Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013

Lectio Divina: Reading the Book of Nature

Book Altar - Empty Page and Waves

As pioneers striking out to revive or reconstruct a spiritual heritage that has been broken and sometimes lost completely over the intervening centuries, we are hungry for regular practices that can help us connect more deeply to these wellsprings of authentic religious experience. Pagans and polytheists today draw on many different traditions and cultures from all over the world in search of helpful techniques and approaches to the spiritual life. One of the most popular forms of religious practice is the use of meditation to still the mind, seeking enlightenment or sacred union from a place of stillness and silence.

It is often assumed that the West has no equivalent to the Eastern religious practice of meditation. People living in modern Western cultures today increasingly look to the variety of spiritual practices of stillness and contemplation to be found in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism: from zazen or “sitting” meditation, to yoga and Tai Chi. Community colleges offer classes in transcendental meditation, and local churches host group meditation sessions along with their usual Bible studies. Western medicine has even recognized the physical and psychological health benefits of regular meditation. Eastern meditative practices are no longer just for New Agers, Pagans and occultists — these days, everyone’s doing it.

What many enthusiastic practitioners might not know is that Western culture has its own heritage of contemplative meditation to be explored. One such practice is Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” an approach to spiritual study and prayer developed in the late twelfth century within monastic communities throughout Europe, and still practiced to this day by Catholics all over the world. Lectio Divina involves four stages of spiritual practice: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Within the Christian tradition, it is most often used as a way of studying the Bible as the Living Word of God, a key to intimate relationship with the Divine, rather than as a text to be analyzed from an historical or theological perspective.

The practice of Lectio Divina is not limited to the Christian Bible, however. Those of us who see the natural world itself as a place full of sacred beings and divine presence can adapt the techniques of “divine reading” to engage more authentically with Mother Earth. Moving gently and reverently through the four stages of Lectio Divina not only connects us with the uniquely Western traditions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, but it also helps us to open up and listen more deeply to the on-going story of wild holy earth.

But before we look at how we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as part of an earth-centered spirituality, let’s take a closer look at the four stages as they’re usually practiced within the Christian tradition.

The Four Stages of Lectio Divina

Originally, the practice of “divine reading” simply meant studying the holy scriptures with attention and reverence, making the sacred texts of the Christian tradition a foundation for both solitary and community prayer on a regular basis. By the late twelfth century, however, the term had taken on a more specific meaning as a form of methodical prayer used in monasteries, and by the sixteenth century the practice of Lectio Divina had been formalized into the four-stage approach still in use today. Each of the four stages has a unique role in preparing the practitioner to enter into the stillness and receptivity of contemplation.

Lectio (Read) — The first stage of the practice is pretty simple and straightforward: reading the selected passage from scripture. Rather than reading scripture in order to gain an analytical or intellectual understanding of the text, however, a practitioner of Lectio Divina approaches the passage as a kind of mantra, to be read slowly several times, calming her mind and body so as to enter into a state of attention and receptivity. Unlike a mantra, however, the same passage or verse is not used every time, and so the experience of Lectio Divina is always changing, shaped by the nuances of the passage being read.

Meditatio (Meditate) — The second stage is to meditate on or ponder the passage that’s been read. The term “meditation” here is not used in exactly the same way as it is when referring to, for instance, the Zen Buddhist approach to meditation. Instead of striving to quiet the mind completely, the meditative stage of Lectio Divina is a gentle exploration of the passage’s meaning and living relevance. Meditating on the sacred text allows the practitioner to seek out the personal relevance that the passage has for her, and how its message speaks to her in the moment, here and now.

Oratio (Pray) — The first two stages of Lectio Divina — in which the practitioner first reads and then reflects on the passage — leads naturally to the third stage: response. In Christian tradition, prayer is seen as a conversation or dialogue with God. By reading and reflecting with receptivity, the practitioner opens herself to the promptings of spirit. In the third stage, she responds spontaneously and naturally to those promptings, guided by her own deepest longing for connection and authentic relationship with the Divine.

Contemplatio (Contemplate) — In the fourth and final stage of Lectio Divina, the practitioner at last enters a state of quiet stillness or “silent love,” in which prayer gives way to restful, silent contemplation of the Divine presence. This stage is most similar to the meditative states reached in many Eastern practices, in which the mind is stilled and the practitioner’s sense of self-identity becomes porous, transcended by an experience of mystical or ecstatic union. The first three stages help to prepare the practitioner to enter this contemplative state, but they also serve to ground her in the community (through reading and reflecting on a shared sacred text) and in herself (through the act of articulating her response through prayer). For this reason, the final stage of contemplation in Lectio Divina is not mere “navel-gazing” or escapism, but a culmination and fruition of the spiritual work done during the first three stages.

