The First Principle of Being Human: Seek kindness in all relationships Part 1


The First Principle of Humanity: Seek kindness in all relationships         

Part 1: The Literate Versus the Oral World View

History bears witness to the human capacity for cruelty. Humankind has become skilled at exploitation, oppression and violence at a scale scarcely believable. So there seems to be little evidence to support my claim that the central guiding principle of humanity is kindness. Yet the human capacity for kindness is undeniable, and this capacity arises in us unexplainably, even in the most unbearable of circumstances. If we bother to take a long and a sweeping look back, it becomes quite clear that we have only made it this far because of kindness.

The view of history that sees the trajectory of humanity as one that moves toward ever escalating greatness of achievement and dominion over nature is perhaps the greatest work of propaganda ever achieved, but it lies far from the truth of who we are. Buried within every institution of modern society are hidden assumptions that enslave us to a world view whose only probable outcome is global ecological collapse. Some of these assumptions are being ferreted out and exposed by the modern movement for environmental justice. But even this movement generally fails to go far enough in its critique of the industrial paradigm. The paradigm out of which modern people interpret the world is generated by the sacred cow technology of modern culture itself: literacy.

Before the advent of writing, and in particular the advent of the phonetic alphabet, words were utterances that only existed, like music, as sound vibrations that had no objectified existence in space. Language was a living, fluid expression of thought and feeling that only existed in the mind of the speaker and listener. It was unquestionably useful, but it wasn’t a “thing.” Language was an “experience” that had no physically enduring existence. When words became committed to stone, clay and paper they became objects as well as experiences, joining the spear, the knife and the hammer as useful physical tools. This is what Walter Ong calls “the technologization of the word” in his seminal work Orality and Literacy.

For the most part, literacy is not even perceived to be a technology at all, but is understood as a natural evolution of the human capacity for language. It may be true that literacy is a natural human evolution, and thus unavoidable. This does not mean that it is without its inherent risks or shadow side. The obvious shadows of the misuse of language are not what I am concerned about here: lying, the propagation of hateful ideologies, half-truths intended to divert or obscure the truth. The most serious shadows of literacy are assumptions and values embedded within the unexamined thought patterns of the literate mind itself. These values and assumptions are almost entirely invisible to themselves. It is the hidden paradigm of literacy that obscures the true purpose of humanity from itself. This paradigm would ultimately have us believe that our purpose on earth is to achieve, rather than to care for; to do rather than to become.

I do not believe that literacy is “bad.” Similarly, I do not think the discoveries about the physical makeup of the universe that led to the atomic bomb are bad. I would argue that atomic bombs are bad, yes. They are a technology with only the remotest possibility of a non-destructive use and their production consumes massive human and natural resources that could otherwise be used to alleviate suffering. For the most part, I do not think that any technology is inherently “bad”. There are technologies I have fought against (i.e., nuclear fission, broad spectrum herbicides, and genetically modified organisms) because of how they are being used and the risks outweigh the benefits by a very large margin. I oppose these technologies because I believe them to be unwise and our social institutions unable to truly regulate their use on the basis of wisdom.

It is especially important to make this qualification when it comes to literacy because the history of mass literacy is so woven together with the history of modern liberation and democracy. Popular literacy and democratic movements have walked hand in hand as they have spread around the world over the last few centuries. Literacy itself is something that many of my historical heroes have fought long and hard to spread among oppressed people as a required skill for liberation. I believe that literacy is a required skill at this time in history. But how it shapes our minds and habits must be carefully understood.

In its original form, literacy was a technology that the ruling classes jealously guarded for their own use, giving them a strikingly powerful advantage over the common oral folk. It was a technology of oppression that assisted the ruling classes to account for their property, crystallize their ideology and pass complex ideas, technologies and mathematical formulas on from one generation to the next. It allowed for specific, hidden communication over great time and distance. It allowed recorded stories, literally  “written in stone,” and by the victors, to shape history. It allowed for the development of codified law, mathematics and analytic and categorical science, thus, advanced technology. The written word is unquestionably powerful.

Mass literacy has unquestionably advanced the relative power of the masses in the colonial, now industrial world. But the written word is a relatively new invention in the scope of human evolution and migration. Humans have inhabited most places on planet earth as orally communicative, tool-using, social primates for a very long time. Our physical brains may have changed a little in the last few millennium since words got their chance to become physical representations, but not much. However, the human capacity to change our world has escalated wildly since the invention of the written word. And our way of thinking has changed. How we use our brains has changed a lot. This, I believe, is one of the main explanations for the suicidal trajectory of modernity.

In my late twenties a younger friend of mine studying at The Evergreen State College invited me to read a book that few people outside of academics have ever heard of. Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Walter J. Ong’s seminal treatise: Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. This book has had one of the most profound effects upon my life, more than any other intellectual or philosophical work. The book sets out to examine the deep differences between the oral mind and the literate mind, and the grossly inaccurate prejudices of the literate mind toward the oral one. Before reading this book I was of the literate mind-set, even while being in philosophical and political resistance to its assumptions and values. After reading it, I began to explore my own thinking with a new set of tools, and to appreciate the intelligence and wisdom of oral people through a new lens. My curiosity about my own undeveloped oral mind was awakened. Whole new life pathways opened up before me. I am in deep gratitude to Walter J. Ong, a person I have never met nor spoken with, but, paradoxically, whose written words have opened up my deepest appreciation of the oral way, the Old Way.

The most insightful suggestion that embedded itself in me upon reading this book was that, as a literate person, it was impossible for me to conceive of the world as an oral person. It was hard for me to accept that my very thinking and perception was shaped by literacy. After all, didn’t I begin my life as an oral person? It was only after mastering the fundamentals of oral communication that I learned to read. And couldn’t I still speak as well as read? I could listen to stories told by indigenous persons and understand them, couldn’t I? We could communicate if we both spoke English.

But could we really communicate? And did we share the same relationship to language and to the word? Was there not perhaps something missing from my field of perception that was accessible to the primarily oral person? A person who was raised in an oral culture might later learn to read and write and enter my world, but was it possible for me to enter theirs? These questions nagged at me, and still do. I believe that I have taken baby steps into the oral world view, maybe even giant steps considering how I was raised. But compared to those few people living today who were raised speaking their native language and in the old oral ways, I am still a child, and I know it.

In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” a shepherd sparring verbally with the Duke’s fool says, “…those that are good mannered at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at court.” This is uttered in defense against Touchstone’s attack: “Why if thou never wast at court, thou never sawst good manners; if thou never sawst good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin and, sin is damnation. Thou art in perilous state, Shepherd.”

Set here as the perspectives of “country” versus “court”, the arrogance and meanness of the court’s point of view is plain, as is the very practical and generous wisdom of the shepherd. This epitomizes the disdain which the literate person holds the oral one. In fact, the word the literate person uses to describe the oral one is not “oral”, which would indicate possession of the skilled use of language, but rather “illiterate”, indicating the lack of command of the written word. To the literate person, the lack of literate skill diminishes the intellectual worth, sophistication and intelligence of the oral person. “Illiteracy” is equated with the savage, the primitive, the peasant, the country bumpkin whose wisdom may be quaint but of little value. This attitude, in its most bigoted and arrogant form, has been suppressed (to some degree) in modern discourse due to the indigenous rights movements of the last several decades. The stereotypes persist, however, as do more subtle versions of the self-centered literate paradigm.

The reason this arrogance is so strongly embedded in the paradigm of literacy is because modern literate culture has walked away from the oral ancestral wisdom of its forebears. In fact, it has actively enslaved and waged genocide against nature-integrated traditions and what it considers “primitive savages” for thousands of years. Globally, people of primarily oral cultures, whether peasant or indigenous, are consistently at the bottom of the social ladder. They are the poorest, have the least political power and voice and, to the extent that their traditional way of life has been disrupted, suffer the worst health via issues with addiction, abuse and violence, both within and from outside their cultural group. In these communities, gaining the skills of literacy is of utmost importance as a first line of self-defence. But, as many stories can attest, renewing and restoring and, in some cases, reinventing the old oral/traditional cultural ways is the lifeline that reinvests these communities with pride, identity and meaning. Power toward self-determination seems to depend on both the skills of literacy and the renewal of (or adherence to) traditional cultural practices which are of the oral world view. This is one way that the “New Old Way” is coming to life around the world.

It is very important to point out here that there is a deep connection between oral cultures and nature awareness, nature connection and first-hand, direct, practical ecological knowledge. I will address this specifically in future blogs. I sometimes call this “nature literacy,” referring to the highly developed ability to read the signs of nature, skills that exist as a cultural norm in indigenous societies. Developing even a rudimentary ability to sense disturbances to baseline conditions in nature and participate in animal tracking and bird behavior interpretation takes years of hands-on study and practice with a mentor for a literate adult like me. Even now, after 20 years of study, I can only have a child’s conversation. But at least I know there is a conversation.

In the mainstream, however, little has changed. The self-importance, hidden values and assumptions attached to a culture steeped in literacy live on, with virtually no direct experience of the oral/traditional way of relating to the world. Nor is there widespread interest in seeing the world through the indigenous lens, except in three emerging subcultures: the environmental justice movement, mainstream interest in indigenous ceremony (shamanism and healing practices) and the nature awareness mentoring and “primitive skills” movement. Within these threads of emerging sub-culture, there exists authentic curiosity, attraction and desire to advocate for the protection, power, voices and lands of traditional oral peoples. Overall, this is a very positive thing. It is also from these threads, coupled to the direct struggles for the rights, lands and power of indigenous peoples, that the New Old Way is emerging. But it is not without its labor pains, the most obvious being the problematic conundrum of cultural appropriation. Issues of cultural appropriation anger many of the emerging cultural and political advocates of traditional people, and justifiably so. Charges of cultural appropriation raise shame and confusion in people of European ancestry who find themselves deeply drawn to the wisdom and practices of traditional people. This conundrum is worthy of its own blog and I will address it. But for now I want explore something even more challenging that usually goes unaddressed in the cultural appropriation discussion.

“Orality and Literacy” explores the conundrum of oral “intelligence” versus literate “intelligence.” Ong asserts that the literate person’s unconscious assumptions make it nearly impossible for them to perceive oral intelligence at work, much less to become “oralized” (my word.) I have since discovered that it is not only possible to imagine the traditional oral way of experiencing the world, but that people raised literate can also become oral, though through a very different process than people raised oral become literate.

One conundrum is that the reasons for oral people to become literate are obvious and emphasized as necessary everywhere. The reasons and methods for literate people to become “oral” are virtually invisible to all but those already living with a culturally transmitted orality. There is not only a lack of motivation in conventional modern culture to become orally aware and fluent, there is active antagonism toward the practices required to gain oral fluency. In the animal tracking, survival skills, nature awareness movement “Coyote Mentoring” practices are perceived by conventional culture to be impractical, pointless and childish, especially for adults. Or, in the trend to explore shamanic ritual and ceremony, the practices one must engage with are considered to be fraught with superstition, magical thinking or outright psychological danger.

