COMING TO LIFE AT THE CLOSE OF THE CENOZOIC
This interview by Wes Nisker ran in the Spring 2000 issue of Inquiring Mind, Volume 16, #2.
P. O. Box 9999, North Berkeley Station, Berkeley, CA 94709.
John Seed is an appropriate name for this dharma philosopher, eco-psychologist, and political activist: his work is to plant seeds of awakening and perspective, giving us new glimpses of who we are and where we are, and reasons why we should love and struggle for the continuance of life on earth.
In the 1970's John Seed studied Buddhist meditation in India, and subsequently helped build a meditation center in Australia northern New South Wales. In the late 70's he became interested in environmental activism, and founded the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia. Over the past twenty years he has initiated numerous projects to protect rainforests in South America, Asia, and the Pacific. He has written and lectured extensively on deep ecology, and has traveled throughout the world conducting "Councils of All Beings" and other "re-earthing" rituals. With Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Professor Arne Naess, he co-authored "Thinking Like A Mountain--Toward A Council of All Beings" (New Society Publishers), a book which has been translated into 10 languages.
John is also an accomplished bard and has produced five albums of environmental songs. In 1995, the Austrailian Government awardedJohn Seed "the Order of Australia Medal" (OAM) for his service to conservation and the environment. An interview with John Seed that we published eight years ago in Inquiring Mind remains the piece most requested for reprinting in the history of our journal. (The article may be found on forests.org/deep-eco/inq-mind.htm> When we talked to John this past Autumn, we found him, as before, inspiring and provocative.
IM: The last time we talked, you described some of the imaginative exercises that you had invented for your "Council of All Beings"workshops, ways to offer people a visceral sense of their co-existence with the rest of nature and the larger cosmos. Considering that most of us these days live in cities, do you have any suggestions for how can city dwellers can remember our connection to the natural world?
JS: One activity that I find useful in the city is to look upward at night, because that is the one place where you can see beyond the human constructions all around us, and find our way back into the Milky Way itself. As you gaze, you might contemplate the story of our galaxy and the universe as revealed by astronomy, and especially by the pictures from the Hubble telescope, which has recently taken us so much further outward.
In particular I like to look out in the direction of Sagittarius, because that is the center of the Milky Way, and to realize that the earth and the sun are revolving around that central axis every two hundred million years. I reflect on the fact that all of the pieces of my body have been involved in this cosmic process since its inception. Basically, all of the elements in my body have existed since they first emerged from the original fireball, and these elements have been weaving themselves in and out of all of these different forms for millions of years, and just for a fraction of a second, this tiny instant, these elements exist in the form that I m in now.
As Thomas Berry points out, we have suddenly arrived at the moment when these elements are in a form that can contemplate their own story for the first time. Something in the cosmos has become conscious and is able to turn around and look back at the path that it has traveled. My jaw drops in amazement as I realize who we really are, and how we have come to be here.
IM: That is why the Buddha keeps talking about "this precious humanbirth." We can finally see ourselves in context.
JS: Everything that exists has a form of consciousness, it seems, or at least an awareness of its surroundings. But we ve just exploded with this incredible awareness of the universe, and that is precisely what helps free me from the local and parochial concerns of the self. I can expand outwards and upwards into the universe.
IM: But we can tell that you re not really a big city guy, John, because when we look up from our city we can barely see any stars at all. We have become so brilliant we have outshined them.
JS: Well, if you can't look up to find a taste of the larger natural order, then look downward. Check out the little blades of grass that grow between the cracks in the sidewalk. I find them very inspiring. It s as if they haven t heard the bad news about nature. It doesn t matter how many hundred of miles the concrete stretches, there s always some tiny sprouts bursting their way through, announcing that no matter how much we pave over the earth, they will survive.
IM: It is also somehow gratifying to visit ruins of ancient civilizations, the crumbled edifices of man, and see all the trees and vines reclaiming their turf.
JS: Graveyards are traditionally useful for the same reason, as well.
IM: Can we embrace the city itself, as a natural creation?
JS: That reminds me of a practice that I first learned from Joanna Macy that has to do with the resacralization of the concrete and the plastic. It was a workshop, like many that we do, where we found ourselves in a sterile, neon-lit, air-conditioned room without any windows to the outside, and yet there we were talking about reconnecting with nature. So the first thing Joanna had us do was to look around the room and reflect on the source of the building materials and try to find anything that wasn't natural. So we saw plastic, and realized that it might be made out of the body of dinosaurs and diatoms, and that it was laid down in the Carboniferous era, 150 million years ago, extracted from the ground as oil, and now has become plastic. And the concrete is made of sand and the ground up shells of ancient sea creatures.
We have this image of what is natural and what isn't, but in actuality, there is nothing that is unnatural. Of course there are things that are inappropriate, but everything that we see is natural. Gary Snyder once wrote a poem about seeing a huge office building, which had a wall that was made out of cement embedded with smooth river pebbles, and he saw it as a river bed turned vertically. We can see that sort of natural phenomena everywhere.