Practicing Lectio Divina in Nature

Book Altar - Wild Pear with MusicThe four stages of Lectio Divina are simple enough that they can be readily adapted to many spiritual paths both within and outside the traditional Christian community as a way of engaging with sacred writings and exploring their deeper meanings. However, Celtic spirituality presents a unique challenge to the practitioner of Lectio Divina: the ancient Druids, priests of our Celtic ancestors, did not write down their holy texts but preserved them instead as an oral tradition passed on through the generations. What little of this sacred oral tradition that we’ve managed to preserve until today comes largely from tales and legends written down by monks, with glosses and layers of Christian interpretation overlaying the original myths. Of these we often have to rely on translations and reinterpretations in order to render relatively obscure myths a little more accessible to the modern reader. Lectio Divina can be a fruitful practice for engaging with these ancient Celtic stories and uncovering their personal relevance and power, but there will always be limits on how deeply we can delve into these texts passed down disjointed over a millennium or more of broken tradition.

Luckily, there is another approach we can take that will connect us with our Celtic ancestors through our love of the natural world, an essential aspect of Celtic spirituality both then and now. When we see nature itself as a constantly-unfolding story about the deepest, most sacred truths of life and death, we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as a creative approach to meditation that can strengthen our relationship with the earth. Here are just a few ideas about how to use the practice of Lectio Divina to engage with the stories of nature.

Lectio

We can “read” the natural world in many ways. One of the simplest ways is to head on over to your local library and find an ecology book about the bioregion where you live — any book that includes basic information about the geology, flora, fauna, climate, weather patterns and some of the natural history of your area. Familiarizing yourself with some basic facts about the natural landscape that surrounds you and the other living beings who share the land with you can help you see the “bigger picture” and your place in it.

After you’ve done a bit of research, go outside and spend some time quietly observing the natural world around you. It doesn’t matter if you live in a secluded hermitage out in the woods, or in a busy urban center full of bustling people, or even in a carefully landscaped suburban neighborhood. Nature is not something “out there” beyond human reach — we are deeply embedded in the natural world all the time. Learning about your bioregion will help you to recognize the unique ways that human life has adapted to the natural patterns of the area where you live, and how the land, its animals, plants, and weather have changed and adapted in their own ways.

Of course, you don’t need to be an expert in ecology to be an attentive observer of the natural world around you. Although there is power in knowing the names of things, there are also many non-verbal ways of “reading” nature. One of my favorites is drawing or sketching while out in the field. Settling down to capture a breathtaking panorama in watercolors or sketching the expressive posture of a bird or the delicate gesture of a flower forces us to really look at what we are seeing, to be receptive and attentive to the subtle details and nuances of nature. With practice, the act of drawing and the act of observing become one and the same — almost as though our sketch is a kind of “reading out loud” to ourselves as we capture our observations on the page.

Meditatio

Once we’ve spent time in attentive, reverent observation of nature, we enter the second stage of Lectio Divina. Now is the time to ponder, to daydream, to explore the personal meaning that the natural world holds for you as a denizen of the land. In ancient times, seers and oracles studied the patterns of weather and bird flight in order to divine messages of guidance or warning from the gods. This was not just a code in which certain events corresponded one-to-one with specific interpretations or meanings, but a much more intuitive, receptive way of opening to the messages of the landscape itself. In the same way that the alarm cry of a single chickadee can put all the other birds in the area on sudden, silent alert as the hawk swoops by overheard, we can learn how the patterns of activity and attention in the natural world around us shape our perceptions and influence our own behavior.

One way of approaching this kind of reflection is what Druid author John Michael Greer calls “discursive meditation.” In discursive meditation, rather than attempting to quiet the mind and silence any stray thoughts that might arise, we set off on a hunt, pursuing a particular idea or impression wherever it might wander, allowing our minds to lead us deeper into the dark, forested recesses of the soul. As you spend time outside observing the natural world, you may find yourself captivated by certain images or experiences. Through discursive meditation, you can probe more deeply and reverently into the meaning behind these intriguing scenes or inspiring events, exploring the connections that weave you into the natural world and how they express themselves uniquely through your personal experiences and observations.

Oratio

This kind of meditative reflection quite naturally leads to the third stage of Lectio Divina, the creative, spontaneous response of prayer. Poets, priests and shamans alike throughout the ages have been moved by the beauty and inspiration of nature to respond in kind, engaging in creative works of ritual, prayer and worship to express the reverence they feel for the world around them. Prayer can be a solitary act of praise or petition, or it can be a community ritual shared with others in a way that heightens our sense of how our personal relationship with nature is reflected in the relationships of those who live in this land with us.

Many of the gods of modern Druidry and Celtic polytheism are gods of nature, intimately related to the landscapes and natural forces of the earth. For some, even the planet Earth is herself a goddess, a fecund mother of all creation. Praying to these gods and goddesses of the natural world is an act of communion and connection — in fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between praying to the goddess of a river or a mountain, and praying to the river or mountain themselves. In the same way that Christians view their holy scripture as the Living Word of God, seeing the presence of Spirit in the text itself, modern Pagans see the unfolding story of the natural world as the manifestation of the gods’ presence in our lives.

