The Bowl of Roses

Bowl of Roses: Peach colored David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Since my brother’s death in June, words have been hard to come by, for writing, speaking, even reading. Poetry has been a companion; so much meaning in so few words. And, on these bright, blooming California days, the tender mercies of beauty have been deeply consoling. Perry, who started his landscaping business in college, told me while he was still able to contemplate such things that he was profoundly grateful that he could spend his life making the world more beautiful.

My daily life takes me past a garden where the quintessential June flower — roses — are still blooming in profusion. Their intricate, soft voluptuousness reminds me of some of the most luscious words ever strung together: Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Bowl of Roses. For this post, I am floating on his words. I’ve coupled them with photos of roses from the gorgeous Rose Hill in Spokane, Washington’s Manito Gardens.

Bowl of Roses: Yellow and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

The Bowl of Roses

Rainer Maria Rilke

You saw angry ones flare, saw two boys
clump themselves together into a something
that was pure hate, thrashing in the dirt
like an animal set upon by bees;
actors, piled up exaggerators,
careening horses crashed to the ground,
their gaze thrown away, baring their teeth
as if the skull peeled itself out through the mouth.

Bowl of Roses: Three gorgeous David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordBut now you know how these things are forgotten:
for here before you stands a bowl full of roses,
which is unforgettable and filled up
with ultimate instances
of being and bowing down,
of offering themselves, of being unable to give, of standing there
almost as part of us: ultimates for us too.

Beauty: David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordNoiseless life, opening without end,
filling space without taking any away
from the space the other things in it diminish,
almost without an outline, like something omitted,
and pure inwardness, with so much curious softness,
shining into itself, right up to the rim:
is anything as known to us as this?

Bowl of Roses: Peach David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordAnd this: that a feeling arises
because petals are being touched by petals?
And this: that one opens itself, like a lid,
and beneath lies nothing but eyelids,
all closed, as if tenfold sleep
had to dampen down an inner power to see.
And, above all, this: that through the petals
light has to pass. Slowly they filter out from a
thousand skies the drop of darkness
in whose fiery glow the jumbled bundle
of stamens becomes aroused and rears up.

And what activity, look, in the roses:
gestures with angles of deflection so small
one wouldn’t see them if not for
infinite space where their rays can diverge.

Yellow David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordSee this white one, blissfully opened,
standing among its huge spreading petals
like a Venus standing in her shell;
and how this one, the blushing one, turns,
as if confused, toward the cooler one,
and how the cooler one, impassive, draws back,
and the cold one stands tightly wrapped in itself
among these opened ones, that shed everything.
And what they shed, how it can be
at once light and heavy. a cloak. a burden,
a wing, and a mask, it all depends,
and how they shed it: as before a lover.

Yellow rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordIs there anything they can’t be: wasn’t this yellow one
that lies here hollow and open the rind
of a fruit of which the same yellow,
more intense, more orange-red, was the juice?
And this one, could opening have been too much for it,
because, exposed to air, its nameless pink
has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?
And isn’t this batiste one a dress, with
the chemise still inside it, still soft
and breath-warm, both flung off together
in morning shade at the bathing pool in the woods?
And this one here, opalescent porcelain,
fragile, a shallow china cup
filled with little lighted butterflies,
and this one, containing nothing but itself.

Bowl of Roses: Peachy petals of a David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordAnd aren’t they all doing the same: only containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.

Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.

Two yellow David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Translated by Galway Kinnell & Hannah Liebman

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Related posts:

The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty

The call of wild beauty

Cows in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Walking in beauty

 

It couldn’t be clearer: the power of interrelatedness

Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey CrawfordIt’s become an instant cliche as the pandemic reveals the threadbare fabric of our culture: the truly essential people that make day-to-day life possible are often the ones in the most precarious and poorly paid jobs. As grateful as I am to have professional people in my life, I am utterly dependent on the people who grow, harvest, and distribute food. The people who stack grocery shelves and check us out. The people willing to shop for the elderly and immunocompromised. The people picking up our garbage, manning the water and sewer systems. And, of course, the health care workers.

It doesn’t take a pandemic to tell us that our culture has its values and rewards upside down. But it may take a pandemic to show us that we are also completely dependent on sound ecosystems, where viruses such as the new coronavirus have no reason to break away from their evolutionary niche. Destroy that niche and they will start migrating to other places. Tug on any one string, and you pull on the whole fabric. Tug on enough strings at the same time and the fabric loses all integrity. It will be years before we comprehend the full effect of this pandemic. But we can already see that we are all completely, intimately, and sometimes desperately interrelated.

Another milkweed fan: a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) in Osceola, Missouri. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) on common milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Osceola, Missouri

Interrelatedness is one of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I have been contemplating. I could have accompanied this particular exploration with any picture I have. Every flower, every leaf, every tree trunk, every mushroom is only here because of a web of relationships. With air, water, fungi, microbes, insects. With their fellow plants, the soil their roots penetrate, the beings growing on those roots, the slowly dissolving stone forming the soil. And they know they have these relationships. They smell each other, reach out to each other, signal each other, warn of danger. Trees nurture and protect their offspring. They send messages along savvy fungal networks. A seed won’t open its case unless it senses that its necessary cohorts for growth are in place. It will wait decades, even centuries, for that to happen. 

I chose photos with insects, which biologist E.O. Wilson calls “the little things that run the natural world.” Mycologist Paul Stamets says much the same of fungi. I’m sure the scientists studying microbes would put in a bid for their billions of subjects. Every specialty could make a claim. The list is endless. Without flowering plants, there would be no vegetables, fruits, nuts, the foods enabling animals to evolve and thrive. Without leafing plants there would be no oxygen. Without the tiny, brilliant chloroplasts in the trillions of green leaves waving over the globe plants would have no way to grow. 

A dragon fly on Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey Crawford

Dragonfly, Kaplan’s Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

If it weren’t for primitive bacteria evolving into those chloroplasts and eventually into all living things, the planet would be stone and water. If earth had never entered into a relationship with the sun, there would be nothing but a lot of floating rocks in our neck of the galaxy. If the galaxies had never formed, spinning out stars as they did so, there would never have been a sun.

In his talk on interrelatedness, Brian takes this vast, interdependent sequencing for granted. He focuses instead on a wonderful mystery. In order for the living planet to thrive, there has to be something that fosters this intricate web of relationships. He calls it care: the ability of living beings to nurture the lives of other living beings. 

Where did care come from? It’s not a human invention. Mother trees take care of their young. Fish and reptiles, in fighting off predators, show parental care. Mammals of all sorts — think mother bears — are famous for it. Primates mourn deaths in their wider community. Humans are capable of expanding their care far beyond their families and tribes, even into future generations.

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote brush beetle (Trirhabda flavolimbata) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

It make sense that evolution would favor developing the hormones and neurotransmitters to foster parental care. Living beings would be much more likely to survive and reproduce, thereby keeping the species going. Evolving the emotions to foster community increases the prosperity of all forms of life. Working together enables groups to live longer and healthier lives, helping to overcome any obstacles in the way. And that is what has happened.

But here Brian enters more deeply into the mystery. He posits that in order for care to exist, to have evolved, it had to be inherent in the creative force we call the cosmos. For them to exist today, the swirling plasma at the beginning of the universe had to hold the possibility for life, for consciousness, for care. “There was a time when there wasn’t parental care and then parental care was invented in the universe. It’s valued by the universe.”

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

On the one hand, this isn’t news. Our stories of our ancestors, of our gods and goddesses, our varied religious cultures, all assume a caring energy operating in the world. The traditions we live with today ask us to embody compassion and care. The Jewish ethic of compassion is Jesus’s central tenet. Five centuries earlier the Buddha made it one of the two pillars of Buddhism, along with wisdom. Two thousand years later, the Dalai Lama tells us that without compassion, we cannot survive. Indigenous traditions share an even broader compassion, encompassing the earth itself and all its beings and elements. 

All these traditions grew out of times when our stories of the origin of the universe were earth-based. The Abrahamic genesis stories, echoing even more ancient Sumerian ones. The aboriginal songlines. The Egyptian gods forming infants from clay and breathing life into them. The agents of genesis were beings we were familiar with — grand versions of humans and ancestors, which can include rivers, mountains, turtles, coyotes. 

