The Fifth Letter (June 1989)
The outward growing edges that I shared in the last letter, while important, are not truly radical. To be “radical” one would have to explore the “roots” of a problem. And my concerns about food, transportation, and waste are more like twigs and branches. There is an obvious and intimate relationship between the roots and the branches of a tree. Yet the entire tree may be cut down, and if the roots are left intact they will send up a surge of new sprouts to take its place.
In trying to feel my way into the roots of the predicament that we, as a species, seem to have created for ourselves, I find myself in the presence of an unsettling mystery. The mystery has to do with fundamental questions about my ability (or rather inability) to trust. Some of these questions were unexpectedly presented to me during my first exposure to bioregionalism.
In August of 1986, I traveled to Lake Michigan to attend the second North American Bioregional Congress. This was unusual, as I hadn’t attended any kind of conference or workshop for over l0 years. A practical, rational, familiar voice thought that going to NABC II was a crazy idea. “There’s no money to pay for it,” said the voice,”no way of getting there, and no real interest in any of the specifics that are going to be presented.”
But something kept nudging me, gently insisting that I go. So I went.
Arriving at dusk, I pitch my tent in the woods near the shore of the lake, where I can hear the waves. I go to sleep still not knowing why I have come, but feeling good about being here.
Just before dawn, however, I am seized by a oddly terrifying dream.
In the dream, I am in a small room. It is dimly lit by some sort of candelabra or tin candle that is hanging from the ceiling. I am extremely apprehensive. Suddenly I realize that all the shifting shapes, the patterns of light and darkness, are my own shadow. This realization so terrifies me that I throw up, and then awaken myself from the dream.
The dream is so disturbing that I go down to the lake to meditate on it for a few minutes before the Congress gets under way. Immediately, from somewhere deep inside, comes the words, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it.” Then comes the awareness that I likewise try to control the Earth because I don’t trust it. And those who are close to the Earth, to life, I also mistrust and attempt to control: indigenous peoples, women, children. Here lies the roots of racism, sexism, and other forms of repression.
Taking out a piece of paper, I quickly scribble down the words that had come. But instead of writing, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it,” I inadvertently write, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust ‘in’.” The Freudian slip shows me that when I don’t trust life, and therefore seek to control it, then I will also mistrust and attempt to control my own “innerness,” even while seeming to honor it through such practices as dream-work and meditation.
What this challenging insight suggests is that the hidden fear and control of the inner by one who meditates is comparable to the subliminal racism or sexism of one who overtly supports, for example, the struggles of women and minorities while unconsciously clinging to the very set of core beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate this repression. Or like someone whose admirable bioregional efforts may serve to mask an unrecognized but crippling mistrust of the Earth that he or she is trying to save.
But who is it that doesn’t trust life, that doesn’t trust the Earth? This is the thorny, unsettling question that I have been wrestling with in the months and years that have passed since these insights were received on the shores of Lake Michigan. My body trusts. Other creatures—snakes and squirrels and baby skunks–they trust. As a young child I trusted.
Yet some more recent facet of myself (call it the ego, the personality, the surface self) has come to believe that the Earth isn’t a safe place. That it can’t be trusted. How can that be?! Why did we set aside our childhood acquiescence to life, our easy acceptance of grace, when the web-work, the seamless robe within which the many know themselves to be One, is so present, so apparent, such a given?
Not that I feel as though I have “fallen” from grace. Or sinned. Or made some terrible mistake. Or foolishly lost or maliciously repudiated it. Rather that, for some deeply mysterious reason, I have stepped outside of that grace; have pretended to ignore it; have come to deny the Oneness, the beauty, the numinosity.
The consequences of this creative denial are terrible to contemplate, let alone experience—our repression of women, children and indigenous peoples; our exploitation of other species; our compulsive consumption; the mistrust of dreams and impulses and emotions; the stifling of breath and sexuality; the gut-wrenching fear of the unknown.
From these same roots of mistrust and alienation, however, there may yet grow a noble tree. Somehow, not despite the mistrust and the alienation but because of it, there may yet come a deeper trust; a reconciliation with those whom we have feared and abused; a restoration of grace; an awakening.
For children pass through the awkward and turbulent stresses of adolescence. And clusters of green grapes ripen only slowly on the vine. It would be misleading, therefore, to judge the sweetness of the fruit, or the temper of the child, if that judgment were to be made prematurely. Even so, it may be premature to judge the species.
In the growing faith that this may be so, I would wish that each of us might find the strength and the patience, the sense of wonder and the sense of adventure, the sense of humor, that will be needed as this new story of what it means to be human takes root within and among us. And I would hold the prayer that, as a proving ground for this slowly gestating story, we might each use our families and friends, our bioregions, and our daily lives.