Besides praying to the gods, there are other ways you can adapt this stage of Lectio Divina to a spirituality grounded in nature. If prayer is simply a form of reverent conversation, then you might feel moved by your observation and meditation on nature to converse with the many beings around you — even beings with whom you might not normally strike up a conversation. If you’re feeling inspired by your spiritual work, you can speak with the robins about the coming spring, or converse with the tree that stands tall and patient in your backyard to learn what lessons it has to teach you. You might even feel moved to speak out loud, to tell your own story to the waterfall or the evening breeze. There is a long tradition in indigenous and animistic earth-centered religions of speaking openly and devoutly with the plants and animals who share the land with us.

Verbal prayer is not the only form of prayer, either. Just as we can “read” the natural world by sketching or drawing it, we can also respond creatively through works of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dance. These acts of self-expression can be a way of responding spontaneously and organically to a world that often defies our ability to describe it with mere words. As a practitioner of an embodied spirituality, you might try turning to ritual, dance and art as reminders that you are not merely an abstract mind trapped inside a meaty body. Your body is itself an aesthetic expression of who you are, and you can respond to the world through movement, color and sound as well as through language.

Contemplatio

Finally, we come to the final stage of Lectio Divina: the stage of contemplative silence. After we have spent time in careful study and observation of nature, experienced the thrill of the wild hunt as we chased after its meaning for our personal lives, and responded with our own acts of creative self-expression as a way of connecting and conversing with the sacred beings and gods that dwell here with us — we come to rest at last in the still center of our being. We enter into the silence and solitude of attentive listening, receptive to the experience of loving union with the natural world in all its complexity, diversity and mystery.

Within the stillness and silence of contemplation, we discover that the boundaries of self-identity that usually appear so firm and solid are actually far more porous, flexible and fluid than we realized. From a centered place of calm, we lose our strict sense of separation and isolation from the rest of the natural world. We enter into a liminal space in which we can experience the myriad connections that weave us together with poignancy and clarity. This kind of contemplation is not an escape into a silent void of nothingness. Rather, it is the practice of communing with the sacredness of the Many, joining in the ecstatic dance of natural forces in a way that brings us more fully into our own truest self without destroying or subsuming our individuality.

We carry with us all of the work that we have done during the first three stages of “divine reading,” entering more fully and completely into the always unfolding, ever-evolving story of the world. In this way, we come to know nature as a living story of which we are an intimate, integral part.

Bringing It All Together

Although we can approach each of the four stages of Lectio Divina as distinct activities that we can do one at a time on their own, we experience the most benefit from this kind of spiritual work when we bring them together into a single coherent, continuous practice. After you’ve spent some time exploring each of these stages separately, set aside at least thirty minutes to an hour (or more, if you feel up to it) to explore different ways that you can bring these activities together. Find what works for you and helps you to connect more authentically with the natural world. Here are some ideas that you might want to try:

• Talking to a Tree — Find a comfortable place to sit near or underneath a tree, in your backyard or in a local park, anywhere where you won’t be disturbed. If you can, bring along a tree guide. Spend some time studying and observing the tree (lectio) — its bark, leaves and overall shape, along with any nuts, seeds, fruits or flowers it has. (If you don’t have a guide book, just take some time to carefully observe these details.) After ten to fifteen minutes of careful observation, begin to allow your mind to wander, following your thoughts and feelings as they meander through associations and memories (meditatio). Do this for another ten to fifteen minutes, but don’t get so lost in thought that you become distracted and lose sight of the real presence of the tree before you. When you’re ready, allow your meditations to inspire you to speak to the tree (oratio). You can speak the words silently to yourself, as though in prayer, but you might be amazed at how powerful it is to address the tree out loud, even if only in a whisper. You can tell the tree about a memory that has surfaced during your meditation or describe an experience or event that’s been troubling you, or you can simply express your praise and gratitude to the tree for its beauty and strength. You can even ask the tree to share its story with you. Finally, quiet your body and mind and enter into a calm, receptive state of attention (contemplatio) — spend another ten to fifteen minutes listening deeply to the tree, opening yourself up to its presence. Don’t expect to hear a response in words (though you might!), just allow yourself to sit in silent contemplative love with the being before you.

• Painting a Landscape — Head out with your sketch pad and art materials on a pilgrimage to find a quiet spot with an amazing view. The view might be of rolling hills and meadows, or an ocean shore, or a cityscape of buildings and treetops. Once you’ve found a good place, spend some time observing and sketching the panorama before you (lectio), sometimes examining the details of texture and contour, other times pulling out to see the “big picture” and notice the patterns of light and shadow, shape and balance. After you’ve finished your sketch, don’t move on to your final drawing or painting right away — instead, spend ten to fifteen minutes pondering the image you’ve created (meditatio), asking yourself how it reflects the physical, emotional and spiritual sensations that the landscape around you provokes. Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on your observations, begin the work of drawing or painting (oratio). As you work, think of your creative act as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for the land to which you are a witness. After you’ve completed your work, set aside your colored pencils or paintbrush, quiet your body and mind and sink into a receptive, attentive state of listening (contemplatio). Allow yourself to release the work of your hands as something which is now complete and separate from yourself, a gift that you’ve given back to the land. Listen to the silent depths of the landscape before you as you sit in silent, contemplative love.