“Oral,” as I am using it here obviously refers to much more than the ability to use spoken words to communicate. There exists no good word in the English language that captures what I am trying to refer to here. Persons raised in an indigenous cultural and linguistic context grow up close to nature, practicing the traditional arts of hunting, gathering, fire making, fibercraft, shelter, plant medicine and spiritual development. They receive a comprehensive, integrated, cultural education. Universally though, through different cosmological and linguistic lenses, persons thus raised develop an ecological literacy and awareness far more sophisticated at reading the signs of nature than even the most formally educated western scientists. This process of developing nature literacy through primary sustenance activities off the land is what my nature awareness mentor, Jon Young has coined “Coyote Mentoring”. Coyote Mentoring is powerful but it is still just a generalized version of what an indigenous oral society would have to offer. It is, however, actively exposing people raised in literacy-based cultures to nature-integrated awareness skills of traditional oral cultures. This approach to mentoring is at the foundation of the hundreds of nature awareness schools that have spun off of The Wilderness Awareness School in Duval, Washington and Jon’s mentor, Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in New Jersey. To be fair, it was likely Tom that coined the term “Coyote Mentoring”. But it was Jon that flushed out and articulated the process of Coyote Mentoring as the major focus of his work at the Wilderness Awareness School.This can be explored in detail in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature.

In addition to practically oriented nature skills and nature awareness mentoring, traditional persons also receive sophisticated social and cultural mentoring. They are guided through character and spiritual development at the hands of elders who are the repositories of countless generations of ancestral oral wisdom. Traditional oral societies depended upon the wisdom of their elders to guide them in navigating both their survival in a natural environment, subject to the cataclysms and reciprocities of nature, as well as guiding them in a social environment, susceptible to the paradoxes of human character and cleverness. They also had to contend with the realities of raiding cultures if they were not a raiding culture themselves, or with competing raiding cultures if they were. This required either excellent stealth and flight strategies or excellent warrior capabilities. Either way, scouts with highly developed nature literacy, stealth, speed and invisibility had to be trained. Eldership was informed by shamanic spiritual practices aligned within the cultural cosmological story. And elders were responsible for transmitting this complex, cultural, social, technological and environmental human system forward from one generation to the next with expertly trained hunters, gatherers, scouts, warriors, leaders and medicine people.

The processes by which complex integral cultural practices are moved from one generation to the next in oral societies are what Jon Young calls “cultural mentoring” systems. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet in traditional oral cultures themselves, they are not “systems”. They are simply what is done. Oral cultures do not typically self-evaluate in the way that literate cultures do. They do not break social processes down into categorical parts with an explanation that connects all of the parts and from which they then form linguistic generalizations. This is a quality of literate consciousness, not oral consciousness. Oral traditional societies pass all of their wisdom from one generation to the next without any reason to break down their practices and explain them to themselves. Their wisdom is contained within the stories and practices themselves, guided by those who have mastered them. They do what they do because it works. If it stops working, they change it. There is no explanatory self-consciousness about this in the way that literate people have about education and skills.

I recall all too well trying to learn a card game from Dagara teanagers in Dano, Burkina Faso. They just dealt me in and expected me to learn by playing. I tried asking for rules in my broken French. “Porquais? Porquais ca?” Why? Why that card? They just looked at me weirdly like my question made no sense, which I’m sure it didn’t to them. Then they would grab my cards and make a play and hand back my cards. No attempt to explain was made. The message was, “Do! Try! We will correct you. You will learn.” I don’t think they even knew what an explanation was. They were always laughing at us, there. If there was a traditional dance, just join in! Laugh! Stumble, try, learn. No one slows it down or teaches parts. “What is a part? It is a dance. Watch me, I will exaggerate it and make it simple for you. Try! So funny! Try!”

Jon calls this phenomenon unconscious competence. It is wisdom, knowledge and awareness that is not conscious of itself. The generalization and label “cultural mentoring systems” is a literate person’s way of explaining an oral reality to other literate people. It is not a concept that an oral traditional person would ever think to come up with on their own unless they became fluent in a literate world view. This is a fundamental paradox of the New Old Way. In order for literate modern persons to engage with an oral point of view as humble learners, they need to be able to see and label what it is they are going to be engaging in. “…those that are good mannered at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at court.” From the point of view of a traditional indigenous person, a modern literate person who comes to visit their traditional territory is less capable and less aware than a child, completely helpless in taking care of themselves without assistance from modern technological devices or knowledgeable locals.

When an oral culture is “discovered” by a literate one, they are at great risk and technological disadvantage: on the material technology and war making fields as well as the linguistic, social and cosmological fields. Indigenous oral cultures may raid and fight with one another, but they do not proselytize. They do not convert. They do not think about how to make other people see things the way that they see them and adopt their cosmological stories as universal truths. And this makes them socially and cosmologically vulnerable to literate cultures that do think about and practice those things, as well as how to overpower people by force of arms and use terror and torture to control the behavior of large groups of people. Those are all literate cultural inventions.

Prior to the 13th century, the Catholic Church followed the belief that there were no such things as “witches.” The belief in witches was considered a pagan belief and the church even went as far as capital punishment of people who persecuted or killed others for witchcraft. In the 13th century many changes came to the Roman Catholic Church. Over the next century and a half, punishments against heretics increased in severity and frequency as Christian sects outside the Roman church began to gain popularity in Europe. In 1209 the first crusade was launched against the Cathars, a competing Christian sect in southern France. 20,000 men women and children were massacred by crusaders recruited by Catholic clergy and nobility from the north in a single attack. This was an attempt to exterminate the “heretic” Cathar movement in the Languedoc region of southern France. In 1233 a crusade was sponsored by the jealous royalty of Northern Germany. It was backed by the ridiculous accusations of Pope Gregory IX of witchcraft and satanic worship by the Frieslanders of Stedinger, a clear work of war propaganda. Forty thousand crusaders, promised with eternal life in heaven and the spoils of war, wiped out the entire force of more than 8000 armed “free men” and then killed all of their women, children and elders. The Frieslanders had established a practical democracy and refused to pay tithes to the church and taxes to the nobility.

Over the next two hundred years punishments for heresy and witchcraft, a very convenient excuse to kill anyone who threatened the power of the established clergy and nobility, increased in severity and included the doctrinally sanctioned or encouraged use of torture to gain confessions. The discussion of witchcraft began to gain more vigor. The black plague of 1346 – 1351 fueled the rumors and fears of witchcraft in a traumatized European population. By the mid 15th century witch hunts, “trials” and burnings, backed by Catholic doctrine, had begun in Western Europe. By that time, the Church had gathered up, invented and committed to written text the witchcraft myth that persists until the present day. Covens of witches gather in the dark of night, fly through the air, eat children, poison crops and livestock, collect male genitals, cast spells of wasting sickness and disease and copulate with the devil. No doubt many of these details existed in the common folklore of the oral peasant peoples of the day, but now they became church doctrine, actively implemented by the ruling monarchies of Europe. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450 helped spread anti-witchcraft Christian doctrine, increasing witch persecutions across Europe.

Backed by this doctrinal and social momentum, Spain began its expansion into the “New World” and its subsequent subjugation of the traditional native peoples encountered in search of gold and silver. 1444 marked the first African slave trading raid by a Portuguese company. Papal bulls in the second half of the 15th century divided the lands of Africa and the Americas between Portugal and Spain and legitimized slavery (in exchange for a portion of the spoils.) The Protestant Reformation Movement that was gaining momentum in Northern Europe adopted many of these same attitudes. Protestant sects persecuted by the Catholic and Anglican churches carried with them these attitudes toward new world pagans and “witches” into the northern colonies of the new world. Ultimately, the expansion of the United States into Texas and the western territories under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny mirrored the 400 year old doctrinal attitude toward darker skinned, traditional oral peoples as “less than human” and “worthy only of slavery” or “extermination”. In four centuries, from the 1450’s to the 1850’s, millions, possibly even tens of millions, of African, New World, Asian, Australian and Pacific Islander indigenous persons, as well as European peasant leaders and healers, were exterminated or enslaved. Racist, anti-indigenous, witch-scapegoating European state and church sponsored terrorism, conquest, slavery and colonial occupation ushered in the Industrial Age. This period of history is what the literate modern world calls the Golden Age of Discovery. If the indigenous oral world had a term for this period of history it might be the Dark Age of Terror and Disease. I love the t-shirts that have a picture of Geronimo and his band of armed Apache scouts that say, “Fighting Terrorism for 500 Years.”

I think it is important for people of European ancestry to recognize that their own indigenous ancestors were wiped out by the same forces that have waged a more recent genocide and occupation via colonialism. We all go back to indigenous roots, some of us with oral peasant roots in between, kind of an agricultural stepping stone away from tribal hunting and gathering or tribal nomadic herding. My point is, nature connection is something that is everyone’s birthright and for whom everyone possesses ancestry and genetics. We, who are further removed, need to work quite a bit harder to renew the threads of our oral integral mind-body capacities and push those capacities back into our own cultures. Sometimes living traditional cultural practitioners can help us, but even if that is not possible, there is much that we can do.

It is also important for all readers to recognize that it is not only Europeans who have carried out genocide, cultural and economic imperialism, conquest, slavery, torture, ecological destruction and the like. There have been massive colonial civilizations that predated European ascendance as well as ones younger than Europe, such as: Egypt, Aksum, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, Kongo, Phoenicia, Babylon, the Chinese Empires, Mongolia, Feudal Japan and the list goes on… In truth, brown, yellow and red people have developed opressive, expansionist, class-based societies throughout history as well. It is not a European monopoly. Just because white skinned persons have been the world dominators for the last few centuries doesn’t mean it was exclusively our idea.

I purposely left the Iroquois Confederacy out of the above list. It is a 600 or 700 year old federation of six separate language groups and was distinctly non-expansionist in its ambitions. It did expand, however, by offering neighboring tribes to join, including raiding tribes. It did form armies from time to time to deal with raiding tribes that refused to join the confederacy and was reportedly quite ruthless when it turned to war as a last resort. Many things were borrowed from the Iroquois that informed our democratic federalist constitution. This will also be a subject for several future blogs.

Two hundred and forty-seven years have passed since James Watt patented the basic modern steam engine design in 1769. In that short time the world has witnessed a fantastic expansion of the human population and incredible escalation of human migration across great distances, accompanied by foreign plants and animals. We have seen a transformation of science and technology beyond the former boundaries of imagination. The mass production of food and consumer goods, in addition to the migration of the bulk of the population from the agricultural landscape to burgeoning cities characterizes this time period. Now, having passed the limits of consumption proscribed by contemporary solar energy in a closed biological system, we are rapidly approaching the end of the fossilized carbon-based Industrial Age.

It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecological systems and indigenous cultures has progressed hand-in-hand with the advancement of the colonial, neo-colonial and industrial systems and culture. The values and attitudes that motivated and carried out colonial and industrial expansion on a global level are the root values upon which conventional culture is built. They infuse the owning class, the middle class, the working class and the poverty class with different beliefs and feelings to perpetuate the system, but the value structure is universal. What is conventionally “most valuable” is production and access to capital. This is a complete inversion of the oral, traditional, indigenous value system. There nature is the most valuable asset (which has no access to human capital.) Balanced sustainable living with emphasis on the development of human character and nature skills mastery does not produce a lot of exportable consumer products.

