ESSAYS, ARTICLES, REVIEWS AND DISCUSSION GROUPS
By K. Lauren de Boer
EarthLight Magazine #54, Fall 2005
I’m in one of the most diverse landlocked plant and animal communities in the world and I’m thinking about flight -- or, more accurately, the ecology of flight. I’m also thinking about energy, its different forms, our need for it, and how access to it is integral to the flourishing of anything on Earth. As I reflect, I come to realize that these two preoccupations
-- flight and energy -- didn’t rise up in me randomly. The canyon I’m in, part of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, boasts the highest concentration of bird species in North America. My love for birds is why I came here. And the relationship between flight and energy takes on particular meaning because of my third preoccupation: hummingbirds; there are fourteen species that frequent the canyon, the highest count anywhere in North America.
Flight has a high energy cost. Few, if any, activities in the animal world are as energy intensive. And no species of bird exploits flight so extravagantly as the hummingbird. Hovering, something hummingbirds do with unparalleled grace, takes up a lot of energy because it requires rapid wing movement. Other bird species are more economical in their use of energy in flight, like swifts, for example, who have long slender wings that keep them aloft with minimal wing movement for weeks, even months at a time. And yet, hummingbirds hover, even when it exacts a high energy cost. Why? Because it gives them access to a reward. Nectar, and lots of it.
n Anna’s hummingbird hangs for a few seconds, not three feet in front of me. The brilliant magenta gorget flashes for an instant, and then he’s gone in a shot, his raspy cry fading like a lost thought into the oaks. I close my eyes and try to feel the impact that the hundreds of hummingbirds I’ve seen over the past few days have had on my psyche. The swirl of their presence–their movement, their diminutive size, their color, their adroitness and quickness, their bickering flurries–seep into me, and finally well up into awed appreciation, just for their being in the world. In that moment, I’ve become wonder. I am Earth reveling in hummingbirds, feeling the splendor of their emergence in the story of life.
I take a breath, then slip out of wonder into my engrained mental habit of image-making. Qualities we often associate with hummers are lightness and joy. But there is another quality of hummingbirds many find difficult. They fight a lot. Hardly an image to inspire the peace activist or the advocate for cooperation.
Here’s another way to see it: Hummingbirds are fierce guardians of what they perceive to be of ultimate value, nectar. In our higher order of evolutionary complexity, what is the human version of this quality of fierce guardianship? What is of ultimate value to us? When I say ultimate, I mean fundamental. And by fundamental, I mean primal, "the ultimate nature of things," to draw on Alfred North Whitehead. The beauty of planet Earth, the integrity of her life support systems, are worth being compassionately fierce about.
There’s another, more personal, reason to value the hummer’s fascination with nectar. It has ignited a unique kind of co-evolution that has deepened the diversity of flowers on Earth, especially a kind called "ornithophilous," or, bird-loving flowers. The next time you stop to admire penstemon, or fuschia, or similarly shaped flowers, thank the hummingbird for its obsession with nectar. Our own focused presence to what fascinates us can elicit similar creativity. To allow ourselves to be drawn toward what most deeply moves us is an embrace of Eros, a desire for union with the Beloved (to use mystical language) that can give rise to beauty through further complexification. A coda to this thought: The hummingbird’s singular obsession with nectar gave rise not only to new forms of flowers, but to a remarkable array of color in the plumage of the hummingbird itself. The resemblance of a hummingbird’s feathers to the vivid color of nectar flowers may help protect it from predators.
What does this "coat of many colors" inspire in the human? In part, it inspires what I felt when I first saw the purple flash of a Lucifer hummingbird’s throat–a deep desire to put into words what took my breath away. The result of this desire down through the years has been to ignite a cascade of linguistic creativity in humans. All in an attempt to capture the stunning evolutionary display of hummingbird plumage. Here’s a sample in English to savor, out of more than 300: Long-billed Starthroat, Mountain Gem, Black-throated Mango, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Blossomcrown, Little Woodstar, Empress Brilliant, White-chinned Sapphire, Horned Sungem, Purple-crowned Fairy, the Magnificent, Black-hooded Sunbeam. And perhaps my favorite: the Sparkling Violetear.
