Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Wild Yoga by Rebecca Wildbear. It pushes us to connect with the land. The Earth is suffering due to us. The excerpt encourages us to feel her suffering, which is intricately connected to our suffering. Finally, it inspires us to make amends by showing up, by our actions in defense of her.
Nature is an unrelenting symphony. Everywhere there is life, there is song. Flowers bloom. Mountains stand. The moon glows. The planet is always singing. Each note is a unique contribution that tends to the well-being of the whole. Humans are meant to live in sync. For decades, I have asked trees and birds, ocean and sky, canyons and creeks to help me be as authentic and soulful as they are. The world needs the bitter and resonant cry of every creature, even humans, attuning with the song of the world.
We can connect to our bodies, hearts, and souls and bring our presence to the unfolding moment. And remember how to play in the improvisational spontaneity of the universe. Lying under an oak, I am mesmerized by the long, wavy branches that stretch parallel a few feet above the ground. The shape of the oak’s branches reminds me of a song. Music is a human instinct found everywhere. It is a social glue that brings people together and creatively expresses what can’t be put into words. What if we could engage with each other and the world the way jazz musicians make music?
Playing our notes is not only a sound we make with our voices or instruments. It is our soul taking form through the shapes we make with our lives when we embody the truth of our nature, live our purpose, and offer ourselves in relational flow with other humans and the Earth. Those who live their souls are playing their notes, being their melody.
The Earth needs us to become who we are. Perhaps she longs for humans to honor and contribute to her magnificence. Our souls can only be lived in union, playing our notes while attuning to the symphony that connects us to ourselves, others, the land, and those who came before and will go after.
The symphony of the Earth is life-giving. But how can we harmonize with our dominant culture rapidly removing so many wild voices from the orchestra? Some birds — like the once abundant regent honeyeater — are forgetting their song. With hardly any adult birds left, young birds cannot find other honey-eaters to teach them. As we witness species dying and the murder of eco-systems, what difference can our notes make amid this dissonant nightmare?
I have rarely asked mind-altering plant medicines for help. This is because I have already received so much guidance from nature and my dreams. But in my late thirties, I was wrestling with the horrors of ecological devastation and wanted more help. So I asked ayahuasca, an Amazonian brew made from the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, and I participated in six ceremonies with a curandera who sang sacred prayer songs while playing her guitar. The first two rituals steeped me in the love of my tree mythos. The third forced me to wrestle with the horrors of the world.
After drinking the tea from these plants, the intensity hit me in the belly. I felt panic like I was about to disappear and would no longer feel my arms and legs; I feared I would eventually lose my mind. Trying to remain in my body, I stomped my feet and hit my hands against each other. Everyone else must be fine, I thought, blaming myself for feeling crazy. I went outside and wrapped my body around a juniper. One of the helpers came out.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m having a hard time,” I admitted.
“Surrender,” she said. “It’s our egos that are the problem.”
I went back inside, lay on the ground, and let myself disintegrate. It was peaceful, like going to sleep. But when I got up, waves of horror consumed me. I felt like I was drowning in raw sewage with no way out. After one wave passed, I thought it was over, but there were more. They seemed endless. Some waves were a sludge of overwhelming emotions — confusion, dread, disappointment, devastation. I looked around the room. Everyone was suffering. I realized, This is not a trip; it is life, the state of the world. We are suffering. The Earth is suffering.
The music had stopped. Some people were throwing up. An older man with white hair and blue jeans got up. He held a couple of large hawk feathers and gently waved them over a bowl of water in the center of the room.
“Water,” he said softly, “we’re so sorry.” Gently, he walked around the bowl, humbly speaking to the water. “It’s our fault you suffer. We are suffering with you. Thank you for all you give, for nourishing everything. We don’t deserve your help, but please help us.”
Earlier, I had seen the white-haired man chain-smoking and had judged him. I had not realized that he was so eloquent, more than I could be. I felt ashamed I had not seen his wisdom. He moved around the circle and prayed over each of us, one by one.
The waves of horror were hard to tolerate. My chest was tight. I could barely breathe. My lungs worked hard to expand as I fought for air. I had the visceral sense that this was what forests, oceans, and mountains experience all the time. The impact the Earth feels from our dominant culture. It was not a thought but an overwhelming, full-bodied experience.
“Offer something,” the ayahuasca seemed to say.
“I have nothing valuable to give,” I said.
“All the world is suffering, and you’re just going to sit here!” She seemed incredulous.
“I don’t sing well,” I said.
“You could pray … or something.”
“I can’t come up with anything.”
“You’re a guide,” she pointed out.
“The suffering is too intense,” I responded.
“The world needs you to show up,” she reminded me.
I realized that sometimes I get consumed by suffering and discount what I might have to give. She was imploring me to show up and be available to the song that wanted to come through me. Everyone is suffering, she was showing me, and the symphony is dissonant. Yet the Earth suffers and gives. We can too. It is not a matter of healing first, then acting. It is a matter of connecting with yourself and the Earth and singing.
No one knows what will happen next. Injustice and genocide have been going on for a long while. Land and people have been exploited and destroyed for thousands of years. We need to be with the horror and the beauty. Psychic numbing removes us from the symphony. Compassion means “to suffer with.” Feeling pain may be a sign we are present with what is happening and aware of our connection to it.
Nature and our souls can give us visions so we can face the challenges of our times and engage. I guide others in their deep imagination to see back in time and remember. To return to places on the land where they have a deep connection. To listen to what the land needs. To call forth an image of the myth they were born to live. To move and dance the mysteries of what they came to embody in the world.
Horror is part of the symphony. The world needs our ensouled presence. Listen. Feel. Be present. Offer your note. Our engagement is our love.
Wild Yoga Practices for Playing Your Part in the Symphony
Attune to the world and explore ways to play your part. Trusting what you have to offer or hearing those around you may take time.
- Listen to the songs of ancient cultures or your ancestors. What do they evoke in your heart, body, and imagination? Journal about or move to embody what you discover.
- Wander in the wilderness. Listen to the sounds you hear from trees, water, wind, insects, and birds and the sounds you experience visually and through your other senses. Notice what or who allures you. Engage by offering sounds or movement in response.
- Go out on the land and play. Offer your melody. If you don’t know what that is, explore different sounds or movements. Perhaps create a song for the land and sing it aloud. Notice where you feel drawn to offer your song. Listen for anything you hear back.
- Track your dreams. Do any of them carry the theme of ancestral music, playing your note, or hearing the world’s symphony? Speak one of your dreams aloud in nature, using the present tense, and then enact it. Play your part by embodying what the dream asks.
- Go to a wild place and witness how the land plays. Notice how each being engages with all the others in an improvisational movement. Try joining in. Let go of expectations and see what co-arises mutually.
- Do you feel conflicted about playing your note in a broken world? Or about how to harmonize with the natural world when our dominant culture is killing the other voices? Wander on the land and share your questions and feelings. Ask for help.
# # #
Rebecca Wildbear is the author of Wild Yoga: A Practice of Initiation, Veneration & Advocacy for the Earth. She is also the creator of a yoga practice called Wild Yoga, which empowers individuals to tune in to the mysteries that live within the earth community, dreams, and their own wild nature so they may live a life of creative service. She has been leading Wild Yoga programs since 2007 and also guides other nature and soul programs through Animas Valley Institute. Visit her online 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.
Rebecca is also one of our speakers for our upcoming event.
Featured image: Brilliant fall colors on fall lane after rainfall by Kristine Carter via Kristine Carter Photography
Species extinction. Plastic pollution. Global warming. Catastrophic floods. Raging fires. The failure of coral reefs. Whales dying en masse. Forever chemicals contaminating mothers’ breast milk. Where is our spirit?
Our planet is in crisis. And while the wealthy and governments pour trillions into technological so-called “solutions,” things are spiraling out of control.
What if solving the ecological crisis depended on falling in love with the natural world, and acting to defend those we love?
What if a biocentric worldview — one which places the natural world at the center of our morality — could help us access the courage needed to stop the destruction?
On October 21st, join us for special 3-hour live streaming event on Facebook or Givebutter:
Ecology of Spirit: Biocentrism, Animism, and the Environmental Crisis — “the spirituality of the front lines.”
This live event will explore the connectedness of all life and focus on organized resistance to the destruction of the planet.
It starts at 1pm Pacific Time / 20:00 UTC, and features selected speakers including:
Other special guests will attend the session as well. There will be opportunities to ask questions and participate in dialogue.
The mainstream environmental movement is mostly funded by foundations which don’t support revolutionary change. Radical organizations like Deep Green Resistance rely on individual donors to support our activism around the world, which is why “Ecology of Spirit” is also a fundraiser.
We’re outnumbered and we need your help.
There is a path out of the this crisis, and DGR is one of the organizations leading the way. But we can’t do it without you. We’re raising funds to support global community organizing, fund mutual aid and direct action campaigns, and sustain our core outreach and organizational work.
Donate here: https://givebutter.com/ecologyofspirit
Whether or not you are in a financial position to donate, we hope you will join us on October 21st for this opportunity to connect with kindred spirit offering light in dark times!–
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
By Rebecca Wildbear
I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 21. Scientifically, the odds were that I would die. They could have rolled me aside and let it happen, but doctors and loved ones did what they could to keep me alive. They tried to save my life even though they did not know if it would work.
The Earth is suffering. She does not want her rivers poisoned and dammed, her mountains blown up and mined, or her ecosystems and biodiversity destroyed. If she received the same care as me, perhaps we could stop the harm. Efforts to help show care and respect, whatever tomorrow brings.
When I have been abused, the most painful part is when no one sees it. Dismissing the harm that is happening to the Earth makes us complicit, even if particular philosophies seem to justify it (Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the American Dream, Gaia theory, the Sixth Mass Extinction, “it’s already too late”).
If your child or lover were drowning or trapped in a burning house, you would try to save them. If it’s a reflex to save our endangered loved ones, why can’t we develop an auto-response to save bears, prairie dogs, mountain lions, horses, and forests?
To belittle or discourage those who work to save the last remaining species and wild places seems like a betrayal of the Earth and those on the front-lines, the majority of whom are indigenous peoples (whose on-going genocide feeds the destruction of the planet).
Social psychology reveals that individuals commonly find ways to ignore those being harmed and consciously or unconsciously align with those in power, because it is safer.
Humans have imagination, soul, and agency. We can listen to the Earth, not only for our own re-wilding, but for what species, land, and ecosystems need too.
Rivers, forests, and oceans can be restored. Once they are, the climate dramatically improves. Perhaps humans can stop those destroying the biosphere and the last remaining species and lands. Why not support those who try?
Visit a clear-cut forest, plowed prairie, or concreted wetland. Ask them what they need. Ask the squirrels, rabbits, owls, and blue jays who live once lived there. Ask the bears in Asia, tortured for their bile, if their suffering is Gaia’s plan. Ask wild buffalo or horses routinely slaughtered, if people should stop helping them because it’s too late. Ask the last remaining birds, orcas, polar bears, fish, rhinos.
“Please help us,” they tell me. Don’t take my word for it. Go ask them yourself. The narratives and people that inspire me most are the ones that make listening, honoring, and keeping alive these voices central.
In this article Rebecca Wildbear talks about how civilization is wasting our planet’s scarce water sources for mining in its desperate effort to continue this devastating way of life.
By Rebecca Wildbear
Nearly a third of the world lacks safe drinking water, though I have rarely been without. In a red rock canyon in Utah, backpacking on a week-long wilderness training in my mid-twenties, it was challenging to find water. Eight of us often scouted for hours. Some days all we could find to drink was muddy water. We collected rain water and were grateful when we found a spring.
Now water is scarce, and the demand for it is growing. Globally, water use has risen at more than twice the rate of population growth and is still increasing. Ninety percent of water used by humans is used by industry and agriculture, and when groundwater is overused, lakes, streams and rivers dry up, destroying ecosystems and species, harming human health, and impacting food security. Life on Earth will not survive without water.
In the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, a third of houses lack running water, and in some towns, it is ninety percent. Peabody Energy Corporation, the largest coal producer and a Fortune 500 company, pulled so much water from the Navajo aquifer before closing its mining operation that many wells and springs have run dry. Residents now have to drive 17 miles to wait in line for an hour at a communal well, just to get their drinking water.
Worldwide, the majority of drinkable water comes from underground reservoirs called aquifers. Aquifers feed streams, lakes, and rivers, but their waters are finite. Large aquifers exist beneath deserts, but these were created eons ago in wetter times. Expert hydrologists say that like oil, once the “fossil” waters of ancient reservoirs are mined, they are gone forever.
Peabody’s Black Mesa Mine extracted, pulverized, and mixed coal with water drawn from the Navajo aquifer to form a slurry. This was sent along a 273-mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, to power Los Angeles. Every year, the mine extracted 1.4 billion gallons (4,000+ acre feet) of water from the aquifer, an estimated 45 billion gallons (130,000+ acre feet) in all.