However, industrial production is not going to stop any time soon, barring a nuclear conflagration. And it is preposterous to suggest that the current global human population, unskilled at both nature awareness and the primary skills of living from the land, return to hunting and gathering in a world whose natural ecosystem stability is already severely compromised. We are facing a time of urgent transition to some kind of unknown future that cannot look like our present, nor our recent past. Nor can it look like our distant, but most proven, sustainable past. It must be something fundamentally new that draws upon our recent and our distant pasts to inform its newness. This is a premise of the New Old Way.

We are loaded with clever technology and capital resources but we are deficient in wisdom, awareness and nature connection. To me, it is clear where we must turn.

A big part of what I am attempting to do with this blog is to make the reasons for becoming orally proficient, nature-observant and primary skills competent clear and those cultures visible and understandable to the conventionally educated, literate-minded persons of the developed world.

I believe this kind of cultural, spiritual and psychological repair is absolutely necessary for us to have a successful and nonviolent transition into the future. Transition is coming, whether we cooperate with nature or not. But the spectre of apocalyptic human violence and cataclysmic natural disaster is real, and it is pressing on us every day. Many, perhaps even most, of the people alive on the planet today are already experiencing ecological collapse to some degree or other. Many, perhaps even most, of those experiencing ecological collapse are also already experiencing superpower surrogate warfare, state-sponsored domestic repression, paramilitary organized crime violence, civil war, police brutality or all of the above. The end of the industrial age is not near, it is here. And it is rapidly escalating. The Syrian refugee crisis is but one small symptom of system failure and yet it involves the displacement of six million people!

The wisdom of oral traditional culture emerges directly from acute awareness and understanding of nature, passed on over generations of observation and connection. Oral social and ecological awareness is both a deeply personal experience and a highly mentored one, one that cannot be separated from the spiritual development of the individual. Oral intelligence comes from a highly sophisticated and nuanced inter-generational culturally transmitted “pedagogy,” for lack of a better word. In modern culture, the vestiges of “cultural mentoring” remain most often in areas where the direct transmission of practical skill sets, requiring finely tuned observation and full-body involvement, are still alive, such as: hunting, fishing, athletics, search and rescue, medicine, midwifery, farming, music, dance, art and theatre. Ironically, the only professions that utilize tracking and stealth skill sets are the military and the police. Unlike oral cultures, however, these fields have become highly specialized and in most cases, less integrated with connection to nature. But still, an understanding of mentoring and the development of character through the process of skill mastery is very much alive in these fields.

The greatest repository of indigenous wisdom and practices are those cultures that are struggling to carry on and renew their traditions against all odds in this modern world. These cultural treasures must be protected as a first line of defence for the future of the world. Their traditional lands must be returned to their care, they must be given political autonomy and sovereignty, they must be compensated for their many losses so that their lands,waters and languages can be restored to health. Their sacred places must not be desecrated with modern technology and every effort must be made to understand the world from their cultural and historical point of view. In order to find a New Old Way forward to an abundant and just future, we must all work together, and we must understand how different that work can look from person to person, from place to place and from subculture to subculture. We must act and we must act with clarity,intention and purpose.


The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 3

Civilization’s Escape Attempt



Life depends on death. Receiving depends upon giving. Waking depends upon sleeping. Activity depends upon rest. An in-breath requires an out-breath. This constant dynamic cycling of duality expresses the fundamental law of reciprocity, the natural law that governs the balance of opposing forces. Reciprocity stirs the cauldron of generativity. It is inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on planet earth, it is the foundation upon which all living systems rest.

What lives without the death of another? Perhaps a few species of bacteria that metabolize sulfur via heat vents on the ocean floor and maybe some species of algae and phytoplankton that live off sunlight and dissolved minerals alone. It could even be argued that parasites, viruses and bacteria that require living hosts survive on the life of others, not the death. However, the bigger picture of plants and animals participating in the web of life on the thin surface of this blue planet is a bit more complex. The death of one organism predicates the life of others and the life of one organism depends upon the death of others, more or less in equal measure. This describes the original and most fundamental cycle of reciprocity. Living and dying are woven together in an elegant dance of give and take, governed by the most basic natural law of life as we experience it.

Modern culture strives to rise above nature’s dance of life and death rather than fully embrace and participate in it. Death is understandably scary to a self-aware being. Awareness of death challenges our most basic sense of identity and meaning. Much of the subject of the world’s “great” religions is devoted to deriving meaning from the improbable reality of self-conscious life in the face of certain corporeal death. This is not true, however, of the cosmological systems of cultures and language groups that have not created civilizations.

The animist, pantheist, ancestrally oriented spiritual practices of oral peoples of place address the inherent paradox of life, yet there is something fundamentally different about these oral cosmological systems. Indigenous ancestral cosmologies treat the self and the soul as part of a continuum of seen and unseen forces, extending back to the ancestors and forward to the coming generations, woven together by ropes of connection to all of creation. The development of the soul is seen as the strengthening of these sacred connections through practice and mastery of skills and awareness. The soul matures and advances in a more horizontal or downward direction through deeper and deeper levels of conscious participation in the beauty and balance of nature. The difference with the old spiritualities and the new is the focus of their attention. Animist cultures face the earth and celebrate sensual involvement with it.

Abrahamic religious orientation is upward, toward a distant deity, toward a perfect unity with creation after corporeal experience comes to an end, negating the present earthly experience of sin and suffering. Eastern religions are more complex. They share with western Abrahamic traditions written cosmological doctrine and priestly classes that possess resources and political influence, yet still retain strong elements of shamanic practice as well. The mystic traditions within Christianity, Judaism and Islam also employ meditation, isolation in nature, poetic and artistic expression, dance, rhythm and trance as authentic ways of connecting to God and creation. But in most cases, both the Eastern and Western great religions perceive life as an experience of suffering. Suffering therefore, can only be transcended through enlightenment or an after-death state of unity with God and creation. If a generalization can be made, it is that the focus of civilized religions is on the human experience and future transcendence of suffering. Indigenous spiritual practices, as I understand them, focus on full sensual immersion in nature and navigating embodied intensities, such as ecstatic joy, raging grief and everything in between. One might then say, the equivalent of the Bible or Koran would be a direct, sense-oriented, worldly experience. This could include interaction with forces and beings unseen in ordinary states of consciousness. Civilized religious practices focus on the suffering in life and the hope or promise of transcending that suffering through following a particular religious path or set of doctrines. This is not surprising if we examine more deeply the conditions of civilized life for the common person.

My definition of “civilization” is an expansion of mass culture characterized by class divisions and specialized labor. Civilizations are composed of societies who claim to be civil, from the Latin civitas meaning city. Therefore, civilizations are societies who orient their activities and values primarily around cities and other human creations, rather than around nature or creation itself.  A fundamental narcissism and arrogance permeates all of civilization. More on that later.

The primary purpose of  traditional, village-based cultures is to care for their “people” as well as the places that provide them with the resources for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. It is not uncommon among people following the Old Ways to refer to stones, plants, animals and even landmarks as their relatives. Thus, taking care of the “people” in this context extends well beyond the boundaries of the human species.

Expansive cultures that generate cities still have to attend to the people and land, at least minimally. But, in all but possibly a few extinct matriarchal civilizations, these modern cultures all expand their territories. Expansion claims resources to support greater concentrations of wealth and power in an elite class. The most important mission of culture in a civilization, therefore, is to care for the elite class of rulers and landowners. The mission of caring for the people and the land is attended to as a necessary condition for survival, and in better examples, given eloquent lip service. 

In a kind civilization, the care of the common people and land is given dutiful attention second to the collection of resources required to maintain the elite class, i.e., the good king, the democratically elected president, the responsive and responsible CEO. In a despotic or greedy civilization, attention to the health of the land, civil liberties and welfare of the people are given minimum attention to maintain compliance. Decisions are solely in service of the short term goals of the elites. This creates mass suffering at a much different scale.

This new kind of class suffering could never exist in horizontally organized, village-based aboriginal societies. It is a product of the New Way. In the usual analysis of history, only the dynamics between kinder versus more cruel civilizations are examined. Cultures living in the Old Way are left out of the conversation as irrelevant. Ironically, the 600 year Federation of Indigenous Nations, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, existed on the North American continent long before it was named America.Though rarely mentioned, the Iroquois Confederacy had a profound effect upon the development of global democracy, a subject for a future blog. There is no example in the “civilized” world of a democratic government or federated cooperation between nations of differing cultures and languages lasting even three hundred years. This is one more example of the inherent myopia and deliberate self-centeredness of the New Way.

The acquisition and control of resources and territory requires protection, whether the government be kind or cruel, democratic or despotic. This necessitates not just a warrior class, but armies capable of standing against the armies of other expansive cultures. “Civilizations,” by definition, take on the mission of expanding and protecting their territory and influence. This demands the conversion or enslavement of others to the dominant set of cosmological beliefs, practices and language. “Civilization” has created a new kind of mass warfare as its primary method of  expansion and protection. Civilization adopts class structures that keep the majority of people in second class status or even in institutionally organized slavery. This would be inconceivable to most oral, village based cultures of place.

The pre-agricultural peoples of old may not have been peaceful, but they engaged in warfare, slavery and raiding on a completely different scale. The scale of primitive warfare, even in raiding cultures never put demands upon the people or landscape beyond its means. The demands of the natural law of reciprocity always came before the advantages of warfare and expansion. Not so with civilizations.

The shift began with the advent of plow agriculture, the domestication of food plants and grazing animals.  Food resources could now be traded and stockpiled. The scales of equilibrium that human cultures had lived within for countless generations of hunting, gathering and proto-agricultural activity began to tip. The central metaphor of human culture began to change. The horizontally-oriented ethic that “reciprocity makes right” became replaced by the vertical ethic of “might makes right.” The trajectory of human culture changed from care-taking to simply taking. The ability to take without giving back justified taking, elevating the practice of taking without giving to a symbol of social status. The more you could take, accumulate and control, the greater was your worth and the more you presumed to be favored by the gods or God. The sword and the plow together became the new paradigm of human society and culture. Get on board or get out of the way.

Here we have the taproot of modern history. Recorded history, by the very fact of being recorded in writing, contains both consciously and unconsciously the bias of expansion and conquest as well as the early marriage of agriculture and warfare. This is because writing itself, the “technologization of the word”*(Orality and Literacy) is a technology belonging originally only to civilized cultures, and originally only to the elite classes. This explains why “history,” in the classical sense, is the history of war and competing civilizations and religions and nations and language groups. History is civilization talking about itself. 

Hidden within this natural bias, however, is a lie. It is a lie by omission, not by proclamation, though plenty of lies by proclamation exist in historical accounts as well. The truth or falsehood of historical accounts depends to a large degree upon whom one sympathizes with and upon whether the account was written by the “victor” or the “victim,” as perceived by the reader. “History is written by the victorious,” is a famous adage. And it is true. In the bigger picture, all of history is written by the spokespeople of literate civilizations to support the point of view of literate civilization.

