Spiritual poetry and its roots in Deep Ecology
by Errol McKinstry
Professor Arnie Näess (1912-2009) introduced the term ‘Deep Ecology’ in1972. As a philosopher, activist, and mountaineer he wrote and taught extensively over 37 years about environmental degradation and possible solutions. He stated that
“Stewardship of nature is shallow impersonal ecology often in service to capitalist profiteers. Our interference with Nature is arrogant, excessive, causing global loss of biodiversity and habitat. Our solutions are superficial, piece-meal, anthropocentric, perpetuating biblical domination of all life. What is needed is a paradigm shift of consciousness from ego centered identity to eco-philosophy where deeper wider identification with all living beings leads to self-actualization as mature compassionate ‘Ecoselves’ with respect, reverence for all non-human life/eco-systems”.
These ‘living beings’ include not only flora and fauna but also rivers, watersheds, oceans, mountains, and wilderness.
All life has intrinsic worth beyond utilitarian commodity value. As with our pets which we name, clothe, and love, the pain and suffering of other beings should also cause us grief as we share a common home. Millenia of poets and indigenous culture elders, in teaching stories through song, dance, totems, and poetic narratives have celebrated the right of all wise beings to flourish. These truths have much relevance for us in 2017.
My 30 years engagement with the mythopoetic men’s movement as a participant/facilitator was mentored by three wise elders – Bly, Meade, and Hillman. It restored my love of poetry, it is pithy, nourishing imagery echoing life’s agony and ecstasy, woundings and healings. Bly’s gift to me in one retreat was this:
“You loved poetry as boys but came to hate it when teachers demanded perfect public recitation before the class; any error in content or performance was shaming. Do read/hear poems again, discern the essence, and share them in your own vernacular voice. Be liberated!”
So, what is a poet? Hafiz (1320-1389), the celebrated Sufi mystic wrote “A poet is someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to nourish your beautiful parched, holy mouth.” A poet may also express the ineffable, the unsayable, touching deep mysteries of life/death that can inspire us. We can feel nourished, encouraged, emboldened, to persist in our quest/work that is often stressful.
The vast cross-cultural poetry written over millennia (mankind’s legacy) include a few special poems—a unique genre, a deep well, that illustrate Deep Ecology’s values and principles. They reveal our unconscious need as a species to personify ‘Beings‘ in Nature, and then to identify with that ‘Being‘ to broaden and deepen one’s sense of self through dialogue and drama. This is the framework of fairy-tales and mythology (think Zeus, Hades, Hera, Freya). Our separate “I”, our ego-self merges with the `Other’ creating a ‘We’ or expanded eco-self as Naess explains.
Now our concern for the ‘Other’ has shifted dramatically. Now we care deeply for this new composite being’s welfare and destiny. The Other is no longer just a commodity to be cruelly exploited, but part of us – mind, body, and spirit. Now our priorities, values and actions may take a major shift towards compassionate kindness, peace and love – a re-sacralization of the world and our lives.
Beyond traditional church theology, liturgy and catechism is a mystical tradition that values direct experience with the sacred/divine in Nature without ministers and priests as intermediaries. The three Abrahamic monotheistic religions all have their gnostic traditions (Jesus an Essene, Rumi a Sufi). This a rich source of ‘seed’ ‘poems that can spark ‘awakening.’
Critics may exclaim loudly “But this is just new-age psycho-babble, all sound and fury signifying nothing” (to quote Sir Willy), the world is ours to plunder”. To them the deep ecologists say “All new revolutionary ideas are threatening, but in time benefits will accrue and we may save our sacred Mother Earth from our avarice and ignorance”.
Here are some of my favourite examples of Deep Ecology poems. Some have been gently edited for brevity and space. A brief introductory comment is included about the author or salient features.
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain by Li Po (762 A.D.)
“The birds have vanished down the sky. Now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”
Widening Circles by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
[From ‘The Book of Hours’ pub.1905. Hints at a sacred world with a mysterious centre. Rilke was considered Europe’s Rumi]
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one, but I give my life to it.
I circle around the primordial tower, I’ve been circling for thousands of years, I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”
When I was the Forest by Meister Eckhart (1260–1328).
[Eckhart was a celebrated Christian mystic and philosopher whose theme seems to dramatize his hope to rediscover the Garden of Eden]
“When I was the stream, the forest, the field; when I was every hoof, foot, fin and wing, even the sky itself—no one ever asked me did I have a purpose, or was there something I needed, for I loved everything. But when I left all we once were, the agony and fear began, questions came and 1 wept tears as never before. So I returned to the river, the mountains asking for their hand in marriage again. I begged to wed every object and creature.”
A Limb ( Branch) Just Moved by Hafiz.
[Hafiz was a Sufi mystic whose name means ‘recite’. He had memorized the Quran and made a living reciting verses at ritual functions]
“You taught Your songs to birds first—why was that? You practiced Your love in the hearts of animals before You created man. I know the planets talk at night and tell secrets about You. A branch just moved before me and the Beauty of this world makes me weep.”
For All by Gary Snyder
[Gary Snyder is a famed contemporary Buddhist monk, deep ecologist poet and activist who, at age 87, still leads the Ring of Bone zendo in California. We met at Hollyhock Farm in a 1989 workshop and earlier in 1973 at an Alan Watts memorial in San Francisco. Turtle Island is a traditional First Nations term for North America]
“Ah to be alive on a September morn, fording a stream barefoot, pants rolled up, holding boots, pack on, sunshine, icy shallows, northern Rockies. Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters, stones underfoot, small and hard as toes, cold nose dripping, singing inside, creek music, heart music, smell of sun on gravel. I pledge allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, one Eco-system in diversity, under the sun. With Joyful Penetration for all.”
Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Mary Frye (1905-2004).
[The only poem she ever published (1932) for a friend’s memorial. It has become famous, set to a lovely melody sung by many western singers and choirs. She comforts her friend by reminding her of their shared experience of Nature’s Beings as ‘I-thou-we” will live on beyond our demise.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.”
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (1935).
[A well-loved contemporary American poet, English professor, and Pulitzer Prize winner who captures our longing for union with ‘the ten thousand things’ (Tao Te Ching) in many of her nature poems. The ‘despair’ she mentions could be our emotional response to ominous climate change facts. She is known for her haiku “Instructions for Living a Life” – “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”]
“You do not have to be good or walk on your knees for 100 miles through desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, I’ll tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on: the sun and clear pebbles of rain move across the landscape, over prairies, deep trees, mountains and rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers herself to your imagination, calling to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting— over and over, announcing your place in the family of things.”
Name Give Away by Phil George (Tsimshian 1975).
[A poignant, painful remembrance of residential school days and the importance of his/our birth or initiation name that references ‘beings in nature’.]
“My teacher gave me a new name again. Yesterday it was Peter. Today it was Phillip. Still I don’t know what they mean. She never even had a feast or give away. ‘Two Swans Ascending from Still Waters’ must be a name too hard to remember.'”
In conclusion: you undoubtedly have your own favourite ‘Deep Ecology’, ‘Eco-Self’ poems that inspire and ground you in the Great Inter-connecting Web of all Beings. Do bring or send them to share with the Council, especially one’s you’ve written. Please recommend your favourite poets and books.