Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Wild Yoga by Rebecca Wildbear. In this excerpt, Rebecca talks about connecting with spirituality, and demonstrates how caring for the nature and other nonhumans is an integral part of it. Learn more about her work at the end of this post.
I walk through the cave’s rocky, wet terrain, placing my hand on a wall to steady myself as my eyes adjust to the dark. Pausing, I hear the soft, dripping echo of dew sliding off rock. It sounds like a heartbeat from within this cool earthen interior. As water trickles over my feet, I remember watching springs emerge from darkness, rising from under the ground to feed streams, lakes, and rivers. I thank these waters for nourishing all life on our planet.
As a guide, I invite others to be nourished by the imaginal waters that spring forth from the depths, releasing visionary potential, expanding consciousness, and revealing other ways to live. Being in our deep imagination while attuning to nature’s wild imagination can enlarge our perception, align us with a deeper intelligence, and remind us of ancient and new potentialities. Grounded in reverence for the living planet, we can listen for what she needs.
Visions and dreams spring forth from the belly of the Earth, as does actual water, to nourish our souls and the world’s soul and keep everything alive. The majority of drinkable water worldwide comes from underground aquifers, now being rapidly drawn down. Rain is unable to replenish the amount being mined. Globally, water use has risen to more than twice the rate of population growth. It is still increasing. Ninety percent of water used by humans is consumed by industry and agriculture. When these waters are overused, lakes, streams, and rivers dry up.
In the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, a third of houses lack running water; in some towns, the figure is 90 percent. Peabody Energy, a large coal producer and Fortune 500 company, pulled so much water from the Navajo aquifer before closing its mining operation in 2019 that many wells and springs have run dry. And it is not only coal mining that usurps water. Since 1980, lithium mining companies in Chile have made billions consuming so much water that indigenous Atacama villagers were forced to abandon their settlements. For millennia, they had used their scarce water supply carefully. Now, where hundreds of flamingos once lived on beautiful lagoons, the ground is hard and cracked.
The cave womb of the Earth is creative and life-giving but fragile. As we bring awareness to life underneath the surface, we can grieve and offer our tears for the massive losses of groundwater and the poisoning of underground waterways. We can pray for a vision to help us respond to clear-cut forests, plowed prairies, drained wetlands, and the harms of human-only land use, like mining and agriculture. It is hard to bear witness, but we are part of the Earth’s body. We need to feel what is happening and seek and offer help.
Spirit abides in all living things and is inseparable from the natural world. To destroy the Earth is to desecrate God. Prayer is a way of being present and in relationship with everything. We begin to restore balance when we honor the sanctity of life. By listening to dreams, our muses, and nature, we align ourselves with powerful allies and can glean our purpose and understand how to serve the whole. The harm humans are causing the Earth asks us to return to her, listen, and pray for visions that can help us restore balance.
Into the Heart of the World
Opening to the suffering of the Earth carries us into the heart of the world. It is gut-wrenching to see the world around us becoming more damaged. The pain is not something we can deal with and move on. Once we finally grasp the immensity of ecological devastation, it is hard to bear the feelings of depression, rage, anxiety, cynicism, overwhelm, hopelessness, despair, and apathy. The feelings are not ours alone, but what we are sensing from our planet home. Stephen Harrod Buhner wrote it’s “our feeling response to a communication from the heart of Earth” urging us “to re-inhabit our interbeing with the world.” We need to face what is happening and let the feelings speak to us. To listen to their messages and let them alter the course we are on.
Whatever we love and may lose carries us into the world’s heart. When I was twenty-one, I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and thought I might die. Many people prayed for me. Their good wishes healed me and brought me joy. I was surprised by how well I felt, despite the physical pain. Later, I wondered if their prayers had helped me feel good.
Prayer connects us to the moment and invites us into a cocreative partnership with life. In the yoga asana classes I teach, I invite our movements to be prayer and our bodies to be a doorway to the sacred.
I pray with others in nature, guiding people to let go and listen. To feel their unmet longing to find deeper meaning and purpose, to become whole and live a soul-centered existence. Sometimes the prayers we live can feel intensely tricky. In the cave womb of transformation, visions can emerge, and the dark nights of our souls can pull us toward the holy mystery at the center of our lives.
I am aligned with my soul, and I know others who are too. Yet ecosystems are collapsing under the greed of global capitalism, and more species and lands die each day. Our prayers need to stretch beyond the individual. Soul-making is a collaboration tied to the fate of Earth, asking us to descend into the collective dark night of our planet. To love the natural world is to weep at how humanity harms her. If we open to the tremendous sorrow of our failure to protect oceans, forests, and rivers, this can bring us into the world’s heart, dismembering our sense of self and what we have believed about the world. We can receive visions for the Earth through a collective descent into the underworldly depths. We can let the Earth touch us and listen to what she is saying through feelings engendered in our hearts.
Alicia, a young woman who lives in a yurt in southwestern Colorado, places her forehead and hands on the red soil of the desert. “This isn’t yours,” she cries, fierce and mournful. “This belongs to all of us.” She repeats this phrase over and over, her voice increasing in intensity, her hands slapping the ground.
Sixteen of us sit in circle in the Utah desert, participating in a five-day Prayers in the Dark program. The sky is blue, and the sun is bright. It is late morning, and the desert is silent except for the occasional call of a mourning dove. Today, we are engaged in a ceremony similar to the Truth Mandala practice developed by Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy, expressing our feelings about what is happening to the planet. Mary stands up and opens her mouth in a bloodcurdling scream.
The group is silent, frozen, taking in her scream. It pierces us and the land and is disturbing and relieving as if we had all howled, shrieked, or wailed.
Alex says, “I grew up on the Boundary Waters,” a wilderness area in Minnesota that is part of the Superior National Forest. He talks about canoeing as a child and all the birds he saw. “Trump has granted leases to mining companies,” he points out, referring to a past American president. “The land and water will be poisoned.”
Thomas, from Wyoming, is trembling and in tears. I asked him if he wanted to share his thoughts with the group. He shakes his head no. “I can’t speak,” he says, choking. “It’s too sad.”
I feel my longing for cement, metal, and tin to melt away. For machines that mine the Earth to be dismantled. For rivers to run clear and be full of salmon. Flocks of birds to darken the sky. Ancient trees to cover the land. Oceans to teem with whales, dolphins, and coral. People to stop extracting and start honoring. The Earth to breathe herself alive.
“Close your eyes and root in the Earth,” I suggest to the group. “Imagine you are liquifying in a cocoon or hibernating in a cave. Descend into your despair and listen for what emerges. Ask for visions of how we can respond.”
Our souls are linked to the underground heart of the world. Deeper under the surface of our planet than water is fire. Magma, a hot, semifluid material, can move up to the surface and be ejected as lava. Our feelings are linked to what is happening on our planet. Our fire — our rage — is an active and receptive grief cry. We can speak and listen, surrender and serve, and offer ourselves. We can embody what we receive as responses arise through images, emotions, words, dreams, or sensations. To live and die the visions we are given is a prayer.
An ongoing relationship with death changed my life and kept me close to the Mystery. My scare with cancer did not end once I was in remission. Symptoms I felt when I had cancer — pressure in my chest, a chronic cough, nausea — sometimes returned. I had frequent CAT scans after I recovered, checking to see if it had reappeared. Statistically, the odds of a reoccurrence were high. I worried cancer would return, and I’m incredibly grateful it did not.
Death will claim all of us and those we love one day. It preys on us, bringing us to our knees in humility, inspiring us to pray and listen. Death initiated me into the mysteries, connecting me more deeply with my soul and the sacred. Nature is a place where I’ve always experienced the holy. When I had cancer, I also encountered a divine presence within me. I didn’t know what it was then. Now I understand it as an aspect of my mythic soul.
Our death can feed the spirits if we offer our lives to what matters. According to Martín Prechtel, young people in the Tz’utujil Mayan village where he lived “wrestled with death” during their initiation ceremonies. They tried to court their souls back from death with eloquence. Death was likely to agree to give them their souls only if the initiates committed to “ritually render a percentage of the fruit of [their] art, [their] eloquence, and [their] imagination to the other world.” The Earth and Spirit are fed by how we live and die. I imagine them starving and grieving for people to listen, create beauty, and give back. When we live and die eloquently, our lives and deaths nourish the spirit world, like a grandmother tree nourishes a forest in her life and death.
Guiding on rivers, I sometimes feel close to death. Praying for my life, I am surprised by the images that arise and remind me of what I love and value — the sacred beauty of wild places; quiet moments alone with my body and my muse; being with loved ones, my dog Xander, friends; swimming or rafting; water.
On quests, I guide others to put their lives on the altar if they are emotionally and developmentally ready. Seeking a psychospiritual death is part of their prayer to receive a vision of their deeper purpose. People sometimes encounter their souls on their deathbeds, but they have no time left to live it. Intentionally letting go of the familiar and stepping into a liminal unknown is a kind of death, and visions of soul or other extraordinary or numinous possibilities can come. Some questers seek an initiatory dismemberment, hoping to receive what David Whyte calls
your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.
In a meadow in the Colorado high country, twelve people stand at the edge of a portal made of sticks, pine cones, and flowers. A deer peers out from behind a ponderosa pine. Quaking aspens, lupines, and bluebells surround us. Each person reads their prayer before walking across the threshold to fast alone in the wilderness for three days and nights.
Initiation ceremonies like these were common in ancient cultures of indigenous and nature-based peoples, and some still do them. Yet, as Martín Prechtel explained, when an entire culture “refuses to wrestle death with eloquence, then death comes up to the surface to eat us in a literal way, with wars and depression.” Perhaps if modern Western culture supported its people to grow and face death, it would stop consuming all life on the planet.
The dominant culture will not last. Founded on the principles of individualism, capitalism, human supremacy, white supremacy, and colonialism, this mainstream culture is incompatible with the Earth’s living systems. Yet industrial civilization continues on the path of futile addiction to an unsustainable lifestyle, in denial of its impending collapse.
The world will be healthier once the dominant culture ends — animals, plants, water, soil, developing nations, indigenous cultures, and rural people. The sooner it comes to a halt, the more animals, fish, trees, and rivers will remain, and the more likely it is that we will have sustainable food sources for future generations. Waiting for things to unravel may make the crash worse for humans and nonhumans living through it and those who come afterward.
If only the ecological crisis would catalyze radical change that would compel industrial civilization to let go of harming the natural world to keep itself alive. Government and corporate leaders and the systems of power that rule society do not seem willing to put global empire on the ceremonial altar, despite how much harm it causes. The global empire has been going on for a long time without any significant shift. Individuals and communities need to reclaim the power to take the necessary courageous steps to ensure global empire is put on the altar. We can let go of what we don’t believe in and know isn’t working. We can align with what and who truly matters.