Speaking of Gary, when he was working in Jerry Brown s office when Jerry was governor of California, one day Brown turned to him, exasperated, and said, "Gary, why is it that whatever we're talking about, you're always going against the flow?" And Gary said, "Jerry, what you call the flow is just a sixteen-thousand-year eddy. I'm going with the real flow."
I think that these practices of seeing the underlying nature of things, in the sky, in the plastic, and so on, help us to remember that the actual flow goes on. Then we can realize that our ephemeral sixteen-thousand year eddy has to find some harmonious relationship with the actual flow or else its existence is going to be very short-lived.
IM: What other practices have you added to your repertoire that help reconnect us to the great forces of nature and the cosmos?
JS: One practice that I really like is called the Cosmic Walk, developed by a Catholic nun, Sister Miriam Therese McGillis. If we do the Cosmic Walk indoors, we just lay a piece of rope on the ground, and if we do it outside we might create a spiral in the sand or earth. The spiral shape is a hundred feet long, and in the middle we place one large candle to represent the original flaring forth of existence, the Big Bang. All along the length of the spiral we place candles at proportional distances to represent different events in the development of the universe, and then we actually walk through that development, using a taper to carry the flame from the central candle and gradually lighting one after another of the other candles as we recount the story of cosmic creation.
It is an extraordinary experience to walk the spiral; to find that in the first ninety-five feet there are just a few candles here and there--partly because we know so few details about the formation of the Milky Way for example--and then, in the last few feet we encounter an enormous number of candles, representing all of these more recent events in the story of where we come from and how we got to be who we are. The dinosaurs are only inches from the end of this spiral, and there is barely enough room for the human candle. In fact, we can't seem to find a candle thin enough to represent ourselves. By walking through this spiral, we get a visceral sense of the extraordinary fleeting moment of our own life. In the sharings after this process people are always wondering how we can find more meaning in this tiny moment, and why we waste our lives on petty things, given the grandeur of the path that we ve traveled.
IM: Considering the extraordinary circumstances that have gone into our creation should make us even more dedicated to preserving the basis of life on earth. And yet we are so violent toward the natural environment and other species of life.
JS: I recently came to an interesting perspective on violence, mostly from watching a series of videos produced by Brian Swimme called, "Canticle to the Cosmos." By looking at the origins of the universe and the galaxies, the explosive violence inherent in the cosmos stood out in stark relief. For some reason, we currently tend to believe that violence is some kind of an aberration, whereas in fact it is at the heart of things. Seeing this doesn't excuse our own violence, but rather places it in some larger perspective. Then our efforts to create islands of non-violence and compassion in the middle of it all seem even nobler and more precious.
IM: Are you implying that our destruction of the natural environment is somehow part of the inherent violence of the universe?
JS: Let me answer by talking about a change in my own understanding that has been very important for me. Ten years ago I was somewhat desperate about saving the forests and the natural world, and driven by an apocalyptic view that saw the end of life on earth. But lately I've started to see our time as a transition period. Thomas Berry says that the apocalpyse has already happened, that it doesn t matter if we come to our senses tomorrow, because essentially, the Cenozoic era that began sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared has now ended, and a new era has begun. The nature of the new era is still in question, but the fact that the old one is over is no longer in doubt.
According to E. O. Wilson, between five and ten percent of all species of plants and animals have become extinct in the last few hundred years. A recent survey of leading biologists around the world (Reported by the Worldwatch Institute, September, `99, in a story entitled, "Fastest Mass Extinction in Earth History.") found that most expect between one-third and two-thirds of all species now living to be gone within a hundred years from now. So we are living at the end of a vast era: this millenium is truly a watershed. If we divide sixty-five million years by a thousand, we find there have been sixty-five thousand millenia since the age of dinosaurs ended, and now we are at a similar turning point. This is huge! But no one is really acknowledging the magnitude of the change that is taking place.
Meanwhile, it is very instructive to look at the history of extinctions on earth, and find that the demise of the dinosaurs and the present extinction spasm are only two of at least six such episodes that can be discerned from the fossil record. In one case, at the end of the Permian era, two hundred thirty million years ago, ninety-five percent of all species perished, and none of the biologists are predicting anything on that scale.
Looking back, we believe now that the extinction of the dinosours was caused by a large meteor landing somewhere around the Yucatan peninsula and creating a nuclear winter scenario. No animal larger than a cat survived those conditions, but those survivors included some little mammals living under the ground who were our forefathers and foremothers. We should realize that if the dinosaurs had been able to continue, then we would have never have had our day in the sun.
In a similar way, as we look back at the fossil record, we see that each great spasm of species extinction has been immediately followed by a huge burst of novelty. It turns out that the evolution of life isn't just a gradual process of natural selection as previously believed, but happens in spurts called "punctuated equilibrium." There are long stretches of stasis, and then periods of cataclysmic extinction, followed by a flowering of creativity. If we can identify with that whole process and not just with our sixty-five-million-year moment, then the desperation and tragedy leaks out of our current scenario.