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) found in Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

But in the last few decades, our origin story has receded in time, and out into the cold and dark of the vast cosmos. Our ancestors have become stars, plasma, energy. Brian’s revolutionary idea is that the care we now feel was inherent in that remote beginning. ‘Imagine the universe just being neutrons and protons,’ he says. ‘Then a process took place that eventuated in fish caring for one another. The power of care is evoked out of the plasma of the early universe.’ 

I can easily imagine many a raised scientific or religious eyebrow. Brian gives those a nod in his talk. But I join him in pondering what it means for us to allow the universe’s power of interrelatedness to guide us. We have, as our traditions show, been doing so for millennia. The reason it seems to operate so weakly in our culture isn’t that we don’t want compassion to be part of life on earth. We do, and many people are really good at it. But our industrial culture is based on stories that don’t foster care. They foster use. Use assumes that things don’t have meaning in and of themselves. Their meaning comes from how they enter into our manufacturing process.”

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri, by Betsey Crawford

Cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae) on helmet flower (Scutellaria integrifolia) in Osceola, Missouri

Long predating industrialization, our stories fostered militarism, inequity, power, money. And they still do. Thus we have Silicon Valley, rich beyond measure from providing interesting nonessentials. Just over a short mountain pass are the farms where truly essential workers are paid so little they can’t afford the produce they pick. “How amazing that this envelope of humanity around the planet is making this decision about which species will live and not live.” Who will thrive and not thrive.

These are decisions we make. “Each is an act of the imagination because we can determine how we want to relate to various beings.” Though our stories tell us “that other beings are there for our use, there are other possible ways of imagining what the beings are there for. I’m trying to suggest a new way, a new value to begin to reorient our society.” 

An ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey Crawford

An ant carries a seedhead home in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

It’s through this imagining that we open to the power of interrelatedness and allow it to operate ever more fully through us. Our imagination expands the concept of care. It redefines priorities and values. It includes the entire earth, not just one species. It sees a world that could be. Again, these aren’t new activities. Our religious, political, and philosophical histories are full of such imaginings. But the urgency is now so dire. The stories we need to leave behind are not just threadbare, they’re deadly. The pandemic shows this vividly because it devastates so rapidly. Climate change is equally urgent, and equally a product of ignoring interrelatedness. As is poverty and hunger and so many other issues we face. But our stories have allowed us to put off truly reckoning with them.

If the world is full of caring and compassionate people, how did we let our agenda be set by those who don’t care? How did we allow our stories to become those that justify the powerful, the greedy, the cruel? How do we buy into it? Why do we put up with it? These are the questions the power of interrelatedness propels us to ask. How have we failed this profound, life-organizing, and life-giving energy? Limited its reach? Ignored its implications? What kind of revolution would we launch by embodying this power? What will we lose by ignoring it?

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), a member of the Asteraceae family, in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

A fly on brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Everything. If we don’t open ourselves to the vast implications of the power of interrelatedness, we risk it all. We are pulling on too many threads, all the time. The pandemic shows us that we are not prepared for the results of tearing down the fabric of the world. It shows us how much we have to do.

How do we cope with how much there is to do? With how much needs to change to create a just and sustainable culture? We engage. All the powers of the universe ask us for engagement with the energies they are showering us with; interrelatedness perhaps most of all. Each of us does what we can. Individually that can look like a pittance in such a vast field of urgent need. But fabrics are not woven of heroic threads. They result from the patient weaving of countless thin strands. The interrelated threads making up the tapestry of life on earth are all crucial. The mightiest tree trunk cannot live without the finest of fungal threads at its roots.

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains

It’s fascinating that some of our ancestors’ most powerful deities were goddesses of weaving. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was one. In a version of her story the Egyptian Nit, source of the sun and goddess of Lower Egypt, was said to have woven the world into existence, and remained the guardian of weaving. Among her many domains, including medicine, midwifery, and earth itself, the Mayan Ixchel included weaving. Also combining birth, women, and weaving is the Maori Hineteiwaiwa. The tasks of the Celtic Arianrhod, Goddess of the Silver Wheel, included weaving the tapestry of life. So it’s been long acknowledged that the slow, repetitive, and often laborious task of weaving our fate from the threads we bring to life is one of our crucial tasks. 

The tapestry that interrelatedness has us forever forming is infinitely rich and complex. There are always new connections to discover. All to be done with the utmost care and compassion. The great thing about care is that it enables so much to take place. Devotion, service, nurturance. Where would we be without it?” At this stage in evolution, Brian suggests, we are searching for our role in the cosmos. We should look to the possibility “that care is seeking to expand out into a comprehensive role on this planet.” The reflective consciousness of human beings can provide the means for this to take place. Care, “pervasive in the universe from the beginning,” is looking to us for new ways to express and expand its energy.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Top photo: Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas Chalcedon) with blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) along the King Mountain trail, Larkspur, California 

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Beauty for ashes

Beauty: checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

I am sent to heal the brokenhearted….To comfort all who mourn….To give them beauty for ashes.
~Isaiah, 61~

I am blessed, in this time of forced absence and fearful presence, to live with beauty. As long as I’m willing to climb some steep hills, I can walk among embracing trees, with unfurling ferns and delicate spring wildflowers at their feet. The consolation is inestimable. It doesn’t erase the images of long refrigerated trailers outside of hospitals, or the vast grief of lost lives, or the fear of what lies ahead. But a deep, green, ancient energy holds my shattered heart for a while. I go home soothed, more alive, better able to abide in a fearful mystery.

The photos accompanying and below this post are from those walks. Elsewhere, in sunlit fields, orange California poppies, bright yellow tidy-tips, and purple lupines are blooming. I may not see them again this spring. So I treasure all the more these quiet spirits in the woods around me, emerging from the earth from which I, too, have sprung, relations and friends. I’ve paired each with a quote celebrating beauty.

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.
~Mary Oliver~

Last summer’s essay, The Power of Allurement, the Mystery of Beauty, has just been published by Kosmos Journal in an issue entitled True Wealth. When the invitation for submissions came in January, I took the theme in a practical spirit and submitted The Universe and the Doughnut, a vision of a new economic order through the lens of Brian Swimme’s universal power of centration. Then, knowing that the editor, Rhonda Fabian, is also a fan of Brian’s, I sent her the list of my essays on his powers of the universe. She chose the one on allurement, saying in her reply, “Beauty really fills a need in this edition. Beauty is true wealth, and when we rediscover this simple truth, our relation to the Earth will be transformed.”

At a time when the current definition of wealth has crashed at our feet, finding the meaning of true wealth has never been more urgent. Peace, health, community, nature, beauty, shared abundance, meaning. Beauty not about the surface of things but instead the deep pull from aliveness to aliveness. Not every wildflower is superficially beautiful. But they are all blooming — vibrant, filled with life, interesting, intricate, mysterious, the soul of the earth. They pass quickly on to the profound work of creating their brilliant seeds, forming life and the endless potential for life in those tiny containers. Then they sleep, confident in their ever-renewing role in nature’s long life.

Blue beauty: a blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dick (Dichelostemma capitatum) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we love.
~Terry Tempest Williams~

They are part of the deep, intimate, enduring paths of our planet. It’s so easy to see, in the midst of this pandemic, how fragile a structure we have created. How many people are left out. How limited and lethal our definitions of prosperity and security. We did not know, when ashes were crossed on foreheads on February 26, that the edifice we have built would lie in ashes by Easter. But none of this is news except how suddenly it could all collapse. How hollow it really was. 

There will be many, many plans, suggestions, dreams put forward in the next months and years. They have already started. Some dreams come with a long history.  Some will pull us backward. The pandemic is already an excuse for erasing pollution standards and “rescuing” oil companies. Tyrants will seize more power in the name of fear and chaos. But many of the plans will hold promise, recovery, redefinition.

What if, in the work ahead, we include beauty in true wealth? We look to what makes us come alive, to aliveness calling to aliveness? What if we took the definition of scientists, and saw beauty as the harmonious ordering of all parts of the universe, down to our daily choices of work, home, pleasure? What if we insisted on the beauty of clear skies and clean water? What if the heart-expanding music of children laughing became our priority? What if we honored visual beauty, and created a built world that was wonderful to look at and live in? This is how beauty transforms the earth. 

