As the smoke from wildfires fills the air I wonder at this moment in time. Since the pandemic began, time itself has taken on a quality of unreality, as days flow into each other, nights and days, dreams and waking. I can feel how around the world life has taken on a profound uncertainty, and despite the drive to return to some semblance of normal, there is a deeper knowing that the boundaries of our world have shifted. The virus and its accompanying social distancing, mask wearing, economic insecurity, and all the patterns of social and racial inequality that are woven into this story, have displaced us into a new, unfamiliar landscape. And now, here in California, fires caused by unseasonable lightening have added a new level of intensity—how in a moment a spark ignites the dry, dry landscape, the trees and undergrowth, weeks earlier than our usual fire season. It is easy to try to read stories into this picture, to find meaning in nature overwhelming us. But it is the unease that touches me most, as if some deeper current is breaking through into our surface lives.
For many years I have felt this shifting in the underlying structures that determine our daily lives. We are taught to think we can be masters of our own destiny, even control nature, but in the depths a different story is being told, one of primal changes and new patterns forming. And now we can begin to feel this shift in the air around us. A virus, a lightening spark—currents underlying life coming to the surface. Of course we try to protect ourselves, this is our human nature, huddle in our caves, keeping out the wind and the rain. And so here, with the wildfires just south and west, our bags are packed, a few possessions to take with us. But maybe it is time to recognize that we are living in a different story, or in the space between stories, the boundaries broken, nature claiming back a landscape we have invaded and exploited.
But as the smoke filled the air, ash falling, I also felt the fear and pain of the wildlife, the animals and birds caught in this burning. Their world has been destroyed so much over the recent years and decades, as we poison the soil, cut down the trees, drain the wetlands. And now our shared story has become fire and smoke, anxiety, uncertainty, primal fear. Whose world is being burned? Whose house is being lost? For years I have felt the deep need to reconnect with the land, with its rhythms, its flow of seasons and moments of beauty and wonder. For the last few weeks I have watched a family of quail grow up in our garden, the mother protectively looking on as her children hide among the plants, or scramble up the garden steps after her—a reassuring image of life’s cycles along with the flowers and vegetables. But the fire reminds me of a different quality of connection, a shared survival. Into what world are we travelling? For how long will the fires burn, the virus last? And what will come afterwards? And what are the stories we need to support us through these coming days, years, decades?
What matters to me most is this: our shared story together with the Earth, our shared journey. For too long in the West we have regarded the Earth as “unfeeling matter” to be exploited, nature a force to be tamed, bent to our will. And now many living in cities, in urban landscapes, are more responsive to the images on their smart phones than the wind or the rain. But the virus has broken through our defenses, reminding us that we are part of a wilder ecosystem, one that we cannot control, like rivers that flood or fires that burn. It will be a hard lesson for our civilization to relearn, to reconnect with an older, almost forgotten wisdom, that belongs to feet touching the earth, our senses attuned to the whole web of life, its many voices.
Of course many will try to live in the story of materialism, of science and technology, as long as possible. We have been conditioned to believe it can provide the answers to our problems, like the good fairy in a child’s tale that can wave its magic wand and make the world well again. But this is just a fantasy; make believe. The Earth is too ancient to be controlled or understood by computers with their ones and zeros, its present changes too profound. The fact that our civilization forgot or dismissed the ways of the Earth is what has caused this climate crisis. We cannot press a button to return to “normal.” We have stumbled into a landscape that requires a different path. Whether or when we are able to find a pathway and its signs that can guide us will determine how our future will unfold. At present we have not yet fully accepted how foreign and yet familiar is this landscape. We have become strangers to the world around us.
Real courage requires us to accept an unknown future, and our insecurity, anxiety. We are all waiting with our bags packed, not knowing how close the wildfire will come. This is a future full of grief for the world we are destroying, its passing wonder, even as we do not know into what world we are transitioning. If we try too soon to define a new story we will miss this moment of transition, which is the real magic of the present time. To be fully alive is to stand in this doorway, knowing little except the intensity of the moment.
Do we have the courage to fully accept that while one story is over a new story has not yet formed? That we are living in a time of radical uncertainty? It is easy to recognize that the story of consumerism—with its false promise of eternal economic growth and material prosperity—is over. We can see this in the dying oceans, species depletion, as well as in our economic divisiveness, social inequality. And many long for a new story, one that recognizes life’s unity and diversity, its natural interconnectedness, even as it imagines carbon neutral communities and locally grown food, restoring wetlands, and many other signs of a sustainable future. But while these are inspiring dreams, they deny the darkness of our present time—authoritarian regimes, entrenched patters of greed and exploitation—all the forces of resistance to real change.
And these new stories also have the danger of once again imposing our ideas—however well-intentioned—on the Earth, and thus denying Her living wisdom. We have damaged Her enough with our own desires and there is a pressing need to reconnect and respect Her ways. Our journey is together with the Earth, and like our ancestors we need to learn how to listen and respect Her deep patterns of change, particularly those that are coming to the surface at this time.
While writing these words a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch outside my window. Possibly a fugitive from the fire, I saw it first a few days ago. Its presence reminds me of another reality, one that belongs to the senses and is also magical, like the animals in the cave paintings in Southern France. As much as we need to include ourselves in the story of the Earth, we need to allow the Earth to tell its own more-than-human story. This is the doorway that is being opened at this moment in the Earth’s time, if we allow ourselves to walk through.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is the author of many books including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, and forthcoming title, Including the Earth in Our Prayers: A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice. The focus of his writing and teaching is on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition.
Photo: Diane Barker