Modern culture has separated us from our land and the instinct to protect it. We reclaim power when we deepen our relationship with the Earth and descend into the heart of our planet to grieve and receive visions for our souls and the world. Visions imbue us with mysterious powers and guide us into greater alignment with nature in ways our minds can’t conceive. Dreams are real. Listening gives us authentic power by which we can change the world, bringing together our visionary and revolutionary natures.
When we let go, we don’t know what is next. We descend into our prerational instincts, listen and attune to our planet home, and invite our visionary selves to guide us. A caterpillar offers her life in the cocoon, not knowing she will metamorphose into a butterfly. We can liquefy in our wild imagination and pray within the dark Earth. Feeling our watery souls and the water flowing under the ground, we can pray for a vision to help us restore forests, birds, oceans, and justice. Yearning for a world where the sacred is blended with all we do, we can partner with the dream of the Earth. Will the universe hear us and respond?
I close my eyes and remember visions — mine and others’ — that have sprung forth from the depths of wild nature and dreamtime. I remember springs I have drunk from in the wild, my lips on a mossy rock, my mouth filling with the sweet flavor and vibrant texture of waters that have long gestated in the dark Earth until they were ready to rise. I lean in and receive the generosity of water, longing for her elixirs to stir visions of ways to halt the human-caused harm and restore and nourish her ecosystems back to life.
A Wild Yoga Practice for Praying within the Dark Earth
Go out at night or find a dark place in nature, be present in your body with all your feelings, and listen, wait, and pray. Find a cave or other wild place where you can sit in darkness. Imagine yourself deep inside the Earth. See if you can sense the place where water arises or feel her heartbeat. Imagine you are gestating in the underground heart of the world. Wait and listen. Notice what you feel and what arises. Ask the Earth what she wants. Explore whatever comes with all of your senses. Write or create art to honor the visions you receive. Let them guide your actions in the world.
About Wild Yoga: A Practice of Initiation, Veneration & Advocacy for the Earth
Wild Yoga invites you to create a personal yoga practice that seamlessly melds health and well-being with spiritual insight, Earth stewardship, and cultural transformation. Wilderness guide and yoga instructor Rebecca Wildbear came to yoga after a life-threatening encounter with cancer in her twenties. Over years of teaching and healing, she devised the unique and user-friendly practice she presents in Wild Yoga. In this book, she guides you in connecting to the natural world and living from your soul while also addressing environmental activism. Whether you are new to yoga or an experienced practitioner, by engaging in this vibrant approach, you’ll discover greater levels of love, purpose, and creativity, along with the active awareness we know our planet deserves.
In this video produced by New World Library, Rebecca Wildbear discusses how Wild Yoga connects us to the Earth. Check out this excerpt from the book, “Playing Your Part in the Symphony,” on the publisher’s website.
Rebecca Wildbear is the author of Wild Yoga:A Practice of Initiation, Veneration & Advocacy for the Earth and the creator of a yoga practice called Wild Yoga, which empowers individuals to tune in to the mysteries that live within the Earth’s community, dreams, and their own wild nature so they may live a life of creative service. She has led Wild Yoga programs since 2007 and guides other nature and soul programs through Animas Valley Institute. Visit her at http://www.rebeccawildbear.com.
Excerpted from the book Wild Yoga: A Practice of Initiation, Veneration & Advocacy for the Earth Copyright ©2023 by Rebecca Wildbear. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
Featured image: Rebecca Wildbear, from www.rebeccawildbear.com
Editor’s Note: The following events are not being organized by DGR. We may not agree with all of the content on the events. Yet, we encourage you to attend these events to learn more about the amazing kangaroo.
Kangaroo Walks and Talks Program
We are excited to launch the Kangaroo Walks and Talks Program with a webinar 7pm-8pm (AEST) Tuesday 30th May.
Back to Country, Save Kangaroos on Mornington Peninsula and Kangaroos Alive have developed a special program to introduce communities to their local kangaroo mob.
A Kangaroo Walk and Talk allows communities to build appreciation and understanding of kangaroos. By observing and learning from our kangaroos we are able to connect to Country. The Kangaroo Walk + Talk Kits will provide logistical, promotional and legal advice to help you set up a Kangaroo Walk and Talk in your area.
Host Kate Clere will speak to special guests:
Mick McIntyre will present the example of Whale Watching and how that can be used in the development of Kangaroo Watching.
Dr Anthony ‘Macka’ McKnight on Connection to Country and the Yuin Kangaroo Declaration.
Craig Thomson will talk about the success of the pilot program on the Mornington Peninsula and will answer all your questions on the practicalities of running a Walk and Talk.
Join us on Kangaroos Alive Youtube or Facebook channels.
If you want to organize a local Walk and Talk, you can find resources here.
World Environment Day Kangaroo Forum
Another exciting event is World Environment Day Kangaroo Forum which will be held from 10am Sunday 4th June 2023 at Boneo Community Hall on the Mornington Peninsula. This interactive forum will include short 5-10 minute presentations and then brainstorm break-outs, with the goal of raising awareness on kangaroo conservation and to develop a draft of a tailored wildlife protection plan for the peninsula kangaroos.