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Drops of gold (Prosartes hookeri) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson~

Easter and Passover are ancient celebrations of the promise of renewal and the solace of hope, both much older than their current stories. Has there ever been a time when we didn’t welcome the light, the springing green shoots, the radiant, multi-hued glory of flowers? Yet these enduring traditions arose out of the immediate anguish of their time: slavery, persecution, suffering. They have endured through millennia by reminding us over and over, in the face of fear and destruction, that hope is a choice. That right action is beneficence. That community upholds us.

This is my 70th Easter, and the first one I will spend without family and friends around me. We’ll talk and text and make sure to say we love each other. Then I will go out among the trees, watching for shy spring flowers. Some are tucked under leaves. Others, speckled, are nearly invisible in the dappled forest. A few, especially on the sunnier side of the mountain, make a bit of a show. On this quiet, meditative search for beauty, I join with all of you in this holy season of hope, longing, and love.

Delicate beauty: milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine California) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
~C.S. Lewis~

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The perfection of beauty in these lilies of the wilderness is a never-ending source of admiration and wonder.
~John Muir~

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Death camas (Toxicoscordium fremontii) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.
~Susan Sontag~

Pink beauty: wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Wood rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
~Thich Nhat Hanh~

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Common Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
~John O’Donohue~

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity—that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.
~Charles Baudelaire~

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California

When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.
~Rabindranath Tagore~

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) King Mountain Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Hoo-koo-e-koo Trail, Larkspur, California

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
~Rachel Carson~ 

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Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm

Death of a star forms a nebula. Image via NASABy the end of the first week of the impeachment hearings, I was as miserable as I’ve been in a long time. Not because any of it was news to me, but because institutions are failing in ways we never imagined. We’ve never seen them tested this much before. That same week the Trump EPA added to its boundless failures by relaxing water safety standards. Lying political ads flooded Facebook, which is fine with that. A news photo of five young women climate activists was edited to take the sole African out. 

I could go on. Even the weekly lists are endless. I don’t usually dwell on such things in these essays. I prefer to concentrate on the energies that support what we can do to move toward a just and sustainable world. But we are in the midst of the most challenging of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe: cataclysm. Writing about radiance and allurement was sheer pleasure. The powers of centration and transmutation are inspiring. Then, after dwelling last month on the optimistic energy of emergence, I figured I may as well face the dragon.

The pictures I’ve chosen for this essay are all imploding stars, courtesy of NASA. We are here because of the cataclysmic death of stars. They gave us the calcium structuring our bones, the iron flowing in our blood, the oxygen we breathe. We both are and live in a matrix of carbon, without which life wouldn’t exist as we know it. Those elements are being formed every minute throughout the universe, as stars finish their many-billion-year lives of cycling hydrogen into helium. Then, in sequences near the end, helium heats to carbon, carbon to oxygen, to silicon, to iron. 

Cataclysm: the Veil Nebula via NASA

Veil Nebula (Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Iron burns up in a flash. Two seconds later, a star implodes in on itself in such heat that only wispy neutrinos remain. Neutrinos are the lightest particle in the universe, Brian tells us. “But the star is now so dense that what was insignificant can now blow the whole thing apart. As it blows it apart, all of the different elements are created. We had nothing but neutrinos and suddenly you have hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon.” 

The earth eventually formed around a young star and launched its own 4.5 billion year history of cataclysms. Eons of meteor bombardment. Great plates floating on the surface, crashing mountains into existence as they meet. The molten core spewing from volcanos. Glaciers crushing everything in their path. There have been five major extinctions. At the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, 96% of the thriving marine life was suddenly gone. Possible cataclysms: glaciation, volcanic activity, shifting landmasses. The most prominent theory about the last extinction, when the dinosaurs disappeared, includes a meteor hitting the earth. All of our other hominid cousins have died out. Due to a massive volcanic eruption, homo sapiens were down to a few thousand individuals 70,000 years ago. 

Yet, out of these catastrophes arose the Himalayas, the Hudson River, redwood forests, roses, orcas in deep oceans, bluebirds, gazelles, us. “Creativity would not be possible without the power of cataclysm.” The blessings have been boundless. But the power of cataclysm has swept through humanity over and over: wars, drought, famines, epidemics, devastating floods and fires. We are now creating new ones as we bury the earth in garbage, change the climate, allow the sixth great extinction. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a round supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: NASA/CXC/SAO

“We feel an ongoing mix of failure, regret, frustration,” Brian says, “because it’s so hard to imagine how to proceed.” What we treasured is disappearing. Our deepest ideals, what organized entire nations, seem to be just dissolving. This isn’t what we expected to see. We had dreams of how we were going to create this fantastic world.” We trusted our ingenuity, technology, the possibility of spiritual and cultural transformation. 

In 2018 the environmental world was roiled by an essay by Jem Bendell, a British sustainability expert. He describes coming to the conclusion that climate change is so imminently disastrous that we are on the edge of societal collapse, especially because of the degradation of agriculture and the rise of food scarcity. He foresees the possibility of human extinction in the near future.

Bendell would say my usual optimism that problems are ultimately solvable is denial. “Green positivity,” he called it in another essay. Of course, the fact that problems are solvable doesn’t mean we’ll have the collective will to solve them. So I agree that we should be contemplating what to do if we don’t muster the will. Or if, as he fears, no amount of will can stop the climate juggernaut at this point.

Cataclysm: supernova from the death of a star via NASA

Image: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/IAFE

But I also feel that we are not alone in this. That the profound creative forces of the universe operate continually in all its manifestations, including us. Learning from and using these primal energies is what this series of essays is about. By our embodying its primordial, ever-transforming powers, the universe is flowing through us at every moment. Now, Brian suggests, we need to trust cataclysm to “free us from all that is causing destruction.”

By allowing ourselves to be the conscious force of cataclysm, we can help “this power to tear down that which is no longer adaptive.”  The central beliefs of western culture, especially economics, are grounded in the idea that the destruction of the earth, of other people, of resources is not even considered a cost. Such wreckage may be seen, at most, as collateral damage, but nothing to avoid if inconvenient to do so. We can choose to channel our current crises toward the end of these disastrous ideas, the empires they have fostered, and the massive devastation they have done.

Cataclysm promises a turbulent path ahead whether we choose to work with it or resist it. The challenging paradox of our beautiful planet is that, while it is clearly dedicated to bringing forth life, it is also deadly. On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake sent lethal tsunamis crashing against the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean, killing 120,000 people. Earthquakes and volcanoes have proven cataclysmic over and over throughout earth’s history. Yet, while the shifting of the plates that float on the earth’s crust spawn these calamities, they also are the reason our planet can support life. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO & ESA; Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)

Of the seventy or so planets and moons in our solar system, only our earth’s crust is moving, and thus alive with possibility for formation and renewal of mountains, oceans, coasts, rivers, forests, the atmosphere, life itself. One of the reasons our planet can be devoted to life is that it also encompasses destruction. “Everywhere you look, there is simultaneously breaking down and building up, every day, every moment, every breath. For every birth, there is a death.”

“How,” Brian asks, “do we orient ourselves in the midst of all this?” How do we live with cataclysm? Jem Bendell, one of the direst thinkers I’ve come across, didn’t hunker down in a cave. He began a practical and reflective movement called Deep Adaptation. Bendell is not a climate scientist, and some scientists dispute his more extreme prognostications. Nevertheless, there is no comforting timeline in climate disruption. There is every reason to be actively engaged in imagining and creating a different way forward. What do we treasure? What can we let go of? How can we deepen our commitments to our children? How can we foster solidarity? How can we expand our spiritual connections? What are our values? “A future full of love and learning,” Bendell writes, “rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world.” 

Our current cataclysm has us rethinking our extractive, exploitative economic system. We’re looking to reorient an education system designed to create workers for an industrial structure that we must also reimagine. We’re pondering rebalancing our individualism with an openness to community. We’re mourning our lost connection to trees, water, stone, animal. Like a star that has come to an end, “we’re at a moment of enormous compression,” Brian says, “when all these structures are being torn down.” As they go, they “leave us to the central nature of who we are.” And to an outpouring “of the creative energy necessary to build the new earth community.” These are great challenges and great gifts. The cataclysms that we have created have turned and are now creating us.

