With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

Psst. The Personal is Planetary. Pass it On.

We are living through a transition in awareness that might be described as the shift between the recognition that “the personal is political” to the recognition that now, “the personal is planetary.”

It’s not enough, anymore, to think about the ways we live our politics in our daily lives.  We urgently need to become aware of how our lives are expressions of our relationship to our planet.

If the personal is planetary, then who we are is deeply indicative of the state of our planet.

Today, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, almost completely divorced from the natural world.  Most of us have little sense of our relationship to the living planet, since most of our time is spent in artificial, asphalted environments.

Many of us are sick from diseases that are themselves symptoms of our alienation from the planet, our penchant for industrial growth at any price, and our general physical and mental malaise.  The very technologies that we most admire and rely on are the ones that are making us, and our planet, sick.

Despite our technological sophistication, we have serious problems with the most basic mammalian function of providing ourselves with food on a steady, reliable basis.  The imbalance is evident in the fact that billions of human beings on the planet are perpetually hungry; others are malnourished from an over-reliance on empty-calorie sugary processed foods; and still others starve themselves to comply with unrealistic body image expectations, or have so much food that they can afford to casually throw it away.

We are a species that claims to admire empathy and compassion, but actually spends an inordinate amount of time gazing at our own reflection in our ever-more-complex forms of representation, from writing to film, without even realizing how very ego-, ethno- and species-centric our behavior is.  We claim to value love, but for most of us love is too often confused with lust, or so interlaced traditions, habits and obligations that the reality is a poor shadow of our professed ideal.

If the personal is planetary, then it should be no surprise that our planet is suffering so terribly.  We humans are suffering too, and along with us all the animals and plants in our biosphere.

Where will it all end?  Will we be able to get out in front of the tsunami of disastrous climate change, environmental poisoning and destruction of oceans, forests and fresh water in time to restabilize our planet and ourselves?

I worry when I see influential publications like The New York Times giving prominence to think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute, a so-called environmental organization that is working hard to convince us that we can become total cyborgs living happily in a high-tech, managed, artificial environment.

Such a vision of the personal as planetary imagines our planet as a giant park, complete with zoos and aquariums, manicured gardens and “rambles” left artificially “wild.”

What it fails to give any credence to is the possibility that we, and our planet, might have—dare I say it?—a soul.

Machines do not have souls.  But our beautiful planet, with her myriad forms of life, of which we humans are just one more emanation—she is more than just the mechanistic sum of her parts.

sunset on crescent

When we understand the personal as planetary, we see that to go down the road of total technological dominance of human beings and our environment would be to cut ourselves off from what is most beautiful and unique about ourselves as a species: our conscious awareness of the possibility of connecting with and cultivating the divine—that is, extra-human—energy that animates our entire  biosphere, giving us the spark of life that we recognize as the dynamic beauty and power so ever-present in the natural world and potentially in ourselves as well.

To heal the planet, we must first heal ourselves, beginning with our self-imposed split from the natural world and our repudiation of the simple values that human societies have always claimed to revere.  “Do unto others” and “love thy neighbor” take on new meaning when we realize the personal as planetary. The forests are our neighbors. The whales are our neighbors. Even the humble soil bacteria are our neighbors who must be respected for life to flourish in the balance that will benefit us all.

The personal is planetary.  A mantra for the 21st century.  Pass it on.

A true agricultural revolution has NOTHING to do with genetic engineering!

When I hear the term “genetic engineering” I cringe.

Could anything good come out of tweaking the DNA of plants and animals, and maybe someday humans too?

Is it safe—is it wise—for humans to play with evolutionary fire?

A recent New York Times  op-ed by a professor of agricultural economics and a physician from the Hoover Foundation warns that humans would be fools not to try to engineer wheat and other crops in order to tailor them to our rapidly changing environment.

Given that drought is going to be more common in the future, as aquifers are depleted and erratic weather patterns take hold, why not tweak the DNA of wheat and other crops essential for human survival, so that they are more likely to withstand the harsh conditions that will become the new normal?