This is a free and catered event so please RSVP the number of people and dietary requirements by 22 May to email@example.com.
We look forward to you joining us,
The Kangaroos Alive Team 🦘
Photo by Suzuha Kozuki on Unsplash
By Max Wilbert
In medicine, shock refers to an extremely serious condition of inadequate blood perfusion. Shock is most often caused by heart problems, severe infections, allergic reaction, massive blood loss, overdose, or spinal cord injury.
Of the 1.2 million people who show up to U.S. emergency rooms with signs and symptoms of shock each year, between 20% and 50% of them die.
Shock can be understood to progress through two broad phases: compensatory (phase 1) and de-compensatory (phase 2). In compensatory shock, the body can “compensate” for the emergency by adjusting blood pressure, diverting resources from the extremities, and using other internal mechanisms.
Victims in compensatory shock may seem, at first glance, to be doing relatively well. They may be lucid and able to talk clearly. But medical professionals know that this is an illusion. Without treatment, they are likely to worsen quickly. Careful assessment of vital signs and mechanism of injury/history of present illness (MOI/HPI) will show that this person is in an extremely perilous situation.
If left untreated or if their injury is series, they will soon enter the second phase of shock: de-compensatory. In this stage, the body can no longer compensate for the underlying issue. As blood and oxygen circulation collapses, cellular metabolism begins to fail. Our bodies begin to die, cell by cell. Vital organs fail one after another. The damage becomes irreversible. Death is nearly certain.
Planetary Ecology and Shock
Like our own lives, life on this planet depends on a precarious balance: the stability of climate, oceanic pH, nitrogen cycles, soil erosion and formation, and populations of beings at the basis of the tropic cascade such as bacteria, plankton and other photosynthesizers, and insects provides the foundation on which the entire biosphere rests.
These major life-support systems of the biosphere function similarly to human organs, each fulfilling a different need for life to continue as we know it. Due to the predations of industrial civilization, these “planetary organs” are in a dire state.
Insect populations are collapsing. Plankton populations are collapsing. Bird populations are collapsing. Coral reefs are collapsing. Fish populations are collapsing. Most native forests have been destroyed and those who remain are at risk of dying due to drought and heat stress over the next 50 years.
Soil erosion due to agriculture and overgrazing has decimated carbon storage across large portions of the earth’s surface and released this to the atmosphere. The cryosphere (the portion of our planet’s water frozen in ice) is rapidly melting. Thawing permafrost in the far north is releasing methane emissions to the atmosphere. The assaults go on and on.
When a human being goes into shock, the body compensates by shunting blood from the extremities towards the more vital internal organs. The same process is playing out across this planet. Like a human being, the natural world attempts to maintain its own stability. As carbon pollution chokes the atmosphere, for example, plants increase their growth rate, which should capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils and trees trunks, maintaining homeostasis. This is the delicate balance of geological and biological feedbacks that has made Earth an Eden for millions of species over millions of years.
That balance has been shattered by the explosion in agriculture, logging, and fossil fuel burning. Plants can no longer compensate, and “global greening” has been overwhelmed. Instead, we are entering a period of “global browning” as vast areas of vegetation begin to die from sustained drought and climatic changes.
The ecology of this planet is entering a state of de-compensatory shock.
Abundant Cheap Energy Allows Us To Ignore Reality
People living in wealthy nations are largely insulated from ecological collapse because of the availability of cheap energy.
They can ignore the collapse of fish populations since corporations send vast trawlers to remote oceans to vacuum up the last remaining reserves of wild fish. They can ignore the collapse of forests because energy-intensive industrial logging brings wood products from Oregon and Alaska and Indonesia to the world market. They can ignore water shortages because vast amounts of energy are used to pump entire rivers dry to feed growing cities.
Our ability to lie to ourselves, and to each other, is one of our society’s defining features. The urge to deny that anything is wrong is overwhelming. The scale of the immanent catastrophe, which has truly already arrived, is unthinkable. As with a patient in compensatory shock, so with the planet. Ignorance is bliss.
This won’t last. Ignorance is no protection against a burning planet, only against psychological wounds, and only in the short term. We are children of this living world. Our lungs are the oysters of this atmosphere, filtering out pollutants and capturing them inside our delicate tissues. We are permeable creatures, absorbing each chemical toxin industry produces. Like mites living on the surface of our skin, when the supraorganism begins to die, those who are dependent upon it are not long for this world.
What will a person do when they are confronted with the imminent death of themselves, of a loved one, of their civilization, of their biosphere? Deny that it is happening? Reject the science and the evidence of their own eyes? Lash out angrily against those who speak the truth? Try to bargain with reality? Retreat into depression?
These responses are all familiar to both the E.R. doctor and the Earth defender, and increasingly describe global politics. Denial and anger are the defining characteristics of the rising authoritarian tide. Modi, Putin, Trump, Erdoğan, and Bolsonaro are the figureheads of this death cult; there are hundreds of millions behind them.
Bargaining is the primary strategy of the liberals. As the biosphere bleeds from a million clearcuts and chokes on a toxic mixture of industrial chemicals and greenhouse gases, they promote so-called “solutions” that are no different from the status quo. Their fantasies of green energy, sustainable capitalism, and electric vehicles allow them to justify a lie that will kill the world: that they can have “normality”—modern, high-energy way of life—and a living planet at the same time.