• Serenading a Waterfall — Seek out a place with falling water, whether it’s a waterfall in the woods, a small cascade in a creek that runs through the local park, or a desktop fountain in your home. As with the practice of tree-talking, spend some time observing and studying the waterfall (lectio), noticing how the light reflects and refracts off the surface of the moving waters and noting especially the myriad sounds the water makes as it rushes and sings over the rocks. After ten or fifteen minutes of listening and observation, allow your thoughts free reign to wander (meditatio), following the rhythm of the water as it moves as though dancing its way deeper into the porous recess of your soul. Drink in the insights that the water carries for you, pondering them, turning them over and smoothing them like round river stones. When you’re ready, begin to sing, chant or play music (oratio) — if you’ve brought along a flute, drum or guitar, you can use that instrument to try to micmic the sound of the falling water — joining your music with the sound of the waterfall in a kind of shared prayer. Your song doesn’t need to have words, but it can if you feel inspired. After another ten to fifteen minutes, fall back into attentive silence (contemplatio), listening to the music of the World Song as it sings through your own being and the being of the waters before you.

There are many other ways you can incorporate Lectio Divina into your practice of nature-centered spirituality; these are only a few examples. In each example, though, we see how engaging in the full, four-stage practice of Lectio Divina requires self-discipline and some preparation beforehand — for example, gathering together art supplies, learning a musical instrument, finding an appropriate spot out of doors. The preparation and intention put into this practice is an important part of the spiritual work, for it challenges us to take our work seriously as something worthy of devotion and attention. That attentive devotion is carried into the work itself, and we can draw on it as we meditate and engage with the natural world around us.

The fruits of regular practice of Lectio Divina is a soul-deep understanding of how attention, meditation, prayer and contemplative loving silence arise from each other in a sustaining, nourishing cycle. As with all cycles of nature, when we open ourselves to the fullness of such experience we discover that we are already a part of this turning, spiraling dance — and we can embrace our place in the dance with gratitude and joy.


This essay originally appeared in Aontacht Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 4, March 2012


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The Journal as a Journey into Mystery

February 17, 2013 • In the mornings when the light has only just touched the mountainside and the low valley is still in darkness, I whisper one long prayer. The mountains, too, set loose their steamy breath into the rising wilds of day.

Gray Jay Overlooking the Cascades

There are as many ways to keep a nature journal as there are people who keep them. Some fill their journals with sketches, watercolors and diagrams of the plants and animals they find in the natural world, while others take notes, jotting down lines of descriptive prose or inspired verse to evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity and care about the diversity and beauty around them. Anyone can keep a nature journal: whether you’re traveling in exotic locations or observing the gentle, gradual changes of the seasons in your own backyard. The Sierra Club describes a nature journal as:

a place to grow your thoughts, feelings, ideas, activities, observations, and relationship with the natural world. […A]n opportunity to interpret your inner thoughts out into the natural world and a space where the natural world can flow into you and leave a permanent mark.

It is this give-and-take relationship with the world around us that makes the task of journaling such sacred work. In many Pagan and Wiccan traditions, the Book of Shadows serves as a record of the practitioner’s personal spiritual journey: a recipe book, reference guide and diary all in one. For the natural polytheist and the earth-centered Pagan, the nature journal can be all this and more. The act of journaling can open us more fully to the world around us, and invite the natural world into those interior spaces within our own souls. A journal can be more than just a record of where we’ve been; it can be the beginning of a whole new journey.

There are two powerful techniques that I especially like to use when journaling out in nature, in order to move me from a place of mundane consciousness into a state of contemplation, attention and receptivity. They are: naming, and questioning.

Naming The World Anew

March 11, 2013 • Night choir frog, Drum-throated frog, Mist-creeper, Reed-root frog, Ripple-maker, Long-legged shadow, Water’s shadow, Dark moon frog, Spring-caller, Rain’s companion, Mud-and-leaf frog…

Names are powerful. So powerful that they can break open our minds to new realities. In many folk traditions, it is said that if you know the name of a spirit, you can gain power over it. But the opposite is also true: if a malevolent spirit or the ghosts of the dead learn your true name, they can make your life hell.