Until very recently, the point of view of the true victims of history was never written, it was only told. From the point of view of oral cultures of place, all of “history” is about civilized cultures taking their land and resources and killing or enslaving or assimilating their people, effectively extinguishing their cultures, languages and belief systems or appropriating the parts of them that proved useful to the conquering civilization. From this point of view, “history” is a story of systematic robbery, enslavement and genocide that goes back to the earliest civilizations that emerged from stone age culture 5 to 10,000 years ago, a relatively short time in the scheme of human evolution on the planet, and only a little greater than the short span of written history itself.

The advent of civilization is the story of systematic assault against cultures living by the natural law of reciprocity carried out by elite cultures who seemed to be attempting to escape from natural law. No longer were people primarily interested sustaining the abundance of the land upon which they and their ancestors had lived for countless generations and upon which they had developed extremely sensitive and responsive ecological awareness, technology and practices. No longer did the vision of the leaders of the people extend forward in particular places to the generations to come hundreds of years hence. This was the “Old Way.” Now elite groups of people following the “New Way” were far more committed to acquiring territory and concentrating wealth and influence in the hands of a class of rulers.

Taking without giving back in roughly equal measure became a source of social status that elevated a wealthy and powerful minority class of persons above the majority classes. This resulted in vertically oriented social structures with owning and ruling classes at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, the peasant and farming classes maintained many of the beliefs and nature connected practices of the Old Way. But this had to be done in ways that did not directly challenge the authority of the elites. Vertically oriented societies now stood in contrast and in conflict to the horizontally ordered societies of oral cultures of place. And, as history bears out, horizontal nature connected societies, even those with warriors, could not hold their ground against the war technologies and mass armies and cosmological aggressiveness of the New Way.

Ironically, the principle English words used to describe the older, oral, horizontal societies that skillfully practiced taking care of kin and nature as their central cultural values are “primitive” and “savage.” Were we naming our own shadows and behavior in a psychological “projection?”

History as we know it is the abandonment of the natural law of reciprocity as the central guiding understanding of human culture. Now look where that has gotten us! How smart are we modern people, really? We can build nuclear weapons and internal combustion engines and cell phones and satellites. We are clever, and in love with our awesome cleverness! But smart?

We cannot underestimate how deeply the abandonment of nature has lodged itself in the modern person’s consciousness. If we are to make our way forward from this point in history we must find a way to return modern cultures and social organization to reciprocity. This is the mission of this blog, to stimulate conversation about the paths we might take toward a “New Old Way” which does not reject the cleverness of human technology but somehow finds a way to place it within systems of governing wisdom that are primarily informed by the natural laws that govern life on earth, most especially that of reciprocity: the balanced relationship of life and death, of taking and giving.


The First Principle of Earth: All life depends on reciprocity –  Part 2 

Part 2 – The Still Small Voicetumblr_lrtv5kOerI1r3v7q7o1_500_large

There is a Hawaiian word that I am trying to understand. Kuleana. It is something like responsibility, but kinder and somehow more generative and relational. The word kuleana is often used in a collective way as a call to take care of something. “Taking care of our elders is our kuleana.” Or like a t-shirt I saw recently, “More Limu, More Fish. The ocean is our kuleana.” (Limu is Hawai`ian for seaweed, an important food source here that local citizen groups are working to restore to health and abundance along the shorelines.)

A word like “responsibility” can be problematic. For me it carries too much of the inward weight of obligation and not enough of the levity and outward motion of an authentic call to respond, which I believe to be the original sense of the word. I am tempted to replace this word with “kuleana” in my vocabulary, and here in Hawai`i I can perhaps get away with that in certain situations. But even still, some Hawai`ians take offense at the appropriation of their words by non-Hawaiians, and understandably. “They stole our land, repressed our culture, usurped our rightful government and now they want to take our language, too!? And they don’t even really understand it!?”

I will admit to this offense myself. In the first draft of this chapter I tried to make the case for ‘“kuleana” and offer my interpretation of the word. Only thanks to my editor was this cultural faux-pas averted. I tell this only because it shows how a “well-meaning person,” in this case myself, is capable of delivering offense to persons of another cultural and experiential background without so intending, an example of unconscious ignorance obviously still alive and well in me. Not proud. And I hope my readers will kindly give me feedback of this nature if something offensive slips past my editor’s eye.

While I digress a bit, this is relevant to the topic of “responsibility” at hand. Reflecting on the feedback I had received I came to some realizations. I already advocate for people of European descent to connect with their own personal ancestors, as challenging and painful as that often can be. Even to identify with the earth-connected side of one’s European cultural heritage and history can be difficult and painful. Corollary to this, I must somehow reclaim the language of my birth and ancestry, not just borrow (steal) words from other cultures that seem to already have the meaning I am reaching for. First of all, every language is deeply nuanced. It is probably not possible to fully grasp the meaning of a foreign word without completely absorbing the language, customs and culture, and possibly even the landscape, that the word springs from and lives within.

To engage full responsibility for my use of language does not mean that I may not use Hawai`ian words, but rather when I do , I must become fully aware of why I am choosing Hawai`ian over English, and consider the audience where I am speaking or writing. I am  assuming permission is granted to me based upon the relationships that are present to the utterance.

For example, I am a beginning hula student. My kumu hula (hula teacher) has taught me a protection chant for entering the forest, in particular if my intention is to collect plant materials. If I am with my Kumu, I may use this Hawai`ian chant. In fact, it is respectful and expected of me, as a student, to do so if he gives me the nod. He has given me permission to use the chant outside of his presence as well, and very occasionally I do. After all, I have permission. However, usually, if I am leading a group into the forest and we pause to pray before entering, which is a cultural protocol not unique to Hawai`ian culture, I almost always choose to honor my own ancestry,culture and language by making my prayer in English. English words work fine for speaking to the unseen world. At this point in my cultural education, English is better, because it resonates more deeply inside me. I am attuned to my daily language and therefore it is a more effective way for me to communicate with the spirit world and with people who understand English. However, English words do not resonate as deeply with the land here in Hawai`i and in that way perhaps carry less power (and they sound much less beautiful to me.)  At some point, I may feel the Hawai`ian language and have permission from my cultural elders to use it, perhaps even a responsibility to do so. Because of the rich gifts I have received from the process of learning the language and culture, it may become my kuleana, my responsibility, to use the Hawai`ian language as a way of honoring and giving back to the teachers and elders who made the effort to educate me and to the culture and ancestors that host my presence here. That would be an example of reciprocity at work. What I am reaching for here is a nuanced understanding of the word “responsibility” and how our “ability to respond” is linked to the natural law of reciprocity.

There is something inside the human being that the Friends Meeting for Worship (Quaker Church) calls “the still, small voice.” I remember vividly the “meetings” I attended as a child. Meetings happened on Sunday, just like other churches, but there was no priest or preacher in front of the congregation. Members would arrive dressed in their Sunday best, take their seats facing front and sit quietly, as if waiting for the sermon. Nothing at all would happen for the longest time, just a room full of quiet adults and children. Sometimes the fifteen minutes that we kids were required to sit in silence (adults kept on in sitting for a full hour) felt like an unbroken eternity to me. No one would speak. There would only be the sounds of nature coming in from outside and the small sounds of people shifting position or coughing in the high-ceilinged room. On what I considered to be “better days,” before we were allowed to go downstairs to our Sunday School class where we could TALK, someone would speak during the meeting’s first fifteen minutes. It was commonly an older person of my grandparent’s generation.They would usually tell some kind of story, often about something that they observed in nature. Birds seemed to be a common theme to tell stories about. First would come the story in slow detail, usually about something that seemed pretty ordinary to me. And then would come a reflection on the experience that had meaning to the person, spiritual meaning, which they would share with the group. Sometimes the person speaking would refer to the Bible. But it was equally possible that they would quote Rumi or Ralph Waldo Emerson or something from the Bhagavad Gita if it was relevant to their message. When they were finished, no one said anything, the silence continued. On very rare occasions this would happen twice before I left the room. I was always relieved to go, but I liked it when people spoke. Quaker Sunday School was much like I imagine other Sunday Schools to be. We studied Bible Stories,played games,made crafty things and got ready to “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”

It was only later, as a young adult, that I returned to a Friends Meeting in Seattle, Washington. I had not attended a meeting since I was nine years old, when my mother died. She was the force behind our family’s participation.. At nineteen, I was living in a group house in the University District, working temporary and part-time jobs to support my full-time peace and anti-nuclear activism. Many of the older persons who were leaders of this movement happened to be Quaker “grey hairs,” and I was very curious. One of my good friends, whose mother was a Quaker and had grown up in Meeting, invited me to come one Sunday morning. I attended irregularly for some years after that. This is when I began to reflect on the unusual character of this “church” more deeply. I never spoke for the hour we adults would sit together in silence, but I always came away enriched and renewed, with a feeling of support for the work I was doing in the world. My friend, Roger, did on occasion offer something during Silence. It was not forbidden to speak as a young person. The Quaker youth had plenty to say, including me, when it came to Meeting For Business, the forum where all the business and policies of the Meeting were discussed and decided by a process of spiritually guided consensus. There was a deep respect for elderhood in Friends culture, as well as a deep respect for the voice and power of youth. It was inspiring to find a pocket of this quality of respect within a culture that generally respects neither their elders nor youth.

The silence held within the Meeting for Worship was the place where the community of faith would gather together to listen for this sacred thing that they called “the still small voice.” This is the voice of guidance that lives and speaks within every person, if one takes the time to sit quietly,reflect and listen. To hear the still small voice does not necessarily move one to speak. When I asked about the conditions expected for speaking at  Meeting I was told only that one must feel moved by spirit to share. Sitting in a receptive silence with others brought me many personal reflections that came from the still small voice within. And very, very often, the words that were spoken at Meeting touched that still small voice within me in profound ways.

The belief in Friends Meeting is that God speaks to and through each of us, if we take the time to listen.The voice is not usually a booming or prophetic voice, though it can be sometimes. It is a deeply quiet voice. And that voice is most commonly heard in a state of profound, reflective silence. Scripture is considered to be an important, sacred basis for interpreting the inner voice, but not an exclusive one. There are Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and others who attend Meeting for Worship as equal participants. Pretty profound, really. Here was a “Peace Church” that practices peace and tolerance without preaching. Instead of “practice what you preach,” the moral instruction becomes “practice what you hear when you listen to the still small voice within.” Quakers through history are perhaps best known for the attention they give to conscience in the spiritual life and in their insistence that one must not only listen to conscience but act on it in worldly affairs.

Of the last three centuries, the Quaker church is perhaps the spiritual movement originating in Europe most historically committed to equality, democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and to peace and the practice of nonviolent social action in the United States. Philadelphia was founded by English leader William Penn in 1682 as a refuge for fellow Quakers who held the majority influence in politics and business in this important city for a full century. The movement for independence and the emergent federation of independent states was shaped in profound ways by Quaker values and thought, though Quakers themselves backed away from direct participation in politics because of a crisis of conscience stemming from their spiritual commitment to pacifism. Quaker Friend John Woolman was one of the early supporters of the 1755 tax-resistance movement that led to the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a spiritual diary that was published posthumously in 1772 which came to have a profound influence on the Religious Society of Friends. Woolman looked to nature as a powerful direct source of spiritual truth and guidance and a direct reflection of God and spiritual wisdom. He advocated harmonious relations between humans and nature as fundamental to a righteous life. “I believe that where the love of God is perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the Great Creator intends for them under our government.

