Blowout

The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 – 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This “spill,” this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.

In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the “responsible party” showed up to “manage” the crisis.

First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is “make it up as you go along.” Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don’t seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.

Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It’s hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what’s happening. It’s hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.

Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year – seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn’t capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what’s going on, don’t listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).

I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.

Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.

And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power — fossil fuel augmented power — well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don’t understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, “they’ve been lying so long they don’t know what’s real.” They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.

Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.

It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We’re great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There’s a reason for that. Complex systems — bodies, ecosystems, planets — can’t be understood. They aren’t linear. They aren’t predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It’s like riding a wave. You can’t predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to “think” with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.

Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know — how little we can know — and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.

We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.

“Not knowing” used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With “not knowing” comes attention, humility and compassion.

There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet’s life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.

We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth’s body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of “not knowing” is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.

Who Will Pay?

Who will pay for the catastrophe of oil unfolding in the Gulf? BP? They are responsible for the cost of containment and cleanup. But who will really pay? The tuna. The turtles. The dolphins. The plovers and gannets and herons and shrimp and oysters and God knows what. The marshes. The shellfishermen. How long would the list be if it included every life touched and damaged and lost by this mess? I can’t begin to imagine.

We are all paying, and the cost is too high. Oil and coal are filthy and dangerous. We get to see that when they touch sea or land. We forget when they combust into atmosphere, turned temporarily invisible. Oh yes. We are all paying, dearly. Paying to preserve our sacred “lifestyle.”

So. Now. What are we willing to sacrifice of our lifestyle so that we, and all the creatures, and this magnificent Earth don’t have to keep paying this unbearable cost in lives?

Deep Stillness

I talk about stillness a lot. A revised and expanded version of Waves of Stillness is to be published in the environmental journal Whole Terrain this year. As a word, “stillness” is problematic. There are two kinds of stillness. There is superficial stillness, and there is deep stillness. When I talk about stillness, it is usually deep stillness.

Superficial stillness is the absence of movement. It is a glassy pond. It is a tree on a day when there is not a whisper of wind. Every leaf and branch is motionless and silent. It is a quiet mind. It is a beautiful thing, this stillness. It is the goal of most meditation. It is the rest sought by most retreatants. It is rare in our hyper-busy, high-speed communications world. It is well worth seeking and finding this stillness.

But it is still superficial. It comes and goes. Inevitably the wind picks up and stirs the leaves again. Inevitably the mind starts chattering again. Or the dogs start barking. Or the “to do” list starts forming again.

We see from a leaf-like, superficial perspective. If we get a hint of stillness, and decide we like that, it is superficial stillness that we try to get for our selves.

It is lovely in itself, this superficial stillness, but part of its loveliness is that it points to a deeper stillness. Not the stillness of the leaves on a calm day, but the stillness of the dark soil in which the tree is rooted. That stillness is permanent, unending, regardless of wind or calm. Regardless of a busy mind or a quiet mind. Regardless of motion or rest. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that superficial stillness can be extended indefinitely, become permanent, and that is what deep stillness is.

But no. The leaf can never know deep stillness. The leaf only knows leaf stillness, superficial stillness. The mind only knows superficial mental stillness, its own quietude. But in the superficial stillness there is at least the possibility of catching a whiff of the deep stillness that lies beneath it.

This is endlessly difficult to describe, because our language is entirely oriented toward superficial reality, toward that which we can touch and taste and smell and hear and see and feel and think and know, toward movement and the absence of movement. So it is impossible to describe deep stillness or explain how it is that it makes itself known. There is no formula for finding it. It reveals itself or it does not. When it does, it leaves the mind utterly baffled, because the mind has no way to explain it, describe it or even be sure what it is.

But when deep stillness does reveal itself, in a timeless, experience-less, wholly conscious moment, that moment will never be forgotten, and it will reorient everything. Because now the leaf knows it is a leaf, part of a vast tree, arising from deep roots embedded in nourishing soil. Paradoxically, the leaf also now knows that it is not a leaf at all, but the whole tree, and through the whole tree, an entire universe. Everything that before was experienced in isolation now is seen in context. And the context is the whole of everything.

Deep stillness is everywhere. It is the whole of everything. It is the deep soil in which everything is rooted. It is where we always and ever live and breathe and have our being.

We think we are leaves that can sometimes grasp a few minutes or hours of superficial stillness, when the conditions are right. In fact we are always and forever deep stillness itself, pouring itself out in the interplay of motion and rest, sound and silence, life and death, everything as it is. We are the totality of everything together, and the deep stillness that holds everything in its loving embrace.

