Discouraging, appalling, dreadful—leaving me full of dread: the 2016 election results struck me down, as they did many others. I had spent some time preparing for the outcome, however, with my darkest day arriving a week before November 8 when I read two news articles in sequence. The first named a dozen or more elites who were pouring money into the Democratic campaign, and the second reported the tragic extent of animal extinction up to now and expected within the decade. It came to me in a heart flash that judging by past performance the animals would not be spared by a Democratic victory. Few of the nation’s elites care much about animals, the climate, or poor people. What could Hillary do to save what I hold most dear—what I understand as most vital to my existence—when working within the US political and legal system and the priorities of corporations?
Despite the good intentions of the intelligent, graceful, lovable man now in the White House, climate change has intensified and human inequality has outrageously grown during these past eight years. In a moment of clarity I saw that talking nice, speaking passionately about values I believe in, looking presidential—while these are the best I can expect from my nation’s leaders, they won’t get the job done that needs to be done, and done immediately if life as I know it is to be spared. The last of my clinging to the world I have known and treasured was coming unwound. Some would call it losing hope.
I never speak of hope in that sense anyway, and now almost half of US voters have pushed me further into the unwinding of even my meager expectations. They chose as president a man who violates every tenet of my code of honor and has no regard for the web of life on Earth. These voters aren’t worried about the collapse of the ecosystem. Instead they focus on immediate frustrations which they hope a man blatantly defiant of climate science and progressive ideals will resolve.
At such a time I turn inward to find the goodness I discovered when I was a child. When I was eight years old sitting in church one Sunday, unrelated to anything happening around me or to any event I can name, I realized something wonderful. With the vocabulary available to me then, I thought, “Fairness exists. There is such a thing as fairness. It doesn’t have to happen to be real.” This was my first conscious spiritual understanding, and as I’ve come to call the concept “justice” and expanded the realization to include love, truth, order, and beauty, the wonder of the original discovery has remained. Throughout my life I’ve needed this connection with unseen reality that I acknowledged then, and I need it now. These are the virtues I see internal to the living physical planet—to the whole lively universe. That vision is what keeps me going, and it is what makes this present grief so deep.
What my society ignores and what Donald Trump seems bent on destroying is inexpressibly precious. To me it is holy. How do I feel when my country’s elected leader declares war on what I hold sacred? This poem by warsan shire says it well:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
I feel wounded and afraid since the election, but I was fearful when my country’s leaders spoke words in support of my values as well, because I was seeing their inadequate or contrary actions. Justice doesn’t have to be practiced for it to exist in principle, but when the principle is not practiced, the world is a dangerous place.
What Trump is doing and planning to do will make the world a more dangerous place for every living thing. It occurs to me, however, that events of my early life prepared me to cope with a time like this. Youthful recognition that there was unseen goodness came out of necessity: find a basis for enduring, or don’t endure. I agree with Alice Miller that for a child to survive abuse requires an enlightened witness who will declare the abuse to be wrong. I don’t recall a human adult witness to my suffering, but I found an exonerating standard nevertheless. In the Bible that I heard read in that church and words sung in the hymns; in the woods where no harm was done; at school where we sat safely at our desks; at the piano where the musical scale remained dependable—I think these experiences told me what is good despite the hazards I lived with. And I think the most important thing I can do now is to stand as an enlightened witness to abuse and declare it wrong. To condemn what is perverse and speak up for what is good is at least a first right action, and it is one generally missing in American institutions. The way I see it, people who voted for Trump have not been taught a better way to improve their lives. How can people be enlightened without an illuminating witness? I had a sense of goodness as a child, but it is taking a lifetime to put it into practice.
Our society lacks a unifying wisdom by which to make decisions, and the abstract words I’ve chosen for communicating my ideals—justice, right action, enlightened—must be made concrete in order to be useful. In my mind the physical planet corrects our varying notions of value. What is good, as Thomas Berry said, is what is good for the meadow. In 2016 I might say “what is good for the climate.” Earth’s exquisitely sensitive, infinitely interconnected ecosystem is the model and the standard. Does a thing work for Earth’s well-being? What would Gaia do?
(Image: NASA Earth)
Yet I feel something missing once I turn to the vocabulary of science to say what this election means to me. Centuries of Earth-alienating belief structures and political orders have made a language that splits reality apart. As I learn about how Earth manages the climate or how plants interact with each other, what I encounter is everything, and it stirs my allegiance. I’m an eight-year-old glimpsing a miracle: the spiritual and physical beauty of the arrangement, what David Bohm called the implicate order. This wholeness is now more threatened than before; it is being attacked with a vengeance at every level by this president-elect as if with conscious intent. To me it does seem we are at war.
A character in LA Requiem by Robert Crais was preparing men for war. Crais writes,
Even your bravest young man didn’t stand there and die for little Sally back home or for the Stars and Stripes. If he stood at all it was for his buddies beside him. His love for them and his fear of shame in their eyes is what kept him fighting. . . . Aimes was looking for young warriors he could train to move and fight and win alone. Die alone too if that’s what it took, and not just any man was up to that. But poets were different. You could take a poet and fill his heart with notions of duty and honor, and sometimes that was enough. . . . Aimes had learned a long time ago that a poet would die for a rose.
Ecozoans, Gaians, will die for a rose because they know what a rose represents. Each member of the Earth community has been birthed to play a specific role. In this struggle we are joining the non-humans whom Bruno Latour refers to as “actors in our associations.” As quoted by Herman Greene in “Are Ecozoans Now at War? Should They Be?,” Latour suggests that the training we need in order to stand and push against Earth’s enemies includes cocooning ourselves in the loops and feedbacks of thermohaline circulation, carbon, hydro and nitrogen cycles, deforestation and biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, ecological footprint, acidification of oceans, erosion, overgrazing, soil fertility, methane production, and climate change, so that “progressively, thread after thread, the knowledge of where we reside and on what we depend . . . can gain greater relevance and feel more urgent.” (P. 95)
The statement that for many years I’ve called my creed was inspired by The Lost Language of Plants by herbalist and teacher Stephen Harrod Buhner: My life is so closely coupled with the environment of which it is a part that it cannot legitimately be viewed in isolation. The physical and chemical environment is an intricately interwoven biofeedback communication loop between different elements of the ecosystem in response to changing conditions. The chemistries exchanged are released to accomplish specific ecosystem purposes. They are messages with meaning, regulating conditions in order to maintain the homeostasis of Earth.
That’s my response to Trump’s call to war. I’m joined inextricably with this web he means to plunder, and along with the faithful non-human elements of the ecosystem, I commit to help regulate conditions in order to maintain Earth’s homeostasis. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart“ contribute to this end.