A male Magnificent veers out of the shadows and his greens and purples flare up under a flood of sunlight. I’m back from my imagemaking, surrendering myself to wonder again.
SPIRITUAL ECOLOGY AS PRACTICE
One could say that a great insight into our Cosmic Task is to learn to observe so deeply that we can bring into consciousness the splendor of differentiation. The splendor itself can become aware of itself. We have this long process of differentiation–13.7 billion years. Now with humans developing this power of observing deeply, we bring differentiation to a fulfillment of sorts. Not that it is over, but it comes to a kind of fulfillment when the magnificence itself becomes suddenly aware of its magnificence.
Becoming wonder. There is a way of being in the world, what I’ve come to call a practice of spiritual ecology, that cultivates in us the consciousness that the human is the Earth herself embodying wonder. Spiritual ecology is a way not only of reflecting on wonder, but of making it present in our every day lives. It is a practice in that it embeds us more and more deeply in the awareness that spirituality, because it keeps our wonder alive, forms the very basis for living sustainably on Earth.
Becoming wonder means that we are in touch with what is vital in our being. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote that to live the spiritual life means to live in a state of "radical amazement." The origin of word radical, radicalis, means to "get at the root of things." To live in wonder is to engage in amazement at the root of our being, the primary reality that we are Earth.
To create a sustainable future is to employ diverse ways of knowing available to us. Science is one of those, one that is rooted in observation, experimentation, applying a method for arriving at certain systematic conclusions. But for a science that enhances life, we need spirituality, a way of knowing that breathes life into us, keeps us new.
As a way of being, spiritual ecology is both contemporary and very ancient. It is contemporary in that it draws on the best of our science, a science that "enhances life and relates us to the larger cosmic reality underlying life on Earth" (John Grim, EarthLight #39)
It is ancient because peoples all over the world have lived it, aligning themselves with the changes of the seasons, the movement of Earth and Sun, the migrations of animals, and other rhythms of the natural world. Spiritual ecology is not a religion, but it can awaken or renew the religious impulse in anyone on Earth. Its practice may well have begun when the human hand first reached out to inscribe wonder, in the form of animal paintings, onto the walls of caves at Lascaux and Altamira.
AVENUES TO THE DIVINE
Science and spirituality are two very different, but complementary, ways of knowing. Both science and spirituality are avenues to the divine, and spiritual ecology, by integrating them, is a way of consecrating oneself to the divine in a way that honors the whole of the human person and human experience as part of the planet in evolution.
Ecology, as a science, is a way of knowing how things work on planet Earth. When you come to understand ecology on a deeper and deeper level, you come to embrace not only interdependence and energy flows through life systems, but mystery and the necessity of death as a condition for the continuance of life.
Spirituality vitalizes us–and it vitalizes the very process of evolution we’re a part of as a wondrous emergence from the godhead. What can be uniquely celebrated in the human is that we are aware that we have a role in this emergence. We reflect on it and in doing so, we are the Earth in a state of wonder at the beauty, pain, and exhilaration of her own story.
Thus, spiritual ecology sees the human role in the unfolding of creation as itself a cause for wonder. That role is to celebrate the Earth in the depth of her beauty and in "the severity of her discipline," as Thomas Berry has described it. The Earth can be severe, can be a harsh place to call home. But to truly call her home, we must accept her challenges– the chaos of her storms and eruptions, the necessity of death for renewal, the irreversibility of change–as well as her spring returns, breathtaking views, and capacity to nurture us in every way possible.
There are many ways in which this way of being, this practice of spiritual ecology, renews our sense of wonder in the world. As a practice of compassion, "suffering with," it gives us the capacity to be in the sea of suffering around us and yet to be both present to it and to be at peace. Our hearts are not simply broken, but broken open by this presence. When our hearts open, we learn the meaning of reverence, a radical acceptance of the profound essence of each being that shares the living planet.
So too, spiritual ecology is a practice that honors our inner genius, our own unique expression of divinity. We each have an unprecedented spark, a gift that blooms out of our unequaled engagement with the primary creative dynamics of Earth. That spark is a one-time emergence. It has never been seen and will never be seen again.
What I believe resides at the core of this practice is the capacity for adoration, what I like to call the "great enamorment," the draw of being for being that gives rise to new life and new being. What we adore, we give our full attention to, and what we give our full attention to shapes us, even to the point of amplifying our identity to "fuller being" (Teilhard de Chardin). Identity comes from a sense of belonging. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that a "sense of belonging is the pivot of life, the point at which selfhood becomes possible." And when our sense of identity expands to become a mutual belonging in the living body of the Earth, our dreams and our actions become planetary in scope and scale.
What will enable us to respond creatively to the pace of evolutionary change today is not only a story of who we are as a species, but a practice that repeatedly and continually embeds us in that story on the physical, spiritual, and psychic levels of our being. For the first time, we have a story of our common origins in the Universe. That’s a gift of science. Combine the Story with a Practice, and all areas of human interaction can shift toward an Earth ethic. For instance, our notion of democracy expands to biocracy, the rights of all species to flourish. We realize that our identity and imagination are impoverished when species go extinct, because identity arises from belonging and relationship in the wider web of life.
RETRIEVING WONDER: A STORY
How do we become wonder and at the same time embrace change? How do we bring into consciousness the "splendor of differentiation" (Swimme)? We begin by opening ouselves to the surprise and numinous depths of the natural world. A story:
Once there was a boy who loved to spend hours and hours in the fields around his home. He was constantly carried away with joy and wonder at what he found. One day he saw a bush of Queen Anne’s Lace that seemed to be moving in a strange way. As he drew near, he saw that there were the most beautiful black and green and gold caterpillars he had ever seen. They were crawling all over the bush. The boy was just at an age where he liked to count things. So he began to count the caterpillars: "1,2,3,4,5,6,7..." and then, he hears, in the distance, a sound he never really liked to hear when he was having so much fun: "time to come i-in! time to come i-in!" floated his mother’s voice over the broad field.
The boy felt torn. He was so fascinated by these beautiful caterpillars, and yet he knew he must obey his mother. Then he came up with a plan. He always carried a coffee tin with him into the field to put things in that he found and wanted to take home. So now he plucked: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 small branches from the bush and put them in the can, each one with a caterpillar clinging to it. Off he went home.
When he got home, he poked some holes in the top, because everyone knows caterpillars need air, then put the can on the shelf in the garage. When he went in for dinner, the boy’s father said: "have you forgotten that tonight is the night you were going to start on your science project?" The boy had been so immersed in the fields, he had forgotten!
For the next few weeks he worked hard. He compiled information on butterflies, his favorite topic. He listed facts and scientific names and habitats. He grouped species and cut out pictures to illustrate butterflies from all over the world. But in the end, the boy felt dissatisfied. Something was missing and he couldn’t quite figure out what.
Then one day he went to the garage to get some screws and wire to hang his project. There, on the shelf, was the can he had forgotten weeks earlier. The boy’s heart sank into his stomach as he took the can from the shelf. He walked slowly out to the big oak in his back yard where they had once buried his pet dog. This would be a caterpillar funeral, for sure. Sadly, he removed the lid. He saw something move, and: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 of the most beautiful black swallowtail butterflies burst into the sky to freedom!
The boy now knew he had the missing piece: butterflies are beautiful and amazing! He leaped, and his leaping was a remembering, a dance of wonder.
Sometimes a piece of ourselves, our joy, our wonder gets put on the shelf, or perhaps just wanders away for a while. But the beautiful thing is that we can always come back again, pull that can off the shelf, and find the source of our wonder not only intact, but transformed. There are things that bring us back to ourselves, that help us remember that we are here to celebrate and to glorify the beauty of our world. This is the practice of adoration through which we can become wonder.
Set down this article, take a moment, and think of something you adore, or have adored in your life
-- a child, an idea, an animal, a storm. What amazes you, takes your breath away?
Start your practice there.
K. Lauren de Boer has been editor of EarthLight for ten years. This essay is based on talks given this year at Unity in Marin and the Unitarian Church of Livermore, California, and on a recent visit to the numinous Chiracahua Mountains.
For more of Lauren’s writings, see his website at www.k-lauren.net and his blog at k-lauren.blogspot.com.
1. Robert Burton, The World of the Hummingbird, Firefly Books, Ltd., 2001.
2. John Grim, "A Foundation for the Ecozoic," EarthLight, Issue 39, Fall 2000.