Waves of Stillness

For the past several months I have been working on a major revision to my CD, Natural Meditation. That project has become a bit bogged down. So I wanted to share with you, my faithful blog readers, the new track for the CD. I recorded the track on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, last August. Here is the script for the track, not as I originally recorded it but as edited for the new CD. It is one of my favorites, about the closest I have yet come to conveying the essence of how I see the world.

One other note: when I capitalize the word “Life” I am referring to the entire life-system, birth, growth, decay, death, reintegration, rebirth, the complex interplay of ecosystems, and all the unseen, unknown underpinnings of the same. Like wise when I capitalize “Bay.” I am referring not just to a body of water but to an entire life-system.

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I want to take some time to talk about something I consider central to natural meditation.

I’m sitting on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, shrouded in fog. Foghorns sound in every direction. The Bay of Fundy is a 180-mile long, 700-foot deep, ancient rift valley at the northern end of the Gulf of Maine. Over 100 billion tons of water flow in and out of the Bay every twelve hours, making it an area of exceptionally high marine productivity and endlessly changing character.

A large grey seal lives here, whom I have observed over several years. A length of orange nylon rope is wrapped around his neck that was once attached to a lobster pot or a bit of fishing gear or a buoy. He got entangled in it and couldn’t get it off, and the rope has remained in place. Over the years his skin has folded over the rope, embedding the rope in his neck. Filaments of nylon stick out like hair. The neck looks raw and infected. The seal can’t do anything about it and the presence of this rope will surely shorten his life.

The Bay remains abundant with seals, dolphins and porpoises, large whales, pelagic birds, and the herring and plankton on which they all feed. But for how long? Whales and seals get entangled in our gear, seals are shot wholesale by fishermen who see them only as competitors for their livelihood, and the fisheries are erratic. Here on the shores of the Bay, it is all on display: nature’s abundance and inherent balance, and the imbalance we have introduced. Our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are tightening like a rope around the neck of the world.

How has such an intricately balanced system lost its equilibrium? For the first time in the history of the earth, as far as we know, one species’ activity is having an impact at a planetary level. Radical change is needed, but what is the root of the imbalance?

Most of us derive our sense of who we are from the things that we accumulate, not only money and possessions, but our accomplishments, our status in the community, our personal resume. We spend our lives trying to pin ourselves to these things, to locate ourselves in them.

But it doesn’t work. When we reach what we think is going to be the pinnacle of achievement or possessions or experiences, even spiritual experiences, very quickly that achievement loses its savor, and then we need the next thing. Another pinnacle appears and we feel like we have to set out to achieve that new pinnacle. We are never satisfied with who and what and where we are right now. We are always seeking something else, something more, something better. And that constant pursuit of more is running full speed into the wall of the physical limits of the planet.

And since that pursuit of more and better never brings true satisfaction, but is actually making most of us more miserable, and making the planet less vibrant and healthy, it makes sense to step back and ask, what does satisfy? What makes for a rich and satisfying life?

This is where natural meditation has a part to play. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference to take a look around at what is right here. It makes a difference to listen to the waves crashing on the rocks, or watch the gulls flying by, or the swirling of the fog, the grass bending in the wind, the other animals going about their lives, looking for food, looking for each other, playing. It makes a difference to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and sensations in the same way, without blame and without self-justification, without an agenda. Paying attention freely, opens up the possibility of clearly seeing the natural world, the impact we are having on it, and our place within it. Paying attention makes it possible to see the ways in which the mind tricks itself into thinking it is separate from everything else. And paying attention in this way allows a sense of self to emerge that is deeper than any words or ideas can convey.

At its root, the ecological crisis is not about too much carbon and too many people and too much waste and too many toxic products. It is not about bad policy and inefficient technology. It is about us. We have forgotten who we are. In our scramble to accumulate and possess, to understand and control, we have lost touch with the living truth, which we cannot possess. Paying attention to the whole movement of Life, is one way of remembering what has been forgotten, and restoring the balance.

The fog is clearing a little and the wind is picking up, creating ripples on the surface of the water. These ripples have their own distinct, individual quality, yet they are in no way separate from the Bay. In partnership with wind, the Bay forms surface ripples that arise, intertwine, fade and disappear.

Nothing can be held. Everything slips away from us: our most beloved friends and companions, our most cherished ideas of who we are and what the world is, our own lives. Everything is in motion, like ripples on the surface of the deep. Everything resides in stillness, like the depths underlying the activity at the surface.

When I first came to the Bay of Fundy I was captivated by its presence. 100 billion tons of water in motion, yet the stillness of it enfolds everything in its embrace. Stillness in motion. The deep, rippling at the surface. The whale, rising to breathe. This stillness lives in us as well, and knowing it is a profound homecoming. Knowing this stillness at the heart of our own lives reunites us with everything.

