Just Stop

I’ve been thinking about the end of the world. The world that had a stable climate, vast intact terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, silent places, and an abundance of complex life forms is ending. A new world of climate chaos, disintegrating ecosystems and mass extinctions is taking its place.

And then there is the world that needs to end because it is so destructive and is making every one and everything so miserable: the world of buying and burning and drilling and fracking and blowing up and otherwise destroying and exploiting and acquiring and hoarding without any consideration of consequences. That world needs to end, in which we believe we are separate from Earth and are therefore immune from whatever we do to it.

Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) put it like this in his new book The End of the World (2012, OR Books):

“To save our own life we have to save the tree’s life. That means: we must remember that this tree is a life. Then we might get back on track saving our own lives.”

We must remember that this tree is a life. It is a life and it has a life. It has a reason for being. It feels the air moving through its leaves or needles. It communicates continuously with the other trees around it. And, if we feel a need to justify it in human terms, it is another part of our lungs. It is just as much a part of our body as the tissue in our chests. And we are part of it.

Because the car is my greatest contribution to the destruction of Earth, I am trying to leave it parked at home as much as possible. Which means there is a lot of entertainment that I do not take part in. There are a lot of experiences I am missing that require travel.

Instead I lie on the bench I have placed in the back yard under a huge old pine tree. I love gazing into the upper branches of the tree and listening to the whisper of the thousands of needles in the wind, and feeling the slow swaying of the trunk, and maybe even the subtle lifting and relaxing of the ground beneath me, or am I just imagining that? It’s a magnificent tree. I lie there exchanging the gifts of oxygen and carbon dioxide with it. I could not live without something like it and it could not live without something like me. Does it know this? Does it feel my presence like I feel its presence? Does it feel the additional weight on its roots? Can it acknowledge the gift of CO2 and be grateful for it? I think it can. Tree consciousness is not like animal consciousness, but it must have its own ways of experiencing the world.

The realization of non-separation re-enchants the world. Earth is full of ways of seeing and hearing and smelling and feeling and touching and other senses that we do not have and for which we have no words. The human is but one of the many ways Earth knows itself. What could be more delightful?

Earth has been doing interesting things for a lot longer than humans have been adding to the repertoire, and Earth will go on doing interesting things long after we humans have disappeared into the deep night. So for me the delights of the non-human world, the dancing of trees for instance, are more deeply satisfying than anything humans can create. Earth experience is everywhere, in everything. One need not go anywhere to find it.

But one must be willing to lose something. One must be willing to die at least a little before physical death comes to force the issue. Every one of us will face physical death. All of our plans and hopes and dreams and projects and relationships, all the ways we have defined ourselves, will come to an end, ready or not. We will be called upon to leave the projects unfinished, say goodbye to all the possessions and all the loved ones, lose everything, let the world carry on without us, transition into emptiness.

One must be willing to give up some of those projects, give up a sense of finding fulfillment in doing more, or having more or being more, in order to slow down enough to listen, to look, to experience what we already are, without need for improvement or amendment. To discover what Earth is now, without need for augmentation. To discover the magic that life is now, already, without anything being added to it, without even adding a thought.

Earth is alive. It’s a miracle. Our most clever invention is not any more amazing than Earth’s invention of the plant-animal-atmosphere-ocean-soil respiration system. Nothing we can do can make it more miraculous than it already is.

But we can make it less. I’m afraid that many of our plans and projects reduce its possibilities, can even annihilate the whole gorgeous thing. We must be willing to die at least a little to the mind-made sense of self, die to separation, to prevent annihilation.

It seems to me that this is the reality of our situation: we must come to terms with death before we die, which means we are required to do and to be less than what we had hoped and dreamed. We must accept the physical limits to our Earthly existence. Mother Earth is telling us “No!” and we are throwing several tantrums because we do not like to be told “No.” We think our freedom and our essence is to be found in satisfaction of infinite desires. Our sense of self is bound up with “more.” Getting comfortable with “No!” requires a more mature sense of self, one that does not require constant expansion and gratification. One that is content with what is.

Can a species like ours grow up fast enough? I doubt it. But there is this tantalizing possibility: stopping takes no time at all. Doing takes time. Progress takes time. If there is much more we have to do, we are doomed, because we have run out of time.

