Spirituality & Environmental
By Jesse Wolf Hardin



Now more than ever we need a deepening of social consciousness and environmental activism, not only for the sake of the natural world we depend on but also for the good of our natural selves. And the most powerful activism is usually inspired, fed and sustained by a spiritual connection to the living Earth of which we are forever a part.

In fact I cannot talk about myself, my work or beliefs without talking first about my home. It is the very ground of my being, and the source of my every surviving truth. I live in the Gila, in the Southwest corner of New Mexico. In the ancestral lands of the San Francisco culture, the Sweet Medicine People who migrated out and down to the Rio Grande valley over a thousand years ago now. It is home to the bear tribe and mountain lion clan, the deer and elk people. The home of dove and duck, hawk and heron, ringtail cat and raccoon. Of scarce coat-amundi, threatened minnows, the endangered Spotted Owl and Red Willow Flycatcher. Of the Mexican Gray Wolf, only recently reintroduced to the wilds after nearly two decades of extirpation and captivity.

It is home to echoing crimson cliffs and singing volcanic rock, ponderosa and pinon, alamo and willow, healing herbs and flowering cacti. And for a quarter of a century now, it’s been a full-time nest to me. It is the place for which I would risk death. The place where I will one day die. The place that has taught me what it means to be fully, responsively alive.... and to do whatever is necessary to protect and nourish the land in return.

Off and on for  20 years now I’ve traveled the country giving talks and performing concerts that resulted not only in the formation of new environmental groups, the raising of support and funds for the various regional campaigns, and the inspiration of our audiences — but often in their participation in direct actions following the shows. We enlist art and ritual in the service of old growth forest protection, grizzly habitat, and the restoration of riparian zones. The events sometimes conclude with group hugs, in powerful circles of teary-eyed seekers, in howls and hopes, and spiral dances that burst out of the school halls onto the grass and into the rain.

When pressed to describe the Deep Ecology Medicine Show, one student said “It was like a ceremony affirming life, a ritual awakening my power to do something about the many problems we face.” And my talks to even the most scholarly audiences, become rituals through the depth of sharing and the power of magical intent.

While they may not be aware of the fact, most if not all ecological activists are informed and inspired by an emotional, cellular, energetic connection to the imperiled Earth that is nothing less than spiritual. And it has always been so. Creator of a new land ethic, Aldo Leopold described his experience killing a she-wolf, “watching the green fire in her eyes die,” as a spiritual epiphany. John Muir, grandfather of the American conservation movement, was a wild-eyed Irishman given to dramatic exclamations and acts. Books show grainy black and white images of an aging man resting at his desk, posing uncomfortably in a photographer’s studio, or standing placidly on a Yellowstone overlook with an unperturbable President, Theodore Roosevelt. But I picture him as he was when he was most moved — hootin’ and hollerin’ on a makeshift whitewater raft, in rapt intercourse with a line of forest ants, or struck breathless by awesome new vista.

Perched at the spindly top of a giant conifer tree in the middle of a raging storm, swept by the wind into a giant arc, his eyes lit up by flashes of lightening: now there’s an image of a man whose explorations of the natural world were nothing less than revelatory. He was, in every way, enraptured. In the ways of plants and beasts he found deep communion, and this revelation included a calling to protect and preserve that which he had grown to love.

There’s a powerful story in the way the village women of the Southern Himalayas banded together to stop deforestation uphill of their villages. They acted not only to reduce the instances of dangerous mudslides, but to honor and protect the devas or spirits of the trees themselves.  Because of their risky tactic of throwing their arms around pines about to be cut, their cultural and environmental movement is called “Chipko,” a Sanskrit word meaning literally “to embrace.”  

Australian rainforest activist, John Seed, talks about a nurturing a spiritual connection between himself and the trees, to  the degree that when the chainsaw bites into their flesh, he feels it ripping into his own side as well. Redwood heroine Julia Butterfly writes that it was her spiritual connection to the tree she called “Luna,” that allowed her to stay up in it so many months while besieged with police loudspeakers, loggers’ saws and winter storms assaulting her tiny aerial platform.

The construction of giant telescopes atop Arizona’s “sky island” Mt. Graham has been vigorously opposed by both environmental groups and native traditionalists. Resistance and ritual go hand in hand in the “sacred runs” regularly held by the Apache. In July of 1993, I participated in one of many protests involving Earth First! and the Mt. Graham Coalition. We ignored the Sheriff’s orders not to proceed, and walked the rest of the way up the mountain to the chain link fences surrounding the scopes.