Quaker Friends have been important leaders and supporters of progressive currents within United States history from the very beginning: tax resistance against the British, abolition of slavery, religious and cultural tolerance and respect, women’s suffrage and rights, the labor movement, civil rights, the antiwar and antinuclear movements and the environmental movement. Their primary tool in these reformist movements has always been passive resistance, civil-disobedience and nonviolent direct action, since before those names were coined in the English language. The Quaker spiritual, cultural and political contributions give persons of European heritage one example of a cultural legacy of European descent that we can embrace and be proud of. It was surely deeply influenced by its contact with the philosophies, customs and wisdom of the original inhabitants of their new continent.This openness to influence is to its credit, especially considering the cultural attitudes of dominant European religious movements toward non-literate peoples at the time.

John Woolman remarks in the Journal, “The marks of famine in a land appear as humbling admonitions from God, instructing us by gentle chastisements, that we may remember that the outward supply of life is a gift from our Heavenly Father, and that we should not venture to use or apply that gift in a way contrary to pure reason.” To Woolman “pure reason” was roughly synonymous with what I call “natural law.” He is saying that signs of famine in nature, whether human famine or animal famine. They are communications to us, instructions, reminders, from the Creator to respond to the laws of nature and live gratefully in harmony with them. We should clearly not use the gifts given to us by life and the Creator in ways that run contrary to natural law, if we do, famine will ensue. Embedded within this very simple quote are profound understandings of reciprocity, responsibility, and the way the natural world communicates to the human conscience.

I am striving here to express the connection that John Woolman has obviously put together between presence to the natural world, the natural law of reciprocity and the human capacity to respond: responsibility. I am reaching for a deeply nuanced understanding of two English words that are in some ways very simple in their origins. Reciprocity comes from the root word reciprocal. This comes from Latin reciprocus and simply means back and forth, re- meaning back and pro- meaning forward. Responsibility is easy for the layperson to break down: ability to respond. The word “respond” comes from the Latin verb respondere meaning to “answer, to offer in return.” Because they share the same root prefix re-, meaning back, responsibility and reciprocity are connected in root meaning to a notion or a sense or a description of giving back or offering back. The natural law of reciprocity states simply that the forces and materials that generate life and abundance are gifts to the living and that the recipients of these gifts must give in return for the forces and materials that generate life to remain vital and not be diminished.

The animal and plant and microbial world all live by this law without thought, though not necessarily without consciousness. Thought is the quality of consciousness particularly assigned to humans. Thought is capable of being aware of itself, of making conscious choices about behavior and of reflecting upon those choices and evaluating their consequences later. Self awareness, choice and the ability to evaluate and alter behavior may exist in less developed ways in the animal world, but these qualities are developed in humans to a much more sophisticated order of magnitude. In this way, while animals certainly act on the basis of self-interest, they are not capable of greed, for example, in the way that humans are. The privileges of thought and choice come to humans at a cost. If they are not tempered with the responsibility to care for all of creation, to follow the natural law of reciprocity and to pay very close attention to the signs of nature, then we may destroy the very sources of life that nourish us by making poor choices – choices that benefit us, or some small minority of us, in the short term but diminish the very sources of life that nourish and sustain us and our fellow creatures in the long term. This seems obvious and sensible, but the ecological and social crisis that human history is now propelling us into at a global scale is no laughing matter. It is a direct result of choices we make individually and collectively every day.  Reciprocity is not merciful, it’s a law. When the balance of life is put in jeopardy, it will be restored by the most direct means possible. Taking without giving back cannot be sustained long term. The beings, mineral resources and energy resources that are taken from without replenishment will be exhausted eventually in the short term resulting, as John Woolman pointed out, in the “marks of famine” followed by famine itself.
The good news is that each of us has within us the capacity to listen with a highly developed quality of attention and observation to the still small voice of conscience that vibrates to the rhythm of nature. Our sense of reciprocity can be awakened. Our sense of responsibility can be restored to its authentic activity in our lives. Our sense of gratitude can be renewed. All of these things flow naturally from reflective silence and time spent immersed in nature, doing the things that we evolved to do with our minds and bodies and sharing those experiences with our friends and families. This is the subject matter of the New Old Way: finding ways to connect to kin and nature in a modern world as profoundly and skillfully as our ancestors did following the Old Ways

The First Principle of Earth: All life depends upon reciprocity – Part 1

Part 1

“Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship.”  Freida Jacques, Onandaga Nation


Who has protected more ecological habitat in the United States, bird lovers or bird hunters?

“Not a fair question!” the bird hunter who is also a bird lover says. Okay, how about between people who identify primarily as bird lovers and watch birds as a passionate activity versus those who love birds and also hunt and eat them? Obviously a person can be both a lover and a hunter, and probably most bird hunters are bird lovers. But the reverse is not true, most modern bird lovers are not bird hunters also. So the question stands. Which group of people has protected and increased biodiversity in more ecological habitat than the other?

Bird hunters as a class of people have protected more ecological habitat by far, than bird lovers. Those who stand for the intrinsic beauty and value of nature primarily from the point of view of observation, experience and environmental science are represented by groups such as The Audubon Society, The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth, etc. The hunters are represented by Ducks Unlimited, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation, etc. This is a strange divide, and a somewhat artificial one, but interesting in its philosophical and political differences. (My dear readers are going to have to wait for me to finish the research on this. I have this general statement of fact from a very reliable source and I am attempting to get ahold of the data which tallies up the acreages protected or restored by the likes of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, versus the likes of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy. I think the hunting organizations win by a margin of about ten to one.)

This division goes back to the late 1800’s when the protection of habitats and ecosystems became a debate between the “Preservationists,” led by spokespeople like John Muir and the Sierra Club, and the “Conservationists” led by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and John Grinell and the Boone and Crockett Club. Both groups shared concerns about the protection of the environment from the ravages of industry and over-harvesting. The Preservationists felt that nature should be preserved in its pristine state for future generations primarily for its intrinsic and spiritual value. Conservationists felt that nature should be protected and conserved primarily for its useful values. This split in perspectives continues to this day and is what I am actually referring to with my question about bird hunters versus bird watchers. In truth, bird hunters and bird watchers are stand-ins for the broader categories of “nature users” versus “nature lovers”, “nature experiencers” versus “nature participants”. I will go more deeply into this philosophical debate in future blogs, but for now will simply point out that this debate does not exist in the indigenous world and might even be considered ridiculous. How can you separate the uses of nature from the love of nature for its intrinsic value? Use leads to love and love leads to use, there is no separation. In fact, separation of those aspects of relationship to nature is a very big part of the problem and not a part of the solution at all.

When one compiles and compares the acreage and people involved in ecological restoration efforts the hunters win the contest. The point is, something happens inside a person who harvests wild food from nature that moves us to give back. This force, a force I call reciprocity, is stronger and of greater consequence to the protection of nature than the love that comes from observing and appreciating nature for its beauty, elegance and spiritual value.

This may be very hard for for many of my “environmentalist” nature loving friends to accept. We “environmentalists” tend to come from educated middle and upper class backgrounds that stereotype two very important working class categories of people who, from my point of view, have a less sentimental and much more viscerally grounded love and connection for nature: hunters and farmers. Hunters and farmers are stereotypically considered to be “hicks,” especially hunters, and these stereotypes influence our thinking more than many of us care to admit. (There is a little love affair going with organic farmers and permaculturists in progressive circles right now, but the class division I am pointing to continues sharply in this arena as the divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers.) This often unconscious prejudice expresses itself in our language and attitudes towards people who have, in the past, often lived without formal academic higher education. Educated environmentalists often try to grab the higher moral ground in environmental debates. However, without making direct personal and practical use of nature’s offerings through acts of harvesting food, medicines and other useful materials from nature and working with them with our own hands, I believe one’s sense of reciprocity is diminished.

These activities are linked, I believe, deep in our genetic heritage to how we calibrate our sensitivities and cultivate our connection to nature with our full range of senses engaged. One can feel love without feeling the call of reciprocity. This is the sentiment of love, the pleasurable feeling of love, without the nitty-gritty involvement, like a tantalizing love affair. All life depends on the death of other living creatures. If I am a person belonging to nature as a full participant, I live fully inside that unarguable truth. If I am an observer of nature, I may separate myself from the direct experience of the dirty, smelly reality of death as the source of life. Often the spiritual and inspirational perspective also carries an attitude toward human culture and activity as intrinsically destructive to the beauty and health of nature, rather than humans being important integral participants in the natural world.

I did not grow up hunting, but my earliest and most powerful memories of loving nature were fishing excursions with my favorite uncle. He would get me up for before dawn to help catch “brookies” with worms on tiny hooks from almost hidden meandering streams in the New Hampshire woodlands. We would come back to camp all proud and mosquito bitten with our limits of the delicious little trout. Then Uncle Linc would roll them in cornmeal and fry them up whole in a cast iron pan on the Coleman stove. I thought there was nothing so delicious in the world. I would pretty much give anything to go fishing with my Uncle Linc. He was the hunter and the fisherman and the farmer in my lineage that passed on to me a deep and passionate hands-on love of nature. He probably influenced the vocational direction of my life more than any other single adult, though I did not realize this until very recently, and sadly, long after his passing. From him I learned to be at home in nature, how to be quiet as we moved in the woods so as not to scare the fish we intended to catch, how delicious the food was that came straight from his garden and how to pull weeds. I am full of gratitude for these early experiences that live deep in my imagination, dreams and preferred activities to this day.

Humans that lived within the evolved pattern of village scale, stable, land-based cultures organized themselves around hunting and gathering and in time added in the domestication of animals and the cultivation of food crops for their own consumption. Some were nomadic, following the hoop of the seasons for their primary root and animal “harvests.” Some became nomadic herders. Before the advent of mass civilization and cities these cultures continued to harvest from the wild in addition to their reliance on “farmed” crops and domestic animals. Almost universally, they had the impact upon their environment of increasing not only the abundance of the species they hunted and the medicine, fibre and building materials they gathered, but also the biodiversity of their environments in general. Their management practices often included the careful use of fire to maintain diverse habitat for plants and animals that would not have existed without the human hand. The deliberate use of fire to maintain meadow habitats increased edge habitats where biodiversity flourished. Many plant species that were harvested as important food sources diminish and disappear when the harvesting of those species and fire management practices stop, impacting wildlife that utilizes those food plants as well. This general truth has many exceptions and is much argued about in scientific and and environmentalist circles. Much of this information is lost to history. In the Americas, the condition of the “wild” lands that were recorded by the first European explorers had already changed dramatically due to the ravages of European diseases upon the native population. It is possible that the extraordinary population of Great Plains bison was at least in part a population explosion due to much reduced hunting pressure.