Their plans are not even the equivalent of bandaging a bleeding planet. They are harmful in their own right—the equivalent of stabbing the victim elsewhere and claiming that since the wounds aren’t quite as deep, they are actually helping. This is the good-cop, bad-cop routine of modern politics.
That most people are simply depressed and apathetic, then, is no surprise. The normal functioning of industrial civilization is rapidly murdering life on this planet and destroying the capacity to support future life, and in the process immiserating billions of human beings. Anyone who is carefully watching the vital signs of this planet knows that the prognosis is not good.
Righteous anger is fitting response to this situation, but denial has no place now. Bargaining is worse than useless. And depression is understandable, but when paired with inaction it is not excusable. Only by accepting the reality of the situation can we begin to discuss meaningful action.
The reality is that the life support systems of our home, Earth, are failing. Without intervention, the organs of this planet will falter and die. Industrial civilization has shown itself to be incompatible with life. So the path forward is clear. Like open veins, the world’s pipelines must be closed off. The mining industry, opening great sores on the Earth’s surface, must be stopped and the land allowed to scab over. The abrasion that is industrial agriculture must be halted, and the soil bandaged with ecology’s first responders—those plants derisively called “weeds”—and eventually, replaced with forests and grasslands once again. The cancerous factories and toxic industry belching and circulating poisons around the planet must yield to the scalpel. The destruction must be halted, and the land must be allowed to heal.
And humans must find a way to live within the ecological limits of this planet, rather than constantly finding new ways to transgress them. If all you have ever known is how to live in a culture that is destroying the planet, this will take humility, and sacrifice, and a willingness to learn.
The process of ecological collapse has been accelerating for many years. It will not be reversed easily. Many wonders of the natural world are already gone—the billions of passenger pigeons, and the teeming flocks of Great auks. But there are many who remain: blue whales, redwood forests, loggerhead turtles, coral reefs.
Our task as a generation is to manage the coming collapse by accelerating the dismantling and destruction of the systems that must end (capitalism, industrial civilization, the fossil fuel and mining economy, industrial agriculture, etc.). At the same time, we most slow, halt, and reversing the collapse of forests, grasslands, soils, the carbon cycle, and the rest of the living world. And in the midst of all this, we must do our best to build human communities based in sustainability and human rights. Any of these elements in isolation leads to a bleak future. Only in combination do they represent some hope.
When we accept what is happening, the path forward becomes clear. Now we must gather our will and our community and get to work.
Max Wilbert is a third-generation dissident who came of age in post-WTO Seattle. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies, will be released in early 2021.
by Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance
Recently walking up Main Street in Park City, Utah, I saw in the Visitor’s Center doorway what looked like a man holding a great-horned owl surrounded by children. As his voice carried across the street, I heard the man explain that this owl had been found with an injured wing after being struck by a car.
I love owls. I love the haunting sound of their hoots in the darkest hours before dawn. I love the joy that accompanies the lucky sight of a splash of brown feathers against newly-fallen snow when an owl makes the rare decision to reveal herself in winter daylight. I love how owls’ mysterious nature have made them omens in so many cultures’ imaginations. So, when I saw what I thought was a great-horned owl, I automatically crossed the street with a feeling of anticipation.
Many of a great-horned owl’s characteristics were observable in the creature the man held. There were beautiful, downy brown and white feathers flecked occasionally with yellow. There was a sharp, curved beak. There were powerful wide wings – though they were tightly-clasped as this creature hugged herself for comfort.
From a distance I could see her eyes had the same shape and colors of a great-horned owl’s – big and round with an orange ring circling black. I recalled the eyes of the great-horned owls I have seen watching me from the tops of ancient juniper trees in the chilly foothills of the Great Basin. The orange in their eyes flamed and blazed. Sometimes, the black reflected impenetrable depths of wisdom. At other times, the black became a pool reflecting the silver notes of stars in the Nevada sky. And, at still other times, the black became the night soaking up the shadows before lifting with flight to disappear into clouds.
As I approached, I saw that the man’s right forearm was wrapped in leather. Two steel rings pierced the leather. Connected to the rings was a chain, about two feet long, made of still more steel rings tightly wound and welded together so the chain would never break. The chain was wrapped around and tightened to the left leg of what I had mistaken for a great-horned owl.
This was no owl. Not anymore. An owl is so much more than her eyes, beak, and talons, than the small space she occupies, than the blinking, swaying, and beak clacking she is famous for. An owl is more than the physical collection of her feathers and bones.
An owl is the rabbits, hares, mice, and voles who become her body when she eats them. An owl is the tree she sits in, the sky she descends from, and the wind she rides on. An owl is the meaning revealed in her nature. An owl is an expression of all the relationships creating her. An owl is wild. An owl is free.
Stolen from the wind, kept in a cage, and chained to a man, this creature was no longer an owl.
For a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to connect with mine. And, I was horrified by what I saw.
The orange and black in her eyes were only echoes of color. Not even the faintest trace of light remained in them. It would have been better, easier to accept if sadness or anger or even desperation was found there. But there was nothing. Nothing, but emptiness.
I knew these eyes well. These were the eyes of a creature pushed beyond pain into numbness, overwhelmed with despair, and fading into the void. These were eyes I have seen on the street. These were eyes I have seen in zoos, in aquarium tanks, and in cages. These were eyes I have seen in prison, in psyche wards, and at funerals.
I knew these eyes because I have seen them reflected in the mirrors I have peered into before trying to kill myself. I knew these eyes because I have seen them in myself.