Pumping out an aquifer draws down the water level and empties it forever. Water quality deteriorates and springs and soil dry out. Agricultural irrigation and oil and coal extraction are the biggest users of waters from aquifers in the U.S. Some predict that the Ogallala aquifer, once stretching beneath five mid-western states, may be able to replenish after six thousand years of rainfall.
Rain is the most accurate measure of available water in a region, yet over-pumping water beyond its capacity to refill is widespread in the western U.S. and around the world. The Middle East ran out of water years ago—it was the first major region in the world to do so. Studies predict that two thirds of the world’s population are at risk of water shortages by 2025. As ground water levels fall, lakes, rivers, and streams are depleted, and the land, fish, trees, and animals die, leaving a barren desert.
Mining in the Great Basin
The skyrocketing demand for lithium, one of the minerals needed for the production of electric cars, is based on the misperception that green technology helps the planet. Yet, as Argentine professor of thermodynamics and lithium mining expert Dr. Daniel Galli said at a scientific meeting, lithium mining is “really mining mountains of water.” Lithium Americas plans to pump massive amounts of water—up to 1.7 billion gallons (5,200 acre feet) annually—from an aquifer in the Quinn River Valley in Nevada’s Great Basin, the largest desert in the United States.
Thacker Pass, the site of the proposed 1.3 billion dollar open-pit lithium mine, would pump 1,200 acre feet more water per year than Peabody Energy Corporation extracted from the Navajo aquifer. Yet, the Quinn River aquifer is already over-allocated by fifty percent, and more than 10 billion gallons (30,000 acre feet) per year. Nevada is one of the driest states in the nation, and Thacker Pass is only the first of many proposed lithium mines in the state. Multiple active placer claims (7,996) have been located in 18 different hydrographic basins.
Deceit about water fuels these mines. Lithium Americas’ environmental impact assessment is grossly inaccurate, according to hydrologist Dr. Erick Powell. By classifying year-round creeks as “ephemeral” and underreporting the flow rate of 14 springs, Lithium Americas is claiming there is less water in the area than there actually is. This masks the real effects the mine would have—drying up hundreds of square miles of land, drawing down the groundwater level, sucking water from neighboring aquifers—all while claiming its operations would have no effect.
Peabody Energy Corporation’s impact assessment similarly misrepresented how their withdrawals would harm the Navajo aquifer. Peabody Energy used a flawed method to measure the withdrawals, according to former National Science Research Fellow Daniel Higgins. Now Navajo Nation wells require drilling down 2,000–3,000 feet, and the water is depressurized and slow to flow to the surface.
Thacker Pass lithium mine would pump groundwater at a disturbing rate, up to 3,250 gallons per minute. Once used, wastewater would contaminate local groundwater with dangerous heavy metals, including a “plume” of antimony that would last at least 300 years. Lithium Americas plans to dig the mine deeper than the groundwater level and keep it dry by continuously pumping water out, but when the pumping stops, groundwater would seep back in, picking up the toxins.
It hurts me to think about this. I imagine water being rapidly extracted from my own body, my bloodstream poisoned. The best tasting water rises to the surface when it is ready, after gestating as long as it likes in the dark Earth. Springs are sacred. When I feel welcome, I place my lips on the earthy surface and fill my mouth with their sweet flavor and vibrant texture.
Mining in the Atacama Desert
Thirteen thousand feet above sea level, the indigenous Atacamas people live in the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world and the driest place on Earth. For millennia, they have used their scarce supply of water and sparse terrain carefully. Their laws and spirituality have always been intertwined with the health and well-being of the land and water. Living in mud-brick homes, pack animals, llama and alpaca, provide them with meat, hide, and wool.
But lithium lies beneath their ancestral land. Since 1980, mining companies have made billions in the Salar de Atacama region in Chile, where lithium mining now consumes sixty-five percent of the water. Some local communities need to have water driven in, and other villagers have been forced to abandon their settlements. There is no longer enough water to graze their animals. Beautiful lagoons hundreds of flamingos call home have gone dry. The birds have disappeared, and the ground is hard and cracked.
In addition to the Thacker Pass mine proposal, Lithium Americas has a mine in the Atacama Desert, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar in the Cauchari-Olaroz basin in Jujuy, Argentina. Digging for lithium began in Jujuy in 2015, and there is already irreversible damage, according to a 2018 hydrology report. Watering holes have gone dry, and indigenous leaders are scared that soon there will be nothing left.
