Fire season came early this year. An unseasonable Summer lightning storm set fire to the land and it burned for weeks, the air dense with smoke, the sun rising red, ashes falling. After sheltering in place for months due to the pandemic, we now sheltered from fire and smoke, hardly daring to open a window. Our bags packed—a few possessions, change of clothes, the necessary documents—should our home burn. Our small community here on the Northern California coast so grateful to the firefighters holding the line, risking their lives.
A global pandemic, and then wildfires, storms, and floods throughout the world, as if a thread in the fabric of our lives is being pulled. Is this what it means to live at the end of an era? Not a revolution, imagining a better future, but a great unraveling—what happens when a civilization begins to die, when its egocentric values of greed and exploitation reach a tipping point, when nature becomes unbalanced, the web of life stretched to breaking. Our society more divided, economic inequality and poverty increasing, people caught in conspiracy theories as they fear a world they cannot understand or control. And we do not know how it will unfold; our computer models cannot predict this future. All we know is the radical uncertainty of this moment in time.
This uncertainty is felt in the collective, a primal anxiety triggered by the pandemic. Just as a forest is connected by an underground fungal network—enabling individual trees to communicate with each other and warn of danger by releasing chemicals into the air—so are we all connected together deep within, sharing the wisdom and knowing of the Earth, our common home. And this network is sending us warning signs, that our present way of life is not only unsustainable, but over. Even when this pandemic comes to an end, we cannot afford to “return to normal” for very long. Sadly much of our response has been denial, to retreat into the miasma of fake news and the divisiveness encouraged by social media. We appear more and more caught in a dark web even as our world is burning.
Walking on the beach near to my home I can see the remnants of the fire, the blackened landscape inland from the dunes, trees and bushes burned. But watching pelicans fly overhead and then dive into the ocean for fish, I am reminded of another story, one that takes me back to the beginning and also speaks of a future that calls to me. This is a story of a simpler time, when humanity was still young and the Divine was a tangible presence in the air around, like the first sweetness of Spring. There was a knowing present then that is now deeply hidden—a knowing of the sacred purpose of creation, of its beauty and wonder. And this knowing was coming alive, speaking to human beings in all the myriad voices of the world around, in the streams and storms, in the cries of the birds and the animals, in the first language of life.1 It was the joy of life communing with us, a prayer without words, as simple and joyous as watching the pelicans dive into the waves.
So much was given at this time, when the soul of humanity and the soul of the world were bonded together, and the Earth showed Her generosity. The land was pristine and its sacred nature known and honored. It was a time of beginning, the time of the “Original Instructions,” the time before the misuse of magic,2 when the sacred names of creation were given to human beings, first to the shamans, healers, and keepers of the sacred ways—the names of animals that evoked their power, the names of plants that revealed their healing properties, the names of rivers and mountains that ensured that the world was kept in harmony and balance—and through them humanity and the created world came into relationship and worked together. There was a purity of intention in this relationship between humanity and the Earth and all its myriad creatures; their partnership had a sacred purpose. Together they would work to awaken the magic and light hidden within the physical world, and that light would serve a higher purpose. This was the beginning of the covenant between humanity and creation—how the natural world was the first book of revelation.
This is the “in the beginning” of the story, when the Divine did not have to be looked for, because She was a simple living presence, when every breath and dream was felt as sacred, when there was a kinship that embraced everything, every plant and stone, every river and tree. Then all was known in its true sense, and every blade of grass, every animal and person knew where it belonged. And here, in this world, human and divine could meet and speak of the wonder of what is, and spirit and matter did not know any division.
Later it all began to change, and that is the story of human evolution, the myth of “the Fall,” and the beginnings of religion as a way to return to what had been lost, to uncover, reveal this essential relationship. It was also when earth magic began to change, ceasing to be a simple celebration—a calling out or singing of its own name—as, gradually, over millennia, the spirit withdrew into the inner worlds and heaven and earth grew separate. And much spiritual work also withdrew, away from the Earth and the patterns of creation, often to a place of retreat from the world. Something within creation also became hidden; a light within nature (what the alchemists called the lumen naturae) became less accessible. And so an ancient companionship, a familiarity with the Divine as a living presence in the soil and the soul, became covered over and distorted. We then had to find ways to return, devise practices to reconnect with the light within us. And the patterns of distortion that covered the Earth became stronger and stronger, until today we find ourselves in a world that has lost its way, that is spinning more and more out of balance. And the tragedy of a civilization that is destroying the fragile web of life that supports us all.