Disturbed and overcome with sorrow, I fled in horror.
What is the precise nature of the horror I saw in those eyes?
First, I was witnessing the aftermath of the destruction of an owl. Captivity deprives an animal of what makes the animal an animal. Principles of deep ecology confirm this. Deep ecology is the recognition that life is an ongoing process sustained by healthy connections between living beings. Through this recognition, deep ecology teaches that each living being is best understood as a specific collection of connections with other living beings.
A captive animal is no longer an animal when humans physically cut off the animal’s connections. Neil Evernden, a foundational deep ecologist, describes how this happens to a gorilla kept in a zoo in his brilliant work, The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment. Evernden writes: “[An animal] is an interaction of genetic potential with environment and with conspecifics. A solitary gorilla in a zoo is not really a gorilla; it is a gorilla-shaped imitation of a social being which can only develop fully in a society of kindred beings.”
Evernden goes on to undermine one justification for keeping animals in zoos (preserving their genetic legacy) and in the process explains further why a gorilla in a zoo is not really a gorilla. He writes, “To attempt to preserve only a package of genes is to accept a very restricted definition of animality and to fall into the trap of mistaking the skin-encapsulated object for the process of relationships that constitutes the creature in question.”
In other words, an animal is not an object. An animal is an ongoing process of relationships. To destroy these relationships by restricting an animal’s physical ability to engage in the relationships that sustains the animal, you destroy the animal. When I saw the creature on the chain, I recognized how the driver who struck her and the man who chained her isolated her from the specific relationships that sustain owls. She had been reduced to the “skin-encapsulated object” Evernden describes.
It was impossible to see the creature on the chain and not think of all the creatures on chains, in theme park pools, and in zoo cages. I thought, specifically, of the way a growing amount of media attention is being given to the captivity destroying individuals of two species sharing many similarities with humans: orca whales and elephants.
Orcas are family-oriented and relatively long-lived. They speak a complex language and pass down traditional knowledge such as hunting techniques from generation to generation. These characteristics coupled with the history orcas have of protecting humans from sharks creates a special bond with them in the minds of many humans.
Dr. Naomi A. Rose, in her study “Killer Controversy: Why Orcas Should No Longer Be Kept in Captivity,” states the obvious, “Orcas are inherently unsuited to confinement.” To support this claim, Dr. Rose explains that orcas have significantly lower annual survival rates in captivity than in the wild. In fact, the annual mortality rate for orcas is more than two and a half times higher in captivity than in the wild.
Dr. Rose demonstrates how captivity attacks the bodies of orcas explaining that one of the most common causes of death in captive orcas is infection. Infection-caused mortality is linked to immunosuppression and, as Dr. Rose describes, pathogens that the immune systems of wild orcas would successfully manage become fatal to captive orcas due to chronic stress, psychological depression, and even boredom. So not only does captivity act on an orca’s mental health it attacks an orca’s physical health through the mental disorders it causes.
Elephants provide another example. Elephants, like orcas and humans, live in large, extended families, they develop complex social relationships, and they require large spaces to serve as their home ranges. With a similar declaration to the one Dr. Rose made about orcas, Ed Stewart – president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) that operates three wildlife sanctuaries in Northern California – explains the situation for captive elephants in a piece for National Geographic, “No Ethical Way to Keep Elephants in Captivity.”
To demonstrate why there is no ethical way to keep elephants in captivity, Stewart describes what captivity does to elephants: “The inadequacies for elephants in captivity will always be a source of disease and suffering for elephants. Cramped enclosures and hard surfaces cause a variety of problems, including deadly foot disease and arthritis, infertility, obesity, and abnormal repetitive behaviors such as swaying and head bobbing.” These “abnormal repetitive behaviors” are of, course, psychological disorders.
With my history of mental illness, when I learn about the psychological effects captivity has on orcas and elephants I wonder if there are connections between human mental health and other animals’ mental health.
Of course, there are. Just like psychological disorders open the way for other health problems in animals like orcas and elephants, mental illnesses like depression dramatically increase a human’s risk for other illnesses. Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Kramer notes in his book Against Depression that humans suffering from depression are four times as likely as those without to die from cardiac disease, five times as likely to die of coronary artery disease, and four times as likely to die from angina, coronary artery bypass surgery, and congestive heart failure. As a poet with major depression, the power of the metaphor created by the way depression literally attacks the heart is not lost on me.
I am certainly not the first person to investigate these connections. Since about 1980, westerners investigating these connections have called themselves “ecopsychologists.” Meanwhile, traditional peoples have worked to understand these connections since time immemorial.
Theodore Roszak, in his essay “Where Psyche Meet Gaia” written for the anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, explains the history of ecopsychology. It is not new. He writes, “…in fact [ecopsychology’s] sources are old enough to be called aboriginal. Once upon a time all psychology was ‘ecopsychology.’ No special word was needed. The oldest healers in the world…knew no other way to heal than to work within the context of environmental reciprocity.”
While it appears that the incidence of mental illness in traditional societies is drastically lower than in civilized societies, perhaps we would do well to “work within the context of environmental reciprocity” as the oldest healers in the world have always done. Viewing human mental health through the lens of deep ecology is one way to do this.