The Crab Nebula via NASA

Crab Nebula. (Image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, Arizona State University)

(Top photo: the Orion Nebula. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

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Becoming: the power of emergence

Mount Taranaki has been granted personhood rightsIn a world increasingly governed by western notions of progress, people can find rights of nature an alien concept. Since the founding of ancient Rome, we have safeguarded property rights — the ownership of land, people, capital, resources — even when such rights work against the common good. Or even, as in the case of slavery, against the most basic principles of morality. Property rights belonged to the people who had the money to buy them or the military power to claim them. Colonizers assumed the right to arrive anywhere and claim the land, uproot both people and nature, and take whatever they wanted. And as we celebrate them to this day, we are still agreeing with them.

A couple of years ago I waiting for an elevator with several men who were attending a conference on forest management. They didn’t look like park rangers, so I asked if they owned forests. “Yes,” one said. “Lots of forests.” They were private owners, not corporations. It’s likely the return on their investment came from logging. I have no doubt the health of their forests was extremely important to them. Yet I suspect that had I asked “How do you protect the rights of your forests to live out their ecological role?” they would have waited for the next elevator.

But I was surprised to discover recently that people in the environmental movement had no idea what rights of nature mean. There’s a lot to think about these days, and it’s a small, new movement in a field crowded with urgency. Many people credit Supreme Court William O. Douglas’ 1972 dissent in Sierra Club vs. Morton with inspiring the movement. But there were people ready to run with his idea that “The critical question of ‘standing’ would be simplified…if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers.” He pointed out that other non-human entities — corporations, trusts, ships, for example — have standing in court through guardians.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia has been granted rights.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia. Photo by Yuri Romero Picon. Public domain.

Citing Douglas, law professor Christopher Stone, in his 1972 Should Trees Have Standing, was the first to explore the ramifications of these ideas. Thomas Berry introduced the phrase ‘earth jurisprudence’ and it was of paramount importance in his work. Starting in 1972, the UN issued a series of charters related to the human/earth relationship. Among them were the World Charter for Nature in 1982, the 2000 Earth Charter, and the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. In 2008 Ecuadorans included rights of nature in their new constitution. Thirty thousand people from all over the world were in attendance in Bolivia when the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was passed.

More books and many papers have been written, very active advocacy groups have formed. In the last few years, governments have begun to grant such rights all over the world. The earth-centered beliefs and historically sustainable practices of indigenous peoples are finally returning to the fore as more and more people realize how badly the ravening dream of the west has damaged the world we depend on. The photos accompanying this essay are places that now hold rights.

So what happened to make rights of nature move from a single dissent in a Supreme Court case to a worldwide phenomenon, even if still a relatively quiet one? This is the force of emergence, one of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I’ve been exploring. These are the energies working in and through us that can teach us how to move forward. They are the births in the history of the cosmos, starting with its own. Each one is both active and generative. The universe bursts into being and then creates the conditions for atoms to emerge. Atoms create the building blocks for eventual stars. The stars create the elements and gather into galaxies. It’s radical,” Brian says. “There’s no galaxy, and then there’s a galaxy, and within the galaxies themselves you have the birth of planets, at least one of which becomes alive.” 

Bangladesh has granted all of it rivers standing in court

Bangladesh has granted all of its rivers standing in court. Map via Wikimedia Commons

Carbon is an excellent example, since — especially to us carbon-based life forms —there is no more important molecule. In the beginning there was no carbon, so no chance of life as we know it. The emergence of the universe itself gave us hydrogen and helium, which gave us stars. Then, in the 100 million degrees of the early imploding stars, there was enough heat to fuse helium nuclei into carbon. As the stars collapsed, “suddenly carbon is flooding into the universe by the trillions a second.” For billions of years, carbon powered emergence after emergence, finally allowing us and all the species we share the earth with to come to life. “The universe is always seeking a new domain of emergence.”

Processes as well as forms emerge. The earliest, single-cell life forms became multi-cell eukaryotes. They needed hydrogen. As they took it from water, oxygen was increasingly released into the atmosphere until it became too toxic for life. The process of photosynthesis emerged, allowing cells to use oxygen for fuel. From that emerged the great flowering of life on earth. It’s a long, slow, deeply generative process. “The power of creative emergence involves groping, profound confusion. Millions of years of living with ambiguity. One idea isn’t good enough. You need millions of ideas. See which one finally takes off. That’s the nature of creative emergence.”

As my title suggests, emergence is the process of becoming and we are becoming the power of emergence. Because we have turned into the equivalent of a geological force — capable of altering the atmosphere, changing the chemistry of the oceans, forcing extinctions — we need to think about our role in and as this great power. If we create planetary conditions we can’t survive, we will turn out to be one of the universe’s unworkable ideas. In which case, the creative and generative powers of emergence will eventually sweep past us as the earth proceeds to rescue herself. If she survived 100 million years of meteor bombardment as a young planet, she will survive us.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted personhood rights

The Whanganui River in New Zealand. Photo by Joerg Mueller via Wikimedia Commons.

But that can’t be what the cosmos is seeking. If the wild abundance of life on earth tells us anything, it’s that we live on a planet dedicated to bringing forth life. Ideas can seem unworkable and yet lead to new and flourishing forms. Eukaryotes and photosynthesis didn’t just show up one day. They were the end product of eons of experiments. The same happened with Homo sapiens. We are the survivors of many hominid experiments that didn’t last into our era. Let’s begin, Brian suggests, with the assumption that creativity engulfs the whole universe and each of us. It’s not a question of becoming creative, it’s a question of enabling the creativity that’s already suffusing us to proceed more effectively.”

“And here is the amazing thing. The creativity actually knows what it’s about.” The experiments may be many, but they are not random. Going from the initial expansion of atoms to their coalescence into stars, to the gathering of galaxies and the birth of planets shows an emergent force with a drive toward creative order. That’s not to say the process is orderly. Far from it. “Emergence requires the softening or destruction of the order of the previous era.” Part of our distress in the present moment is the difficulty of living with the chaos that we have precipitated. Now, “our task as a planet and species is to reinvent the major forms of the human presence. It’s an activity that’s involving the entire earth, not something humans are in charge of. We are part of a process that goes back to the beginning of time.” 

This is one of my favorite ideas: that we are energy from the beginning of time. We’re not only a result of these deep creative processes, we embody them and bring them forward. “It’s a single energy that begins 13.7 billion years ago and sweeps through to our moment. It’s complex, but it’s one process. So when we talk about moments of creative emergence in the past, we’re talking about the energy that we are in the present.” Far from feeling adrift on a lonely planet, this makes me feel “rooted in the very fireball, grounded in the ancient yet present energy that brought me into being.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand has been granted rights of personhood.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand. Photo by Kyzrsztof Golik via Wikimedia Commons.

This doesn’t save me from the tension and grief our current state inspires, but it gives me an underlying faith in our own creative process. We are part of the cosmic forces calling for ever more life. As we explore our way out of the quagmire, we find new roles and tasks in the emergence of a healthy human/earth relationship.The great discovery of the 20th century is that the universe assembles itself.” Atom by atom, element by element, cell by cell: the cosmos has been a flow of ceaseless creation. There’s been plenty of havoc. Cataclysm is also one of the great powers. But from the destruction of one form emerges the creation of another. 

In moving from the mayhem we have caused to a new presence on earth, we enter into this ingenious and prolific force. A sustainable economy, different forms of education, more just and equal governance — all of these tasks cry out for our energy, faith, and creativity. From the beginning, the cosmos has continually transcended itself. Our very yearning for and dedication to a better world is part of that push. Learn to cherish this yearning, Brian suggests. Think of it as your personal invitation from the universe to be involved with creative emergence.”

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia has been assigned rights

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia. Photo by Andres Cuervo via Wikimedia Commons.

Top photo is Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. Photo by Yoann Laheurte via Unsplash.