I lived for ten years in Port Townsend,Washington. Port Townsend sits at the tip of the Quimper Peninsula, a landmass that juts northward into Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northeast corner of the mountainous and much larger Olympic Peninsula. For years I was curious about the forests on the Quimper Peninsula. The largest douglas fir trees, the dominant species, were the size of the large second growth trees I saw in many places that had been logged at the turn of the century. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that there were no stumps in the forests. If this was second growth, where were the stumps? If it was first growth, why were the trees not huge like they were in the other old growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula? Was it the effect of the Olympic Mountain “rain shadow” that reduced the rainfall in our area? I settled for that explanation for a long time.

Then I learned about the “wolf trees.” There were old, old Douglas fir trees scattered here and there in the forests on the Quimper peninsula, individuals that had branches all the way to the ground. Some of these old giants were five hundred years old. The growth pattern of branches to the ground instead of long straight trunks indicated that those trees had grown up in an open meadow. All the other trees around these three to five hundred year old grandmother trees, were a hundred years old or less. Pretty much the whole peninsula had been open meadow at one time, maintained by human burning. The oral history of the place tells us that the camas meadows (a delicious edible bulb in the lily family and important staple carbohydrate for the northwest coastal tribes) were some of the most productive anywhere. Today the only camas left was in a little patch of unmowed grass at the Port Townsend Golf course. This patch is diminishing each year because of non-native species, but also because it is not being burned. More importantly, the soil was not being disturbed and the seeds were not being buried at harvest, a practice that gives Camas an edge in competing with the other low-growing plants..

The meadows provided forage and habitat for elk, deer and their predators as well as many species of seed eating birds, some of which were game birds. In less than 100 years much of that abundance and biodiversity was lost and the entire baseline nature of the landscape changed from camas prairie to Douglas fir forest overstory with salal and fern understory, not nearly as productive a landscape for herbivores, ground birds or Camas. Without careful, awareness-based human participation in the nature of that place, the resilience and ecological diversity of the land was diminished. Additionally, and maybe the greatest loss, was of the culturally based knowledge of how to sustainably live in that place and maintain its resilience.

In early days there was no such thing as “wilderness,” places in nature that humans did not live or hunt or harvest as participants in the wild web of life. The modern notion of wilderness as a pristine place without humans living in it is predicated upon the extinction and removal of the human cultures that formerly inhabited and participated in their wild habitats. These were arguably cultures that possessed and had generationally passed on the most attuned environmental sensitivity and the most sophisticated ecological expertise of place that has ever existed. From an indigenous point of view, modern wilderness is little more than a degraded nature museum with signs proclaiming, “Do not touch!” It is no longer viewed and valued as the beautiful, abundant, self-regenerating home, larder, and medicine cabinet the creator prepared for us to be participants within.

First Principle of the Universe: Everything is connected

The people of old knew this. Everything is connected. And like so many things known to the people of old, we modern literates have spent billions of dollars proving the truth of it.


Don’t get me wrong here. Scientific argument, investigation and discovery reveals aspects of the wonder and unity of our universe in graphic detail, formerly only available to the imagination, dreams and psychic travels of the ancients[1]. We are at a point in history where anyone can look at photos of nebulae millions of light years away and peer into the world of microscopic cells, witnessing invisible biological processes. This is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. However the commoner must trust the person with the camera as to what those pictures represent. This is not really much different than the common person’s relationship to the shaman in an animist culture. The method of observation and interpretation looks different, but the cultural reliance on the word of the individuals who actually enter into the unseen worlds is quite similar.

Is it not interesting that the most abstract and expensive branch of modern science, subatomic physics, points ever more clearly and in great detail, at the unity and connectedness of creation? Mass can be transformed into energy and energy can transform into mass. In the beginning, according to Big Bang theory, there was only energy, which then began to take the form of matter with qualities of both mass and energy as it cooled and expanded. All of the elements present in the universe we observe and breathe and walk in today are descendents of the simplest of atomic elements, hydrogen. I The fusion furnaces of early hydrogen stars passed through star lifetimes and then burst forth in supernovae to populate the ethers with new hot gasses which in turn birthed new stars, new elements and new solar systems. And, not only does theoretical physics point at the unity of creation as an objective reality, but also includes the subjective reality of the consciousness of the observer.

The closer we observe the position of a subatomic particle the less we are able to observe its trajectory and momentum. The closer we determine a subatomic particle’s momentum the less we can know about its position. This is not due to interference created by the observer, but is rather a phenomenon of observation itself at the subatomic level. This is due to what is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and was demonstrated by the Bose Einstein condensate experiment, among others. Rubidium atoms were cooled down to near absolute zero. This reduced their vibration, and thus their velocity and momentum, to near zero. But as the rubidium atom’s momentum approached zero, their location became so diffused that the individual atoms couldn’t tell each other apart. Once their momentum approached zero,they could no longer be located in space to the perception of an observing consciousness. Even the elusive quality we call consciousness seems to be an inseparable part of the connectivity of the universe, both acting as a player and being played by the nature of reality itself in some strange and paradoxical way.

Many a wise shaman of old or present day might speak to these discoveries something like this: “Yes, things are not at all what they seem to be on the surface of observable reality. We have always known this. It is probably good you have discovered it for yourselves, though. Now let us proceed with the problems at hand…”

And what, exactly, are the problems at hand? This question is usually treated much like the political polls I have been receiving of late, asking me to rate the importance of issues on a scale from one to ten. OK, let’s see, is war and violence more important than climate change? Is either of those things more important than global child poverty and malnutrition? What about the refugee crisis or the war in Syria? Maybe the problem of human trafficking and the issue of sex slaves is more important? What about the gyre of plastic waste the size of a small continent in the Pacific Ocean?…Why is it that the more focused and definite I become on a particular issue, the less comfortable I become giving it the number one on the scale of importance? Is some kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work in the social realm, where the closer I focus on one concern, other concerns seem to escalate in their potential for suffering and calamity in my peripheral awareness. Is this just me being indecisive?

Lately, I’ve been giving high marks to climate change in these questionnaires on principle, not because I really believe it is number one but because it seems to capture the enormity of what I am feeling. But now I have stopped responding altogether. I know these questionnaires are really just an excuse to gather data about me and send me more focused fundraising appeals. Everything is connected. Every “issue” is connected and vibrating with all of the other “issues.” The whole relative rating of “issues” is bunk. The right questions are not being asked. And what is the reason that the unity of all creation is being left out of the assumptions behind the question? As if we could rate the importance of one life form over that of another. What pattern of thinking and unconscious arrogance might be at work even in the framing of our questions?

What is the problem at hand? Is it a problem of human consciousness or a problem of the physical reality of human activity on a finite planet? This is another popular debate. Yes, both. How can they be separated? When it comes down to deciding if one life form is more important than another, a choice that politicians and judges argue about every day, by what criteria do we make such decisions? These are important decisions that express our collective social will and have very far reaching consequences in both time and space. For example, by deciding not to return water flow to a diverted stream in East Maui, but instead allow that water to irrigate industrially farmed cropland miles away, we are depriving countless creatures and farmers using ditch irrigation below the diversion, of a resource critical to their lives and livelihoods in favor of organisms and livelihoods at the other end of the irrigation canal. This is an example of how human consciousness is expressed through political processes that directly or indirectly reflect collective social will. The activity of diverting water will have both seen and unseen consequences in the short and long term.

If you have gotten this far you will likely favor a return of at least some measurable flow of water to the streams, if not all of it, because my bias is clear in even the title of this blog. When we turn off stream flow, creatures adapted to that specific stream die out completely This leads to extinction, a permanent and tragic ripple in the fragile fabric of life on this island planet. Such decisions should not be made lightly or out of ignorance of potential consequences. Life on this planet is precious and wonderful, definitely improbable, and nearly impossible given the entropic nature of the universe. We live on a tiny mote of magic, a very long way from any other similar inhabitable motes of magic.

Though life is fragile, it is also resilient. At least it is a bit more resilient than fragile in the mid-range picture of things. But nature’s facility at resilience lies in the unseen unity and connectedness of everything. Some ecological catastrophes, defined by me, create massive changes to a web of life’s ability to support biodiversity and abundance. These are caused by a cascade of unforeseen consequences from the loss of a single species in an ecosystem. Industrial scale hunting of sea otters is one famous example. Sea otters eat sea urchins, sea urchins eat the holdfasts of kelp. Sea otters neared extinction so that the European and Russian elite could wear their skins as coats. This wiped out the kelp forests of the west coast of North America due to an overpopulation of sea urchins. The kelp forests were a necessary habitat and food source for countless species, including the sea otter. Fur hunters had no intention of wiping out entire fisheries and damaging the biodiversity of the entire coastal ecosystem of a continent, but they did. This story has repeated itself over and over throughout human history. In the migrations of Homosapiens, mass extinction of megafauna and massive alterations to ecosystems have been the rule rather than the exception.

What I want to impress upon my reader is not that returning stream flow is good and necessary, even though I think it is in most cases. What I want to do is bring the unity of the universe into the conversation in a radical way. This is something that the new wisdom and the old wisdom agree upon and yet it only remains active in either our spiritual discussions or our scientific and philosophical ones.Yet it remains as the most universal overarching understanding of all time. Everything is connected! We all come from the same source. We are made of the same stuff. Even our consciousness is part of the stuff of creation. Every action ripples out in concentric rings of effect into the universe, from gross events like supernovae, to the smallest step of an ant or the wave/particle energy of an electron. As beings who possess self-consciousness, awareness, observation and choice, this truth should be at the forefront of all decision making.

If we understand the unity and interconnectedness of creation to be the fundamental basis for all questions regarding human action, we change the perspective of the questioner in profound ways. First of all, it opens the door to humility. If I truly understand that every action I take ripples out into creation forever, I might become more observant of the effects of my actions upon the universe, or at least upon my little inhabited part of the universe. I might want to take advantage of the quality of my humanness that allows contemplation and observation. This is an opportunity given to me by the fact of my humanness, and the potential of having a self-conscious Self. Humility enters, because even if I am the most advanced scientist in my field, or the most advanced tracker, scout, healer or shaman in my village, I will never argue that my powers of observation cannot be improved upon.

Today, hubris, not humility, is rewarded in the political and economic realms. Witness the outpouring of support for Donald Trump, who offers nothing but hubris. Watch Bernie Sanders, whom I believe possesses an unusual amount of humility for a politician, use hubris to get attention and raise funds for his admittedly astute substantive messages. A presidential candidate who attempts to use humility as the foundation for their bid for the U.S. presidency you will never hear of unless you look deeply into the matter on your own determined initiative. That person will not, at this time, appear on your ballot, TV screen or newspaper as anything more than a curious human interest story. Yet humility is the most important human quality to flow from our most profound understanding of creation. Even so it gets almost no air-time in public discourse, except from the Dali Lama and Pope Francis and a few other international voices. We are paradoxical creatures indeed, choosing leaders who consistently lack one of the most important qualities needed for getting along with others.