The late Paul Shepard’s 1982 book Nature and Madness is a foundational text in ecopsychology. Shepard wrote the book to answer the simple question, “Why do men persist in destroying their habitat?” His answer is psychopathology. Or, in his words, “a kind of failure in some fundamental dimension of human existence, an irrationality beyond mistakenness, a kind of madness.”
How did some humans develop this madness? Shepard calls on a concept from biology – ontogeny – to explain the madness. Ontogeny is the development of an individual organism from the earliest stage to maturity. Shepard makes the simple, but brilliant observation, that to understand human behavior we must understand human development.
Ontogeny is most often studied as it pertains to animals, but Shepard is quick to note, “Anyone who thinks the human creature is not a specialized animal should spend a few hours with the thirty odd volumes of the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child or the issues of the Journal of Child Development.” Ontogeny, then, is as appropriate in the study of humans as it is in other animals.
Shepard goes on to explain that the ontogeny of traditional peoples “who seem to live at peace with their world” is healthier than that of civilized peoples. Shepard writes: “Their way of life is the one to which our ontogeny has been fitted by natural selection, fostering cooperation, leadership, a calendar of mental growth, and the study of a mysterious and beautiful world where the clues to the meaning of life were embodied in natural things, where everyday life was inextricable from spiritual significance and encounter, and where the members of the group celebrated individual stages and passages as ritual participation…”
So, humans require certain things to mature from children to adults. Human children need to be immersed in the natural world where they can interact with non-human others that will reveal to them the meaning of life. They also need intact communities with elders who understand the passages of human life to help the young celebrate through rituals. And, ultimately to become elders themselves. I am reminded, again, of Evernden’s statement that an animal is “a social being which can only develop fully in a society of kindred beings.”
Spend any time with children outdoors and you will see them find deep meaning in natural things. This is healthy human development. Shepard explains, “Animals have a magnetic affinity for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is ‘like me.’ In the playful, controlled enactment of them comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships. In stories told, their forms spring to life in the mind, represented in consciousness, training the capacity to imagine.” This “gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships” is essential to a human’s full development.
Shepard goes on, “The play space – trees, shrubs, paths, hidings, climbings – is a visible structured entity, another prototype of relationships that hold.” Forming relationships with trees and shrubs, then, is another essential element of human development.
My four-year old neice, Layla, and my nephew, her one-year old brother, Thomas, teach me that the ecopsychologists are right:
Photo by Will Falk
Beneath a cloudless mountain sky in late autumn, Layla kneels on a wooden bridge above a clear pool collecting where a beaver dam slows the cold Snake Creek in Midway, Utah. Mesmerized, her face is drawn slowly downward until a blonde strand escapes from the mess of hair made tangly by an afternoon of play to brush the pool’s face. Barely aware of her own motion, she brushes the wet strand back into place behind her ear. The icy drops that run down the back of her neck and disappear behind her jacket collar do not break her concentration.
I am so fascinated by her behavior that I almost let Thomas jump from my arms to join his sister on the bridge’s edge. Thomas is fascinated, too. I lower him down and let him find his balance with his new walking muscles as his little hand tightens around my right pinky and ring fingers.
We approach Layla as fast as Thomas’ legs will allow. “What are you doing, Layla?” I ask.
She still has trouble pronouncing the short ‘I’ in my name and says, matter-of-factly with a touch of annoyance that I cannot see the obvious, “Playing with the fish, Weel.”
She does not move her gaze from the water and when I get close enough I see what she is watching. There is a small, four inch, rainbow trout, facing upstream gazing right back at Layla. The wide beautiful blue in Layla’s eyes join with the sharp obsidian black in the trout’s eyes. From under a brown stone on the creek bed, a much bigger trout, fourteen inches or so, circles around the smaller one – as clearly curious as I am. The small trout, like my small niece, pays no attention to the approaching adult.
And then I understand what Layla means by “playing.” When Layla leans to her left, the trout whips her tail and swims to the right. When Layla leans to her right, the trout whips her tail and swims to the left. Layla is, obviously, playing with the fish.
Later that night, Layla is taking a bath. Layla’s mother is at the health clinic where she works as a physician assistant. Layla’s father is busy feeding Thomas and he asks me to check on Layla. When I walk into the bathroom, she quickly ducks under water and splashes around. Eventually, she must come up for air and I make the mistake again.
“What are you doing, Layla?” I ask.
Again, she is annoyed. “I’m not Layla, Weel,” she explains. “I’m a fish.” And, she ducks under water once more. I laugh and shake my head. Who am I to disagree?
Finally, I understand the precise nature of the horror I felt looking into that chained creature’s eyes: I saw myself, and so many like me, reflected in her eyes.
Just like an owl on a chain is no longer an owl, an orca in a theme park pool is no longer an orca, and an elephant in a cage at a zoo is no longer an elephant, humans cut off from the natural world are no longer human. We are animals and animals are an ongoing process of relationships. When those relationships become impossible, we lose ourselves.
I do not believe I go too far when I write, “We are no longer human.” By “we” I mean civilized humans who live much like I do.
I exist without most of the relationships that have made humans human throughout our history. I woke up this morning in a bed two-stories above an asphalt floor. I do not know how much asphalt I would need to dig through to reach soil. When I opened my eyes, before the sunrise, I did not see the dark, eternally mysterious forms of clouds traveling across sky. I did not see the pale courage of morning stars holding on to the coldest hours before dawn. I saw a ceiling made from the flesh of once-living, once-wild trees.
