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Nature and the Contemplative Life (Part 2)

Nature and the Contemplative Life (Part 2)

“If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.” –William Cronon

Last week I introduced the idea of the “wilderness of the present moment” as an aspect of our contemplative practice that seeks to recognize not only the Divine within, but also the natural. This week I will discuss two more aspects of this idea: Cultivating Compassion and Encountering Our Fear.

Cultivating Compassion

From a contemplative and cultural perspective, I agree with William Cronon’s project of ridding ourselves of unhealthy dualisms. Industrial excesses have caused irreparable damage to our earth, and threaten the future of human thriving. Even seemingly positive developments such as wilderness areas have been shaped by our civilization’s perceived alienation from the natural world. However, I am also wary of what environmental writer JB MacKinnon (in his book The Once and Future World) calls “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” As each generation passes we adjust to a certain level pollution, the kinds and numbers of wild animals we interact with, the size and numbers of fish, etc. So as pollution increases and the stars disappear to light pollution, as our cities become noisier, as species go extinct and fisheries collapse, it all begins to seem normal, natural. Even our most precious wilderness areas have suffered massive losses in diversity, but mostly in numbers of wildlife. The World Wildlife Foundation recently released a report that claims that global wildlife on the planet has declined by 50 per cent in the last 50 years! [1]

One reason that the conservation movement has failed to prevent this is that biodiversity of a given area decreases with size. Setting aside small patches here and there has not provided the large, intact areas needed for some species like large carnivores to thrive and, as we are finding out in Yellowstone, large carnivores like wolves are essential to the health of the entire ecosystem. This phenomenon is called a trophic cascade wherein one animal in the food web affects the number and diversity of the organisms below or above it. Advocates of what’s being called “Rewilding” point to Yellowstone National Park as an example of where the reintroduction of large carnivores such as grizzly bears and wolves has, through trophic cascades, restored the entire ecosystem, changing elk behavior and thereby allowing willow to regrow, which impacts beaver and birds and the rivers themselves. Some ecologists have challenged the degree to which this has happened in Yellowstone, but it is certainly a factor. [2]

Rewilding is also about acknowledging other species’ rights to exist and thrive, the fact that ecosystems are healthier with high levels of biodiversity, and that humanity is better off with a deep and abiding connection to intact ecosystems. MacKinnon might admit with Cronon that wilderness has been deeply influenced by human ideas, but a social construction is made of sturdier stuff than the cultural whims of the human imagination. What Cronon fails to effectively capture in his critique is that it also includes all the myriad organisms that call this planet home, and who benefit greatly when humans take their lives into account. MacKinnon, in a contemplative mood, writes:

“Every species still in existence is exactly as contemporary as you or I, and nature’s potential –its capacity to sustain abundance and variety –remains unchanged. It is this potential, rather than some replica of the past, that awaits restoration. Nature is still with us, constantly available. We need only to remember, reconnect, and rewild: to remember what nature can be; reconnect to it as something meaningful in our lives; and start to remake a wilder world.” [3]

Conservationists are proposing we do this on the ground by connecting existing protected areas so that large carnivores have places to roam, and by reintroducing them where they have been extirpated. This has already happened in Yellowstone, Minnesota, Maine, and Montana. However, there is more to this issue that just policy or new protected areas. As Ethologist Mark Bekoff argues, in order for humans to be able to live alongside dangerous carnivores, we must not only protect more land, but rewild our hearts. In his book Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, Bekoff suggests that the contemplative virtue of compassion is the key to moving forward. Only by expanding our sense of subjectivity, by recognizing the complex emotional lives of animals, can we win the fight to bring these animals back from the brink. Bekoff argues that what is needed is a cultural transform; law and policy won’t change our paradigms.

Once again the contemplative tradition is full of hagiographical “Lives of the Saints” detailing legendary men and women who cultivated the virtue of compassion and learned to live alongside large carnivores: St. Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio; 3rd Century Paul the Hermit Theban Desert, whose grave was dug by lions; Abba Theon, who walked the desert “in the company of wild animals”; Abba Macarius, who healed a hyena; Abba Bes, who rebuked a renegade hippopotamus. And we mustn’t forget Saint Maedoc of Ferns , who fed starving wolves with lambs from this flock. (When his mother found out about it she was furious, but the sheep miraculously appeared.) Wolves feature prominently in the Lives of the Celtic Saints, just as lions do in the desert Lives. [4]

An example closer to home might be the Confederated Tribes of Salish Kootenai, who have reintroduced grizzlies on their reservation. In Salish stories, Grizzlies are the leaders of the animals. Out of respect, they are not eaten, and when met on a trail, Natives greet them and assure the bears that they mean no harm. And in 2013 when a Grizzly mauled a Montana student, Salish Kootenai officials defended the bear who was only protecting her two cubs.