When it comes to our relationship with the natural world, names are a double-edged sword. They can empower us, helping us to organize the mind-boggling diversity of living things into families and phyla, giving us a way to grasp the subtle interconnections and relationships that might otherwise escape our notice. But names can also have a deadening effect. Often when I’ve been out teaching naturalist programs, I’ve seen how desperately people want to know the names of things, as if the name were a lifeline that they can hold onto to keep from being swept away. But once I tell them the name, the conversation ends. They’ve been gripped by the hard-fisted spirit of Expertise. They hold onto the names so tightly, like a treasure, the proof that they have learned something new about the world. But after an hour or two of learning dozens of names, they discover that these names are more like faery gold that has turned back into dead leaves or grains of sand, crumbling and slipping through their fingers, leaving them with nothing.

The joy of names is learning to hold them loosely. Dr. Richard Feynman tells a wonderful story about his father teaching him the difference between knowing the name of something, and truly understanding it. The unassuming brown-throated thrush has a suite of names befitting a king, a different name in every human tongue. The most modest creature can inspire fascination deserving a great and beautiful name, a name that changes with the weather or the mood and tremor of its call. A little boy who was on a low-tide beach walk I was leading crouched down, entranced by a tiny green anemone with pink-tipped fronds drifting delicately on the rocky side of a tidepool. “What is it?” he asked excitedly. “It’s called a pink-tipped green anemone,” I said, and he looked up in vague disappointment at such an obvious, unimaginative name. “But,” I added, “what do you think it should be called?” He thought for a while, sitting back on his heels. “How about a water flower?” he said, “Or, the Pink-Haired Clam Slug? Or….” and he trailed off, turning possibilities over in his mind. Some names are too special to be spoken out loud.

Journal Exercise 1: Naming • Do not rush to pull out your field guide. Sit with your journal and spend some time with the plant or animal in front of you. Watch how it moves, how its leaves spread, how its limbs bend. Listen to its calls and cries, to the sound of wind, water and soil surrounding it. Breathe deeply of its scent. Imagine what it might feel like to be this creature — how would you experience the world around you? Then, begin your journey to find its true name. Write down whatever names come to mind, whichever names seem to fit. There is no wrong name, for every name is an invitation to relationship. With every name you will discover more of the mysteries of the living world around you, as well as the mysteries within yourself.

The Quest of Questioning

April 23, 2013 • Why do the white lilacs bloom before the purple ones? Where is the hummingbird building its nest this year? How many kinds of moss grow on the cement wall by the garage, and why do some grow there but not others? Where is the hawk that has the crows in an uproar?

When we have broken free of the need to learn the proper names of things, we discover that there are so many more questions to ask about the world than just, “What is it?” In the introduction to his book, The Natural History of Puget Sound Country, Arthur Kruckeberg explores the revolutionary importance of ecology as a science that asks the tough questions:

In probing the natural world, what kinds of questions do we ask? Easiest are the “what” and “how” questions. What is it? and How does it work? usually can be given direct answers. The unknown tree or insect gets a name and a place in its family tree to satisfy the What is it? question. Though more demanding of observation and thought, the How does it work? question also has ready answers. The literature of how things function in the world of life is the product of patient experiment and observation by plant and animal biologists. It is only when curiosity persists to the How come? stage that science reveals its tentative and ever-probing qualities. The answers to What for? questions asked of the color of a flower, the hair on an insect’s body, or the slime of a slippery slug, are within the domains of ecology and the study of adaptations.

The scientific study of ecology tries to answer these How come? and What for? questions. But perhaps more important to our spiritual and contemplative lives is learning first how to ask these questions, and to allow them to lead us into deeper, more complex relationship with nature and its many gods. Asking questions can change the way we look at the world around us and our place within it, shifting our attitude from one of self-assuredness and certainty, to curiosity, wonder and mystery. Following the advice of the poet Rilke, we can learn “to have patience with everything unresolved in our hearts.” Remember:

try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.

Journal Exercise 2: Questioning • Sit and breathe, your journal in your lap. Spend ten to fifteen minutes quietly observing the place where you are sitting, its personality, its presence, and the other living beings that share this place with you. Allow the questions to arise naturally. If you find yourself asking, “What is that?” revisit the Naming exercise. Search for the hard-to-ask questions — why, how, how come, what for? Notice the way these questions invite you to look more closely, to breathe more deeply. Notice how questions like “where” and “when” shifts your attention beyond this time and place, broadening your awareness. Most importantly, do not try to answer the questions you ask. Allow them to remain unanswered, at least for now. Later, you might discover the answer to one of these questions while exploring the landscape or reading a book about your local ecosystem. But for now, just for now, allow yourself to dwell in the possibilities and mysteries that your questions open up before you.


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Invasives, Revisited: Warfare and Harvest

My post on invasive species provoked some really wonderful discussion from readers last week, reminding me once again just how diverse our attitudes towards the natural world can be. Even when we all agree on what practical actions we need to take, our motivations and reasons can be very different!

