Saturday, May 21, 2011

Finding what the Forest means to you... Looking beyond the trees.

Last fall (2010) when Steve and I were teaching our course in Eco Spirituality and Sustainability at Plymouth State University, I conjured up an interesting exercise for our 22 students.  I wanted to have a conversation with them about the social construction of the forest -- its meaning and symbolic place in our cultural context -- but I wanted an interactive way to structure the lesson.  So I came up with a list of 40 or so 'associations' people might have with THE FOREST.  Many of these were straight out of our texts, as we had read about these ideas in the various books and articles we had been reading the first few weeks. Quite a few of these descriptions/associations were from the text on Hindu Ecology that we were reading for class -- and we had just discussed the Indian epic THE RAMAYANA (see my previous blog on this MYTH).  So, it is not surprising then, to see that many of the descriptions fall beyond the realm of forest reality that we live with here in 21st century America.

I typed each description ('association') on a small slip of paper.  Then I passed the slips out, giving each student 2 or 3, and asked each student to read his or her slip silently.  I asked them to think about the historic and cultural context that shaped the particular 'forest association' they found on their slip. (see list below)

For example, one slip might say "The Forest is a place of danger" and another slip might say "The Forest is home to cute furry things"

Was the description of the forest on their slip something they agreed with?  
Was it a modern viewpoint or something they thought people might have believed long ago (but not anymore)?  
Was this viewpoint something that held meaning for us here in the USA -- or was it more likely this 'meaning' made more sense in another society (another culture or nation-state or region)?  
Did the slip speak to them from a religious or rational perspective?  
Was it true or false?

Then I drew a really long line on the blackboard that crossed the entire front of our, rather wide, classroom,  I  handed the first student a tape dispenser.  One by one, I asked students to come up and tape their slip to my time line.  It started in 10,000 BCE (Before the Common Era) and ended in 'the future.'  As a historian, I was interested in seeing if they saw these descriptions as time specific or timeless. 

 I also asked them if the ideas were place specific or universal.  Each student was also handed a piece of chalk so that they could draw or make notes around the slip once they taped it up on the time-line.  A few rebels decided to ignore my linear mandate and created their own 'space' up on the board (I was proud of them for that).  Some clearly felt stressed by the task, really worried they wouldn't get it 'right'.  I suggested that if they were stuck or confused, they could ask their classmates to vote, to offer advice, to share opinions.  Most students were pretty confident but others became frustrated when they realized so many of the ideas we were 'playing' with were quite 'relative' -- putting the slip upon the board wasn't easy -- it depended on who you were, where you lived, and when you existed.  My first point, on subjectivity and positionality was made.

The timid slip tapers relied more on class votes -- or actually, what turned into 4-5 'forest expert' students doing some serious 'back seat driving' -- shouting out where to plug the slip in on the time line.  Others watched baffled.  What's the point if there is no right answer?  I could see some of them fighting back the urge to ask "will this be on the quiz??"  Not only wasn't there one right answer but voting on these things didn't seem to make them 'right' either -- in fact, it became clear that most of the students believed voting on these 'meanings' (like good modern Americans) did not help.  Voting didn't make the 'associations' place on the time-line more real.  Even if a majority of us agreed on one meaning or spot on the board -- so what?  The Forest seemed to be all things, to everyone, they concluded.  And yet... we each still strong feelings about what it was and what it wasn't, individually.  How could THAT be?
What a curious place, this thing called THE FOREST.  
It wasn't simply just a bunch of trees at all!

This activity wasn't a success so much as it was an illustration of complexity.  Despite spending over 5 weeks discussing ecology, spirituality, and our relationship to the environment... students were still figuring out their relationship to the Forest.  We left that class a little flummoxed.  It seemed it wasn't as simple as many had hoped.  What does the Forest mean to each of us?  The answer seems to lie beyond the trees.

Teaching this course made me curious about how students felt about the forest.  Not trees, so much -- but the FOREST, the whole kit and kaboodle.  What comes to mind for the average American 18 year old middle class kid going to college in rural New Hampshire when they hear someone say the word: FOREST?  Does it evoke happy hiking memories, does it remind of us slasher films from the teenage years, does it remind us of creepy childhood fairy tales full of hungry wolves and dangerous goblins?  Do we have a collective consciousness (perhaps inherited from Euro ancestors) of the forest, its purpose, its dangers, its beauty?

Early in the semester we had investigated our personal history/feelings related to TREES and this was easier.  
I had students get together in groups and travel up and down the hallway, visiting different stations where I had posted tree-related poetry, pictures, political cartoons, etc. They had to discuss each station with their peers and jot down notes.  After visiting each station they had to report their 'findings' to the class.

I even had one station outside our classroom building. They had to visit an apple tree that sat out on the quad smack dab in the middle of our bustling campus less than hundred yards form the main entrance of our building.  Many admitted never noticing that the tree bore fruit -- fruit you could actually eat!  They went out  into the cold dusk (it was an October in NH) and spent more time at that station than any of the 'constructed' tree stations I had erected indoors. They had been asked to 'experience' the apple tree-- to touch it, sniff it, climb it (if they wanted), and to sample its fruits  (a few brave ones partook in its wormy sourness).  They thought this was corny but fun.  God bless students who are flexible and willing! :-)  

The last station was inside the classroom.  They had to sit at a cluster of desks, select another person in their group, and spend a few minutes there conducting TREE BIO INTERVIEWS in pairs.  This was also a popular station.  The bio interviews asked students to psychoanalyze their own relationship with some trees they had known.  Students laughed and joked and rolled their eyes.  No one had asked them to talk about this stuff before...

We seem to feel good about trees, in general, and have nice memories of them from childhood.  They held our swings and let us climb them.  They gave us shade and dropped funny seeds and fruits and sticks to play with.  When did we stop climbing trees?  When did we stop playing with them?  When did we stop noticing them and feeling close to them?  

During the TREE BIO INTERVIEWS students asked each other:

What is your earliest memory of trees? 
What is happiest tree related memory? 
Do you have any painful memories involving a tree?  
Did you have a favorite tree?  Where? Why?
How many trees have you climbed? If non, why?  
Were you ever told you shouldn't climb trees? Why?
How has your relationship with trees changed since your childhood?