Of course, we can still be passionate about protecting and alieviating the suffering of the beings with whom we share the Cenozoic era. I am also interested in the possibility that we can somehow pull some miracle out of the hat and change our ways. If we can transform in some fundamental way, we might be able to prevent the tremendous deterioration of our life support systems, and maybe get another sixty-five million years. The dinosaurs had more than a hundred million years, and we human beings have only had a couple of million years at the most. I think it would be a great shame to disappear at this particular moment, so early in our history. I feel like we're only just now figuring out how to have fun!
So my commitment to trying to protect the biological beauty and fecundity of living things remains undiminished, but the level of hysteria that used to accompany my efforts is gone. In some bizarre sense, I ve found a tremendous comfort in knowing how natural it all is, all part of the ongoing epic of evolution.
Equally important is the fact that I ve stopped blaming myself and other humans. I have begun to see a kind of fundamental innocence about us. You know, for the last few thousand years Judeo-Christians have had the arrogance to believe that we are the crown of creation and the measure of all being. So now, in apparent contrast, we have begun to see ourselvse as a rampant cancer that is destroying the earth. But to imagine that it's all our fault, and feeling guilty about it, is part of the same arrogance that sees us as completely separate and in charge of the whole shebang. Blaming ourselves or each other does not contribute to anyone's well-being or the efforts to preserve the life of earth.
IM: Some activists would argue that seeing environmental destruction as a natural occurance can only lead to fatalism and a laissez-faire attitude.
JS: I must confess that I worried about that response, even in myself. You know, "Why struggle if this is all natural? Maybe it the right time for the end of the Cenozoic. The sun is only halfway through its life span, so there is time for many more orders of being to exist on the earth. Why care what happens to humanity?"
But I can only report that what happened to me was that those fears were baseless. My motivation to act on behalf of humanity, mammals, vertebrates--all complex life and life as we know it--went undiminished as a result of letting go of the anxiety that everything was going to come to an end. Instead it helped me let go of grasping and to gain more focus and energy.
IM: Where are you focusing that energy these days? What projects are you working on?
JS: One project that we are really excited about is the Dharma Gaia Trust. This organization is designed to encourage any ecological activity emerging in the Buddhist sanghas, and in particular, projects where monks and nuns are involved in ecological preservation. At the present time, the Trust is supporting the temple forest project in Sri Lanka, which is trying to join together corridors of the original vegetation of that country. So much of the biodiversity of Sri Lanka has been destroyed, that the sacred groves adjacent to many old temples now harbor a surprising proportion of the remaining plant and animal species. In many places all of the original forest has been cut, with the exception of these ancient groves that date back a thousand years or more. By connecting these groves and purchasing strategically placed land around them, we are protecting the many species of plant and animal life that they harbor. In general, however, I think that Buddha dharma and ecology have a lot in common, and that not enough attention has been paid to their mutual ideals and interests. Remember that the Buddha spent most of his time meditating in the forests, whereas we modern Buddhists tend to sit inside a lot. Maybe we are missing something there.
IM: And how are the efforts going to preserve the great forests of your native land, Australia?
JS: Well, actually I have not been involved in Australian issues for almost ten years, because there are so many good people on the ground there, monitoring and organizing. In places like Ecuador and New Guinea, the conservationists are relatively few, so I have directed my energies there. However, after just returning from work abroad, I came home to find that the government was about to sign away the local forests right in our very neighborhood. We had succeeded in getting legal protection for parts of two forest, the Whian Whian, and the Wollumbin, and had assumed that they were safe. A few years ago the government gave me this medal called "the Order of Australia" medal, for my services on behalf of conservation and the environment. They never really said which services that referred to, but I ve always assumed that it was for the direct actions that we did to protect those forests. So I just put out a press release saying that this medal would be thrown under the tracks of the first bulldozers that tried to enter either of these forests, and that I felt that this medal had been given for protecting these forests and therefore needed to be used to further protect them. But I expect that the government will sign these forests away and we're going to be at the blockades again, as we ve been on so many occasions in the last twenty years.
Otherwise, in Australia, as in the rest of the world, it seems to be one step forward and two steps back as far as forest protection is concerned. For example, in the State of Queensland, the government recently protected further large areas of old growth. Meanwhile, the rate of clearing native vegitation on private land in the state has surpassed even the horrendous rates that took place in the Amazon a few years ago. The headline in one of our daily newpapers in Octorber, `99 was, "Land Clearance A National Disgrace: Sixty Milliion Trees Cleared in Queensland Panic." As a consequence, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Australia surpass even those of the U.S.
IM: It seems that there's no rest for you, even after supposed victories.
JS: Well, I must admit that I'm kind of looking forward to getting back to this struggle again, because it means I'll be spending more time in the bush, out in the forest itself where I really love to be.
U.S. donations to the Dharma Gaia Trust are tax deductible by making them out to the Dharma Gaia Trust and sending them to: The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, P.O. Box 4650, Berkeley, CA 94704
U.S. donations to the Rainforest Information Centre are tax deductible by making them out to the "Rainforest Information Centre" and sending them to EarthWays Foundation
Way, Malibu, CA 90265
and in Australia:
The Rainforest Information Centre
P.O. Box 368 Lismore
NSW 2480, Australia
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