Take Robert Paxton, for instance, who left this comment on my G+ page:

Some invasives are sufficiently benign that one could address them in this gentle-hearted way. However, out at Circle Sanctuary, we cheerfully work hard to eradicate the buckthorn that has already killed some of our oldest oaks. We spend a lot of effort to beat back the multiflora rose that nothing eats — that repels the native birds — and that creates dense, fiercely prickly hedges. We fight the garlic mustard which chokes out dozens of native understory species, as well as causing butterfly populations to crash. And we fight the reed canary grass which creates monocultures that choke out wetlands.

Every local ecology has its own challenges, some more severe than others. In our case, a century of fire suppression — and some problematic but well-intentioned choices to introduce non-natives by DNR people of generations long past — left us a mess that we need to actively work on if we want the full natural diversity of the land shine.

The Gentle Heart of the City Girl

Bee on a FlowerRobert is absolutely right that every landscape has its own challenges, as well as its own sources of resilience and adaptability. Learning how to work with the unique characteristics of your own local area is absolutely vital in the work to conserve and support thriving natural ecosystems.

I can’t argue with Robert about whether or not the environmental challenges that face Puget Sound Country, and Seattle in particular, are more or less severe than those he faces at the beautiful Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin. (Though I will readily admit that I’m envious of the opportunity he has to work at such an amazing place!) I do know that Seattle has many of the problems common to cities all over the world — increased air and water pollution, soil erosion, heat islands, urban run-off, suburban sprawl — as well as some challenges unique to this area. Often times, invasive species find a foothold in a new landscape in the wake of disruptive changes that temporarily jeopardize the ability of native species to survive and thrive, and then stick around because they are hardier, more resistant to pollution and more flexible in nutrient-deficient environments. The city of Seattle, like many cities, has a history of environmental devastation and pollution from industry that make it ripe for invasion by non-natives.

Like Robert, I love the land where I live and I’m dedicated to doing everything in my power to live respectfully and to support an ecosystem that is vital and thriving. Do I think that my approach to handling invasives is too “gentle-hearted,” in light of the damage done by the more than 700 invasive species in my area (with Scotch broom and himilayan blackberry being among the fifty most problematic)? Not at all.

There is a great deal of violence and war in the language that Robert uses to describe his relationship with the land where he lives. He must “beat back” and “fight” and “eradicate” dangerous invaders in his efforts to protect old trees, butterflies, birds and other native wildlife. He might even see himself and his fellow conservationists at Circle Sanctuary as eco-warriors, embroiled in a battle of good versus bad, desirable versus objectionable, dangerous and strong versus weak and vulnerable. Yet I suspect that, as with most invasives, these efforts to eradicate the enemy will never be wholly successful. The invasives are here to stay, and the question we need to ask ourselves is how are we going to deal with them now that they’re here? Do we really want to be at war with a part of our landscape for the rest of our lives?

But what if we simply changed the metaphors we use when we talk about our approach to these invasives? What if we intentionally worked at shifting our attitudes away from images of war and hardship, and towards images of harvest and prosperity? I’m not suggesting being any less persistent or thorough in how we do the physical, practical work of land management. But instead of seeing this work as a constant battle that we will probably never win, what if we begin to think of these invasives as allies who present new opportunities? No plant or animal is wholly bad — every species fits into and carves out a niche, serving the larger community in some way. These invasives are, like many of us humans, dislocated settlers who are wreaking havoc in their attempt to survive. As Heather notes in another comment:

In their native environments, these species have natural checks on their growth (animals that eat them, competitors, etc.). By working with these species in the ways that you describe (using them for food or decoration), I think that humans have the ability to become those checks on the species in their new environment.

We can partner with invasive species in order to find a new balance, instead of wasting our time, energy and resources in a hopeless endeavor. Through careful research and creativity, we might just find positive qualities these plants possess that can be put to use by our communities, transforming this endless war into an opportunity for harvest.

The Cost of War

Our society tends to resort to the language of war and violence when trying to describe things that are difficult. People “fight their way up” the corporate ladder for a successful career. They “wage war” on social problems like poverty and crime. Hidden within Robert’s comment is the assumption that the most effective, most important kind of work is unpleasant and violent — work that we cannot do with a “gentle heart.”

Yet the casualties of war and violence are tragedies. We mourn the waste of life, the lost potential. This is true even when the war is metaphorical, and especially when it’s an endless battle that can never really be won. Many environmentalists have been inspired to great heroics and dedicated service by seeing themselves as courageous eco-warriors, fighting the good fight. But such an attitude is ultimately unsustainable — it can lead to feelings of despair and cynicism, when all the energy, time and resources we’ve poured into a good cause seem to come to nothing and we find ourselves, decades later, still locked in combat with the same intractable foes.

War is also the work of the few, rather than the many. As a metaphor, it is by its very nature exclusionary. A small number of soldiers put their lives on the line and make great sacrifices to protect the homeland and keep the rest of the community safe. Not everybody can be a soldier, and not everybody wants to be. For environmentalists who want to inspire and mobilize entire communities into action to protect the environment and live sustainably with our beautiful planet, using the metaphor of warfare can backfire, alienating supporters and undermining their cause. When we think of our environmental work as a war, we encourage the community to sit back and let those few of us shoulder the burden alone, brave eco-soldiers on the front lines doing the hard work so they don’t have to.

The Opportunity and Community of Harvest

Autumn WoodsAs a city-dweller, I know how easy it would be to give in to pessimism, seeing the landscape where I live as too far gone, too scarred by human exploitation. The problem is just too big for a handful of conservationists to tackle on their own, no matter how dedicated they are. Seattle will never again be a pristine wilderness — the invasives, human and nonhuman alike, are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new ways of thinking about how we live with our local landscape. Unlike other invasive species, we have the opportunity to change the stories we tell about our place in the world and, by changing our stories, changing the ways we live with and relate to the many other beings that share the world with us. Instead of seeing ourselves at war with invasives, and with ourselves, we can embrace the story of harvest.

The beauty of the harvest is that it promises sustenance and interdependence as the fruits of our labor. The effort we put into the harvest — the blood, sweat and tears — helps to foster connections instead of severing them, sustains and supports life instead of destroying it. We’re used to thinking of harvest as something easy: as easy as going to the grocery store and choosing between oranges and apples, or at most doing some gentle weeding and watering in our backyard gardens. The truth is, harvest is hard, sweaty work that demands a great deal of discipline, teamwork, commitment and courage. Rather than lionizing the sacrifices of the few, reclaiming metaphors of harvest gives us the opportunity to celebrate the efforts of ordinary people doing ordinary things that add up to real, meaningful change. It gives people a chance to be heroic in their everyday lives, as well as reacquaint themselves with the pleasure of hard work and its rewards.

Harvest also reminds us that life is cyclical: a part of this year’s yield will be sown as seeds to grow next year’s crop. In approaching conservation work, it’s essential to understand how our actions today affect the reality we will live with tomorrow, or next year, or in the next century. War, on the other hand, has a beginning, a middle and, hopefully, an end. When we are at war with the invasives in our landscapes, our primary focus is on killing as many of them as we can; we rarely ask ourselves the question of what happens to the casualties of that war after our task is done, or how the landscape will adapt and recover in their absence. Reframing our conservation work as harvest instead of warfare can help to keep us grounded in the cycles of nature that we’re a part of, and it can spark creative ways of recycling and integrating invasives that respect the balance of the native ecology. In a healthy ecosystem, nothing goes to waste, and everything serves some purpose. Rather than worrying about whether or not we are being too “soft on invasives,” treating them as enemy combatants or ecological criminals, we can embrace a more effective solution by focusing on rehabilitation and restoration.

Different stories will inspire different people. Some people might come to a blackberry ice cream social not because they care deeply about protecting the environment from the invasive himalayan blackberry, but because they like ice cream and hanging out with friends. For some, cooking and crafting is their way of fostering a relationship with the natural world, while others might be inspired by the greater call to serve the community on a global scale through conservation. If our efforts are effective and the stories we tell are inspiring, does it really matter whether we approach the work with the courageous heart of a fighter, or the gentle heart of a farmer?

Conservation, Featured, Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013

Invasives: Enemies or Allies?

Seattle - Scotch Broom 18May2012 hha_9848In the late spring and early summer here in the Pacific Northwest, you’re bound to notice a certain delicate golden-blossomed plant growing along the roadsides. It leans out over the shoulders of highways, bristling with slender green stems that rustle in the wind that’s stirred by passing cars. When the afternoon sun catches the tiny asymmetrical flowers, it’s as if a bit of that sunlight has coalesced among the shady undergrowth, drops of golden-petaled light clinging like dew to the stems of this graceful plant that lines the edge of the forest. This same beauty can transform an entire hillside meadow into a sea of aureolin sunshine, rippling in the breeze.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was enchanted by this lovely plant. Modestly nondescript during the first few wintery, rainy months I’d spent in the city, this evergreen shrub suddenly revealed itself with the warming spring weather, a fresh reminder of bright summery days to come. It seemed to be everywhere.

In fact, that was exactly the problem. This plant — Cytisus scoparius, commonly known as Scotch broom — was originally a native of western and central Europe, first introduced to the pacific coast of North America in the mid-1800s as a garden ornamental. But despite its delicate appearance, Scotch broom is a survivor, embodying the same hardy, pioneering spirit as those early settlers who brought it to the sunny coasts of California. Able to establish itself in disturbed and nutrient-deficient soils, it often outcompetes other native plants of the Pacific Northwest, spreading quickly to dominate the landscape. A single plant can live for 20 years, its growth limited only by low temperature or drought, each year producing more than 12,000 seeds which can lie dormant in the soil for up to 30 years before germinating. Give Scotch broom an inch, and soon you’ll have miles of its dense stands invading the landscape, elbowing out natives like snowberry, currants and woods rose, smothering the seedlings of red alder and douglas fir, preventing reforestation and greatly reducing biodiversity.