Lacking time, all that is left to us is to stop everything. Just stop, inwardly and outwardly, mentally and physically. Not forever, but long enough to be unmade. Then to rediscover the abundance of Earth, the beauty and wonder of the non-human, the unfathomable depths of silence.

The crazy rush to the cliff can stop in an instant. It is possible. Just stop.

A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world’s great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed “earlids.” Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts – our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness — deep listening — changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It’s not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one’s irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, anything but this!

I am not certain why this shift occurs, but it might be in part because the inner voice, the commentator in our heads that plays such an outsized role in maintaining our sense of being a separate self, is unable to operate at the same time that we are listening fully. It’s possible to be engaged in a visual activity while the commentator is yammering away, but it is not possible to listen. So when we are listening carefully to the natural world, the sense of being a separate self is necessarily diminished, while the presence of the living world is accentuated.

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.

Is Silence Going Extinct?

As I noted in my previous post, we are just beginning to realize that natural soundscapes matter to ecosystem health, and that we have filled them with mechanical noise as if they don’t.

A new article on soundscape ecology was published yesterday in the New York Times, with some lovely audio recordings from Denali National Park embedded.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html

There is a very engaging lecture on this subject by soundscape recordist and ecologist Bernie Krause:

http://fora.tv/2009/09/22/Dr_Bernie_Krause_The_Great_Animal_Orchestra

We are looking forward to Krause’s new book The Great Animal Orchestra, which treats the subject of soundscape ecology in detail. It is due out next week.

My own recordings this week have focused on the red winged blackbird. Harbingers of spring, they are arriving about two weeks early this year and so may also be harbingers of a changing climate.

A Sea Change

I have been wanting to write a piece about ocean acidification for several months, but it has not come together. Nor is this piece exactly what I wanted to write. But it seems to be the case that – horrible as the BP oil spill is – even this catastrophe is not leading us to take seriously the fact that fossil fuels are poisons, whether spilled or burned, and we need to stop using them. For me, the untold lives lost from this leak will have been lost in vain unless we learn this lesson. Oil, and coal, are poisons. We have to stop using them. Whether they visibly leak and spill on land or sea, or whether we burn them and make them invisible, they are deadly poisons.

We have an opportunity here to awaken at last from our oil-soaked dreams of unending wealth and gain, which have turned into a nightmare of unending disease and untimely death, for us, for the Ocean, for the whole Earth.

It’s no fun being so gloomy. But how are we ever going to change this situation if we don’t look in the mirror and see that we are what has to change? All of us. You and me. No exceptions. That might sound depressing, but it is actually empowering. Because it means change is in our hands, not someone else’s.

**

Spills and leaks are not the only way that oil disrupts the life of the Ocean. A much bigger threat to the Ocean – at least over the long term – is carbon-induced acidification. Despite a comprehensive article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker in 2006 (still available online) and a 2009 movie called “A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish,” very few people know about ocean acidification.

The Ocean absorbs about half of all the carbon that is pumped into the atmosphere. It has been thought that this is a good thing. If not for the Ocean, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than it is, and we’d already be living in a much warmer world. But increased CO2 in the Ocean is leading to ocean acidification, and that could be even more catastrophic than global warming. The Ocean is not actually becoming acidic, but it is becoming less alkaline. In the past 250 years, average surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.179 to 8.069. That is a 28% increase in acidity (or decrease in alkalinity). We have believed that the Ocean, like the Atmosphere, is too big for its chemistry to be changed by our activity. We have been wrong.

The declining pH of the Ocean is already affecting organisms that are essential to the marine food chain: corals and pteropods. Lower pH inhibits these and other organisms’ ability to build calcium carbonate shells and bodies. As ocean pH continues to decline many essential organisms will be affected, including oysters and clams, shellfish, krill and many other forms of zooplankton, essential food for many species of fish, bird and marine mammal. One blue whale eats about two tons of krill every day. No krill, no blue whales. No fish. A severely diminished ocean.

It will take time for the Ocean to reach catastrophic pH levels, but the problem is it will take even more time for the Ocean to balance itself. If we were to stop burning all fossil fuels right now, it would take thousands of years for the pH of the Ocean to return to what it was prior to the industrial/fossil-fuel revolution, because of the extremely slow circulatory patterns of ocean currents. But we continue to burn fossil fuels, adding carbon to the atmosphere and the Ocean, at ever increasing rates.