Where in history have people actually selected leaders,expressing high degrees of humility as a consistent pattern? Only in “non-civilized” societies, as far as I know. That is, only in village-based, primarily oral cultures that live or lived directly off of their ancestral land for countless generations. Indigenous cultures. Old cultures. Cultures with a long ancestral memory of living in one place with no ambition to build empires or “markets”. This is where the Old comes into The New Old Way. These cultures were led by elders who took a long time to make decisions, who possessed great humility and placed a high value on careful and accurate observation.

The New Old Way postulates that the unity of creation is the most important starting point regarding human actions. It honors the process of modern scientific inquiry, even though it may challenge the allocation of the huge resources sometimes required to carry out its work. It may be that many of these resources are better devoted to addressing concerns related to survival, social peace and the restoration of nature, but it does not reject western academic science. At the same time, the New Old Way also honors and recognizes the old arts of scientific inquiry. The way of the scout, the tracker, the gatherer and the shaman are also science. They are the science of oral human culture, a science that predates literacy, a science that is unifying and connective. It is most unfortunate that modern literate science is often arrogant and dismissive of the old sciences. In the New Old Way they get along and there are numerous places where they are beginning to collaborate out of mutual respect. This is positive, and reflects the birthing impulse of a new world view.

As we move forward in this age of global end games, the voice of unity is extremely important. The unity and connection of the universe and what it means as a guiding principle for our personal and collective lives needs to come to the forefront of our awareness. Downstream effects of all of our actions play out for a very long time. The principle of considering the effects of decisions seven generations forward is based on indigenous science as well as the cultural memory of previous mass extinctions and their cost to humans and nature. The loss of the megafauna of the Americas, mastodons, giant sloths and their predators, notably saber toothed tigers, followed the arrival of the human hunters. We acted so swiftly and so greedily that the species at the business end of our spears did not even have a chance to adapt to our presence. This undoubtedly brought starvation to many a thriving human tribe, as the easy food sources disappeared.

Lessons learned in this way tend to have a lasting impact. And these lessons and their moral, ethical and technological implications have been kept alive culturally by the peoples who have lived directly from the land since these cataclysms. The need to respect,observe and know first hand the unity and interconnectedness of nature was universally developed out of direct necessity for long-term survival in each particular place that humans came to inhabit.

Today modern human cultures, languages and consciousness occupy continental and global spaces, not only regional ones. Mass culture has not only forgotten its roots but has systematically attempted to erase indigenous cultures from their territories, as well as indigenous cultural influences from the minds of the common people. There has been an ongoing land-grab and class stratification of society over the last few thousand years of mass civilization. Now is the time to readjust our compasses and evaluate the journey of civilization for its flaws, before it is too late. The unity and interconnectedness of all things is the new north on the social compass of the New Old Way.


[1]I think I need to emphasize right from the start that when I refer to “the people of old”, “ancient cultures” and “animist cultures” as I have here, I am struggling to reach for language that includes both the past and the present. These ancient cultures are not dead and gone, by any means. People of old and animist cultures are alive and kicking, if not necessarily well, though persons of such heritage will almost never refer to themselves in these kinds of general terms. This is paradox number one of many you will encounter as you hopefully read on. I am likely to offend indigenous persons, First Nations people, aboriginal people, Native Americans and their allies. For this I apologize in advance. All I can do is ask for help with a language shaped by a world view that relegates original human cultures to the past, when in fact they are both past and present, assuming they have survived genocide (and ecocide) at all. I am trying to help invent both a language and a world-view that includes ancient but living contemporary cultures. If you have suggestions, please share them by commenting. I love comments.


Dedication and Introduction

The New Old Way: Toward a nonviolent end to the industrial age and the regeneration of nature



This blog is dedicated to my great friends and teachers: Kelley Janes, who is also the mother of my two children Linden and Daisy (also friends and teachers), James Donaldson, Al Lagunero, Jim Anest, Malidoma Patrice Somè, Jon Young, John Konovsky, Kari Bown, Julie Miller, Thomas Elliott, Douglas Simon Amrine, Julie Puhich, Erin Schrader, and David Hauer. My world is the world it is because of these beloved people. And I am in the world because of my parents, both helping from the other side now, H. Leonard Brisley and Minerva Whittier Pearson. I am so grateful.


Introduction: “Oh, and by the way ….”

We live in a marvelous age of human ingenuity. We travel through the sky inside gigantic machines of human creation. We can speak to loved ones half way around the planet while watching the expressions on their faces on a screen we can carry in our pockets. Our greatest athletes are breaking records every year. We can watch moving images of stories taking place in fantastical worlds that appear to actually exist. Oh, and by the way, civilization as we know it today appears to be doomed.

Today is Earth Day, 2016. A child born today enters into this paradoxical world as national leaders gather in New York at the United Nations to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. For some, this is hopeful. For others, this represents a business as usual response to imminent global ecological collapse. A child born today, enters a world which has lived with common knowledge of the possibility that human ingenuity might end civilization as we know it in a cloud of radioactive fury for seventy one years now, since the fateful day that the Enola Gay released its payload above Hiroshima, Japan. Four generations of adults have passed this world on with this one small hitch attached to the operating agreement of global civilization. ”Oh, and by the way, all this wonderfulness could end tomorrow. Sorry we didn’t fix that little problem.”

Plus, to make matters a little more troubling, the picture of human civilization’s wonder painted in my opening paragraph is as remote as a science fiction movie for most of the world’s population (except for the screen that fits in your pocket part.) Living in a resourced modern nation it can be very easy to overlook that fact.

This blog, besides being a book gone wrong, is my attempt to sort this out a little. I’ve  been secretly obsessed with two strange desires since I can remember: to live a Stone Age life in a cave somewhere and to help transform society into a beautiful expression of human caring for one another and our beloved planet. That is my own personal paradox and it has woven a strange but fascinating path for me through the labyrinth of modernity. I am privileged to have been able to indulge an exploration into both of these passions, neither of which generates a very good income, and raise up two amazing children with my beloved spouse in the context of this journey.

I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two of value. I hope desperately that I have. This blog is my attempt to pass on reflections that might be helpful toward shaping the character of the new world that is coming. We still have the possibility, if not the probability, of an abundant, just and peaceful future. We have the ingenuity already in hand. Technology is not the problem. The problem is social will. Social will determines the social allocation of resources. As long as we devote more resources to war than to ecological restoration we are a doomed civilization.

How do we shift social will?

I hope that I have something of value to offer this conversation. Welcome aboard.


War on Terror, Terror of War

Visiting the memorial sites for the victims of the recent Paris attacks brings up a lot of feelings. So does today’s BBC headline, “MPs Authorize Air Strikes Against IS in Syria.”

In the context of the global climate summit, the terror attack has become an excuse to cancel planned mass public demonstrations aimed at building political pressure toward meaningful action at COP21. In the context of global war-making, it has become the excuse for escalating the use of state sponsored violence to attempt to address the problem of radical jihadist terrorism.
Yet on the ground here in Paris, standing in front of the monuments that have sprung up in Place de Republique, at the Bataclan Theater and on the street corner restaurants where Parisian lives were taken short weeks ago, I am struck by an overwhelmingly different response than the one echoing through the halls of governments. Parisians have refused to be frightened and have instead expressed their grief and sadness and anger through the medium of an overwhelming abundance of heartfelt gestures of love and peace and hope and solidarity. The spontaneous public monuments that have sprung up on the streets have become shrines that are both a reminder of the useless waste of violence and the deep resilience of love.

Our small delegation from Maui was blessed a few days ago to be invited to be a part of this awesome generosity of spirit. Another small delegation from our medium sized Pacific Island traveled half way across the planet to deliver a hand made ti leaf and orchid flowered lei that was a full mile in length to bring the spirit of Hawaiian aloha to Paris in solidarity with the city’s loss. This lei was crafted from a virtual forest of sacred ti leaves over four long days by hundreds of loving hands representing all of the Hawaiian Islands. It was the honor of our delegation of young leaders from Maui to present sections of this lei ceremonially, following cultural protocols, at Place de Republic on Monday morning.

We then walked to several of the sites where killing took place and laid more sections of the lei at those memorial sites and murder scenes. Namea played the ukulele and sang sweetly at each site. It is quite something to try to take in the reality of the lives that were taken and the waves of grief and helplessness that rippled out through family and friends and neighbors and citizens. How does one respond to such horror?

I know that the rhetoric that has come from heads of state and their subsequent military directives have been to escalate the bombing and the war on IS in an effort to eradicate them in their “home territory.” How successful will this be? Mahatma Gandhi pointed out to us generations ago that violence can never be eliminated with greater violence. Is this true? It is certainly something to think about. Has the massive expression of state sponsored violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and now Syria done anything other than to fan the flames of the radical jihadist movement? Are we better off now than we were two decades ago? I think not.
Imagine that you live in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where radical jihadist factions of “freedom fighters” have succeeded in maintaining an active presence. Imagine that almost every day you observe unmanned aircraft in the sky above your village and that you personally know grandmothers, children and non-combatant young men that have been struck down by air strikes from these unmanned aircraft, both as so-called “collateral damage” and as mistakenly targeted individuals.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism civilian casualties of the drone war number from 532 to 1,271 in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.* Can you imagine the intensity of helplessness, fear, rage and grief that you would feel living beneath a faceless non-human enemy day in day out for years on end? Is drone terror bringing an end to terror? Drone terror is systematic, relentless, state sponsored terrorism.

Now consider this: the United States alone plans to spend $764 billion in 2016 on its military budget. The U.S. spends an average of $14.5 million dollars a day on its fight against ISIS and 96 million every day on the war in Afghanistan.
I think it is fair to say that the more wasteful a thing is of resources and energy, the more of a proportional contribution it is making to global climate change. A pretty solid argument can be made that the industry of militarization is 100% wasteful or perhaps even more. If we do go to war, all of those military resources are used to lay waste to people and infrastructure with disastrous consequences to the environment and human health. If the resources are not used for their intended purpose of death and destruction, then they were wasted on something useless with no real economic value, though it is better off for the world than if they had been used.
Why is it that war and preparations for war get so little press in the global climate debate considering the outright wastefulness, toxicity and massive carbon expense of the industry? Is the notion that making war and preparing for war is a necessary solution to the problem of war something that we just have to accept as a norm? Modern warfare and modern war preparations are the most direct attack against the sanctity and health of the earth that there is. In a world that is already experiencing ecological degradation, massive poverty and hunger, to squander valuable resources on a war industry is violent in itself. It robs from the poor and the planet on one side and destroys life support systems on the other. It is a crime against the planet and humanity.

Perhaps this perspective gets so little air time because no one knows what to do about the problem except grieve and pray. Some few of us have refused to pay taxes. And we have taken to the streets in protest, seemingly to little avail. Not knowing what to do is not an excuse for not facing the truth of a thing and asking powerful questions of ourselves and of the powers that be. The thought structure and cultural habits that rationalize a massive global war industry is the same thought structure that rationalizes postponing the environmental and social costs of mass extraction, production and consumption for as long as possible, thus our global climate crisis.