Students liked this exercise.  They loved sharing tree stories.  Everyone had one.  Some were pretty funny.  Others were heartfelt and a bit sad.  The boys tended to tell more 'how I hurt myself with a tree or tree part' stories -- while a lot of girls recollected writing poetry in trees and singing in them.  I could relate to that. Who among us, ladies, hasn't sought solace in the branches of a loving tree at least once in our lifetime when we've felt no one else 'understood us' or when someone had hurt us, let us down, or simply, left us?  Okay, maybe some of you reading this blog are from Manhattan or Duluth or something.  You have no tree memories.  But a lot of us have had some pretty tender moments (of self pity or perhaps self-soothing) in the arms of a large, comforting tree. 

Do you think that's less true today than perhaps 20 or 30 years ago?  I wonder if there is a correlation between hours spent on Xbox or Wii or Facebook and diminished tree climbing/playing/poetry writing?
If so, what does that mean for our world?...

Trees are our friends, by and large.  They aren't intimidating or painful, despite the fact that we've been injured in them, by them, or by falling down from them.  Forests, however, are another story altogether.  Unless your an avid outdoors-men  or a fish-and-wild life professional -- you've probably had fewer really happy forest experiences.   And by forest, I don't mean that small grove behind your condo unit.  I don't mean that grove in the town park.  Most of us, I'd imagine, have had fewer DEEP FOREST experiences than we've had basic tree experiences.  

Acknowledging this to be generally true, we wanted students to experience a real forest experience.  We wanted them to witness the woods and watch their reaction to that witness and then give their TESTIMONY in their weekly journal, and if they were brave enough, to give it in class.  That is, we wanted them to GO TO THE WOODS and watch themselves there.  Then we wanted them to report back their feelings.  Crazy homework, right?  Well, the experience was (third) eye opening on many levels. And I purposefully use terms like 'witness', and 'testimony', which are religious terms because I think a few of these city-slickers (okay, small town NH slickers) found something sacred in the woods when we went there and 'communed' with nature.

We asked students to go into a forest for at least an hour a week over the course of the semester (15 weeks) -- all we wanted them to do was just to go and sit quietly, deep in the woods, and do nothing else.  

We said if they thought that would be too hard then they could start with just 15 minutes at a time and build up, as they got more comfortable with it.  We also asked them to go deep enough so that they couldn't see or hear any signs of development and/or civilization (highways, parking lots, hikers, etc.).  The hardest part of this assignment for our multi-tasking, high-tech, over-stimulated students was that we asked them to just sit there -- no books, no cell phone texting, no ipod, no pets.  The results were mixed.  Some did it, regularly, without fear or trepidation.  They tended to be the nutty-crunchy-granola kids who were already committed to the back-to-nature, tree-hugging life trajectory.  Others found it unsettling and boring.  Others just said they didn't have time or they simply "forgot."  Many could only handle 15 minutes or so without desperately seeking distraction.  Some admitted singing to themselves to avoid the silence.  But a handful or them admitted seeing and smelling and feeling things that they had never experienced before.  And that was the "Aha!" moment.

Steve asked students, one week, to tweak the assignment.  He asked them one week to have a relationship with something 'out there' in nature, just for 10 minutes or so.  He suggested they pick an entity in the forest - something that caught their interest or intrigued them and spend some 'quality time with it' - alone and deeply focused.  He suggested it could be a flower, or a rock, or a fern. He challenged them, "spend time focusing all your energy on one part of the forest and see what you can learn." And some students took the task to heart and did it with an earnestness that was refreshing.  

One student, who decided to focus on a particularly lush piece of moss, described the experience with excitement in a lengthy journal reflection.  He almost waxed poetic about his moss!  He was, self-admittedly, surprised and slightly embarrassed by the experience.  In fact, he found so many things in that patch of moss, it surprised even us.  I'd venture to say that he had something of a spiritual experience, as bizarre as that sounds.  He admitted that had never given himself over to that type of concentration in that sort of context before -- pondering something in nature so deeply. Yes, he concluded, it was the closest he had come to a spiritual revelation.  A piece of moss! He told us he had thought long and hard about how he was connected to that moss -- How the universe had made that moss.  He realized how many years it took for that piece of moss to form.  He felt sad about all the times he stamped over moss or kicked it or ignored it.  He wondered at how much life was going on in that moss.  To be frank, he was a little bashful reporting on all this in class but, luckily, enough other students had had similar experiences of awe out in the forest that it didn't seem nearly as loony to everyone as he feared it might.

After that experience, the forest was something more real to that student -- and to several others.  It wasn't an abstract thing.  It wasn't something found only in fairy tales about red hooded girls and sharp toothed predators.  It wasn't something you 'drove past' to get to vacation locations or ski resorts -- it wasn't something you occasionally hiked through on your way to a scenic overlook, once or twice a year, with friends.  The forest became more personal and more sacred.  Or if not something sacred, something full of mystery that demanded more reverence and respect.

For me, as a teacher exploring unchartered waters in spiritual ecology, it seemed important that we have a conversation about why the forest matters.  Whether we see the forest as a place of discovery and sanctuary -- or a place of dark mystery, isolation and danger -- matters!  Investigating the meaning of the forest to each of us is a practice that may bring us more fully into ourselves, into the world, and into the sacred transcendent.

Feeling we are part of the forest and that it is not a place foreign to us, may make the difference in ourconservation efforts.  For sadly, without a personal and spiritual connection to the FOREST we are lost.  Our forests are disappearing. And that is a tragedy we've yet to personalize or self-actualize.  We have failed to connect to our Forests and we aren't even bothering to have a conversation about WHY this is.

I blog about this, seven months after the lesson that I taught interrogating the myths and meanings we attribute to the FOREST, because it seems important. I don't know who reads this blog anymore, or if you care... but I hope by putting it out there in the universe it can do a little good.

Below are the 'descriptoins' or 'associations' of the forest that I handed out on small slips to each of my students that day in class.  These are the meanings we read aloud, shared, pondered and pinned to our time line.  

Which of these 'understandings' of the forest resonate with you?  
Which seem true?  Which sound foreign?  

Take a moment to read through them all and leave a comment.  
Which one felt the most right to you and WHY?

The Forest is far away.

The Forest is where we gather food.

The Forest is where we find healing.