Sweating from the heat of the ascent, and deeply moved by the destruction we saw,  everyone dropped to the dusty ground in a spontaneous circle of grief and prayer. Through our tears we spoke as witnesses, shared our pain, begged forgiveness for being part of a culture that disregards the relevance of wildness, of places of power, and the beliefs and traditions of the resident indigenous people. One man spoke for the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel, and a woman heavy with child bemoaned giving birth in an age when nothing — not even the Earth we depend upon — is held sacred anymore. Together we asked for guidance from the spirits of the mountain, the strength to continue the struggle of love and life no matter what the obstacles or results.

When deciding what actions are needed in defense of the Earth, we are called to go directly to the source. By silencing the verbose mind and opening to the meaning-filled signals from the rest of the living planet, we create the condition of respect necessary for rapport. It is our natural, if often suppressed ability to communicate with the other agents of the earthen whole, to serve as a conduit for their _expression, and to send our own response back to the whole, informing it as it informs us. And acting in ways that heal self, community and planet — as instruments of the whole and holy all.

Whatever one calls it, there’s an undeniable force that courses through this planet, a vibrational unity, an underlying if mysterious pattern — an entity of inclusion that animates, inspires, enlightens, and fuels the evolution of the spiritual as well as bodily forms of its participant beings. Even the most mental, the most clueless of us can get it. We know it as children, but then at some point we agree to join the collective denial? something numinous just beneath the pavement, pregnant with swelling seed and palpable purpose: a wildness of spirit, and the Spirit of the Earth.

Our ancient ancestors believed and acted as if the world would end if ever they failed to properly carry out their rituals on time. And in essence it was true, for these ceremonies grounded the people in right relationship with the Earth, without which the people could not survive. A people divorced from the ways of Nature must eventually perish as a result of this estrangement, and then for them at least, the world would have indeed come to an end. It is no different for us now. Without a reciprocal, ritual relationship with the natural world, without those feats of ceremony and sentience that reunite us with the Earthen body, we are fated to endlessly repeat our most debilitating mistakes.
All that stands between a healthy planet and nuclear or biological meltdown is us ourselves, and the ways we choose to perceive, relate to, and resacrament the living world of which we are a part. We too can develop rites and ceremonies that mirror and focus our shared connection to the customs of culture, the relations of family, fiestas, celebrations and demonstrations of grief that characterize them. These ways of being and acting are not New Age, but “first nature:” of our nature, and of the natural world.

Earth-informed “New Nature Spirituality” promotes groundedness, connectedness, consciousness, and celebratory existence. It encourages full individual and cultural freedom, in essential combination with reverence for life, diversity and that essential quality we call “wildness.” It is embodied in the child, saddened by the sight of a butterfly bounced off a windshield onto the shoulder of some numbered road, and in an old woman finding reason to go on living in the slow unfolding  of a window-box flower.

It is voiced in the sermon-scream of falcons spiraling through downtown New York City, in the spontaneous living prayers of outlaw dandelions erupting in the cracks of every aging sidewalk, in a liturgy recorded in the spiraling reggae of the DNA helix and the twisting samba-line of ants ascending a gnarled cottonwood.

Its only commandments are “written in stone” in the many “rocks of ages:” a testament in limestone, granite and quartz, a demonstration of and demand for authenticity and substance, the weight and substance of one’s commitment to place. Its message is carried on the lift of robin’s songs, and delivered on the backs and in the hearts of every activist devoted to this Earth’s protection.

Spirituality is not just the inspiration and reward. It is part of the great work, the means to fulfilling our most meaningful purpose. It is both the literal and liturgical ground for a new start. It is activism’s true heart.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Earth-centered spirituality, living seven river crossings from a road in an ancient place of power. He is the author of Kindred Spirits (Swan-Raven 2001) and Gaia Eros: New Nature Spirituality (New Page 2004). Wolf and Loba share the riverside sanctuary where he offers men’s quests and intuitive counsel, and she hosts women for quests, wildfoods gathering, special resident internships, and the annual Wild Women’s Gathering each June. For more info, contact The Earthen Spirituality Project & Sweet Medicine Women’s Center, Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830, send e-mail to: mail@earthenspirituality.org  or visit www.earthenspirituality.org

Return to the March/April Index page