We are caught in the climax of a genuine paradigm conflict. A new paradigm of economics, politics and culture is rising up as a visionary force out of the multiple crises threatening global catastrophe. Meanwhile the conventional paradigm is one in which class stratified consumer societies, nations, mega-corporations and billionaire individuals compete with one another at conquest and expansion on a finite globe. The old paradigm has resources and inertia on its side. The emerging paradigm has vision, truth, human heart and hope.

When the horrible consequences of the old paradigm come home to us as a devastating typhoon, an inescapable drought, a drone strike that kills a child or a senseless terrorist attack in the city of love, sometimes all we can do in the moment is give our hearts the space to feel, give our hands another hand to hold and light a candle for the future that it be not so. At these times we need to remind ourselves and one another of what we care for and trust in our ability and our will to act, even when the path forward is momentarily blurred by our tears.


Paris: Read Between the Lines

Climate change, though real, is so big and so abstract and so deeply frightening when fully considered that it lends itself easily to denial and to disconnection.image

Even when a typhoon destroys your village and kills your family, it was the storm that caused the damage not some clearly identifiable entity called “climate change.” Climate change is a collective global problem generated by a complex web of habits, beliefs, values, institutions, infrastructure, industry, economics, politics and war.

The solution to this is not a set of international agreements limiting CO2 emissions. I think most people know this and that is why I experience so much cynicism when I share about our Maui delegation traveling to Paris for COP21. What most people are not aware of is the convergence of activated youth, indigenous leaders and cultural creatives in a genuine movement for change that is surrounding the official negotiations by heads of state.image

One of the threads emerging from consideration of our current plight on the planet is to look to nature for solutions. The cause of global warming is waste. When an organism produces more waste than its host habitat or organism can absorb and process back into a healthy balance then it weakens and ultimately kills its host and itself. Either that or the host habitat’s defense systems contain and weaken the overly wasteful organism to the point that it is no longer a threat to the host. In the context of global warming, neither scenario bodes well for human kind.

A third solution is that the aggressive, waste producing organism adapts to the limitations of its host before it is eliminated and in so doing becomes either a symbiont or an actual part of the host. All three of these processes are a part of natural biological evolution. And, in fact, we humans and all other complex organisms alive on earth today are a direct result of this third solution. Viral DNA was incorporated into our DNA millions of years ago. In the most simple terms biology’s message is adapt or die.image

Adapt or die. The stakes are high. One would think that a self-conscious being possessing the capacity for extremely clever problem solving and mass organization and communication would have a good shot at adaptation when the biological push came to shove on its out of balance planet. But so far, this does not seem to be the case.

Apparently, the collective inertia of the habits, values and beliefs of our current civilization is overwhelming our collective capacity to adapt. The logical conclusion one would draw from this scenario is that every single habit, belief and value needs to be examined and quite possibly either transformed or discarded, along with the cultural, social, economic and physical infrastructures that form the basis of our current trajectory.

The bad news is that this will not be happening inside the COP21 negotiating rooms. The best we can hope for from status quo thinkers and power brokers is a token adjustment, not a trajectory change.

The good news is that there is a global venue for for the deeply transformational work that is needed at every level of society. It has preceded the COP21 negotiations at the Conference of Youth (COY11) and it continues on in numerous venues all over Paris in places where indigenous leaders, youth, poets, musicians, artists and cultural creatives of all kinds are gathering to strategize, build bridges and mobilize for the deep changes that are required for true human adaptation.


In these venues, everything is on the table for participatory discussion from technological solutions to agricultural best practices to methodology of democratic participation and new economic models. Educational pedagogy, entrenched racism and sexism, consumer habits and first world entitlements are all being examined. Earth centered ceremony and indigenous cultural practices, perspectives and stories of struggle are being shared. And those that have come here to share, learn, explore and take action represent only a small fraction of a long simmering global mass movement that is quickly coming to a boil. Climate change is the issue that ties all issues of environment and justice together and calls us to an entirely new kind of unity. That unity is being forged and its messages and strategies continue to emerge at both the subtle and dramatic levels.

So pay attention to the news, but please, please read between the lines. Yes, Paris is a global focal point but what really matters is happening in our families and neighborhoods and communities back home where we are changing our habits, building unity and political will, stopping the destruction of our land and water, restoring our forests and agricultural soils and applying solutions in our own back yards.

This movement is akin to the immune system of the planet. Where destruction is occurring there is a local movement to stop it. Another group is working on repairing damage through ecological restoration. Another group is staging dramatic actions to alert the larger body to the problem. Some people are in ceremony to purify and strengthen the systems of health. Others are working toward greater communication, unity and common resolve amongst all parts of the system.

So read between the lines. Most of the immune system flys below the radar of the infection. This is hopeful, if you think about it, because in the case of global warming “the infection” controls the conventional media. Most of what is truly happening on the ground is invisible. Only the dramatic actions get attention, as they are intended to do. Read between the lines.

(One of the best English speaking news sources from Paris is Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! She is here on the ground reporting on the entire summit and side events.)

First Reflections on Climate Justice from COY11

The climate issue is important because it requires us to come to unity in order to succeed, and because it requires total success. We cannot be satisfied by slow partial gains on our most passionate issues any more. We must achieve authentic transformation of society down to the core. We have always had the assignment to care for this earth. Now we are up against a deadline and there are many obstacles to overcome.

It is hopeful to be among so many passionate young leaders at the Conference of Youth 11 in Paris squarely facing this challenge and to know that this is but the tip of the iceberg – those with either the resources or the determination to travel to this convergence. WAKE UP WORLD! THE TIME IS NOW!


The human superpower is our capacity to express free will, both individually and collectively: creativity, innovation, language, culture, technology . . . . Naturally we are proud of our special gifts and powers. However, with a superpower comes a super-responsibility. Every superpower has a dark side and every hero’s journey requires maturing into wisdom and awareness. In this case we need the wisdom and maturity required to exercise our special human gifts within the limitations of the world that the immature and narcissistic expression of those gifts threatens to destroy.

We know this. Maturing is something we are wired to succeed at and that we deeply want and need to do, both personally and collectively. However, the privileges, comforts, protections and entitlements of immaturity are never given up without a struggle. The mature forces of conscience, wisdom and compassion must overcome the immature forces of greed, hubris and violence. This is the essence of nonviolent engagement toward human liberation.

The advantage that this modern climate justice movement has, that previous social mass movements toward liberation have lacked, is the strong presence of a global “still small voice.” This voice has always existed and has always expressed its wisdom. Its people have almost universally suffered the most horrific systematic violence of any cultural groups in recorded history. This is the voice of the keepers of indigenous wisdom. These are the spokespersons of cultures that have perpetuated sophisticated systems of applied ecological knowledge for generations. These cultures have successfully addressed the problem of maintaining abundance and biodiversity while harvesting all the necessities of life from the earth and waters that surrounded them.

In the history of mass social movements of the past, this indigenous voice has always been ignored, absent, invisible, appropriated, marginalized or suppressed. While these historical forces of suppression still exist within the climate justice movement, they are being addressed at both the obvious and subtle levels. This is absolutely essential if we are to achieve true unity in the face of the obstacles before us.

The climate justice movement is nothing less than a global liberation movement, though I am not sure that it has that self-perception. What is more oppressive to everyone everywhere than human activities that concentrate obscene wealth in the hands of a tiny minority while destroying the life support systems of an entire planet? Finally human liberation is being recognized as integral and inseparable from ecological health. And finally, the experts at successfully integrating human habitation with nature are being consulted. Finally the wisdom t

The Way of the Fox

If the Way of Saint James were to be named after an animal, it would have to be the fox. Fox scats have been more constant than the yellow arrows and way-mark shells of the Camino from the first day that we started in Irun.

I have to wonder how many of these elusive creatures have secretly watched us pass from the shadowy stillness of the gorse, shrub oak or heather. We have been snacking on many of the same foods as the fox as evidenced by the pits and stones and seeds in their leavings: cherries in the Basque Country blended into plums as we progressed into Cantabria, then back to cherries in the high elevations of Asturias and now the occasional blackberry meal is in evidence. Only on rare occasions have we seen evidence of fur or the shiny black of organ meat, but sometimes copious amounts of shiny beetle wings. Never once a fox itself.

If I were to travel this trail alone, I would get up an hour earlier (5 AM) and take an hour to go down some side trail away from the Camino hikers and sit still in one place to let nature come back to equilibrium during different times of day, but especially in the early morning, hoping for a fox. As it is, I am quite happy to be through-walking, keeping an eye out for tracks and signs and an ear to the birds. I still hope to see a fox one of these foggy mornings when we get up extra early, but I know it would only be by the grace of the fox at the pace that we are hiking. Still, it is fun to follow their scats, look down the deer runs where they intersect our path, put little stories together in my imagination. We see scats at trail intersections, scats on nice flat obvious rocks, scats on other scats, what look like fox kit scats. . . . and literally a fox scat almost every 200 meters, often more frequently than that.

I learned today that the red fox is the most widely distributed mammal species on the planet, except for humans. Pretty much the entire northern hemisphere is its range. A remarkably adaptable creature and one that I have grown fond of on this trail, even though I only get to see what it leaves to be seen conspicuously on the trails we are walking, the invisible owner of everywhere!

We have seen track and sign of deer, boar, badger, squirrel, mole, shrew, rat, fox, and . . . . wolf!

Several days ago we hiked to the highest elevation of our journey, 1100 meters, and spent the day traversing rolling open semi-alpine heather and grass summer rangeland cut deeply by extremely steep ravines that dropped into largely unroaded wooded canyons. That is where unmistakeable wolf scat appeared on our trail, large in diameter and full of fur (which I suspect to be wild boar fur.)

More very similar scat appeared the next day even closer to human habitation and we saw Hershey kiss shaped “dollops” of shiny black organ meat scat that reminded me of the alpha wolf scent scats we saw in New Mexico when tracking wolves there. It is always exciting to become aware of the presence of wolves. The literature says that the wolves are valued by the farmers for keeping down the boar population. I suspect that these wolves have learned to stay away from domestic animals for the most part as they have lived near human agriculture for such a long time. I did not expect wolves here at all. What a treat not only to learn that they are here, but to see evidence first hand.

I really wanted to find actual fox tracks and have spent many days looking for them any time we were walking on substrate that would hold a clear imprint. But we are never the first ones out on the trail and often near the last. Two teenagers can be hard to move in the morning, even though they are sincerely doing their best. So the dusty substrate is always trampled with fresh pilgrim boots by the time we pass, as well as the soft muddy places. Foxes and pilgrims walk on the flat, easy part of the trail. Cows, domestic dogs, deer have all left tracks in the muddy edges, but not fox. Then finally I found three preserved tracks in a little soft spot that had been mud.

There must have been some scent or rodent or such thing to investigate, but I was happy to see some footprints that I am pretty sure belonged to a fox, though as I’ve looked at tracking resources on the subject I now have some doubts . . . . I suppose doubt is always good when tracking . . . . .

Yesterday we departed Lugo for the last 100 kilometers of our journey to Santiago. I think we have seen the last of the wolf tracks for now, but I’m quite sure the fox will be with us all the way!

(I tried for hours to upload photos for this post but ultimately failed. Maybe when I get home.)