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Songlines 2019: a year of change and commitment

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

I’ve never thought of rain as life-changing, but this year it was. 2019 started with the wettest winter the San Francisco Bay area has known since recording began.  First, that meant I had plenty of indoor time to explore projects that excite me. I fell under the wonderfully radical and optimistic spell of E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project in The geography of hope: saving half the earth. This year included news of the loss of three billion songbirds in North America alone. The idea of preserving half the earth to ensure biodiversity couldn’t be more compelling. There are still vast tracts of wilderness worldwide, so it’s doable, given the will. 

Few of us will be part of negotiating with eight sovereign states for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest or the Congo Basin. For the rest of us, I wrote What we can do: gardening to save half the earth. In the way we design our communities and in every plant we put in the ground, we have the chance to knit together ecosystems that have been displaced.

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada

Saving half the earth depends on what we do with the other half. Which brought me to Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research. My interest was sparked a few years ago when a kingfisher’s eyelid inspired a design to control erosion. There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are geniuses at creating what they need out of materials at hand, at ambient temperature, without permanent waste. What if we modeled our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests? Or powered our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts? Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities.

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada

Early in the year, I pondered another of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe, and what it can teach us about living into the world we yearn for. Little did I know when I was celebrating The patient genius of transmutation, the universe’s power of flux and evolution, that I was right on target. While transmutation’s ever-adapting diversity was assuring me that we live on a planet dedicated to life’s success, the rain was making her life-altering moves.

Her methods were simple. She caused leaks in the ten-year-old trailer I’d lived in for so many great adventures. I had one fixed, then another. Redid the roof caulking. Then, in early March, I was sitting on the floor, trying to find the origins of a small damp patch on the rug. I suddenly realized I’d come to the end. I loved my compact little space, treasured beyond measure all the wonderful places I’d lived, however temporarily. But it was time.

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

I thought it would take months to find the right apartment. It took three weeks. Then the tornado began. In the midst of it, I wrote An Easter of memory and anticipation. I was glad to be moving and sad to be at an end. I so loved going anywhere I chose to explore the planet I love. Carrying my home with me meant moving to each place and inhabiting it, something I cherished. 

I could tell from the responses I got after that post that the poignancy of ending that adventure-filled chapter was very vivid. So I’m delighted to be able to say that I love my new apartment, nestled into a mountain, with trees everywhere I look. In the summer I sat on my flower-filled balcony with my resident hummingbird and wrote The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty. Allurement is another of Brian’s powers of the universe. Beauty is one of its most mysterious and gorgeous aspects. 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada

July took me on the only trip of the year — to the Sierra Nevada, mountains forming the eastern boundary of California — to see wildflowers. Since it was my first time there, I thought John Muir wouldn’t mind my poaching the title of his wonderful book. So I put together My first summer in the Sierra, pairing my photos with quotes from his book, as well as creating a gallery. All the photos accompanying this are, to quote Muir, from those “vast, calm, measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems equally divine.” 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada

In September I began a program with the Environmental Forum of Marin. It’s their master class, and our group is number 46. The Forum and class were started all those years ago by people who were instrumental in saving Marin County from overdevelopment. Eighty percent of the county is preserved land of one kind or another, much of it active agricultural land. The entire county coastline was saved. So, the EFM was born of powerhouses. Their goal is to create more powerhouse advocates. 

On ten days spread out over four months, we learned about the geography, ecology, and history of the county. We spent a day hearing from local government officials, and a day on other organizations in the county. Two full days were devoted to the craft of creating advocacy speeches, followed by presenting our two-minute versions. It was great: full of fascinating information and people. As always, it’s inspiring to see how much people are doing, what draws them, how much we all have in common.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada

What’s drawing me more and more these days is advocacy for rights of nature. I first wrote about such rights in 2018. I returned to them earlier this month in When Rivers go to court, where I had the glorious fun of imagining a river actually showing up before a judge. For my final project for the master class, I’m going to design a session to teach the issues around the rights of nature to future classes. For my advocacy speech, I decided my fellow classmates were the Board of Supervisors of Marin County. Here are my two minutes:

The Environmental Forum and all of my classmates are perfect examples of the forces I wrote about in my Halloween post, Wild times, spooky beauty. In a time when the news is a heartbreak a headline, people all over the world are rising to meet the moment. They are choosing to love, to create, to change, to commit. We are allowing the earth that formed us to rise in us, to heal our planet and the interconnected web that she supports. In the face of the daily onslaught of challenges, I often repeat Joanna Macy’s wonderful words: I’m so grateful to be alive when the earth needs me.

I wish you all a joyful, blessed, committed new year.

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada

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When rivers go to court

The Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo by Betsey Crawford Imagine a river taking her case to court. Arriving in her smooth, flowing robes, reflecting the blue of the sky, a shimmering train brushing the floor as she walks. Everywhere light is glinting, from her silver hair to her silver shoes. Her skin is sometimes the color of the mirrored moon, sometimes the color of the mahogany tannins she carries from the forests she flows through. She speaks in a deep, contralto voice. Her tone holds great authority. She knows her depths, knows the source of her power and energy, knows she is fed from innumerable streams, from the sky itself. No one, listening to her, would doubt her word for an instant. It would be impossible to ignore what she says. And we all know exactly what she would say. 

Stop! she would call out, her voice shaking the room. Stop the poisons. Undo the dams. Protect the lands that feed me. Don’t use me for greed. I am not here to absorb your waste or your delusions. I am not here for you. I have been here for billions of years. I have cut deep canyons through sheer rock. I have carried rain from one end of the world to another. In me flow innumerable sacred fish. Birds nest on my banks. Plants grow in my shallows. None of this was put here for you. I am here because I am here, part of the living, breathing earth that formed me. I exist because the universe called me into being.

Behind her are the deep voices of her brothers, the mountains, testifying that they are not here to be blown up for profit. Then come the trees, aghast at our wholesale disposal of their forests and savannahs. Flowers come from meadows all over the world, declaring, in their silken tones, that they cannot grow through asphalt. The piping voices of birds tell the judge what it’s like to see three billion of their relatives die in the last fifty years. The deep, mournful voices of whales and elephants, the soft buzz of bees, the whisper of butterflies wholeheartedly agree. The snarling, angry roars of the great cats describe losing their homes as the wild, ancient forests are felled.

If only! We would never be the same again. If even just once the rivers and trees and jaguars could talk to us in a language we all understood, we would be unable to go forward one more day as we have been. But it’s not to be, at least at this stage of evolution. However, there are people who do understand their languages, and they can show up in court on nature’s behalf. The difficulty, in our current legal system, is that these guardians can only sue after demonstrable, often extensive damage has been done to a person or people. 

The Hudson River in New York, US. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The Hudson River

At that point the ongoing destruction may stop, but the existing harm is not necessarily mitigated. If fracking destroys a town’s water supply, stopping the fracking will not restore the water. If an oil pipeline leaks 400,000 gallons of oil, plugging the leak doesn’t pull the spilled oil out of the ground. I grew up on the Hudson River. In 1977, General Electric, after decades of dumping 1.3 million pounds of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls into the water, was forced to stop the discharge. It took another 30 years for a clean up to even begin. Now, 40 years later, it still goes on. Every person, animal, and plant, from north of Albany to New York Harbor, has PCBs in them.

What if the Hudson River had had rights on its own to go to court? To speak through a guardian, to refuse to have poisons dumped in its waters, refuse to have its ecosystem polluted? Those rights have been granted to the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River. In March 2017, the high court in the Indian state of Uttarakhand ruled that from that day forward both rivers would be “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” In other words, they will be treated as persons in the eyes of the law. Harm to the rivers would be the same as harm to a human being. 

Rights of nature: The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory

The judges in that case cited the Whanganui River in New Zealand. It had just been declared not only a living entity but kin to the Whanganui iwi, the indigenous Maori people of the area. They had fought for 140 years to gain this status for a river they consider to be their ancestor. Legally, harm to the river is now the same as harm to the Maori themselves. This was the first river in the world to gain personhood in the eyes of the law. But New Zealand had already granted such rights to the Te Urewera forest in 2014. In 2017, along with the Whanganui River, the same rights were established for Mount Taranaki. 

