BARBARA HERRING – Have you ever wondered what you could do to reverse the ravages we are doing to the planet? Or what more you could do?
I’ve had those questions, too. What more could I be doing?
Here’s the story of how I came to find some answers for myself.
One day, quite a few years ago now, I headed out to an island property I owned, to ponder these questions: how can I help to work toward a healthier planet. (I didn’t quite say “to save the planet” but you get the idea.) What could I do that would be the right thing, the most effective thing, that would be enough?
The pondering place was a beautiful, small 2-acre island in the middle of Jack Lake, about 1 hour north of Peterborough, an island mostly covered with cedar trees, and with a feeling of cloistered seclusion. I chose a comfortable spot on the soft, warm red earth, under the overhanging cedars, where I could gaze out over the sparking blue waters of the bay.
And I sat there, not trying to reason out an answer, just waiting, listening expectantly. Asking – how can I help the earth?
And Earth came up beside me, leaned down, smiled indulgently, gently patted me on the head, like you might do to a sweet naïve child, and Earth said to me, “Don’t worry about us. We’re just fine.”
Now I have to tell you that the Earth didn’t appear to me as a burning bush or a shining globe or a beautiful angel.
No. Rather, it was like you feel when your friend beside you has just spoken. You just KNOW he has spoken; maybe his voice is still echoing in your head. It was like that for me when the Earth spoke – the voiceprint was there in my head.
Earth continued by saying, “And you’re not on the outside of this, “helping me – helping the earth.” And the ones you think you’re fighting – they’re not outside either.”
Everything is a part of the earth; everything is inside; everything is one system.
Well, that seemed like a sudden reversal of direction for me. I stood up, stretched, and tried to re-orient myself to this new idea. I was excited to have an immediate response to my question of how I could help the environment, the Earth.
But I admit I was also feeling a bit deflated. Gone was the heroism – me brandishing my environmental sword, battling those who would destroy the earth, while the earth sat passively by, anxiously waiting to see who would win.
Instead I felt like one tiny part of the vast complexity of the earth. I was shrinking before my eyes.
Clearly, if I wanted to think more about what to do with my life I would have to reformulate my question.
OK. Back to basics. I asked myself : What was the foundation of my original question − ‘how can I save the earth?’ What is the inner truth that it came from?
Looking inside myself, I found that inner truth, the foundation of my first question, was a simple truth, heartfelt. That inner truth was my love for the Earth. I love the mountains and the sparkling streams, the muddy bog where I discover secret nests and beaver lodges, my back yard under snow, soaring eagles and osprey, people I love, people with whom I struggle, people I don’t know. I love the earth magic revealed in science and math. I love the generosity of the sun. I love the Earth.
I went back to my spot under the cedars, beside the blue bay and tried a new question: one that arose from my truth, my love for this beautiful earth.
My new question was: How can I express my love for the earth?
Almost immediately, Earth, in the same way as she did before, gently replied, “Any way you want.”
As before, I felt the reply had turned me around and set me down in a different direction. It changed my whole perspective.
How can I express my love for the earth? “Any way you want.” I was being asked to stop thinking about what I would DO with my life, to focus instead about who I would BE.
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “That’s why we’re called Human Beings, not Human Do-ings”.
That was the shift I was invited to make.
And what a shift it was! As a person raised in a white, protestant, Ontarian family, I was always taught that what counted was what I accomplished. Not whether I loved history or literature but whether I got good marks, lots of education, a great job.
Not if I felt compassion but whether I provided concrete help, whether I made a difference.
And from the Media I learned impossible standards. Media told me about Julia Butterfly, a young woman out west who lived high at the top of an old- growth-forest tree for 738-days. She sat at the top of that giant tree for almost 2 years. And she saved that tree from the loggers.
Media told me about Greenpeace workers who risked their lives in little boats on the open seas to stop whalers
Media told me about Greta Thunberg who, at the age of 16, spoke to the UN, challenging world leaders to take immediate action to address climate change, and who inspired millions of school-age students all over the world to organize school climate strikes under the name Fridays for the Future.
These are wonderful stories. I wanted to make a big impact too. Instead I just felt small and helpless.
But now, Earth was telling me that I didn’t have to be small and helpless. Earth was telling me that I didn’t have to be big and heroic.
Earth was telling me that I just needed to be myself – to be my love for the earth – to do that out loud!
I’ve learned since that this is a perspective with a long and powerful legacy.
I was recently reading a book from the Christian faith tradition that a friend lent me. In that book, the author explained that the message that Jesus had wanted to convey to his fellow Jews was to stop with all the rules about how to be holy, rules about how to be good, rules about how to be devout; to stop trying to do what you were supposed to. Instead, he encouraged people to find what was in their heart and to act out of that central core. To express what is in your heart.
From the Islamic tradition, Hafiz, a 13th century Persian Sufi Poet said this:
Every Child/ Knows this God,
Not the God of Names,
Not the God of don’ts
Not the God who never does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying
“Come dance with Me.”
Since I’m not a Christian or a Muslim, I didn’t look to God or Jesus or Mohammad for my answers. And yet, the answer I received from the Earth was much the same. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised – after all, the Earth DID tell me, “everything is a part of the earth.” For me, the message came from the Earth: how to love the earth? Any way you want.
I found this perspective so freeing. The change for me is that there is no required outcome: if I write letters or attend a demonstration and the pipeline still goes through, I haven’t failed. Through my actions, I have expressed my love for the earth which is my intention.
What’s different about this way of being is the lack of judgement about the outcome − my original worry about whether my actions are the right ones, whether they are enough. It was just the wrong question.
Let me illustrate another way. I invite you to think about what YOU are being in the world? Compassion? Justice? Peace? Truth? Joy?
And how do you express that?
I am thinking of you living what is in your heart in so many different ways. Some of you embody justice by supporting First Peoples in a land claim struggle, or in blocking a pipeline. Some of you embody justice and compassion when you sit in a courtroom in Peterborough with a homeless person who needs a companion. You embody compassion as you support each other when some are sick or in grief. You embody Joy in the way you sing.
How has this perspective changed my life?
I’ve found that this way of living in the world still often leads me to action.
I start each day (at least most days) feeling happy that I’m on this planet today, feeling my love for the earth as my foundation.
And I find daily opportunities to express my love. I garden, I engage in advocacy for the First Peoples of this land. In my work, I speak out about the value of diversity. I walk in the forest and smile to see an unexpected bird or the unique twist of a tree or the familiar song of a robin.
My faith practice is Sacred Circle Dance – a form where people dance holding hands in a circle, doing more or less the same steps. Within this form, I am constantly reminded of my place in the circle of life, where everyone belongs. I see that everyone dances a little differently, but that together, we make up a circle that is unique to this moment – that will never happen in just this way again.
I’m no longer focussed on the ravages we are doing to the planet . Not that I’m ignoring the situation – the facts, the science. But I know that the earth is taking care of itself.
I am just pleased to be one part of this great dance, at this time and place. I am pleased to be expressing myself and the love that is in my heart.
I wish the same for you.
Barbara Herring’s work and personal life are informed by diversity, interdependence and what it means to live gracefully within the circle of all beings. She helps employers to hire and empower a more diverse workforce.