Perspective by by Rev. Patty Willis, Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
A year ago, when we could see the pandemic on the horizon but still held hope that it might dissipate into the sea, I began a presentation about spirituality and climate change with the story of my great-grandmother.
At 21 years old, Patty Sessions Hatch pioneered into the Big Horn Basin of northern Wyoming with her husband Wilder True, and built a cabin near the Shoshone River. One day when she was doing one of her many chores, she heard a voice say, “Clifford is in the river. Clifford is in the river.” She dropped everything and ran to the river and saved her son just in time. Through the lens of her faith, God was calling to her — connecting her to the people she loved. She listened, responded and saved her son’s life.
I tell that story because I believe that if we tune our ears to this moment, we will hear the Earth calling to us. To hear, we must cultivate a practice of listening.
One of my greatest sources of joy has been the return of the humpback whales, who were on the road to extinction. When I am discouraged, I listen to recordings of humpback whales singing back and forth to each other, and feel hope. I wonder whether the architect of the movement to save the whales was called to that important work while listening to their songs.
Listening can lift us with wonder to sustain us through the excruciating sadness of the reality of climate change and help us persevere as we do the daily work to mitigate those changes. Listening can relax the paralysis that leads to inaction and keeps us from speaking truth to power. Listening helps us hear the brilliant idea that we can act on with our whole hearts.
The Bishnoi people, a Hindu sect living in the Thar desert of western Rajasthan, embody the possibilities that unfold with a lifestyle that nurtures oneness in community and with the Earth. Their practices of not cutting down trees and holding all animals sacred create lush oases in the desert, with grazing animals and abundant food. Their villages stand in sharp contrast with those around them who overgraze the land with goats and sheep, cut down trees for firewood, and have hunted the wild deer nearly to extinction.
Instead of using tree branches for firewood, the Bishnoi use cow dung for heating fuel and allow trees to grow tall for shade from the scorching sun. In 1730, when Maharaja Abhay Singh decided to cut Khejri trees in a Bishnoi village to build his palace, Amrita Devi and her daughters lay down their lives, saying: “First my head, then the tree.” Legend has it that 363 people died protecting the trees before the Maharaja stopped the workers from cutting them down.
Bishnoi settlements continue today in stark contrast with the world around them. The word “Bishnoi” refers to the 29 rules these communities keep. These rules make community around cooperation among the humans, animals and vegetation. Inside these communities, there is a sense of peace that transforms ordinary villages into holy ground. Deer walk around freely, knowing that they are protected. Through their 29 tenets they have succeeded in aligning their way of life with their love of the land. If someone attempted to cut down a tree or shoot one of their animals, they would still be prepared to give their lives.
It is said that when Mohandas Gandhi was considering how to prepare the people of India to shake off the chains of the British Empire, the Bishnoi inspired his ideas of creating communities that were practicing the change that they wished to see in the nation. His work has inspired generations to overcome the difficulties that keep each of us and our smaller communities from oneness with the Earth and our fellow humans. Through that inner work, we become ready to forge unity in the greater world.
“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail
How would Prescott look if we aligned our way of life with our love of the land? The pandemic-enforced stillness leads to the realization that sometimes being still is the answer. We use our cars less. We find solace in the land around us over the adrenaline rush of an airplane ride to another continent. Stillness reduces our carbon footprint.
Listening is what we are doing when we are simply being, and simply being preserves our Earth. Could our love song to the Earth be to cultivate a new stillness? We may not choose to avoid air travel, but when we spend more time listening with our beloved humans and animals where we are, in this moment, the quality of our everyday lives increases.
Strengthening our communities makes them less vulnerable to greed like that of the Maharaja in 1730.We must do all we can to make our communities strong by calling out racism and calling people into community. We also have the power to strengthen the fabric of our communities by using our money wisely. By supporting the Farmers Market and local small businesses, we connect ourselves with our neighbors. We could make a huge change in our community by giving up our addiction to next-day delivery and engaging in the relationship-building adventure of filling our needs by supporting the framework of this village.
By supporting our community in ever-widening and deepening circles, we go from listening to experiencing that union with all that is around us. That union will guide us to our roles in the work to mitigate or even reverse climate change. Our personal habits, like those of the Bishnoi, can be the underpinnings of our courage and perseverance. As we listen, what will we be called to do?
Will we have the courage to choose the life of a tree over our own? The life of a sibling who is being persecuted over our own? As we listen ourselves into oneness with our neighbors and with the Ponderosa pines, the wind in the treetops that sounds so much like the sea, the birdsong, we will hear the voice that calls us to action. Like my great-grandmother, we will run to the river and do what needs to be done.