Watch the grass blowing in the breeze. Watch the sun rising. Listen to the rain falling. Listen to thoughts arising in the mind and falling away, like waves crashing on the shore.

This is life in this moment, the true miracle. This is deep stillness, expressing itself in everything. In us. In the other animals. In the plants, the insects, the water, the soil, the air, the clouds, the fog, the mountains, the deep bedrock, the depths of the sea, all the sea creatures, the empty space within and between, all the life fueled by the sun’s energy, all the phenomena in the universe.

When we discover this stillness in our own being, then we have no need for more than this that is, right here, right now, exactly as it is. Because this is everything. In this moment, in life being lived right here, right now, the whole universe participates. It is all the movement of stillness. All the marvelous interplay of waves on the surface of the deep, and therefore the very deep itself.

The Singing of the Seals

I have always wanted to hear seals sing. There are many stories and legends out of Scotland indicating that seals are great lovers of music and great singers as well. There is nothing in the scientific literature about this at all. Not a word as far as I can tell.

I have called to seals with my penny whistle and had them appear out of nowhere to listen. My partner, Cynthia, once heard a harbor seal sing a single, pure note as it surfaced next to her kayak. In our musical duo, Coracle, we play several tunes that are thought to have come from the singing of the seals.

But until this past summer, I had never heard the seals sing.

Cynthia and I are planning a concert that will take place on February 21st in Bellows Falls, called The Seal Woman’s Sea Joy. The concert will feature our seal music, and other music inspired by the sea and our deep connection to the creatures of the sea.

In fact, we were writing the description for the concert just days before we heard the seals sing. I have talked to a few people now who have heard the seals sing, so it is not quite as uncommon as I had thought, but still I can not find any mention of it in any scientific journal or book.

We were camping on the coast, in a location that for various reasons I shouldn’t disclose, when we were awakened just before sunrise by one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard. We were deeply puzzled by it, and lying in the tent we tried to figure out what it was. A radio in the distance? A dog barking? Someone singing? Some strange sea bird unfamiliar to us? The wind?

It hit us nearly simultaneously, I think. Seals. We were hearing the singing of the seals.

We scrambled out of the tent, grabbed binoculars and microphones and ran out to the point of land. And there, on a rock exposed by the low tide, were a couple of dozen seals. Far enough away that we could not see them very clearly, and are still not sure whether they were harbor seals or grey seals. Either is possible. Or both.

They sang for about an hour, while the sun rose. My recordings are marginal, thanks to gulls, wind noise, the crashing of waves, and the slapping of mosquitoes. But we will be using the best parts in our program on the 21st. But, more important, now I know it is true. Seals really do sing. I don’t know if they are actually singing songs. That would require a repeated pattern to the vocalization, and I have not found any repetitions in my small sample of recordings. But they are melodic. They are lovely.

Well, not to everyone. A fisherman was out there collecting seaweed from the exposed rocks, and the recording clearly catches his commentary on the singing seals, “They sure do like to holler, don’t they?” About an hour later that same fisherman was out there in his boat shooting those very same seals. Not for food or clothing. Just for spite. A common practice, we were later told.

It was an incomprehensible whiplash of shock to be delightedly listening to the seals sing one moment, and helplessly watching them being slaughtered the next. We couldn’t make sense out of it then, nor now. Their singing was a profound gift to us, and it surely drew attention to them, bringing death to we do not know how many.

In the old legends, killing the seals was also common practice. But invariably those who hurt the seals hurt them selves in some way. The seals saw to that. On the other hand, those who helped the seals, or just loved them, were always rewarded in some way, with abiding friendship if nothing else. We wonder what harm this fisherman has brought upon himself by slaughtering these innocent singers. The fishing way of life is dying, and the fishermen take it out on the seals. We wonder what benefit he and his fellow islanders might reap if they can learn to love what they now hate.

And I wonder if the seals are really singing. It is impossible to calculate the good that was done for whales when Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whales sing, and spread their songs throughout the human world.

If seals are singers too, it might awaken us once again to the intelligence and beauty and social sophistication that shares the planet with us.

Once upon a time I was fascinated with SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Well, we don’t even recognize intelligence when it is in our own back yard. Often enough we kill it. What makes us think we would recognize it, and honor it, if it came from outer space?

I am told that along the Maine coast, shooting seals is a thing of the past, maybe two generations gone. And I understand that seals are generally flourishing, the elimination of cod having opened up food sources for them in many areas. The human battle against the seals is one the humans are sure to lose, one way or the other. Either we will fail to exterminate them, or we will succeed in that, and lose the opportunity to learn from them, to appreciate them, to fall in love with them, and with the other life forms that share this magical, singing world.