When I rolled out of bed, I did not pause at the edge formed by the warmth inside my home meeting the chill of a December mountain morning to enjoy the original pleasure in sensory diversity. I cursed because I let the heat in our apartment dip below 62 degrees Fahrenheit. I did not walk down to a river bank to draw my day’s water. I did not stop to watch the burning glow of the rising sun spread across the river’s face. I stumbled into the shower where I pulled a plastic handle and water stolen from rivers held captive behind dams was heated by the remains of ancient forests ripped from their resting place deep beneath the earth.
And, this was only the first five minutes of a day I have repeated over and over again in 30 years of life. If Shepard is correct, and a stunted ontogeny produces stunted humans, then I, and so many humans like me, are stunted. This does not make me sad, it makes me angry. And that anger feels like an animal reaction to an insane world. I know, as well, it is not too late for Layla or Thomas. It is not too late for their children and their children’s children. In many ways, Layla was right. She is a fish. She is a puppy. She is an eagle. She is all the relationships I have seen her form with the creatures she imitates. And, to protect her, we must protect them.
For further exploration of human control and imprisonment of animals, read Derrick Jensen’s Thought To Exist In the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos
To repost this or other DGR original writings, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Raven Gray / Deep Green Resistance
Dec 21st, 2014. I walk to Kehoe beach with my son. A winter storm is raging from the northwest, blurring the boundary of sky and sea. We have the place to ourselves. The tide is out, but the wind carries the waves up to the high tide line. Trash is everywhere; candy wrappings, drinking straws, polystyrene balls, plastic bottle tops, bullet cases. We start to pick it up, when I realize that there are hundreds of dead birds buried in the sand, tangled up in the piles of kelp. Once I see them, I cannot look away, their bodies scattered as far as the eye can see. I start counting, but stop after a while. All of them are Cassin’s Auklets.
April 24th, 2015. I drive to Limantour Estero on a bird watching trip, with five local birders. My heart bursts to see the burnt and broken landscape, and I call out: “Look! Look how the Bishop Pines are dying! So many have died in the past year!” The conversation falls silent. The guide clears his throat, looks back at me and says he hadn’t really noticed, it all looks fine to him. He says he’s more interested in the birds. The woman next to me turns and says: “Maybe it’s their time to go. Everything dies, you know.”
August 24th, 2015. I return to Kehoe Beach with my son. A strong northwesterly carries the stench of death into the dunes, attacking our nostrils long before we reach the sea. It’s unwelcoming but I want to be a witness, so we walk on. The tide is low, and as we reach the high tide line, I can see that once again, countless dead birds are buried in the sand. The wrack zone is composed entirely of white feathers stretching in both directions, as far as the eye can see. I start counting, but stop after a while. All of them are Common Murres.
September 6th, 2015. I take my son to Drake’s Beach Sand Sculpture Contest. It’s hot, in the 90s, and there are over three thousand people there. I notice a large plastic bucket in the crowd. Some people walk past and look into it, then move on. Curious, I walk over. Inside, a cormorant is lying prostrate, flapping one wing. It is being baked alive. I pick her up and wrap her in my shirt. I whisper: “It’s OK. I’ve got you now.”
I look around for a park ranger to help. The first one shrugs: “Maybe it’s their time to go. Everything dies, you know.” The second one says: “It’s illegal to touch that bird.” “Go ahead,” I say. “Arrest me.” The third one says: “Yes, the sea birds are dying. It’s part of a natural die-off. I’m sorry, but the Park’s policy is to let nature take it’s course”. I tell her that there is nothing ‘natural’ about human induced climate disruption. I tell her that acidification of the oceans, warming seas, toxic algal blooms, Fukushima radiation, plastic pollution, and collapsing marine ecosystems are all man-made disasters. I tell her that the bird in my arms is intelligent, sentient, and that she deserves to live. That she has rights too, and it is our responsibility to protect those rights. At this moment, the bird raises her head and a bright ray of light shines out through her one aquamarine eye. She looks straight at me and promptly dies in my arms. I take her to a quiet place with my son, and we sing the ancestor song. We pray our tears will guide her home. On the way back we witness another cormorant curled up on the beach. We watch in silence as she dies too.
September 29th, 2015. It’s my birthday, and I walk to Limantour beach. On the way, I notice how many more Bishop Pines have died in the past few months. The landscape is beginning to look like Mars. When I get close to the beach, I’m overcome – again – with the stench of death. I look for dead birds and find them. Feathers and bones scattered in the shifting sands. I don’t bother to count them. The ocean water is pea-green tobacco soup. It smells acrid, like sulphur. I realize this must be the “blob” – the largest toxic algal bloom ever recorded, stretching 40 miles wide, 650 feet deep, running all the way from central California up to Alaska. I wonder how many lives it has taken, how many more it will take, and whether it will be here next year, and the year after, and the year after that, until eventually the whole ocean becomes one giant toxic blob bloom, devoid of all life?
The mass die-offs happening in the Pacific Ocean are not confined to birds. Sea lions, seals, dolphins, whales, anchovies, crabs, sea otters – all are dying in unprecedented numbers. They are starving to death. They are being poisoned. They are being killed. We are in the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, and we are the cause.
Who will stand and bear witness? Who will count the dead? Do you have the courage to turn your face towards the pain, towards the dark truth of what we are doing to this earth? Or will you turn your face away as the world burns and dies around you?