Musings: The Land Around Us

A mild winter has been appreciated by many New Englanders this season while lamented by just as many others, no doubt! As inhabitants of the Northeast, we are blessed with a rich variety of seasonal pleasures to enjoy throughout the year, without the annual threat of fatal weather conditions to consider.

New England feels like a hospitable place to be. Over five hundred years ago when our European ancestors landed on this continent, they, too, must have marveled at the richness of this amazing New World bursting with life, vitality and abundant natural resources. It is said that the newly arrived colonists named the indigenous people whom they found living here in dios — or "of God" — meaning, people of God, because the natives lived in complete harmony with the natural world around them.

For many thousands of years, the Indian way of life had been sustained on this continent before the explorers arrived: the land sustained the people and they, in turn, took good care of the land. This balanced and reciprocal relationship ensured that plenty of fresh, clean air and water, abundant food and natural resources plus vast expanses of virgin, wild spaces were continuously perpetuated by hundreds of tribes stretching across the continent. To the Indians, Mother Earth and all of creation was sacred. Their lives were governed by a belief that the spirit of creation — Manitoo — breathes life into every being and element of creation, making us all connected through the great web of life and dependent upon each other for our survival. They understood that the destruction of even one strand of this web potentially threatened the whole web itself, whose intricate balance is maintained through designs greater than any human could ever comprehend. Because they were aware of their limited understanding of this great cosmic plan, they regarded themselves as equals with all the other creatures whom they shared the land with and were grateful for the privilege just to be alive. They took only what they needed and gave thanks for what they received. In this way, the Indians maintained their lifestyle as well as the ecology of the land, which remained self-renewing for many thousands of years.

History reveals that in just a few short hundred years, a nation with great economic, military and political ambition grew up on the land which formerly supported this simple, yet time-honored and balanced lifestyle. European, capitalistic, work-ethic values carved out a "manifest destiny" for the newly emerging United States of America that would ultimately catapult it into being the leader of the world that it is today. Gradually, the Indian spirit of the land, which honored a slower, more thoughtful pace of life in considering the effects of one's actions on the next seven generations, was replaced by the hustle and bustle of living in this new land of freedom and materialistic opportunity. Yet, the more we constructed buildings and institutions to "civilize" and advance our culture, the further we moved away from appreciating the essentials of our daily survival: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we harvest our food from and feed our livestock with, the people around us. Eventually, we started caring more about the opportunities of profit and gain than about sacredness and balance in the web of life, and so we began to waste, contaminate and abuse these precious earthly commodities in order to satisfy our own short-term needs and desires.

Today we live in a country where we can enjoy the many comforts of modern technology including indoor heating, plumbing and electricity and one of the highest material standards of living anywhere in the world. At the same time, we also find ourselves leading lives overshadowed by fear, stress and moral uncertainty. Ironically, much of our stress stems from the faster pace of living fostered by the "time saving" conveniences of modern technology, while the foreign policies which established our worldwide dominance have bred terrorist agendas against us. With increasing earnestness, we question the morality of living on a planet where two thirds of the people starve daily and reckless consumption of natural resources threatens to destroy the entire web of life itself. In light of such imbalance, injustice and anxiety, one has to wonder: Is having my own personal washing machine, PC, TV, VCR, DVD, cell phone and electric can opener really worth the price of living a sacred life?

Because we have become so accustomed to enjoying a hot shower and three tasty meals each day, as well as the liberties of personal freedom and privacy, I regret to say that the answer to that question must be yes. Liberating one's self from the impoverished culture of materialism is no easy task. Its tentacles are everywhere! The comforts and lure of the American lifestyle have clouded our vision and compassion so much so that even we — good hearted, spiritually- minded, common sense people reading this — still allow the Earth to be ravaged and people to suffer and die so we can continue on living the American Dream. We make choices each and every day that contribute to our country's gluttonous waste stream and over-consumerism, choices that usually hinge on such self- centered matters as convenience, comfort or cost. We hesitate to give charitably and generously because we'd rather spend on ourselves instead.

Talking about living a sacred life and actually living it are two very different things. Living a sacred life means adopting the awareness that all our actions have consequences far beyond the benefits we can see for ourselves. It means slowing down, not speeding up; sharing our resources, not accumulating more personal wealth; refusing to spoil an Arctic wilderness and searching for lasting energy solutions instead. Tragically, it's the ingenious packaging of the destructive spend-discard-spend cycle that has made America so strong and prosperous, encouraging unlimited growth and consumer appetite. If we reduce our consumerism, we weaken our economy and our gold standard of living worldwide. It almost seems unpatriotic! Yet, if we continue to support our cultural "habits" through military, political and economic dominance around the world, we place whole countries and ecosystems at risk of unending misery and eventually, destruction. Living in the shadow of this global suffering and imbalance, can we honestly believe our lives are any more advanced or civilized than our Indian counterparts of five hundred years ago?

One of the reasons we have strayed so far off the path of global balance is because we have lost our connection to the land. As more people started working indoors to make a living and depending upon merchants and stores to provide their daily needs instead of the land, the dollar became more valuable than "real estate" itself. Today, land is valued as a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, stripped of its sacred significance and certainly of any "rights," except those conferred to its "owner." Much like the issue of slavery which tested and tempered the character of this country one hundred and fifty years ago, lasting change in the global human heart can only be accompanied by a shift in awareness that recognizes we are not land owners, but land stewards.

The simple of act of conscious gardening can be a huge step forward in reconnecting people back to the spirit of the land, and ultimately themselves and each other. Gardening inspires a love and passion for the land, the pulsing of the great web of life that helps us make the connection as to why we want to reduce, reuse and recycle instead of buy new, buy more, and discard. In her article this issue, "Planting the Future," author and herbalist Rosemary Gladstar mentions the invisible network of mycorrhizae — soil microbes — which are thought to be responsible for communication between plants and their environment over vast distances. When we place our hands in the earth, we become a direct participant in this network as well, re-rooting our awareness at home in the earth where it belongs.

The 2002 World Economic Forum was held just this past February in New York City. Close to 3,000 business people, political leaders and celebrities gathered to discuss ways to reverse the global economic downturn and "promote security." At the same time, 50,000 of the not-so-rich and influential gathered from over 140 countries in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Meeting under the parallel name of the World Social Forum, the group convened with the goal of trying to build an alternative to the kind of global capitalism which has created a world where 2.8 billion souls live on less than $2 a day and far too many ecosystems and species are threatened with extinction. The forum, themed "Another World is Possible," asserts "we are being given an opportunity to reassess our current course and re-envision what kind of future we may have, instead of simply allowing the present situation to unfold with more global injustice, environmental devastation and state-sponsored violence."

The choice now is ours. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on America, we are reminded that if we are not willing to change the world by our own awareness and sacrifice, then the world will be changed for us. There is still time for us to see the emergence of a seemingly miraculous change of heart. We might even start by going back 500 years and listening to the whispers from ancient, sacred traditions which flourished long before our ancestors ever arrived on these shores. The threads which connect us to that past have survived in the wisdom of our elders from many cultures — human, plants, animals and rocks. If we slow down, listen and open our hearts to the love and light all around us, we will find our pathway home once again.

Carol Bedrosian is publisher and editor of Spirit of Change Magazine and organizer for the annual Harvest Gathering in September, a weekend spiritual gathering around the sacred fire.