-winter clowns (maturers of grain) of the Jemez Indians, to the suave Whiteface and clumsy Augusto of the medieval French pantomimes, such pairs are well-known throughout history. If one is tall and thin, the other will be short and stocky. If one is a wild risk-taker, the other will worry and fret. If one is restrained in word and deed, the other flails about and never shuts up. We see these odd couples everywhere in modern times, too, in comedy pairs like Harpo and Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Troy and Abed… the list goes on and on.

To these pairs, we might add: Patch Adams and Pennywise — the “caring clown” and the “creepy clown” of modern American culture. Perhaps we need look no further to explain the Creepy Clown phenomenon than our culture’s changing view of the clown, from the ambiguous trickster of sacred ritual to mere kids’ entertainer:

Before the early 20th century, there was little expectation that clowns had to be an entirely unadulterated symbol of fun, frivolity, and happiness; pantomime clowns, for example, were characters who had more adult-oriented story lines. But clowns [are] now almost solely children’s entertainment. Once their made-up persona became more associated with children, and therefore an expectation of innocence, it made whatever the make-up might conceal all the more frightening.

Everywhere we find them, clowns are walking contradictions, polarities set in dialectical motion so that we may (re)discover our own wholeness. “Our whole being is put joltingly together by the simple device of slapping opposites against one another,” writes Hyers. With our recent overemphasis on the innocent fun and “light side” of the Caring Clown, perhaps it was inevitable that the darker Creepy Clown would eventually come calling.

One Clown, Two Clown, Red Clown, Blue Clown

But why now? There is something unique about the Creepy Clown Epidemic this year. Although the cycle of clown sightings has recurred fairly regularly since at least the 1980s, there seems to be a deeper sense of urgency, uncertainty and anxiety that has driven this fall’s hysteria.


You don’t need to scratch very far below the surface to discover what it is. Almost from the beginning, commentators have noted the strong parallels between the Creepy Clown hype and the American presidential election, in which many aspects of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional political system are on full display. Art and film often anticipate and illuminate these trends through their social commentary. Take, for instance, the recently-released Rob Zombie horror movie, 31, which one reviewer describes as “perhaps unintentionally relevant” in the current climate:

[T]he free-loving carnies and the carnage-loving clowns all arguably ought to be on the same side, as they’re at the same level of income, and loosely connected to the whole notion of traveling shows. But they’re not, and indeed, it’s partly because some on the clown side are racist, sadistic, abusive, horrible people. Regardless, though, they’re all being played by rich jerks for some minor amusement, and even once they realize this and have a chance to break the cycle, or heaven forbid, fight the actual system, they can’t stop. They just hate each other too much, while the rich go back to their rich lives unburdened.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist at Botany College in New Zealand, links the rise in creepy clowns to two rising forces in the US: social media, and a fear of otherness. “Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading these rumor-panics which travel around the globe in the blink of an eye,” he says. “They are part of a greater moral panic about the fear of strangers and terrorists in an increasingly urban, impersonal, and unpredictable world.” Politicians have often played on the fear of otherness to rally their base and “get out the vote” on election day. We might even see in the Republican and Democratic candidates an echo of the tragicomic duo, a pair of opposites vying against each other, each one “playing the mask” of political showmanship while also trying to radiate personable authenticity. All of this might explain why Loren Coleman, who posited the Phantom Clown Theory, notes that creepy clown appearances often coincide with the election cycle.

new-york-daily-news-clown-1Still, this year’s election season has been one of the most vitriolic in recent history, with one candidate in particular invoking (and provoking) xenophobia, racism and misogyny as defining aspects of his campaign. For some, the explanation for this year’s creepy clown craze can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Yale School of Drama professor Christopher Bayes describes Trump as “all illness and artifice,” saying, “There’s something poison there. It feels malignant, and it freaks us out.”

With his uncanny appearance — the fake spray-tan, the wild orange hair, the gaudy sense of fashion, the overblown blustering and weird gesticulations on stage — Trump is the quintessential creepy clown. Equally preoccupied with stoking fear of outsiders and resentment towards insiders who’ve supposedly rigged the system against him, he is not easily categorized according to our usual understanding of political and cultural identity. Instead, he hides behind a mask of populist “everyman” rhetoric to conceal crass self-interest and, perhaps, something even more sinister. In light of numerous allegations of sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his possible connection to drug-fueled sex parties with underage teens, it’s hard not to see Trump as the “killer clown” who leers at children on the playground and tries to lure them into the woods. Even his caught-on-tape boasting about how his celebrity allows him to assault women — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” — seems like a sickening callback to the serial killer-clown John Wayne Gacy’s confession, “You know… a clown can get away with murder.”

Clown as Savior and Escape Artist

How do we rid ourselves of these creepy clowns, real and imagined?

First, it might help to know that much of the Creepy Clown hysteria is driven by media coverage and, like all such trends, it will eventually die down on its own (especially once Halloween and the election are over). Professor of psychology at Evergreen State College, Bill Indick explains, “That’s why it comes in waves. The media propagates it, creates it, feeds it and at a certain point, gets tired of it. The media then digests it and eliminates it. And just as quickly as it started, it’s over.”

We shouldn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the media’s short attention span, however. After all, that is the clown’s deeper spiritual and psychological role in society: to help us confront our own contradictions, bring them to consciousness, and integrate them. Hyers writes:

What we are reluctant to acknowledge, but what the clown fixes on, is that we are composed of and dream of contraries. We fantasize about complete freedom and complete security, rugged individualism and social harmony, amorous adventures and marital bliss, higher wages and lower prices, something worth fighting for… and peace and tranquility.

The ever-shifting media narratives — about clowns, and about everything — can guide us through a process of navigating these contradictions, swinging from one perspective to another, discovering the complexity of the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives. Hyers notes that clown performances often end with the clowns being chased off stage, driven out of the shared community space and sent scurrying back into the mists of chaos from which they came. “What has been welcomed so clamorously, must also be put to flight somewhat ingloriously,” he writes. “The clowns who have indulged us vicariously, must also vicariously pay a price for their profanities. The scapegrace becomes the scapegoat.”

clown-session_laura-cuttierBut at the heart of this process is a longing for wholeness and a renewed sense of unity. With his colorful patchwork antics, the clown reconnects “the many fragmented shades of our existence, if only by tossing them laughingly side by side and calling their ephemeral combination a link between the heavens and the earth.” Liminality and impermanence are all part of the play. The clown straddles, skips and stumbles over the lines we draw to separate the mundane and the sacred, “mudhead and godhead,” order and disorder, stability and change, inside and outside, life and death.

In this way, the clown is also a psychopomp, leading us through fragmentation towards resolution and the redemption of a richer life. Says Hyers, “[T]he clown resembles a ghostly apparition from the spirit world, paradoxically seeking with grinning death-mask to renew life and revive our slumping spirits.” Why should we be surprised, then, to find ourselves brought face-to-face with this paradoxical figure during the season of ghouls and goblins, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the dead mingle with the living?

So maybe the solution is actually quite simple: to rid ourselves of the creepy clown, we need only rediscover the deeper complexity and ambiguity of the clown as a sacred trickster and spiritual guide. To live more courageously and playfully in the face of our uncertainty. To remember to hold our desire for categories of right and wrong, good and evil as lightly as we can. For though we might try to follow where the clown leads, we cannot hope to pin him down or hold him still. It is only when we stop insisting that the clown be just one thing that he is free to become the multiplicity of being that he really is.

Photo Credits:
• “Untitled,” by Neys Fadzil (CC) [source]
• Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 [source]
• “Shove tuesday (Pierot and Harlequin)” by Paul Cézanne [source]
• “8.11.2010 clown 209/365” by Phil Roeder (CC) [source]
• Frontpage June 17, 2015, New York Daily News [source]
• “Clown Session,” by Laura Cuttier (CC) [source]

Daily Prompt: Eerie

Conservation, Current Events, Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

What’s Good for the Bird is Good for the Herd: Cooperation at Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Perhaps one of the most insidious ideas that environmentalists and animists alike continue to struggle against is the misguided belief that to be pro-environment is to be automatically anti-human. Nothing could be further from the truth! Embracing the more-than-human community — whether spiritually or scientifically, or both — invites us into deeper, more meaningful relationship with the world and its many beings. Such relationship only helps to cultivate our sense of connection and enhance our well-being, both as individuals and as a species.


This is not to say that relationship is always easy. But it is essential. Acknowledging the interdependence of humans and non-humans on this wild holy earth is not just a foundational concept in modern animism, but a basic ecological fact that informs the most effective conservationist and environmentalist efforts. Given even a moment’s thought, the us-vs-them attitude that denies this connection, that emphasizes our separation and pits the human species against the planet we call home, is patently ridiculous. And yet, it continues to be an incredibly pervasive (and sometimes even persuasive) belief nonetheless.

What Do You Mean, ‘You People’?

As we’ve seen over the past month in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, this separatist attitude rests at the heart of many a call to “return the land to its original inhabitants.” The militants who seized control of the wildlife refuge headquarters in early January claimed to be protesting the tyranny of a federal government that they saw as usurping public lands through oppressive regulations and disproportionate punishment. They sought, among other things, to “return the land” to the local ranchers, farmers and hunters that they saw as the rightful and original owners.

But for many of us, the words “original inhabitants” held a very different meaning. For some, it meant the Northern Paiute Nation, the Native American Indian tribes whose territorial rights to this day “remain unextinguished by treaty” with the United States despite federal and state governments generally ignoring this fact. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation in 1908 under the assumption that the area was unclaimed federal land, although the Oregon Territorial Act from sixty years earlier clearly stated otherwise.