The Forest is where people live.

The Forest is wild.

The Forest is home.

The Forest is full of sounds, smells and tastes.

The Forest is where we go to escape.

The Forest is full of demons.

The Forest is where medicinal plants grow.

The Forest is a place of peace.

The Forest provides us with wood to cook our food.

The Forest provides us with wood to warm our bodies.

The Forest provides us with wood to build our shelter.

The Forest is a place of prayer.

The Forest is a retreat.

The Forest is sacred.

The Forest is erotic.

The Forest is dangerous.

The Forest is where students go to learn.

The Forest is Life.

The Forest is a place where Holy Men go to find Moksha.

The Forest is Foreign.

The Forest is part of the watershed.

The Forest is our home.

The Forest is a hermitage where ascetics go to be alone.

The Forest is a place of exile.

The Forest is the King’s Royal Hunting Ground.

The Forest is full of Death.

The Forest is a place of pain.

The Forest is a place for heroism.

The Forest is where the animals live.

The Forest is a place of sport and play.

The Forest is where our ancestors reside.

The Forest is impenetrable and dark.

The Forest is a place of plenty – a place of abundance.

The Forest is ancient.

The Forest is a part of us.

The Forest is where criminals hide.

The Forest is the most natural place.

The Forest is biodiversity and resilience.

The Forest is where the Spirits Live.

The Forest is where we hunt.

The Forest is part of our history.

The Forest is a commercial resource.

The Forest is where god lives.

The Forest is an interconnected web – an eco system.

The Forest is a place of fairy tales.

The Forest is romantic.

The Forest is where gods and goddesses reside.

The Forest is mythical and magical.

The Forest is uncivilized.

The Forest is useful.

The Forest is scary.

The Forest is empty.

The Forest is full.

The Forest is where I feel most at peace.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Planting Trees for Peace

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

I heard her give her Nobel speech one chilly December morning while I was flipping channels and was quite struck by her story.  This woman has such passion and strength, and had such courage in the face of immeasurable obstacles.  On top of all that, she is just plain feisty.  We need feisty.  Lisa Merton, the co-director of the film TAKING ROOT, attested to this feistiness when she came to our college to talk about the making of the documentary (clip above).  I invited Lisa to come speak about her experience working with Maathai and to share her film with our PSU students a few years ago.  I'm so glad I did.  It is a moving and epic story -- truly a testament to the power of ordinary people and trees to transform the planet!

Kenya was under a harsh dictatorship in the 1970's when she founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights.  Maathai made the connection between the environment and human dignity -- impoverished women in rural Kenya did not have access to the resources they needed because their forests were so degraded by decades of exploitive colonial land use practices which continued under the corrupt post-Independence government.  

When Maathai tried to empower local women by asking them to plant trees, she became a target of the brutal regime's attacks.  She was arrested, tortured, molested and subject to death threats by government authorities.  She would not be silenced, however, and the people rallied to her cause.

Today the Green Belt Movement has planted ONE BILLION trees on this planet.  Amazing what a little hope and a lot of hands can do!

Here is an excerpt from her inspiring Nobel Lecture, the full speech can be found at the Nobel Prize website, link below.  Take the time to read it, it is worth it:

In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.
Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.
The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.
Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.
So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children's education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.
Initially, the work was difficult because historically our people have been persuaded to believe that because they are poor, they lack not only capital, but also knowledge and skills to address their challenges. Instead they are conditioned to believe that solutions to their problems must come from ‘outside'. Further, women did not realize that meeting their needs depended on their environment being healthy and well managed. They were also unaware that a degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict. They were also unaware of the injustices of international economic arrangements.
In order to assist communities to understand these linkages, we developed a citizen education program, during which people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions. They then make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society. They learn that our world is confronted with a litany of woes: corruption, violence against women and children, disruption and breakdown of families, and disintegration of cultures and communities. They also identify the abuse of drugs and chemical substances, especially among young people. There are also devastating diseases that are defying cures or occurring in epidemic proportions. Of particular concern are HIV/AIDS, malaria and diseases associated with malnutrition.
On the environment front, they are exposed to many human activities that are devastating to the environment and societies. These include widespread destruction of ecosystems, especially through deforestation, climatic instability, and contamination in the soils and waters that all contribute to excruciating poverty.
In the process, the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.
Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.
Although initially the Green Belt Movement's tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. In Nairobi 's Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.
Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.
In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.

It seems to me that the world can use a few more staffs made of the thigi trees just about now.  Maybe Mr. Obama, our own Nobel Peace Prize winner, has forgotten the roots of his ancestors.  It would be wise for all of us to remember the lessons once taught by the African elders and find a place for reconciliation and peace in our hearts...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Van Morrison -- making the forest cool, hip and sexy!

Somehow I missed this earlier... but one of my favorite vocalists has a song about the woods...

Thank you Van Morrison.

In the Forest 
(from the 1993 album "Too Long in Exile")

By the sacred grove, where the waters flow
We will come and go, in the forest

In the summer rain, we will meet again
We will learn the code of the ancient ones
In the forest

By the waterfall, I will hold you in my arms
We will meet again by the leafy glade
In the shade of the forest

With your long robes on, we will surely roam
By the ancient roads, I will take you home
To the forest

In the forest, in the forest
In the forest, in the forest

With your long robes on, we will surely roam
By the ancient roads, I will take you home again
To the forest

Satisfy the soul baby
Birds sing all day long of the mother lode
We can let it roll, in the forest

With your long robes on
I know where you’re coming from
By the big oak tree you’ve gotta come and go with me

In the forest, in the forest
In the forest, in the forest

By the waterfall
I will hold you in my arms, and we will meet again
By the leafy shade, in the, in the forest

Satisfy the soul
Birds sing all day long of the mother lode
We can surely let it roll, in the forest

With your long robes on
I know where you’re coming from
We will surely roam, down by the ancient roads 

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Weeks Act story by Mr. Bennett's 5th grade class

Two days ago, this video was posted to YouTube by an area elementary school teacher.  What a wonderful piece of New Hampshire history.  KUDOS to Mr. Bennett and his 5th grade class.

I thought I'd share it with all of you as a follow up to the piece I wrote on my blog two weeks.  This dramatic reading says it much better than I could. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

High Stakes of High Power... Special Guest Blogger: Sally Manakian

FEATURED GUEST BLOG by Sally Manakian, 
Backcountry Resource Conservation Manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, in New Hampshire

The high stakes of high power transmission lines, and time for public input 

In recent years, northern New Hampshire residents have struggled with the pros and cons of renewable energy proposals, from wind to biomass. These projects offer jobs, tax revenues, and a commitment to renewable energy sources, but also raise questions of environmental and scenic impact in an area dependent on tourism. Most of all, these proposals inevitably involve the strong land connection of North Country residents for their family farms and historic forests.

The most recent project is quickly becoming the most controversial: a high voltage direct current 1,200 megawatt transmission line connecting New England’s power grid with renewable sources in Quebec, known as the Northern Pass Transmission line. The line, projected to cost $1.1 billion in construction, would meet some of the needs of power-importer states hungry for renewable sources, mostly Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The proposed route of the line crosses the border at Pittsburg, and travels to Franklin by hugging the western border of the state. Using current rights of way, the 140 mile line would require 40 new miles as well as updating the current line to the high voltage direct current capacity towers that are 90-130 feet high.

(What does 90-130 feet high look like? If your average telephone pole comes ¾ of the way up a tree, that same tree comes only 1/3-1/2 of the way up a 130 foot tower.)

The 2010 release of the preliminary routes for the transmission line made the proposal a reality and a controversy for residents of Coos, Carroll, and Grafton counties in New Hampshire. The controversy began when they saw the line cut through scenic vistas and private land in Stewartstown, the local heritage and tourism destination of the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, the quiet Town of Easton, and the Appalachian Trail as it crosses the Kinsmans in the White Mountain National Forest.

The federal process for this project requires a Presidential Permit for the crossing of an international boundary. The Department of Energy (DOE) must determine that the proposed action is in the public interest, weighing the various impacts as it does so, before a Presidential Permit is issued. AMC has intervened in opposition to the project.
Fight the Northern Pass t-shirts

The DOE accomplishes this through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), culled in part from public comments, either written or spoken. This past week the DOE held a series of public scoping sessions across the state: Pembroke, Franklin, Lincoln, Whitefield, Plymouth, Colebrook, Haverhill. They were attended by 200, 300, 400 and up to 700 at Plymouth.

If you are interested in submitting written comments, the deadline is April 12. Submit written comments here. In the uniquely New England way, the public scoping sessions were passionate displays of public engagement and politics. AMC staff attended most of the scoping sessions, and I myself attended Plymouth’s and Colebrook’s.

The proposed routes through Colebrook are new rights of way that would invoke eminent domain and the taking of land. Citizens spoke of their love of the landscape and their love of life, and a very tangible fear that their lives will be dangerously affected by this powerline project: affecting the view, affecting their forests, and affecting the land their grandparents are buried on.

One in particular was Mark McCullock; I worked with Mark in the woods in 2010 at Eliza Brook campsite, we ate backcountry meals and we worked as a crew and we built a shelter together. During that time, Mark spoke often of his home, 70 acres of maple trees, ponds, hiking trails, and the house his built with his own hands.

The proposed line would cut directly through his sugar orchard.

When Mark spoke at the EIS scoping hearing in Colebrook, he went over his designated three minutes as he spoke of the effects on his property and his livelihood. The moderator informed him that he was thirty seconds over, a minute over, and eventually that his time was up. Members of the audience shouted out to let Mark continue.

As Mark broke into tears, he said “thank you for giving me three minutes to defend my 25 years on my land.” There is a connection to the land that one develops as a trail worker, a caretaker, a steward. There is a direct feeling of shovel into earth, a disruption to land. The alteration of terrain, expressed at the human powered level.

When I consider the effects of transmission lines, I consider the alteration of terrain. The disruption to ecosystems, an impact that we can’t take back. I see the roads and infrastructure that are created to build the lines, and that stay behind to maintain the lines. I see the visual break in the landscape.

I do not own property in the corridor line, but a proposed route crosses the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in the White Mountain National Forest within half a mile of Eliza Brook Shelter. I have a deep physical connection with all AMC campsites because of the nature of my work, but I also feel an especially deep connection with Eliza, having spent the past field season dedicated to her renewal through rehabilitation and a new shelter.

AMC’s is one of many conservation organizations that have weighed in on the Northern Pass project, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and N.H. Audobon. In their motions to intervene, they speak powerfully of the need for intact landscapes, ecosystems, and wild recreational experiences. For example, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is currently facing pressure from energy projects all along the 2,000 miles of its length; the ATC and AMC both asked what the cumulative impact of powerline and wind projects would have on recreation as well as the primitive experience hikers seek during four months on the trail.

There are a variety of ways to educate yourself about the Environmental Impact Statement that the Department of Energy is putting together. There is, also, opportunity for everyone to comment on the process. For those who recreate on or along the Appalachian Trail in the Kinsmans, or who value intact landscapes, your voice should be heard.

Go here to comment in the public scoping period, which ends April 12.

Here are a selection of links to educate yourself more on the project overall: ; -  posted by the developer -  North Country opposition—Bury Northern Pass (North Country Opposition) -  Official U.S. DOE site ; -   North Country Council -  Conservation Law Foundation
Sally Manakian with her compost bin at one of the RMC's back country cabins.
Sally Manikian is the Backcountry Resource Conservation Manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club. She manages the Backcountry Caretaker program, which staffs AMC's remote campsites with caretakers in the summer. She is engaged in community and economic development initiatives in Northern New Hampshire that promote sustainable use and promotion of natural resources. She is on the Board of Directors of the Randolph Mountain Club, the Berlin Industrial Development and Park Authority, and the Androscoggin River Watershed Council, and is on the steering committee for the Coos County Community Benefits Alliance, the EESE Board's Education and Outreach Committee, and Berlin's Local Energy Committee. She is a former adjunct professor for PSU's Social Science department, and is a current dogsledder. She lives in Berlin, NH.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Celebrating the Woods -- The Weeks Act of 1911

New Hampshire's National Forest featuring the White Mountains.
Pictured here: Mt. Washington, 6,288 feet tall.
Known as AGIOCOCHOOK or "Home of the Great Spirit"
before Europeans (and the General) arrived.

The Weeks Act, named for Rep. John Weeks (R-MA), was signed into law by  President William Howard Taft on March 1, 1911, and gave the federal government the authority to create national forests across the east, changing the face of New England through the establishment of the White and Green Mountains national forests. It is thus one of the nation’s most important pieces of environmental legislation.

John Wingate Weeks, 1860-1926 born in Lancaster, New Hampshire
has a footbridge over the Charles River on Harvard's campus named after him, too!

I live on the edge of the National Forest and, as you might have gathered from following my blog, I love the woods.  The White Mountains are my backyard!

I'm in Thornton (lower left hand side of map) and just a 10 minute
drive from the Kancamangus Highway with breath-taking views...

So the day before yesterday, when I heard a colleague and friend of mine, historian Dr. Marcia Schmidt Blaine, give a wonderful talk on the history of the Weeks Act and logging in New Hampshire on the NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio), I was thrilled.  It reminded me how fortunate I am to live in this part of the world -- this part of the world where we celebrate WILDERNESS, where we love our woods!  

Folks come for all over the country (and especially from beloved Massachusetts) to visit our mountain tops, forests and pristine lakes.  How lucky can a person be -- to be at the center of all this!  What an honor to live here.  And what a responsibility to keep it safe for generations.

As the spring thaw sneaks up on us, slowly, like a lethargic, stealthy lamb (still being chased by that LION), I look at the water richness all around me.  As the ice burgs in the Pemi river shrink and as the snow melt rushes down from the mountains nearby, I'm reminded of how essential our rushing, bubbling rivers are.  One part of the Weeks Act focuses on water -- kind of important to the growing of tress and the biodiversity of our forests!  The legislation provides  "...for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams, and to appoint a commission for the acquisition of lands for the purpose of conserving the navigability of navigable rivers."

We sometimes forget how important the health of streams and rivers are to us -- and how vital to our own sustenance these waterways remain still, though we often don't think of them beyond the aesthetic pleasure they provide to us on hikes into the woods.  Spending three weeks in India carrying buckets of well pumped water out into dry forests to quench saplings in the hot sun this past January surely helped me appreciate water in a new way.** 

More than just being pretty, I experienced first hand how water is life.  Maintaining strong clean networks of water flow is essential to keeping our aquifers healthy.  As ecology and Buddhism keep reminding us: it is all connected.

"The [Weeks] Act further allowed for lands so acquired to be preserved and maintained as national forests. Prior to this time, on 1 February 1905, control over the forest reserves had been transferred from the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Responsibility for these lands was given to Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot. With these lands he gained the power to issue permits for water power development on National Forests. The Weeks Act appropriated $9 million to purchase 6 million acres of land in the eastern United States!!" (wikipedia).

**Footnote: It may be interesting to note that India actually had one of the first scientific forest management systems in the world, introduced during British rule in 1864.  The British Raj created the Imperial Forest Department that year and appointed officers were sent to Germany and France to learn the most modern forestry techniques.

"In the north the two key northern proponents were the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876) and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (1901). Without their indefatigable coalition building, and persistent lobbying in public meetings, congressional hearings, and through the media, we would not have 52 eastern national forests.

Without these lands, our watersheds would be less green, potable water less pure, scenic vistas less stunning, and economic life less vibrant." -- Char Miller, Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College

In addition to water, the Weeks Act focuses on fire.  Fire control, to be exact.  It was a HOT topic in the early 20th century.  Marcia Schmidt-Blaine discusses how, before the Weeks Act, timber companies clear cut whole swathes of forest and left nothing it is place but kindling.  Without trees and roots to hold snow and water, severe floods were common place in the springs.  Forest fires in New Hampshire in 1903 after a severe drought devastated parts of the forest.  Some towns were completely surrounded by forest fires and mills had to be closed down so all the men in the town could go fight the fires.  Ashes from this 1903 fire fell from the sky for days, like snow, in the middle of summer.

For photos and more on this story:

Stopping the wholesale destruction of the woods looked nearly impossible at the turn of the century.  There was a lot of money to be made chopping down trees.  Powerful timber companies had a lot of clout in the State and Federal Legislatures.  Big business and big bucks outweighed local concerns about conservation.  Legislative bills introduced to save the forests in the late 1800's and the first decade of the 1900's were largely ignored.  Logging tycoons bought up tens of thousands of acres of forest in New Hampshire, alone.  Another friend and local historian, Dr. Linda Upham-Bornstein, talked about the impact this had on the local economy.  Unscrupulous sawmill operators set up shop in remote regions, bringing jobs and opportunities for rural people for a few months at a time, before clear cutting the forests and clearing out of town with full pockets.  Rural economies boomed and then went bust.  Portsmouth and Boston were 'benefiting' from logging, N.H. was not.

The 'fire season' of 1910 greatly influenced this legislation because it raised havoc across the western United States, especially in the state of Idaho where fires killed 85 people (72 of them firefighters), burned more than 3 million acres and destroyed an estimated 8,000,000,000 board feet of timber and put the US Forest Service 1.1 million dollars in debt.
(wikipedia- "Weeks Act")  

Having seen the devastation of forest fires in the White Mountains myself, I appreciate this.  A constant reminder of the Weeks Act, and the good work that private-public partnerships have done to reduce fire risks, is the series of fire towers which dot the mountain ridges throughout the National Forest.  The Presidential Range is home to several fire towers, which remind us constantly (as oft we need reminding) that we are quite small when it comes to the ravages of natural (and man-made) disaster... but with diligence and care we can preserve our heritage.   To me, this preservation isn't just for tree huggers, it's for us all.

Carter Dome Fire Tower, 1938.

The Weeks Act saved the forests from bad business and the resultant fire threats clear cutting caused.  Legislation provided means for cooperation between the state and federal authorities when it came to fire control.  Wilderness conservation won out over big biz.  

Today, trained environmental scientists and forest management service teams regulate timber cutting in the National Forest.  The focus is on limiting development in the forest area and maintaining sustainable logging practices.  Since 1911, other protective legislation (the Wilderness Preservation Act, 1964 & the Endangered Species Act, 1973, etc.) helps maintain the multiple uses of the forest -- which include recreation and research, in addition to watershed conservation and lumber.  

Unlike a National Park, which emphasizes preservation, the National Forests focus on conservation and the careful attention to the 'multiple uses' that the forest has for the greatest number of people.  Logging continues to be a part of that conservation but it is directed by thoughtful and scientific forestry -- siviculture -- which promotes reforestation and re-growth, as well as responsible logging.  Today, we call the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire "The Land of Many Uses," in fact!  

This is a far more sacred and holistic way of living with the forests, in my opinion, than to just rope them off and restrict access to them, as some extreme preservationists promote.  The woods are living spaces, and as such, deserve to be seen as a dynamic and evolving place in which we, as part of an eco-system, can live out our social, spiritual, cultural, commercial life, in a balanced way.  Harmony of interests and identities isn't such a bad goal, in my view.

For more on "The Land of Many Uses" and my friends' amazing interview, see:

Providing habitat for wildlife and bio-diversity is also central to the good work of the National Forest.  As you may recall from my first blog post (December 26, 2011) my dog Rimbaud is especially grateful for the critters and the delicious smells they leave throughout the forests when we go hiking.  (For instance, he loves rolling in dead moose carcass).  Having not been out for a trek now for close to 4 months, I miss the thrill of discovery and the adventure of the mountain trails.  I miss the smell of trees and grass.

Now, as I sit outside glancing at the whiteness that blankets those critters and their tracks, 
I wonder how the moose are doing.  We're entering our 5th month of snowfall and I can't but help thinking they've gotta be almost fed up with the frosty flakes, too.

Snow falls in large wet lumps outside my window on this April morning, as I gaze out into the forest and I long for those days of dry, green, wilderness exploration...

My hard core, outdoorsy friends would tell me to shush up and strap on some snow shoes but I'm not that much of a winter wilderness girl (I confess) and on cold days like this I prefer to watch the woods from inside, at my warm fire, curled up with a history book (or web page).  It makes me a wilderness wimp in some folks eyes.  But it doesn't make me love the woods any less!  Even armchair ecologists can love the woods in the winter.

The Weeks Act reminds me of those forestry professionals out there maintaining the ecology and managing the forests (even as we speak) so that folks like you and me can be out and about, romping, appreciating, loving and learning in the woods.  They are a dedicated and spirited group of workers.  They love the woods in a way I can't even fathom.  And my heart goes out to them, especially during our long, frigid New Hampshire winters.


Happy April Fool's Day (no joking) to the good people of the forest: the down hill skiers, the snow shoers, the ice fishers, the snow hikers and campers, the timber management teams, the rangers and forestry professionals.  To all of you who love the wild woods, even when it sits buried beneath feet of April snow... I tip my toque.  You are wilderness heroes!

Hang in there, folks.  In a few months, it will look like this...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Theology of Manure: SERMON and Readings for 3/14/2011 by W. Howarth

As I mentioned in my last blog installation, tomorrow is Sunday and the long-awaited Manure service!

I'm psyched.  This is my first time in the pulpit.  For those of you just tuning in... no, don't worry, I have not traded in my academic tassels (and mortar board) for a stole and white collar!  I've been invited to lead the service tomorrow as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Worship & Music committee at my church/fellowship.  It is a one time deal, I'm pretty sure.  But I may be so drunk on the evangelical power, I may refuse to come down!

I thought it would be fun to do a sermon on transcendentalism, then it GREW into something more personal.  I began reading about Margaret Fuller and then about Brook Farm.  This of course brought me to the Blithesdale Romance  and good old Nathaniel Hawthorne who had quite a time with his transcendental, back the earth, community living experience (as a side note, Hawthorne actually died in Plymouth, NH on his way to hang out in the White Mountains with former President Franklin Pierce).  The more I read about Nate and the ideas of 19th century transcendentalists (I've been playing with Thoreau now for sometime, as you know), the more connections I was able to make to my own experience living in community at Sadhana Forest, India this past January.

What else could tie all this together but MANURE?  Strange theme, I know... but you'll see, it actually works.  At least, I think so.   The big picture here is spiritual ecology, interconnectedness, and living in community.  It is the culmination of ideas I've been having throughout this BLOG so here it goes...

1st Reading: (From the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins)


In a sense, we have a universe above us and one below us.  The one above us can be seen in the heavens at night, but the one below us is invisible without a magnifying lens.  Our ancestors had little understanding of the vast, invisible world which surrounded them, a world of countless creatures so small as to be quite beyond the range of human sight.  And yet, some of those microscopic creatures were already doing work for humanity in the production of foods such as beer, wine, cheese and bread…  Composting is one means by which the microorganisms can be utilized for the betterment of mankind.

…Organic refuse contains stored solar energy.  Every apple core or potato peel holds a tiny amount of heat and light, just like a piece of firewood. 

Perhaps S. Sides of the Mother Earth News  states it best:

“Plants convert solar energy into food for animals (ourselves included). Then the [refuse] from these animals along with dead plant and animal bodies, ‘lie down in the dung heap’ are composted, and ‘rise again in the corn.’  This cycle of light is the central reason why composting is such an important link in organic food production.  It returns solar energy to the soil.  In this context such common compost ingredients including onion skins, hair trimmings, eggshells… and even burnt toast are no longer seen as garbage, but as sunlight on the move from one form to another.”

2nd Reading:
In a passionate love-letter dated April 13th 1841, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about his troubles with manure to his fiancee, Sophia.  In this excerpt, the ‘gold mine’ he refers to is 320 wagonloads of manure that needed to be spread in the fields:

Very Dearest, I have been too busy to write thee a long letter by this opportunity; for I think this present life of mine gives me an antipathy to pen and ink… I could not live without the idea of thee, nor without spiritual communion with thee; but, in the midst of toil, or after a hard day’s work in the gold mine, my soul obstinately refuses to be poured out on paper.  That abominable gold mine!  Thank God, we anticipate getting rid of its treasures, in the course of two or three days.  It is my opinion, dearest that man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap or in a furrow of field, just as well as under a pile of money… meantime, my health is perfect, my spirits buoyant, even in the gold mine.

Sophia Peabody, 


The theology of manure: sacred mystery, magical compost or mess? by Whitney Howarth

Nathaniel Hawthorne was 37 years old when he wrote the letter we just heard to his beloved Sophia.  He had just arrived the day before to Brook Farm, a transcendentalist Utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. He would live and work here for the next eight months of his life.  Brook Farm was started by Boston Unitarian-scholar minister, George Ripley, as an experiment in social reform.  Both Hawthornee and Ripley were attracted to idea of living in a community of like-minded persons inspired by the hopeful dream of a better world.

George Ripley (1802-1880)

But despite lofty ambitions, this was, after all, a farm.  And a farm needed sweat and manure.  Hawthorn, a reclusive, well-educated, soft handed chap who had studied Latin at Bowdoin was little prepared for the physical exertions that the life at Brook Farm demanded of him.  His hope that the farm would provide a place of security for his future family, and a peaceful setting for his literary efforts, were soon dashed by the hard work of life in community.

When Hawthorne arrived at Brook Farm in 1841, he wasn’t famous yet and he didn’t have steady income.  He was secretly engaged to Sophia, partially because they feared her family’s disapproval.  He wouldn’t write his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, for nearly a decade (1850).  And it wouldn’t be until 1852 that he’d publish The Blithedale Romance, a novel based upon his experiences at Brook Farm.   For the manual work he did there during his stay, primarily milking cows and shoveling manure, he received room and board.  As a founding member, Hawthorne invested $1000 in the farm as a shareholder in the community project which would, at its peak, be home to about one hundred people.

Brook Farm
  Hawthorne had hoped to secure a home at Brook Farm for Sophia and himself.  However, he couldn’t endure the physical labor or the life in community. He left dissatisfied by the experiment and disappointed in himself.  A shy man, he found he did not care for the company of the zealous social reformers (larger than life personalities, plenty of big egos) and, he admitted, he was too exhausted by the work to find time to write.  His letters to Sophi suggest that his emotions swung between regret and ambivalence.  He went from idealizing the experiment as the epitome of social & spiritual progress to despising it as an unrealistic, impossible sham.   Eventually, Brook Farm went bankrupt and after an outbreak of small pox and a devastating fire, closed in doors in 1846.

Despite its failure as a Utopian community, Brook Farm had hosted some of the most brilliant thinkers, writers, social reformers, and Unitarians in the century:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to name just a few.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)

Nathaniel kept good company!  He was not alone in imagining a better world where people would come together, regardless of class, theology, or gender to create a model community by the sweat of their brow and the unity of their labor -  a place where all members might realize a higher consciousness, a deeper connectedness, to one another and to the earth. 

Just a short time ago, I traveled to India and entered into a similar experiment in community living with 10 students from Plymouth State University at an ashram devoted to sustainable living in Sadhana Forest, Tamil Nadu.  For three weeks, we joined 100 like-minded persons devoted to making the world a better place.  Like the residents of Brook Farm, we devoted ourselves to physical labor and radical simplicity.  We worked the land and shoveled tons of compost.  We rose at dawn to work in the forest and in the gardens, slept and ate in communal spaces, prepared food together in a community kitchen, and held workshops and discussion circles about ways each of us could change the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802-1883)
At Brook Farm, the late night discussions at the hearth focused on temperance, slavery, and prison reform (topics hot on the social reformers agenda in the late 19th century).  Margaret Fuller showed up to lecture on transcendentalism and feminism.  Ralph Water Emerson stopped by to discuss his writings on “Nature” and the doctrine of labor.  At Sadhana, Monday nights we gathered around a blazing fire to sing African folks songs and raise our voices in devotional chant.  We had discussions about petroleum dependency, solar energy, permaculture, environmental sustainability and non-violent communication.

Dr. Thirunarayanan came to speak to us about Sacred Groves and Siddha medicine, a 10,000 year old  traditional healing system still practiced in South India today.  

A young man named Tim, spoke to us about the half dozen or so eco-villages he had visited in the last year travelling around the world on a Watson scholarship.  


We talked about why consumer capitalism and industrial agriculture had failed us, and imagined alternative, healthier, more fulfilling lifestyles.
We worked hard in the mornings.  Then we spent some afternoons visiting various faith religious sites.  One place we visited was Auroville, an experimental community founded by Aurobindo’s disciples.  Auroville is a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The self-stated purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. 

The experiment has been on-going for over 40 years.  Today, Auroville is the home to 2,000 residents from over 40 different countries, a third of the residents are from India.  People are employed in agricultural enterprises, research, education, construction, information technology, small businesses and handicraft production.  Most members of the community subscribe to the idea of Karma Yoga; the idea that physical labor is a spiritual practice.  Work is holy. At Auroville they say “to work for the Divine is to pray with the body.” 

Karma Yoga inspired our work at Sadhana Forest, too. As we tried to build a community and grow a forest, we realized this spiritual practice wasn’t easy.

Work as sadhana (spiritual practice) was an idea we struggled with during our stay.  As Hawthorne had struggled with bodily fatigue and the discipline of daily labor on Brook Farm, so too did some of the students with whom I lived at Sadhana. Many found the conditions very rustic (thin mattresses on coconut rope beds, mice in the huts), the food too simple (a vegan diet, little spice and no sugar) and the physical work challenging.   As a result, for some, it was hard to connect spiritual practice with work. 

I struggled more with the challenges in living in community than I did with the physical conditions or the hard work.  Having lived in India before, I was accustomed to living in less than pristine conditions.  Being constantly dirty and sweaty didn’t upset me.  What I did find difficult was sharing work.  Particularly, sharing work with people who seemed less motivated and less invested than I was.  Some people were just plain lazy.  Some seemed to always sign up for jobs that were fun and quick.  Some people gave up on jobs that demanded too much effort or, sometimes, forgot to show up at all.  I found myself doing other people’s work and resenting it.  I bit my tongue, a lot, and tried to convince myself that doing more work, more energetically, was winning me more “spirituality bonus points”!  I discovered it wasn’t easy living so closely or so interdependently, no matter how like-minded we claimed to be as spiritual seekers. 

 The greatest spiritual lesson I may have learned at Sadhana was also my greatest ecological lesson. 


We are all interconnected by the choices we make, by the things we produce, by that which we consume, by the waste we create and excrete.  This sublime and challenging interconnectedness was never more evident to me and my fellow seekers there in Sadhana, living closely in community, in simplicity, without the modern conveniences and far from my ordinary life -- my life more idle, sedentary, and sanitary.

And nowhere was the interconnectedness of our choices and our communal efforts more apparent than in the composting toilets of Sadhana.  It was there that I discovered the theology of poo, the sacredness of manure and the mystery of muck. 

 Our poo was a constant theme of discussion at Sadhana, a running joke and a serious concern.  Keeping a group of 100 backpackers and spiritual transients living in communion with the forest healthy for weeks and months at a time is no small feat.  And for many of us, ill at ease with a purely vegetarian diet, supplemented by occasional trips to less-than-hygienic  Indian cafes and street stalls, we found our tummies uncooperative and our poo ample. 

Complimenting these realities was the fact that the composting toilets at Sadhana were squat toilets – two holes in the ground per stall – one for wet and one for dry. Use of toilet paper was heavily discouraged.  Indians don’t use it, it is un-environmental, it slows down the composting process.  Instead, water buckets were provided with small tin mugs for washing.  Large tubs of sawdust with their own mugs also sat nearby for composting.  Complex demonstrations were given each week by veteran staffers who had mastered the art.  In the toilets, poo was mixed with sawdust and allowed to ‘cook’ for about a month once the hole filled up.  The ever vigilant ‘hygiene teams’ came around once day to mix, scoop-out, and transport massive quantities of humanure to the large piles at the periphery of the ashram. There the compost cooked for about another year before it was hauled off in large buckets by volunteers to the forest, the orchards, and the gardens for use. 

Maintaining a vegan diet was a spiritual practice asked of us at Sadhana Forest.  Vegan here meant not eating any animal products (milk, cheese, or honey) but also not using animals or their manure for our own purposes.  Veganism as a spiritual practice meant that the intimate interconnectedness of our consumption and our waste was made clear to us in remarkable ways.  The energy we put in our bodies, what we ate from the gardens, was nourished by the energy that came out of us at the other end. 

Every act of eating, therefore, was a spiritual act because it not only provided energy for the transformation of our consciousness; it also fed the physical body that needed to labor in the forests and gardens.  The cycle was one of choice and consequence.  It was a new way of looking at consumption and waste – and realizing that nothing need be wasted at all.  Even our urine was used in combination with charcoal from the fire as an organic nitrate for the flower beds.  We had separate systems for collecting raw food compost (from the kitchen or from leftover salads) and collecting cooked food for compost (scraps and scrapings from the bottom of the pot).  Everything was used to make the earth grow and to keep us growing too.

We were asked not to consume processed, greasy, sugared, caffeinated or highly spicy foods and drinks.  We were encouraged to try the ‘hygiene team’ as part of our work so that we might get over our aversion to our own poo and have a deeper connection to that part of ourselves we often just avoid, flush and ignore.  By being more mindful of the product, the process, and the use of our humanure, we were also being asked to be more mindful of our consumption choices.  We were made conscious of the cycle of life.

In this way, we became more interconnected and more aware of the spiritual task involved in Karma Yoga.  Stirring, scooping and lifting buckets of humanure for multiple hours everyday in the hot Indian sun, weeks at a time, is not work for the feint of heart. 

To be honest, I didn’t do this job.  But two of my students did and they were proud of this work. We talked about why.  For them, it felt special.  They were moving beyond the restrictions of their own social conditioning which said: poo was bad, dirty and undesirable.  In fact, their work helped them to appreciate poo – to see it as something desirable.  Poo became central to the good work we were doing because it gave life to the trees and flowers and the veggies and the fruits we loved so much.

Thinking of manure as sacred may sound profane to those among you who haven’t worked a lot with manure but I’m sure it isn’t so shocking to the gardeners listening.  Manure and especially manure that has been composted is GOLD for gardeners.  Hawthorne may have been writing tongue-in-cheek to Sophia when he described his work on the dung heap as slaving away in the gold mine – but it was true!

My first encounter with manure came last summer when I found myself, like Hawthorne, shoveling the rich, black goodness for hours.  We bought yards and yards of it from a neighboring cow farm.  We spread it into the garden Michael and I share with Belinda in Thornton.  It was my first fore into serious gardening and it was my first exposure to animal excrement.  I remember being squeamish around the stuff at first, and then, after spending weeks shoveling and mixing it with our dry, clay soil, coming to actually love it.  As I learned to plant seeds and fertilize, to nurture and coax my baby veggie plants, I realized that my manure was magical.  It was life giving.  It was sacred mystery.  My peas popped, my beans climbed the poles, my squash squirted forth from the earth.  It was all a miracle. 

my beans
I am not the first person to recognize the miracle of manure.  Manure is actually mentioned quite a bit in the Bible.  Theologian Eugene Heideman has written about biblical manure and its life affirming capacity in his article ‘BEYOND DUNG: The Theology of Manure.”  Heideman claims that in the New Testament a sense of joy and gratitude surrounds references to the biological as a means of communion with God.  Manure, he says, and even death, have a place in the goodness of this biological world.  Manure enriches the life of plants, just as the plants feed animals and humans.  God’s creatures excrete waste products not only to maintain their biological equilibrium but also to ensure that vital nutrients are returned to the biosphere to sustain new life.

Heideman asks what does it mean for us, spiritually, that we modern Westerners flush away our nourishing waste and agribusinesses prefer Chemical fertilizers?    

It is sad that we dismiss manure as a four letter obscenity that has to be dealt with as a health/sanitation problem rather than the source of nourishment for other living things.  We may also be exporting our attitudes to the third world by exporting techniques (agriculture/sanitation) that make manure both unnecessary and unwanted. 

It is easy enough to thank God for a glorious sunset or the sweet taste of an apple.  When is the last time you gave thanks for manure?

I think there is a lesson to learn from all this.  There are lessons to learn from the writings of the nature adoring transcendentalists, like Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau – there are lessons in the Forest at Sadhana, in the fields of Brook Farm, and on the ashram of Auroville – there are lessons from theologians like Heideman and from gardeners amidst their happy heaps… 

The lesson is that we have the capacity to love and embrace ourselves; all parts of ourselves.   We can make the choice to love ourselves! To love those parts of ourselves that are both of the earth and return to the earth in one blessed cycle.

The lesson I have learned is that each of us has the capacity to love our selves fully; to love that glorious, magical, messy, mysterious connectedness we all share with the Divine.