I don’t want to be a knee-jerk Luddite, but really now—can we be sure that it will be safe to alter the genes of a plant that took thousands, if not millions of years to reach its present incarnation?

I actually think it might be possible to do genetic engineering of food crops in a safe and sustainable way.  But as long as Monsanto remains in control of agricultural genetic engineering, I cannot be trusting.  The track record of that company is just too abysmal.

According to the NYT op-ed, “Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat,” which “will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides.”

Is there such a thing as an environmentally benign herbicide?

Monsanto, along with its henchmen in government, academia and think tanks, is still stuck in the old 20th century idea of unlimited growth.

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In that mind-set, we have to grow as much wheat as we possibly can to feed our burgeoning population.  No matter how many birds, butterflies or bats have to die under the plow of “progress.”  No matter if natural biodiversity is chemically poisoned to make way for the mono-crop.

No.

What if Monsanto had its way and all the wheat planted was drought-resistant.  And what if that year it never stopped raining?  Where would we be then?

We are fortunate to have seed-saving champions like Vandana Shiva who are working hard to make sure that our human heritage of genetically diverse, tried-and-true seeds are not totally lost in the rapacious maw of Monsanto.

What we need is a true agricultural revolution that has nothing to do with genetic engineering and everything to do with returning to local, regional food production.

To withstand the crazy weather that lies in our future we need more biodiversity, not techno-modified mono-cropping.

Or if we’re going to tweak those genes, just because we can, let’s do it in ways that tailor crops to small regional environments, and forget about the herbicides!

Right?

Resisting the Vampires

This morning in class we were talking about the third essay in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, in which one of the dominant metaphors is that of sickness and health.

Nietzsche argues that an “ascetic priest”, who tends the masses through religion, science, politics or any kind of dogmatism, acts as physician to the sufferer, but “he first has to wound; when he then stills the pain of the wound he at the same time infects the wound–for that is what he knows to do best of all, this sorcerer and animal-tamer, in whose presence everything healthy necessarily grows sick, and everything sick tame” (Kaufman, 1989, 126).

In other words, those who try to manipulate the masses (or the herd, in Nietzsche’s terminology), do so by wounding, and then claiming to have the cure–but the cure perpetuates the wound.

As with so much of Nietzsche, this seems remarkably prescient to me.  Take cancer, for example.  I have received many requests from people who are “walking for the cure” or “running for the cure.”  I never support these efforts, because I don’t believe we should be looking to cure to cancer through technological research.  The cure for most cancers lies upstream, as Sandra Steingraber pointed out more than a decade ago in her book Living Downstream.  In other words, we should be looking for ways to prevent cancer, not to cure it.

Preventing cancer doesn’t require a sorcerer or a physician.  It requires resisting the agro-industrial complex, which has saturated our food supply with synthetic chemicals.

The makers of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and GMO seeds, all of which make us sick, are in cahoots with the medical industrial complex that now seeks our help in funding “the cure.”  Not to mention the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies, which have also been making out like bandits on the sickness of the masses.

Nietzsche wasn’t necessarily talking about literal sickness, but his model can be applied to our contemporary situation, in which social leaders, be they in advertising or the food industry, first lead us into sickness, and then claim (through pharmaceuticals and technology) to have the cure–but the cure is only a further sickness (radiation or chemotherapy, anyone?) that continues to make us dependent on the master, the physician/scientist, for life itself.

There is a way out of this.  Call it biodynamic farming, or permaculture, or localized organic farming, or what have you…the idea is to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of industrial agriculture, and go back to a simpler time, not very long ago, when the journey from farm to table did not involve chemical additives, feedlots or genetic modification.

Standing up for the cure may seem like a noble endeavor, but I’d like to propose something even better: standing up for health.  If we look further upstream and get at the root problems of the sickness, we won’t need to be looking for a cure.

Sad news for the pharmaceutical industry, but too bad!  Those vampires have fed on our blood long enough.

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