We commonly hear now that to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% in the next 40 years. Hard enough to do that. But to avert the crisis of ocean acidification, it is probably not enough to reduce the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. We have to stop it. Get to zero. Soon. Pteropods and corals are already showing signs of carbon-related distress. Any further decrease in ocean pH could have devastating consequences for the marine food web. As the Ocean goes, so go we all.

This needs to be our goal: eliminate all fossil fuels from our diet. As soon as possible. Say what? How is that even possible? Our entire economic system, how we work, how we live, how we move around, how we make money, how we stay warm, how we manufacture and ship all the stuff we need and want and throw away, how we light our homes and businesses, all is dependent on the energy stored for millions of years in decaying plants, dragged out of the ground and used up in the course of a couple of hundred years. Oil is our fuel of choice for transportation and heat. Coal is our fuel for electricity. Transportation, electricity and heat provide us with the kind of life we take for granted..

Our way of life is now so bound up with the burning of coal and oil and gas that such a change feels impossible. It is not simply a matter of stopping a habit. It means changing how we live. It means changing our politics, our means of living and moving around, the ways we do our work. Almost everything we do.

It is amazing, almost unimaginable, that a mere 250 years ago there was essentially no oil (except whale oil). There was no gas. Coal was known and used, but little. The world we consider unalterable and our birthright began less than 250 years ago with the invention of the steam engine. The carbon orgy really got going a mere 60 years ago, following World War Two, when consumerism became a way of life. Our lives now are so bound up with buried sunlight, our sense of who we are and what we need most essentially is so aligned with this particular way of living, that it is very hard to imagine doing without oil or coal or gas. But most humans have, and some still do. And so can we.

We cannot go backward. We know that. We cannot snap our fingers, turn off all the oil and gas wells, shut down the coal mines, and go back to the way we lived three hundred ago or even sixty years ago. We certainly can’t go back to burning whale oil. For one thing, there are now many more of us and many fewer whales. Three hundred years ago the human population was about six hundred million. Now it is nearly 7 billion. That ten-fold increase in population was made possible largely by industrial agriculture, which is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels. We can’t snap our fingers and suddenly start fueling our current way of life with windmills and solar panels and organic agriculture. We will need all of those, but adopting them will require big changes in how we live. Fossil fuels have made possible a way of life that I believe cannot exist without them. We have some tough choices to make.

Short of the discovery and wide implementation in the next few years of some new, clean and safe, nearly unlimited form of energy (none of which describes nuclear fission), radical change is needed. Unimaginably radical. Change at a pace and a scale humanity has never seen. How is such a change possible?

There are only two things I am sure of here. One is that as long as we think it is impossible, it will be impossible. Our only hope of achieving zero carbon emissions from fossil fuels is to devote all our creativity to the task. Eighty percent reduction in 40 years is a start, but not enough. We have to get to zero. Not just because of the carbon, but because of all the other ways fossil fuels poison our world and our bodies.

The other thing I am sure of is that the easiest thing that we can do, the fastest and the simplest and the least painful, is the one thing that most of us won’t even consider. Slow down. Live with less. Adjust our expectations. Simplify. Own less. Travel less. Share more. Experience more discomfort. Live more like the other animals, taking no more than we physically need and giving more back to the Earth. Accept that much of the “progress” of the last three hundred years has not been progress at all, it has been poison. Abandon the psychological need for more and more and more and shrink materially. Go back to using non-polluting technologies of the past that could still work for us now.

Among the modern technologies, the ones that seem to me most promising and helpful are wind and micro hydro, passive solar heating, ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, and to some extent photovoltaic electricity. But there’s no way those are going to provide the power joy ride we’ve been on for the past 60 – 300 years. Scaling back radically has to be part of the solution.

Hard as that sounds, it requires no technological breakthroughs. We simply have to change our minds, which can happen in an instant. We simply have to accept that it is okay to do less. Alot less. We don’t have to be so busy. We don’t have to accomplish so much. It’s not good for us anyway. We can slow down. And then we can relearn manual skills that are rapidly being lost. I think the hard part is not the physical change, but the psychological change. Our sense of self has become bound up with carbon-fueled progress and speed, so what has to change is who and what we think we are.