Even more water is needed to mine the traces of lithium found in brine than in an open-pit mine. At the Sales de Jujuy plant, the wells pump at a rate of more than two million gallons per day, even though this region receives less than four inches of rain a year. Pumping water from brine aquifers decreases the amount of fresh groundwater. Freshwater refills the spaces emptied by brine pumping and is irreversibly mixed with brine and salinized.
The Sanctity of Water
As a river guide, I live close to water. Swallowed by its wild beauty, I am restored to a healthier existence. Far from roads, cars, and cities, I watch water swirl around rocks or ripple over sand. I merge with its generous flow, floating through mountains, forest, or canyon. Rivers teach me how to listen to the currents—whether they cascade in a playful bubble, swell in a loud rush, or ebb in a gentle silence—for clues about what lies ahead.
The indigenous Atacamas peoples understand that water is sacred and have purposefully protected it for centuries. Rather than looking at how nature can be used, our culture needs to emulate the Atacamas peoples and develop the capacity to consider its obligations around water. Instead of electric cars, what we need is an ethical approach to our relationship with the land. Honoring the rights of water, species, and ecosystems is the foundation of a sustainable society. Decisions can be made based on knowledge of the land, weather patterns, and messages from nature.
For millennia, indigenous peoples have perceived water, animals, and mountains as sentient. If humans today could recognize their intelligence, perhaps they would understand that underground reservoirs have a value and purpose, beyond humans. When I enter a cave, I am walking into a living being. My eyes adjust to the dark. Pressing my hand against the wall, I steady myself on the uneven ground, hidden by varying amounts of water. Pausing, I listen to a soft dripping noise, echoing like a heartbeat as dew slides off the rocks. I can almost hear the cave breathing.
The life-giving waters of aquifers keep everything alive, but live unseen under the ground. As a soul guide, I invite people to be nourished by the visions of their dreams, a parallel world that is also seemingly invisible. Our dominant culture dismisses the value of these perceptions, just as it usurps water by disregarding natural cycles. Yet to create a sustainable world, humans need to be able to listen to nature and their dreams. The depths of our souls are inextricably linked to the ancient waters that flow underground. Dreams arise like springs from an aquifer, seeding our visionary potential, expanding our consciousness, and revealing other ways to live, radically different than empire.
I set my backpack down on a high sandstone cliff overlooking a large watering hole. Ten feet below the hole, the red rock canyon drops into a much larger pool. My friend hikes down to it, filling her cookpot with water. She balances it atop her head on the way up, moving her hips to keep the pot steady. Arriving back, she pours the water into the smaller hole from which we drink and returns to the large pool to gather more.
Women in all societies have carried water throughout history. In many rural communities, they still spend much of the day gathering it. Sherri Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation calls women “the water bearers of the Universe.” The cycles in a woman’s body move in relation with the Earth’s tides, guiding them to nourish and protect the waters of Earth. We all need to become water bearers now.
Indigenous peoples, who have always been the Earth’s greatest defenders, protect eighty percent of global diversity, even though they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. They understand water is sacred, and the world’s groundwater systems must be defended. For six years, indigenous peoples have been fighting to prevent lithium mining in the Salinas Grandes salt flats, in Jujuy, Argentina. Five hundred indigenous people camped on the land with signs: “No to lithium. Yes, to water and life in our territories.”
In February 2021, President Biden signed executive orders supporting the domestic mining of “critical” minerals like lithium, but two lawsuits, one by five Nevada-based conservation groups, have been filed against the Bureau of Land Management for approving the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk are organizing a protest to protect Thacker Pass. Local residents, including Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone peoples, are speaking out, fighting to protect their land and water.
We can see when a river runs dry, but most people are not aware of the invisible, slow-burning disaster happening under the ground. Some say those who oppose lithium mining should give up cell phones. If that is true, perhaps those who favor mines should give up drinking water. Protecting water needs to be at the center of any plan for a sustainable future.
The “fossil water” found in deserts should be used only in emergency, certainly not for mining. Sickened by corporate water grabbing, I support those trying to stop Thacker Pass Lithium mine and aim to join them. The aquifers there have nurtured so many for so long—eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, old-growth sagebrush, hawks, falcons, sage-grouse, and Lahontan cutthroat trout. I pray these sacred wombs of the Earth can live on to nourish all of life.
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