Now, as thousands of years have passed, so many tides have come and gone, we stand in the time of the great forgetting, when humanity is furthest from the Source. Yes, there have been eras of darkness before, terrible destruction, but never such a forgetting—our civilization has even forgotten the sacred nature of creation. This is why we stand at a door never before opened, at a crossroads never before reached.
This is why there is a calling in me to return to the beginning, to the story of the first day, when our dawning consciousness sung the colors into the texture of our shared existence, when the stories of creation were woven. We cannot return to the innocence of this earlier time, but this bond between humanity and creation remains, hidden beneath all the debris of our culture, the inner and outer wastelands we have created. The mystery and power of the names of creation remain, the primal magic woven between the world of light and the world of creation. We can reconnect to this magic, this awakened relationship with the Earth and its interior worlds—it needs to be reclaimed. It needs to be remembered. The magic that belongs to the real wonder and mystery of creation needs to be reawakened, alive as it was on the first day. And we are this remembrance, this living connection. This was always our covenant with the Earth, our shared journey.
If we are to step away from the present story of separation, we need to return to what is foundational, to reconnect our consciousness with the living Earth, and not just with Her physical ecosystem—helping to restore Her biodiversity, wetlands, and wild places—but also Her magical nature, Her sacred presence. Otherwise we are just living a fragment of our destiny—still treating the Earth as an object. Kinship with the Earth and all Her inhabitants is not just placing our feet on the ground, but meeting soul to soul. This is a songline we need if we are to help dream a new story into existence.
That is why learning to live in the radical uncertainty of the present moment is so essential. If the past year is going teach us anything, it is how unpredictable, how insecure is our present way of life. When you are in a wildfire evacuation warning you have to choose what to pack, what to carry with you. And now we need to choose what belongs to the next stage of our collective journey, the values that can support us as one civilization dies and before another is born from the ashes. Rather than plan for a future that may never happen, we need to return to what is essential. With both grief and love we need to open our hearts and all our senses to the living Earth. In the coming years we will watch as more of Her beauty and wonder are lost, Her seas polluted with plastic, more of Her ancient forests clear-cut for palm oil, in the name of economic “progress” or “development”. But within this grief we will find a deeper belonging, present from the beginning, for even though it has become distorted and forgotten, it was never lost.
Grief for the Earth will open us more deeply to our love for the Earth. As Mary Oliver writes so poignantly: “There is only one question: how to love this world….” Love does not plan for the future but lives in the intense vulnerability of the moment, with each heartbeat. Love is life’s greatest gift and our greatest gift back to life. We can help the world remember what our culture has forgotten—how the soil, the seeds, the rivers and the stars all carry a central message of love. In all its diverse forms, its different ways of being and breathing, the living Earth is a celebration of love. And now it is calling out to us, crying to us to remember its sacred nature.
1 David Abram describes how “for the Inuit, as for numerous other peoples, humans and animals all originally spoke the same language.” He quotes an Inuit woman: “In the very earliest time, when peoples and animals lived on earth … All spoke the same language. That was the time when words were like magic … Those who are recognized as shamans or medicine persons most fully remember the primordial language, and are thus able to slip, at will, out of the purely human discourses in order to converse directly with the other powers.” From The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 87–88.
2 The awakening of magic was part of the story of creation, when human consciousness first appeared. The natural magic of the Earth allowed us to experience the wonder and mystery of creation, how all of creation embodies a divine purpose. It can be seen, for example, in the cave paintings in southern France whose animals have a shamanic dimension. Tragically, this early magic began to be misused for the purpose of power, and this started the split between the worlds, the world of light and the physical world of creation, which is imaged in myth as the Fall, a loss of innocence. I sense a calling to return to this primal relationship, awakening this magic that is still present, although mostly hidden, within creation. The magical relationship between the worlds is a part of our heritage which we have mostly forgotten, although we still speak of a “magical moment” when the numinous energy of the inner comes into our outer world.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee Ph.D. is the author of many books including the anthology Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and 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, spiritual ecology and an awakening global consciousness of oneness.