In order for us to stop using fossil fuels, “who I am” cannot be bound up in owning a car or a big house, or a constant increase in income and possessions, or jetting around the world, or always having instant comfort at our fingertips, or instant communication around the globe*, or the instant gratification of driving to the mall whenever the mood strikes, or a calendar full of ten different activities in ten different places in one day. “Who I am” cannot be bound up in endless electronic and fossil-fueled entertainment. *[All the computers and all the server farms need to be manufactured and powered, and right now that takes a lot of fossil fuels – I recently read that server farms have now surpassed air travel as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions. At least Google, the owner of the servers on which this blog is hosted, is looking at wind power. Don’t get me started about Facebook.]

I don’t for a moment think it is likely that we will shift to a mentality, to a sense of “who I am” that is more like indigenous people who have lived in balance with their land for thousands of years, or like the great whales, who have lived in balance with their environment for tens of millions of years. That is a long way to shrink from where we are now. But I still maintain that that is exactly what we need to do, at least temporarily, that it is the only thing we can do fast enough, and that doing so now, when we have options, is a lot easier than waiting until the change is forced on us by an Earth pushed beyond endurance. And I still maintain that doing so is faster and simpler and more realistic than trying to fuel our current lifestyle with new forms of renewable energy, or waiting for some technological miracle to save us. We have to slow down. To accomplish less. To empty out our lives, to decide what is essential and discard all that is superfluous.

Maybe that’s just my bias. I’m a contemplative. That’s what contemplatives do. We try to whittle life down to its essentials.

But I don’t know why most of us are so resistant to this idea. It is not as if most of us really enjoy the stressful, accelerated, polluted, noisy, nonstop, war-ravaged, economically polarized, world that fossil fuels have made possible. It’s not as if most of us really benefit from it (did you make 6 billion dollars in the first quarter of this year, like BP did?). It is not as if we are all relaxed and playful and in love with our lives. It is not as if fossil fuels have made our world healthier and more vibrant. It is just that we have forgotten how to live any other way, and we have been conned into believing that this is how we want to live, how we must live. We have been taught to believe this is progress, that “more” is the meaning and purpose of life. But it isn’t, and it never was, and it never will be, and right now “more” is killing us, not just like a cancer, but often enough in the form of cancer itself, and it is killing the Earth and the Ocean.

The good news is that although the Earth is already greatly diminished, it remains resilient, creative, and abundant with diversity of life. It has great powers of healing and regeneration. It is beautiful and helpful and peaceful and supportive. That is the real world. That is what we are too. If we realign our sense of “who I am” with that world, the real world, the living world — the Earth, the soil, the Ocean, the air, the plants and the animals and the microorganisms, deep silence, the heart of everything, silent listening, watchful stillness, loving, uncompromising honesty — our lives will truly improve, will be less stressful, more peaceful, more enjoyable, more real, more beautiful, more adaptable, more creative. All of that comes from Life itself, and we cannot be that unless we are aligned with reality, with Life, the living truth which is alive within us and around us, always in everything.

Whether it’s oil spills or global warming or overfishing or ocean acidification, we tend to think that there is a technological or political solution that will rescue us – you and me – from having to change. I am suggesting that there is a solution, an earth-centered solution, but it does require us to change. It just happens to be a blessed change, a sacred slowing back down to an Earthly pace, that is quite possibly the very thing we are searching for in our heart of hearts.

Contemplative Prayer

In March I led an introduction to contemplative prayer at the Dummerston Congregational Church in Dummerston, Vermont. I have posted an edited transcript of that introduction in the essays section of my website.

Contemplation remains for me the most potent antidote to the insanity of the modern world. It doesn’t appear to accomplish anything, but in fact it touches every aspect of our lives and reorients us in exactly the ways we need right now.

Here is an excerpt:

“Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. Women and men fled the cities to escape from the exploitation built into civilization’s norms and structures.

“But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without civilization’s distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

“Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words…

“…although in its origins this practice of sacred presence was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

“I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our very being are to be found in both.

“So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present in love, inwardly and outwardly. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

“The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They are intelligent and communicative. They are not layered over with civilized concepts, they embody unity and interdependence. We can re-learn that from them, if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

“We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.”