As others have pointed out, the “original inhabitants” of this area also include the astounding diversity of wild non-human life, in particular the migratory bird population which came under threat of extirpation in the 1800s — the very inhabitants that the wildlife refuge was established to protect and restore. Over the past century, the refuge has become one of the most important migratory bird sites on the continent, with 320 different species “returning to the land” every year.


But even when we invoke this desire to “return the land to its original inhabitants” in the name of environmental responsibility, we can quickly run into difficulties. I’ve written before about the problematic metaphors of invasion and warfare in how we speak about ecological restoration and conservation efforts. Environmentalists are not immune to the misplaced belief that pro-earth means anti-human. Like a lot of people, I tend to be more critical of the social groups of which I’m a member, partly because I have more intimate knowledge of what problems need fixing and partly because I feel a greater sense of personal responsibility for fixing them. I’ll admit, sometimes I get very frustrated with my own species, and this frustration translates into language that can sound downright misanthropic. Even as I grumble about the Oregon protesters, I run the risk of making the same mistake they do: seeing the needs of “invasive” humans in opposition to the needs of the “natural” environment, and feeling compelled to pick a side.

Living in relationship is always more complicated than the simplified categories of us-vs-them we try to impose. The fact is — whether we locate our preferred historical period as a time before federal regulations to protect wildlife, or before the encroachment of European ranchers and farmers on Native American territory, or before human settlement disrupted older non-human ecological communities — advocating the return to some idyllic past state is simply not an effective solution to our current challenges. Wherever we try to draw this distinction, we are too often wrong about what the past was actually like. History is just too tempting and convenient a place to project our fantasies of an ideal world, especially in a modern society that rushes towards the future so fast that it outstrips our capacity to imagine a better one. But even aside from our idealization of and ignorance about the past, attempting to recapture a community that no longer exists often entails ignoring the needs of the individuals and communities that exist here and now. This inevitably leads to conflict, and sometimes outright violence against the very people (human and non-human) who share the present with us.

A Story of Conflict and Cooperation

It would serve us well, I think, to remember that “returning the land to its original inhabitants” has just as often been the justification of the invader and the occupier as it has been a cry of the refugee and the exile. Who counts as “original” usually depends on where we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate narratives of history, where our sympathies lie and which groups we identify with, idealize or exoticize. How easy it is to fall back into an us-vs-them attitude when grappling with the complicated issues of social and environmental justice in the face of our country’s undeniably painful legacy of colonization, exploitation, disruption and loss.

The Malheur Wildlife Refuge is, in many ways, a microcosm of these on-going tensions among different environmental interest groups, government agencies, tribal associations and individual residents. Although the recent violent occupation has drawn national attention to the refuge, conflict in the area is nothing new:

Malheur’s marshes, ponds and lakes were a vital water source for the Paiute Indians. The Indians later were pushed out by cattle ranchers who used the water to help build up large ranching empires in the late 19th century. The ranchers, in turn, faced pressure from farmers drawn to the region.

After the wildlife refuge was established in the early twentieth century, park managers took steps to restore damaged landscapes by curtailing ranching and farming on the land. However, even into the 1990s, their approach was often guided by top-down regulatory and enforcement strategies developed by experts unfamiliar with the conditions unique to the local human and ecological communities of the region. As a result, these strategies were bogged down by bureaucracy and litigation, slow to change in response to the dynamic needs of local inhabitants.

But if Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a microcosm of conflict, it is also an inspiring example of success. In recent years, new approaches to cooperative land management and participatory conservation efforts have eased tensions and helped to reframe age-old conflicts in ways that benefit everyone, from bird to herd:

Malheur’s collaborative approach to land-use management began in 2008, when the refuge’s manager, Tim Bodeen, agreed to work with a cooperative group called the High Desert Partnership. It brought together ranchers, the Paiute tribe, conservationists, and federal staff to develop and implement long-term restoration projects on the refuge and across the region. After years of dialogue, a landmark plan was created in 2013 to guide the management of the 187,757-acre refuge for 15 years — sustaining it as a stopover habitat for millions of migratory birds as well as promoting it as a rangeland resource for local ranchers.

The success of the High Desert Partnership lies in its emphasis on cooperative approaches to problem-solving, reframing entrenched conflicts as shared challenges that can provide an opportunity to discover solutions that are mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This is a lesson drawn from the dynamic balance of living ecosystems themselves. As Nancy Langston, a professor of Environmental History and author of a history of the Malheur Refuge, explains:

Western grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, which means they thrive with disturbance from grazing. Cattle differ from native bison and elk in many ways. But with close attention to plant growth and soil moisture, grazing can foster grassland diversity, store carbon in soils, encourage the growth of grasses along creeks, and improve habitat for endangered birds. Doing this well requires specific local knowledge. Ranchers who work and live on the land often know the place and its limits better than people whose knowledge was gained in distant ecosystems. [emphasis added]

“Since ecological conditions change,” she goes on, “the plan treats grazing and all other management on the refuge as a series of experiments, testing to see what strategies work and what strategies don’t.”