2017 was a banner year for rights of nature. In addition to the Ganges and the Whanganui, Columbia announced biocultural rights for the Atrato River. The Constitutional Court agreed that the best way to protect the rights of indigenous communities is to preserve biodiversity and restore ecosystems. Australia passed the Yarra River Protection Act. Like similar legislation, protecting the Yarra River meant acknowledging indigenous rights and relationships to land that has always been part of their lives and history. Speaking to the parliament, Wurundjeri elder Alice Kolasa said: “The state now recognises something that we, as the First People have always known, that the Birrarung is one integrated living entity.” The act was written in both the English and Woi-wurrun languages. In August 2017, Australian experts on environmental law recommended shifting the focus of law to a rights of nature approach.

Rights of nature: The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

In the US, rights of personhood were established for the Klamath River in Northern California and southern Oregon. The law was created by an indigenous nation, the Yurok, and reflects their view of the river as not a resource, but a living entity holding rights. This may be easier to do in tribal governing bodies and courts. Rights of nature easily fit, and indeed arise from, the indigenous view of nature as a web of intimate relationships into which we are all embedded. “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,” said Gerrard Albert, who was the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi.

Significantly, many of these early rights of nature pioneers are considered sacred by the communities that have lived in and alongside them for millennia. Though I can find no mention of it, Lake Erie, vast and teeming with fish, was undoubtedly considered sacred by the various indigenous nations that lived on it shores and saw its existence as sustenance for body and spirit. The arrival of Europeans began centuries of industry and farming, the filling in of wetlands, the building of ports and docks. Now pollution, agricultural runoff, and a warming atmosphere have combined to produce algae blooms so vast they can be seen from space. And so toxic that the water becomes undrinkable, the fish no longer safe to eat. 

Rights of nature: Lake Erie's algae bloom. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

Lake Erie’s algae bloom. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Citizens of Toledo put a Lake Erie rights of personhood on the ballot. It declared that it  “has become necessary that [we] reclaim, reaffirm, and assert our inherent and inalienable rights, and to extend legal rights to our natural environment in order to ensure that the natural world, along with our values, our interests, and our rights, are no longer subordinated to the accumulation of surplus wealth and unaccountable political power.” It passed by 61%. The Ohio state legislature, in a move reminiscent of the bans on boycotts during the Civil Rights movement, then voted to ban all such laws. Their law was written by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. 

Following the ban, another community promptly began to gather signatures to put protection of their aquifer on the ballot. That’s the spirit that needs to greet all setbacks. There have been a few of those, but the very first community-passed rights of nature ordinance in the world is still going. In the early 2000s, a small borough in Pennsylvania wanted to prevent the state from giving permits to dump toxic sludge in their town. They reached out to a relatively new organization for help: the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. I’m planning to devote a future post to CELDF and I would not be writing this essay if it weren’t for their work. They have been involved in most of the rights of nature movements around the world, including the Ganges and Lake Erie.

Rights of nature: Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

The Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

Giving these waters standing in court is only the beginning of solving their problems. Every day, 400 million gallons of raw sewage and 132 million gallons of industrial toxins are discharged into the Ganges. The ruling that gives the Ganges and Yamuna rights came from a state, not the national government. Between poverty and civil war, the illegal mining devastating Columbia’s Atrato River is difficult to stop. There is a plank guaranteeing a clean environment in the Pennsylvania constitution. But the state’s Department of Environmental Protection sues local communities to force them to allow fracking. In 2008, Ecuador included rights of nature in its new constitution. The government still parcels out the rainforest to oil and mining companies. Many of the advances in rights have not yet been tested in court. Even when they are, enforcement can fall on ill-equipped local communities. Complexities are everywhere. 

Nevertheless, it’s an amazing start. The Ganges itself can now sue to stop pollution. It’s happening all over the world: Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Nepal, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uganda, Sweden, Cameroon, Mexico, the United States. The Florida Democratic Party has included rights of nature in its platform. Pope Francis preaches environmental rights.  This year the National Lawyers Guild in the US amended its constitution. They included the revolutionary statement: “Human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests.” Despite setbacks, there have been wins in court. Every step is worth celebrating. All different ways of thinking are resisted until they’re not. This year, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to grant all their rivers personhood rights.

Rights of nature: An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

Gerrard Albert, the Maori leader quoted above, went on to say “rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.” That idea changes everything. Would we dump raw sewage or toxic chemicals into a human being? Would we harvest all the valuable organs from a living being? Would we bury it alive? Would we injure a living being and walk away from their gaping wounds?

These are things we do. Blast mountains. Bury wetlands. Throw all manner of toxins into waterways. Clearcut forests. We do them in the name of efficiency and profit. Because we believe these entities are inert, unimportant except as they provide resources for us. Now, slowly but increasingly, they can go to court on their own behalf. As one of the Australian legislators said of the Whanganui, “The river itself has the right not to be polluted, it has the right not to be degraded. It has the right not to be overdrawn before it can replenish itself.” These are such simple, basic ideas. But they hold the power to change how we look at and operate in the world. And, once we see ourselves as guardians instead of users, how we look at ourselves.

Rights of nature: Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Wild times, spooky beauty: happy halloween

Perfect for Halloween: black, curling fading flower by Betsey CrawfordAt the end of the day, it’s because there are people who are deeply committed and are fearless. And are not going to be stopped. That’s how history happens.
~ Ted Howard ~

It was seeing the black curving lines of the fading flower above that made me think occasional Halloween posts might be fun. And they are. I explored white flowers for Ghosts in the Landscape, and orange ones for Slightly Ominous, Very Orange. This year I’ve chosen flowers that have a spooky aura about them. It might be from their spikiness, their weird emergence from the earth, or their lovely, dying curves. But these are wild and difficult times, with plenty of real-life ghouls trying to take charge of our destiny. Wishing someone a happy anything can feel like a hopeless cause.

I can get as obsessed with politics as anyone. But in these essays, I prefer to focus on what the earth we emerged from has to tell us about our lives. Especially about how we might live for the sustainable prosperity of all. After the 2016 election, I wrote Sowing Seeds into the Whirlwind. There I turned to what I took comfort from — the millions of people worldwide who are working to make the world a better, fairer, saner, greener place. The blessed unrest that Paul Hawken describes in his book of that name. They are still there, and there are even more of them now, more energized than ever. 

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri

As a Sierra Club newsletter so well put it: “When it comes to dealing with [the environment] there are few obstacles to progress as great as the hot mess of greed, denial, and incompetence that is the current U.S. federal government.” Yet that was in an article about reasons for hope. Partly because the Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice and the National Resources Defense Council, has spent the last three years taking the Trump administration to court on a continuous basis. And have won almost all of the challenges that have been decided so far. 

Small and nimble, the newer Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has expanded its work in helping communities resist corporate takeovers of land and resources. This year their lawyers helped Toledo residents get personhood rights for Lake Erie. It’s “the first rights-based law in the United States that specifically acknowledges the rights of a distinct ecosystem, securing the Lake’s rights to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” Of course, the Ohio legislature immediately voted to outlaw such laws. But, as the organizers said, they are not going anywhere.

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado

Post-industrial northern Ohio is also the home of the only Ph.D. program in biomimicry, design based on nature’s 3.5 billion years of research and development. People involved are hoping to turn their corner of the rust belt into the Silicon Valley of biomimicry. Cleveland, Ohio is pioneering a local and cooperative economy in a collaboration that is now called the Cleveland Model. The quote that leads this essay is from Ted Howard, the model’s founder/collaborator. He was asked why certain communities were leading the way in creating their own versions: vision, courage, commitment.

On one day in early October, California’s Governor Newsom signed six bills designed to move California beyond fossil fuels. Twenty-five states have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, formed to keep the United States moving toward the Paris Climate Agreement goals even though the Trump administration has abandoned them. Here is a list of recent actions by, among others, New York, Michigan, Virginia, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.   

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

In July, Ethiopians took off from work and school and planted 350 million seedlings in one day, part of Ethiopia’s plan to plant four billion tree seedlings this year. Recognizing that reforestation is crucial in climate mitigation, the U.N. launched The Trillion Tree campaign in 2006. Over 15 billion trees have been planted, with China, India, and Ethiopia leading the way. The U.S. is number ten. Want to plant trees simply by surfing the web? There’s an app for that: Ecosia devotes 80% of its profits to planting trees.