Scotch broom is a quintessential example of what’s known in ecology as an invasive species: a non-native plant or animal that has invaded a bioregion, dominating the landscape and harming the balance and biodiversity of the local ecosystem. Many invasive species were first introduced by humans. Some, like Scotch broom, were cultivated for their aesthetic beauty or for utilitarian purposes (fast-growing and hardy, Scotch broom was also used to prevent erosion and stabilize banks and sand dunes along newly built roadways and in other areas). Others were brought along as domesticated animals, livestock or pets (such as the bullfrog and burmese python in the United States). Sometimes, as happened with the starling in North America and the rabbit in Australia, European immigrants intentionally introduced non-native animals into the wild, hoping to bring a “touch of home” along with them to the lands that they colonized and conquered without any thought to the potential impact on the local ecology. Still other species are introduced by accident, as stowaways, pests and parasites that quickly spread when not kept in check by their natural predators.

Given how harmful an invasive species can be, it’s tempting to see them as wholly bad, the “enemy” of a healthy ecosystem that needs to be eradicated. Yet our attempts to purge an ecosystem of invasives can end up causing new problems. Chemical pesticides and herbicides may lead to increased pollution that affects natives as well as non-natives. Attempts to control invasive populations of plants through weeding or clear-cutting can disrupt the soil and surrounding landscape in ways that only exacerbate the damage and encourage the invasive growth, while the hunting of invasive animals may play havoc with stable populations, potentially provoking further dispersal of the invasive species, spreading disease or increasing the likelihood of dangerous encounters with people in human-inhabited areas.

scotch broom in full bloomLike many things in the natural world, our relationship with invasives is complex and ever-evolving. Throughout the long history of our planet, species have migrated from place to place, shaping the ecosystems they encounter and being shaped by them in turn. The processes of nature tend towards a dynamic balance, with everything from weather to predator-prey relationships working to keep resources cycling through the ecosystem. We humans tend to assume that the way a landscape looked when we first encountered it is “the way it’s supposed to be,” and we’re quick to judge changes as either good or bad according to our own time-scale, often simply because we lack the knowledge or experience to take a longer view.

When we stop to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity of our relationship with non-native species, we’re much less likely to throw ourselves into foolhardy schemes, hell-bent on their complete eradication. Instead of seeing ourselves as landlords with the authority to decide which species should live and which should die, we can change our attitude to one of attentive partnership with an active, vital natural world whose very strength lies in its diversity and creativity in overcoming imbalances and restoring health and harmony. Once we begin to see ourselves as part of nature and participants in natural processes, we realize that we can be part of the solution, helping to correct the imbalances that we originally introduced.

The truth is, invasive species can potentially be great allies, if we take the time to learn how to befriend them. Developing a personal, spiritual relationship with a problematic species can open our eyes to the nuances of living in better relationship with it. When we can appreciate the intrinsic value of a plant or animal and see its many positive qualities — its beauty, flexibility, tenacity or quick growth, for instance — we open ourselves up to new ways of transforming those qualities from challenges or problems, into opportunities. For example, some conservationists have already started to point out the benefits of using abundant, hardy invasive species as potential low-carbon, local food sources, an approach that could keep populations in check while also addressing the problems of industrialized factory farming. In places like the Niger Delta, where the water hyacinth threatens to choke off rivers and jeopardize the livelihoods of local subsistence communities, projects are underway to transform this stubborn invasive into a cash crop that artisans can harvest sustainably and weave into biodegradable household items, restoring the floundering riparian ecosystem while lifting families out of poverty.

View to Hood RiverThe same is true even for the graceful, tenacious Scotch broom and other invasives in my own local landscape. Efforts to restore the natural, native ecosystems in Seattle city parks include not only native tree-planting events for school kids, seniors and weekend volunteers, but seasonal activities where invasives are weeded out by hand and turned into useful resources for the entire community to enjoy. In the winter, invasive evergreens like broom, ivy and holly are harvested and turned into biodegradable wreaths and other holiday decorations to last through the drab rainy weeks. And as summer approaches, the city parks host ice cream socials, where folks from the local community gather to pick invasive himalayan blackberries fresh from the bush and turn them into delicious, homemade ice cream to share with friends and family. Such events not only help to keep these non-native populations in check in the local parks, but they provide opportunities for people to gather together and celebrate the seasons in a direct, hands-on way.

For modern Pagans seeking to live an embodied spirituality grounded in the sacred land, invasives are powerful allies in coming to terms with our own ambivalent role in the ecosystems we inhabit, and the possibilities and choices that lie before us. Too often our modern society encourages us to see nature as fragile and untouchable, and humans as the worst intruders of all. Befriending invasives can teach us valuable lessons about how to be respectful, loving citizens of the planet that we call home.


Photo Credits:
Henry Huey, “Seattle – Scotch Broom” (CC) (source)
Chris Tarnawski, “Scotch Broom in Full Bloom” (CC) (source)
Patrick M, “View to Hood River” (CC) (source)


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