By entrusting much of the day-to-day decision-making to local participants, this strategy remains flexible and responsive. But it also helps to rebuild trust and foster a sense of shared commitment that is vital to the long-term success of these relationships. Local ranchers began to adopt the slogan: What’s good for the bird is good for the herd. The sentiment perfectly captures the growing appreciation of interconnection in the community.


It is a testament to the success of this approach that, when faced with the violent threat of armed militants, both the managers of the wildlife refuge and the larger community of Harney County responded with a renewed commitment to the collaborative process. Not a single local rancher joined the militants in protest. In an open letter posted to their Facebook page, the Malheur Wildlife Refuge staff stated that, when faced with such challenges:

In Harney County, that means we talk. We have cups of coffee. We have arguments. Together we knit our brows, and together we knit scarves. We understand what those currently occupying the Refuge don’t understand—that Harney County isn’t afraid of tough talk.

We can have effective disagreements and either find resolution, find compromise, or simply agree to disagree. But we do it with respect for the rule of law, and know that our areas of agreement and cooperation are infinitely more powerful than the differences we may face. Mostly, we face those differences together with open dialogue and open gates—not intimidation and threats. We have access to each other, because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations or have difficult conversations. [emphasis added]

Let me repeat that: we have access to each other because we are not afraid to confront difficult situations. Relationship is not always easy, but it is essential, and there is no denying it.

An Animist Approach to Justice

This question of how we define and work for justice in an animistic, ecological context has been an obsession of mine for years now. Do we kill an individual so that the group might survive? Do we cull this species to save that one? Do we act on our limited knowledge, aware that our biases might blind us or our ignorance might undermine our best intentions? Or do we do nothing? And if we do nothing, is this “allowing nature to take its course,” or is it silently acquiescing to the ill-informed decisions we’ve made in the past and which have already set certain patterns of cause-and-consequence in motion? I find myself drawn back again and again to the same basic question: how do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community and the planet?

The events in Oregon over the past several weeks — and our varied responses to them — highlight how these are not abstract theological or philosophical exercises, but questions that cut us to the quick and have real implications for how we understand and act in world. Social and environmental justice are not (and never have been) separate issues. The success of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and the resiliency of its community in the face of adversity, can provide us with a real-life example of how principles of cooperation, commitment and trust can help us nurture meaningful, healthy relationships in the more-than-human community.


And yet, this kind of thinking is contrary to the competitive, us-vs-them attitude more often encouraged in our society — indeed, encouraged sometimes in the name of “natural law.” We tend to think of justice as mercantile: the idea that fair relationships require zero-sum, tit-for-tat exchanges in energy and resources, crime and punishment. We have long known that “separate but equal” is a lie that has been used to obscure real injustice and inequality. But we can be too quick to assume that the problem lies in our differences, and that the solution is to seek a one-sized-fits-all answer to injustice that will do away with difficult conversations for good.

When we reframe justice as right relationship, we see that we can be different without being separate. We realize that sometimes those who seek most fervently to distinguish “us” from “them” do so precisely to hide our shared relationship and common responsibility to one another. We come to understand that the root of injustice is this belief in separation, the belief that we can somehow isolate our communities from one another as if we weren’t all connected. Once we give up this notion of separateness, we are forced to define our individuality in other terms. But this does not mean giving up our individuality entirely in favor of a homogenous “oneness,” for we can also see that such homogeneity is itself unnatural and unsustainable.

Living and working cooperatively means adopting methods that are responsive, flexible, and participatory, guided by a shared vision but open to individual inspiration, experimentation and change. Such approaches do not suppress individual diversity, but absolutely require it. Collaboration means finding ways of fostering relationships that are mutually beneficial; this is not to say that everyone gets the same exact thing from a relationship, but that each individual’s needs are being acknowledged and respected, even when those needs differ. We cannot live in healthy community without some notion of individuality to sustain us and help us grapple with the reality that our needs, desires and perspectives are inherently unique and diverse. But this diversity challenges us to think creatively, to discover ways to cultivate “virtuous cycles” in which each person’s well-being enhances rather than detracts from the well-being of others. This is the dynamic, living balance between individual and community, in which each supports and sustains the other, that is at the heart of the animistic approach to justice.

Photo Credits:
• “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” (CC) Steven Miller [source]
• “Ross’ Geese” (CC) Dan Dzurisin [source]
• “Mule deer buck group” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]
• “American Avocet & chicks” (CC) Barbara Wheeler [source]