Greta Thunberg sat alone in front of the Swedish Parliament one year ago, inspiring a steadily growing movement. In September she marched along with 4 million people across the globe who took up her call to change how we operate in the world. She’s in the good company of a fast-growing number of young climate activists, many from indigenous nations. Like Greta, they are courageously persisting despite endless, cruel, and threatening online and public harassment.

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

In Project Drawdown’s 100 solutions to reversing global warming, educating and empowering girls and women are numbers 6, 7, and 62. Women, who grow 80% of the food eaten in poorer parts of the world, are on the front lines of climate disruption. They suffer disproportionately from issues like loss of water and soil, gender violence, toxic environments, and land rights. In a field that too often gravitates to vaunted technical solutions, women bring practical, day-to-day needs, skills, and experience.

Collaborative efforts like the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network are mobilizing women and resources worldwide. WECAN’s riveting agenda is a perfect explication of how addressing climate change involves engaging the full array of challenges humanity faces. These include land use, distribution, and rights; corporate control of government; the need for sustainable, living economies; biodiversity loss; food security.

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado

Older, more traditional groups are focusing their activism on empowering young women. The venerable aid organization CARE’s top priority is educating girls. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has put the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals at the center of its mission, along with fostering girls’ leadership abilities. They even have an app for finding events to join, including group actions and demonstrations.

I could go on and on. There are so many people doing good things, and every one of them is a reason to feel hope. Desmond Tutu famously said that he is “not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope.” The Old Testament prophet Zecharia, whom he was quoting, promised double blessings to the prisoners of hope. 

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

As I write this the entire county of Marin has no power. The incredibly inept Pacific Gas and Electric Company has taken this precaution because they were paying their shareholders and their executives’ bonuses instead of investing in infrastructure. Wildfires are raging north, east, and south of me, a result of super dry, windy weather patterns caused by global warming. The news is a heartbreak a headline. And yet here I sit, a prisoner of hope. I don’t know if we will have the imagination and will to overcome the challenges we’ve created in my lifetime. But I know that whenever we do overcome them, it will be because we have expanded our vision of what the human presence on this planet means. And our vision of who the stakeholders really are. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Once women and people of color are at the table, they will not go back. Once indigenous nations are at the table, they will not go back. When farmers have rights to their land and their seeds, they will not lightly cede them to agribusiness. As soon as the first state, the first country leaves fossil fuels and all their damage behind, the dominoes will fall. One river with rights means there will be other rivers with rights, as indeed there are. Educated girls will become empowered women. If you listen carefully in California during this “public safety power shut off,” I bet you’ll hear the word microgrid everywhere you go. Smaller, local, renewable, sustainable energy production. The old paradigms can’t meet the moment their structures have created.

Will it happen in time? We don’t know. We don’t even know what time is. Our scale is so different, our story so small. The planet herself is taking over. Not to protect herself from us, but because she is us. This is where I draw both hope and optimism — in the millions of people who are hearing her call. Who are allowing her energy to become theirs. “Our origins,” Rachel Carson wrote, “are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” Deep down we know. We have been blind and we have been oh, so slow. But we can feel the earth that formed us now rising in us. 

So, I do wish you a happy Halloween, with love, hope, and spooky beauty.

I've been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf emerging into the light. Photo by Betsey Crawford

I’ve been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf reaching into the light!

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The most powerful family on earth

Prairie grass in the Konza Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey CrawfordUntil man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. 
~Thomas Edison~ 

Such a tiny word — poa, Greek for grass — to encompass one of the great life forces on earth. The Poaceae are the fifth most species-rich plant family with over 11,000 plants. They populate a quarter of the planet’s land and half the United States. Along with forests, they are among the most important stabilizers of both soil and climate. One of the most adaptive plant families, they live on every continent. They’re the top source of nutrition worldwide.  They’re the basis of human civilization. Every one of us is alive thanks to grass. 

We may even have evolved into humans because of grass. There are grass pollen fossils dating from 70 million years ago, but it wasn’t until 5 to 8 million years ago that the vast grasslands we inherit formed. It was a period of cooler, drier climate and water-thirsty forests began to diminish, opening space for the adaptable grasses. The open landscape helped foster bipedalism among primates, which ultimately helped stimulate the development of our large brains.

Anatomy of grass artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society

Artwork by Kristin Jakob for the California Native Plant Society. Thanks to both for permission to use this lovely piece.

Our hunter-gatherer forebears would have eaten the seeds of grasses along with other seeds, fruits, and tubers. Twelve thousand years ago, they began to plant them. Though we can’t know what seeds the first farmers started with, we do know that all the early civilizations grew with grass. Wheat, barley, and rye in the Mideast. Rice, millet, sorghum  in China. Corn in Mesoamerica. Rice and sugarcane in India and Southeast Asia. Sorghum, millet, and tef in Africa. Over the millennia grasses have fed humans and the animals we depend on. They have built, roofed, fenced, heated, and furnished our houses. Cleaned our air and waters. Formed our soil. Made baskets, boats, and paper. They have cured diseases and powered our cars. 

All this inspires the anthropocentric idea that humans have harnessed grasses to meet their needs and desires. But I like the counter take of some botanists: it’s grass that has bent the human. What better way to ensure your survival than to hook this clever species with the handy thumb and ability to plan for the future? Provide enough nutrients to maneuver them into planting you everywhere they can, every single year for 12 thousand years. Induce their browsing animals to open up more land for you to grow, all the while fertilizing your roots. Convince them to plant 40 million acres of you around their houses. And then spend hours every week lovingly feeding and watering you while fending off pests. That’s power! I toyed with calling this essay ‘Our overlords.’

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

Worldwide distribution of grasslands. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.

But that has negative connotations, and grass is a miracle. You don’t cover a quarter of a very varied planet without being a highly adaptable genius. In the US we are most familiar with the prairie ecosystem that extends through the midwest from the Gulf of Mexico north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. South America has similar systems in the pampas and llanos. Trees and grass combine to form the savannas of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Cerrado in South America. The vast expanse of the Eurasian steppes extends from Eastern Europe well into China. 

In the eons before they formed these priceless expanses, grasses evolved several traits that would secure their eventual success. They are wind-pollinated, tossing their pollen to the air. The wind spreads it far and wide, creating a lot of opportunity for pollination over a large area. They form deep roots, up to five times the height of the plant. This vast ecosystem supplies their needs for water, nutrients, and stabilization. And not just for themselves, but for the soil they, and the rest of us, depend on. 

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute.

The roots of prairie plants, grasses as well as flowers. Note the meager extent of lawn grass roots on the far left. Artwork from the Conservation Research Institute

Crucially, they developed a key variant in the photosynthetic pathway. C4 photosynthesis allows for more efficient use of sunlight and water in the creation of carbohydrates. This process allows grasses to use less water, grow in nutrient-poor soils, and allocate more of their biomass to roots. C4 plants are very efficient at pulling in carbon dioxide and sequestering it in their miles of roots. This gives grassland preservation a pivotal role in climate stabilization.

They are also imperative for preserving biodiversity. Grasslands are not only grass. They form a matrix for many other plants that grow with them. The Missouri Prairie Foundation reported that in one of its restored prairies a record of 46 separate native plant species was found in a 20 by 20 inch plot. They provide food and habitat for countless birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, microbes, fungi, and other beings that are part of the web of life on earth. They have co-evolved with some of the most majestic life forms on the planet: buffalo, gazelle, zebra, giraffe, elephant. 

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Fort Collins Colorado

Grasses both depend on these and domestic grazers to keep land open for them and also have ways to protect themselves from overgrazing. Various toxic phenols and alkaloids, including cyanide, increase as grazing pressure rises. Phytoliths, minute shards of silica, wear grazer teeth down. On the other hand, grasses need grazers, and so keep their budding crowns just under the soil so that they aren’t damaged by nibbling muzzles. As the grazers clean off the upper stalks, new shoots have ample air and light to grow. In the meantime, grazers deposit fertilizer and move on, allowing grasses time to recover.

