This Summer here on the California coast brought us into a primal landscape, wildfires raging for weeks, sparked by a dry lightning storm. After sheltering-in-place for months due to the pandemic, we had to shelter also from fire and smoke, hardly daring to open a window, the sun rising red, ashes falling. Elsewhere in the country cities burned, as peaceful protests against racial injustice, police brutality and killings, turned violent with armed vigilantes on the streets; all further signs of a divisive world. And the miasma of fake news and social media distortions ensuring a dystopian vision of our future.
The air has become toxic on so many levels, the virus, the fires. The words “I can’t breathe” have become like a mantra connecting people in intensive care from the virus to the victims of police brutality, and now the smoke from the fires. That something as essential as the breath is being threatened should be a moment to pause, to look at a civilisation that seems to have turned against what is most basic to life. And yet even as I write more of the Amazon, the “lungs of the Earth,” is being burned, giving our air less oxygen. And the toxicity of internet memes ensure that any shared truth is being lost in conspiracy theories, distortions and lies.
Is this what happens when a civilisation begins to die, the failing of our industrial world and its story of conquest and exploitation? What we have witnessed this year is how fragile are our economic and social systems, blown apart by the breath of a virus. Even as we struggle to get back to normal, for how long can we remain in this “normal” with 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 amidst this unraveling our shared future is uncertain, life’s unpredictability one of the most potent lessons of this last year.
And yet when I see a red-tailed hawk alight on a branch outside my window, possibly displaced by the fires, I am reminded of something else: of wonder, of a world of magic that also must have touched those who painted the animals in the caves of southern France. On my morning walk, a grey heron standing alone on a sandbank in the mist touches me with a beauty and simplicity that belong to what is essential in life. For a little while it stands silently immobile, and then stretches its neck in inherent elegance. Something deep within me greets it in silent prayer. Even as the fires burned we made cold soup with the tomatoes from our garden. Then canned many jars of green tomato chutney—the tomatoes were especially abundant this year. Fire and smoke, our bags packed, and yet what is simple and essential remains with the returning seasons.
Spring follows Winter, the Earth turns and the seasons change. And unless the present ecocide is so extreme that humanity cannot survive, a new civilisation will emerge from the ashes, from the devastation of our present time. Some people envision a technological, clean energy future, a new world, greener and more sustainable, “fuelled by smart innovation-led economic growth.” But those who have looked closely through the cracks in our present culture know that this is just a figment of science-fiction imaginings. We can no longer afford the myth of endless economic growth, and if sustainability only refers to humanity and does not include the whole more-than-human world, we are just recreating a dying image. If we do not take the foundational step of returning our consciousness to the living Earth, reconnecting to the ground under our feet, the future will not come alive. Rebirth requires an end to the story of separation and an awakening to the story of a living oneness, recognising our place in the interconnected web of life to which we belong. We need to return to a relationship with the Earth of respect and reverence, in contrast to conquest and exploitation. These are primal values we need for a future to come alive in the ruins of our industrial world.
Seeing young people protest for a future that they may never know, for wildflower meadows they may never see, coral reefs turning white skeleton dead, touches a deep chord—how many generations will be lost until we turn back to the Earth? Until we awake to what is always around us, visible in the simple beauty of a leaf turning golden in fall, or a bud breaking open? Or most simply, how long will it take before we return to values that support life, that recognise that all life, all creation, is sacred?
How this future will unfold, how this civilisation will die and another be born from its wreckage, and how can we help in this rebirth, are the central questions of this moment in time. Even as more forests are being cleared for cattle or palm oil, signs of a different way to live and care for the Earth are already emerging. For example the Indigenous activists of Latin America have returned to the Quechua concept of sumak kawsay, which translates to “living in harmony and balance.” Sumak kawsay recognises that our human well-being is inextricable from that of our ecosystem, and also acknowledges the rights of nature, rather than regarding nature as property. Indigenous wisdom offers us many tools for transition, an inherited knowing that teaches kinship with the Earth, reconnecting us with a story of creation in which we are not exiles, but once again alive in the garden, where the land and the soul are bonded together.
And yet I am concerned that if we dream too early of a sustainable future we will miss the importance of this moment with all of its radical uncertainty. The moment between death and rebirth—as in the space between the in-breath and the out-breath—is when the worlds come together, where magic is born. The Earth has a magical nature, hidden, buried by rational consciousness, but long known to shamans, wisdom keepers and any who have felt its uncensored numinosity.
Magic does not make plans, but offers us unexpected opportunities, comes alive in unforeseen ways. Magic belongs to the world we have forgotten, where our dreaming self becomes part of our outer life. Belonging to mystery, wonder and the real nature of creation, it weaves stories into existence without following the rules of our rational self. Without this hidden magic there is the danger we will just repeat the patterns, the images of the past, that we will be unable to grasp the significance and opportunity of this moment. We will pass by an open doorway without noticing.
Staying true to this moment means holding both grief and love. This is the real resilience required, not stockpiling provisions. Like any moment of real initiation, it is a descent into darkness that is also the womb of rebirth. Rebirth always comes from the darkness, like seeds underground, or the initiation chambers of the ancient mysteries. But this darkness can be full of the nutrients needed for rebirth, and soil that looks barren can still be tended with love and care.
Here, waiting in the darkness, are the seeds of the future. Which seeds will grow into green shoots depends in many ways upon our attitude at this moment in time. What values do we live? Is love for the Earth central to our consciousness, because as Mary Oliver writes so poignantly: “There is only one question: how to love this world….”
And 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.
Day after day we watch the divisiveness in this world, the distortions of social media, a certain insanity that has entered our collective consciousness. We watch our Earth dying and our hearts grieving. We cannot escape this darkening. Have we even fully recognised that our human destiny and the destiny of the Earth are part of a single tapestry, woven with all the threads of the natural world as well as the patterns of our civilisation?
But if we listen closely, under this chaos we may hear a song that is so ancient that it goes back to the beginning and also belongs to the future. I have heard this music at times over the past decades—and when I empty my mind it is present in the red-tailed hawk and the tomatoes silently growing, turning red. It is the song of the heart of the world that carries the names of creation, the magical words that contain the true purpose of everything that exists. It is the song of the world coming alive, being sung into existence, not just in some distant past, but as in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, “everywhen.” And even though we have long forgotten this song—no longer include it in our stories, rarely live it through prayers, ceremonies, or other practices—it is always present in the moment that is fully alive. It can be heard in the joyous laughter of a child, or the nighttime screech of the owl. It is life speaking to us as it spoke to our ancestors, who knew that everything they saw and touched, felt and heard, was sacred. It is a fully animate world where we really belong.
• the anthology Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth
• 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.
This reflection forms part of our ‘Living the New Story at the Turning of the Year’ Blog Series. We are deeply grateful to Llewellyn for sharing his wisdom and insights with our Findhorn New Story Community. Be sure to read our other contributions in the Series generously offered by respected proponents of a new story for humanity at this uncertain and changing time in our evolution.
Featured Photo: Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee