There are a lot of reasons why I am glad my wife and I moved to the Pacific Northwest nearly five years ago. They are too numerous to list. We both love the outdoors and the beauty here. We will not live long enough to take advantage of all of the natural treasures that exist within a short drive from our home, let alone our own island. If you want to hike, ski, kayak, water ski, or sit quietly in the rain forest, it is all here. We are surrounded by a body of water called the Puget Sound with the Cascade Mountains on one side and the Olympic Mountains on the other. If one has the eyes to see, the scenery is glorious and is a constantly changing panorama of visual delights. I say, “If one has the eyes to see” because we have discovered that some people just do not see the same things that we see or, for that matter, hear the same things that we hear. Although it sometimes surprises us, we have learned to accept that.
The Pacific Northwest is not for everyone. It rains a lot and during the dead of the winter, one can go days without seeing the sun. Last year in February it rained for 27 days straight and we were disappointed because we missed a record by two days. The winter nights are long with a sunrise as late as 8AM and sunset as early as 4PM. We have watched more than one friend pack up and leave the area because “they could not take the weather.” We on the other hand love it, even when we do not like it, sometimes.
You see, the real reason I love it here is that I have become reconnected to nature and the earth. It took me a couple of years to figure out what was going on and what was happening to me, but when I finally figured it out, I was a little surprised. While I have always had an affinity for the outdoors and especially outdoor activities, I realized that I have treated nature as an object, something for my enjoyment. What had changed was my growing awareness that I am dependent, connected and part of nature, part of the earth. I am much more aware that in ways I have never understood before, we are related.
We live in an area that is still pretty much a complete, dynamic ecosystem. Plants die and then they are reborn. Leaves actually fall in the fall season and it gets cold in the winter. The evergreens seem to be eternal, especially the proud 120 ft giants that surround our home and are prolific in the area. We do not import water from another state but get water from a deep community well, fed by a glacier on Mountain Rainer fifty miles away. It would be easy to live on food from the local famers, year around. (Okay, I would miss my avocados and citrus fruit.) Things just seem to grow whether you want them to or not. Every spring, more than a hundred little trees start growing somewhere on our property. We live on a little more than an acre and a third and we have no sprinkler system, no lawn, use no fertilizer except for our own compost and yet we have a lovely garden that produces most of our vegetables for the summer and we are surrounded by a plethora of huge trees, evergreen plants and a variety of natural ground cover.
The wildlife is challenging at times but is another reminder that we are all interconnected. Admittedly we have netting over our vegetables since the deer seem to like the young sprouts, but we found a way ways to co-exist and we enjoy their regular visits. We sometimes think that we live in a large aviary. We have become attached to the hundreds of birds that hang out around our home, serenading us from morning to nightfall. I hope I never get so used to them that I can no longer hear them. We have developed a particular fondness for the beautiful Bald Eagle that seems to fly over our deck just about the time one of us mentions that we have not seen him for while.
And then there is the air. I am amazed by the people who have lived here all of their lives and do not realize what a gift the clean, pure oxygen filled air really is. Of course the smells of the pine needles, the Madrona leaves, the flowers, and the often wet soil, add a certain distinct flavor. But now when I travel somewhere that does not have clean, fresh air, I grieve. It is sad to think that this is the way that the entire earth was at one time, filled with trees, clean air and clean water.
The winter nights are long and cold and I know few local people who cannot tell you what day the Winter Solstice will occur in any given year. We celebrate it like some people celebrate Easter. I now understand experientially why the Solstice was turned into religious holiday. I have a new perspective on why most ancient religions, including Christianity borrowed from earlier religious celebrations that had been centered on the seasons of the earth.
I have come to realize that it would be impossible for me to have a holistic spirituality that was not somehow connected and grounded in an awesome appreciation of our Mother Earth. Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest who died early this month was considered by many the father of evolutionary spirituality. He would not have called it that because for him deep spirituality always resulted from the awareness of our interconnectedness and interdependency of all creation. That is what spirituality was for him. This is a quote from an article he wrote in 1990 called: “The Spirituality of the Earth.”
“We need a spirituality that emerges out of a reality deeper than ourselves, even deeper than life, a spirituality that is as deep as the earth process itself, a spirituality born out of the solar system and even out of the heavens beyond the solar system. There in the stars is where the primordial elements take shape in both their physical and psychic aspects. There is a certain triviality in any spiritual discipline that does not experience itself as supported by the spiritual as well as the physical dynamics of the entire cosmic-earth process. A spirituality is a mode of being in which not only the divine and the human commune with each other, but we discover ourselves in the universe and the universe discovers itself in us.”
What has happened to me over the last few years is that I have developed a greater appreciation for one of Berry’s main ideas-that the earth is our mother and not separate from us. We are of the earth and the earth is of us.
Berry spent the last half of his long life pointing out that Christians, in large part, have failed to acknowledge the spirituality of the earth and our dependency on her as Mother. The traditional Christian idea that the earth was created by an outside source as a convenient gift to support humans, while we are here for a limited time on earth, could not have been anymore myopic and self-centered. This has led to crassness in our relationship with the earth, our solar system and the cosmos in general. It has also led to some pretty shallow forms of spirituality.
The idea that the Universe was created by a theistic God outside of us, for our needs has perpetuated the duality myth that no longer fits our understanding of reality or the cosmos. It allows us to produce Christian spiritualities that function in a certain isolated context without regard for the larger society or the very earth that sustains us.
What we do know is that every action creates a reaction. Whatever we do to the earth, there is a reaction and the earth is reacting. Someday we will have to try and figure out how such a spiritual attitude allowed humans to attack the earth with such savagery. It is becoming more clear that whatever the cause, we are headed for a major change. Some call it evolutionary change. Others are not so positive.
I realize that it is not possible for everyone to move to the forest and smell the sweet smells of damp earth and fresh leaves. It is not possible to everyone to float in kayak on a clear lake in the Olympic Mountains, meditate and give thanks for the truly awesome surroundings. It is not possible for most people to see four Bald Eagles in a day as they dip a wing to acknowledge our obvious adoration for their beauty and dignity. It is not possible for everyone to breathe in fresh, clean air with every breath and drink clean water out of a well. But you can know that this is still possible and that this is what Mother wants for each of us.
In the meantime we can keep Thomas Berry’s words in mind:
“We need a spirituality that emerges out of a reality deeper than ourselves, even deeper than life, a spirituality that is as deep as the earth process itself, a spirituality born out of the solar system and even out of the heavens beyond the solar system.
(Fred and Charron live on Fox Island in the Puget Sound, WA)