Some of the most diverse places on the planet are in grasslands. But our tendency has been to treat them as wasted space waiting for us to make them productive. Thus 99% of the American prairie has been plowed, planted, developed. The South American Cerrado is headed in the same direction. Using large, open areas for agriculture certainly makes sense. But the current state of monoculture farming — growing single species annuals with shallow roots, using yearly tilling and high nitrogen fertilizers along with artificial pesticides and herbicides — means that standard agriculture ruins the most important gifts of grasslands. Soil erosion is high, biodiversity and carbon sequestration are low to nonexistent.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the filament are ready to receive pollen. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

This vine mesquite (Hopi obtusa) on a Missouri roadside dangles its vivid anthers, ready to send their pollen to the wind. The feathery stigma at the other end of the white filaments are ready to receive pollen.

I love the subtle beauty of grasses with their feathery flowers and am deeply moved by grasslands. I’m not sure where this came from, since I grew up in suburban New York. But one of the most moving experiences of my life was standing in a grassland in South Dakota. I was driving back roads north along the Missouri River, and a stretch took me into the short grass prairie of that dry area. I was up to my knees in sun-filled grasses, flowing like golden water with the wind. It was so hot the air itself was an intense presence. Despite the wind, there was utter quiet. Everything else fell away to nothingness. At that moment, swept into the warm, moving air, I was grass.

As we all are. We share up to half of our genes with grass, a legacy from common ancestors. Sixty percent of human caloric consumption worldwide is grass-based. We are literally grass. We are formed by them and we are inextricably bound into a miraculous matrix of interdependence. To see this clearly is to plant ourselves into the very roots of life. It means we live on earth not as user but as participant, surrounded by equally important partners. We can then hear their message. The skill grass chose us for — our ability to plan for the future — is being called forth to help all of us prosper on our mutual planet.

Pawnee National Grasslands in Fort Collins, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

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The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty

Beauty: David Austin roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordThose who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. 
~ Rachel Carson ~

September 1 starts the annual Season of Creation, and to celebrate I’m pondering one of nature’s most intriguing mysteries: why is so much so beautiful? Why all those luscious colors, gossamer wings, silken petals? Why rainbow-decked waterfalls cascading into deep, curving rivers disappearing into the folds of magnificent mountains? Cool forests of feathery ferns at the base of towering trees, full of the elation of bird song? Why rustling waves of grasslands, filled with flowers, chirping crickets, soaring meadowlarks? Deserts lit with luminous cactus flowers, the call of ravens, the song of coyotes? Why clouds on fire with the setting sun? 

The easy answer is that we evolved the senses and the consciousness to find all this beautiful. And so we did. But why? We could have evolved to find a much duller world satisfactory. Bees and hummingbirds could have evolved to pollinate a planet full of white flowers. Butterflies and birds don’t need their luminous jewel tones to fly or find food. Peacocks and prairie chickens could have figured out calmer ways to attract a mate. It’s the sheer extravagance of it all that makes it so mysterious. 

Beauty and allurement: Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Beauty is an aspect of the universal power that cosmologist Brian Swimme calls allurement. It was one of the early powers to show up, as the great attracting energy of gravity swirled the universe’s new-born atoms together to form the first stars. Then the stars themselves felt the pull to one another as they formed the gravitational fields we know as galaxies. Between the stars, matter gathered into planets, then into moons around the planets. All, in turn, both being drawn and entering, Brian says, ‘into their destiny as a source of allurement.’

Allurement not only creates, but creates a mode that continues to create. Within the forms relationships develop, intimacy leads to more creativity. The earth’s long relationship with the sun eventually gave rise to life. Plants emerged. ‘Then this amazing moment comes when living beings figure out how to create the chlorophyll molecule….in resonance with the sun’s light.’ By creating this strikingly complex and beautiful molecule, plants bound themselves, and the entire earth, into an ever more intimate relationship with the sun.
 
Beauty and allurement: Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas

This cycle of attraction — form — creativity — intimacy has given us an earth of inexpressible beauty. Imagine walking through a field of wildflowers. Or peering through a microscope at the structure of a seashell. Or discovering the intricate mathematical language that governs the universe. Our whole being responds to the power of beauty in such moments. Our hearts expand. Our energy rises. We feel alive, connected, excited. We are transported, from the Latin for ‘carried across.’ Lifted over a threshold into a realm beyond the concerns, demands, confusions of daily life.

 I have written before about psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that evolution favored awe. In the face of the many challenges of existence, awe gives us reasons to love life. To him, evolution wanted us to be here long enough to reproduce, and that is certainly high on nature’s agenda. But beauty preceded us by eons. I prefer Carl Sagan’s and Thomas Berry’s idea that the cosmos wanted a way to ponder all the beauty it had created, and so evolved us.
 
Beauty and allurement: Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

It may well be having second thoughts. As I write this, the Amazon rainforest is burning so that we can grow soybeans to feed pigs. Or clear space for ranchers to provide beef for fast-food hamburgers. It’s being opened to drill for oil to fuel our insatiable appetites for every conceivable consumer item. How, surrounded by so much beauty and sublimity, have we managed a history of so much cruelty, neglect, and obliviousness? That is another mystery. Our souls long for the beauty they have evolved to know so intimately. And yet our minds, our actions are so easily turned to the ugly. We trash our living spaces and fail to nourish and protect our children. We go to war over land and resources. We cage families fleeing danger our policies created. We burn the lungs of our planet.

In the face of this devastation, is there space for contemplating beauty? The power of allurement says yes, we must. This power draws us out of ourselves, brings us to life, again and again. It strengthens us to carry the weight of disappointment, grief, rage and move toward regeneration. This isn’t beauty as a surface attractant. The ultimate beauty of flowers doesn’t lie in how pretty they are. That, of course, is a lovely thing to contemplate. But they lived for 160 million years before we arrived to take delight in them.
 
Beauty and allurement: Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasii) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Their great power lies in what the universe wanted of them, not in what we want. These are cosmic beings, forged out of chaos, molecule by molecule. The soul of the earth emerging from the soil at our feet. Formed for relationships and adept at creating them. With that soil. With the air they breathe and the sunlight they turn to nutrition. With the creatures, including us, that they form intimate, mutually beneficial relationships with.

Allurement is all about relationships. This deeper beauty draws our depths to itself, into bonds of intimacy and love. We are devastated by the news because profound relationships are being severed, day after day. ‘The industrial society has moved to break allurement apart, most profoundly to break the natural allurement people have for the rest of the universe. The field of allurement we are born into is fractured’  by the view of the natural world, including humans, as strictly a resource for plundering. 

Beauty and allurement: the 2019 superbloom in the Carrizzo Plain, California by Betsey Crawford

Speaking of extravagance: the 2019 super bloom in the Carrizo Plain, California

Because I spend a fair amount of time thinking about things that have been happening for epochs, part of me is able to take the long view. For millions of its early years, all that happened to our fiery, volcanic earth was a continual meteor bombardment. Out of that disorder, the delicate petals of the flowers pictured here eventually arose. All the beauty we know has arisen from the journey of disorder to order, a journey often interrupted by fresh outbreaks of chaos. The last two hundred years of industrial mindset isn’t even a blip on this time scale. But it is cataclysmic, and our hearts ache continually with the suffering we see.

I am exploring Brian’s powers of the universe to see what our oldest teacher tells us about creating a just and sustainable planet. Allurement’s profound lesson lies in the deep creative energy it launches. As we move toward what we are attracted to, we are changed. The relationships formed — with a person, a mountain, a river, a cause — attract further changes. ‘This is how the universe works. We’re captivated, and we pursue, and then we are awakened in the pursuit, and we end up captivating others’. The intensity of the relationship deepens as ‘the actual form of who we are is shaped by that which draws us.’

‘The same power of allurement that drew the stars together is working in us.’ Fully realizing this idea has the power to release the defensive crouch our current affairs can drive us to. We don’t need to create allurement, we already embody it. ‘It’s happening throughout the universe, wanting to burst forth into conscious self-awareness.’ Our task is to allow it, to remove whatever is in the way. To free ourselves from the illusions of consumerism, mindless growth, separation. In that release lies creative and generative ideas along with the energy to undertake the tasks we need. There lies intimacy with and love for all our fellow beings and entities. The world we long for is pulling us toward itself.

 
Beauty and allurement: Grass widow (Olysinium douglasii) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Grass widow (Olysinium douglasii) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

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