Encountering Our Fear

Rewilding may sound beautiful to many, but wilderness is as much about human fear as it is about our romantic visions of the pristine. The word wilderness comes from the Old English, wildeor, meaning a place of wild beasts, a place where human beings were absent. For early Westerners, wilderness became a domain of physical and even spiritual danger. Beginning with John Wycliffe, the Greek and Hebrew words for desert were translated as wilderness in English. The God of the Old Testament used the desolate wilderness as a threat. In Hebrew and Christian scripture, Wilderness was always held in tension with the Garden, and eschatology was always moving toward a restoration of the paradisiacal state. The wilderness was the place where Jesus of Nazareth encountered the devil.

The early settlers of North America saw wilderness as a threat to their very survival, and so, taming the wilderness became a national imperative. It’s no surprise that Christian language was used to talk about this vast undertaking of taming and subduing the savage continent. The Puritan mindset was to convert wilderness into civilization, as naturally as you would use flour to make a cake. Even the often poetic treatments of wilderness in Thoreau’s Walden find a darker counterpoint in his essay The Maine Wood, which expresses a kind of awe at the terror of wilderness. There, “the vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty.”[5] For many (myself included!) wilderness, the wild, and wild animals can be scary.

At the recent Spiritual Ecologies and New Cosmologies Convergence, which I organized at the University of British Columbia, one of our speakers talked to us about fear and wilderness. In 2004 Nikki Van Schyndel followed a childhood dream by living on a remote Island in British Columbia. “I abandoned a life of pedicured toes, Thai restaurants, and diamond rings, for dirty nails, roasted mice, and bear-claw necklaces. I rubbed sticks together to make fire, hunted game, harvested wild salads, and cured injuries with plants.” In Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Island, Nikki writes entertainingly about her first night alone in the woods. In one account, after finding a place to sleep, she heard the steady steps of an approaching animal. It didn’t sound like the staccato of a deer. The creature circled her as she buried her head in her sleeping bag and held her breath. Then, the creature laid down next to her and began purring, vibrating her whole body. Nikki literally confronted her worst fear by cuddling with a cougar. While this account may sound hagiographical, like the lives of the saints, Nikki speaks eloquently about being present to our fear:

“I studied how I reacted when I felt the tingle of fear rise inside me and compared it to the calm, centered feeling of caution. Fear immobilized me. I felt it as a cold armor that insulated me from divine possibilities and often caused me to miss the wondrous experiences nature bestowed on me, like swimming under a moonlit winter sky, following the dancing, V-shaped water lines made by a mink; shadow-walking within arm’s reach of a grazing doe nibbling secret salad buffets; and sitting next to a mama thrush incubating her blue and brown speckled eggs.” [6]

Confronting our fear does not necessarily mean seeking out large carnivores and embracing them with thoughts of peace and love, but a deeper dedication to understanding the lives of carnivores, and learning to read their behaviors so that we might know how to better avoid potentially fatal confrontations.

Concluding Thoughts

“Wild” is a moving cultural target, but wilderness must always take into account the thousands of other species whose lives depend on the decisions we make about it. There is plenty of room in Nature for humanity, but it remains to be seen if there is room for Nature in Civilization. In addition, compassion is a tool that must be used as effectively as protected areas and corridors if we are to rewild the planet beginning with our hearts. It’s okay to be afraid, but we must not let fear govern our decisions about the planet. Yes, we must push back industrial civilization to some measure of sustainable limits, and yes we must protect and restore intact ecosystems; but we must also remember to dwell in the wilderness of the present moment, with what and who are all around us while we work toward these goals.

[1] http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2014

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/opinion/is-the-wolf-a-real-american-hero.html?_r=0

[3] JB MacKinnon (2014) The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it could be (Toronto, ON: Random House Canada), 146.

[4] Belden Lane (2007) Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).

[5] Henry David Thoreau (1864) ‘The Maine Woods’ cited in Roderick Nash (2001) Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

[6] Nikki Van Schyndel (2014) Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Vancouver Island (Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press.)

Jason Brown
Jason Brown

Jason M. Brown grew up in Southern California but since 2001 has lived in the Dominican Republic, Utah, Connecticut and British Columbia. He was raised in the Mormon tradition but is currently practicing contemplative spirituality within the Anglican and Zen traditions. He has dual master's degrees from Yale University in forestry and theology and is currently working on his PhD at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) in the field of Spiritual Ecology. www.holyscapes.wordpress.com