Flowing with the River

ohio river

Originally published at http://www.sacredecologyforum.org. I spent the summer working with family forest managers in Ohio and West Virginia, and sat to write an essay during an outing.

I spent a peaceful morning on a hilltop overlooking the Ohio River. To my left and right are ridges and valleys thick with greenery, dusted with morning fog. Before me is the expanse of the River, its slow, gentle waters lapping the shores as they have done for thousands of years. Tugboats and barges slowly traverse the river, carrying mounds of coal one way and dumpsters of waste the other. I can almost picture older barges from bygone times, perhaps carrying trade goods or vagabonds like Huckleberry Finn.

Between me and the river lies an industrial park. There are smokestacks, expansive storage sheds, vehicles of all kinds, ramps, silos, and equipment moving components from one part to another, all run by machine, not a living creature in sight. Were it not all so clean, it might resemble an image from Mordor.

Although this industrial park sits in stark contrast to the surrounding natural beauty, I’m not sure it’s entirely out of place in this landscape. After all, it’s necessary. In order to go on this scenic drive, I needed to put fuel in my car. I need the metal, labor, and power that gave me this car. In order to type this essay, I need a computer with minerals from mines around the world that endanger our most pristine waters. I rely on foods that don’t all come from organic farms. I rely on airplanes, waste streams, and products made by labor exploitation. Although I’m able to choose to live in more beautiful places far away from these scars on the landscape, I’m not separate from them. As much as I long for right relation with my Earth Mother, I need the very products of Her abuse and the abuse of Her children.

What does it mean to be in right relation with Earth? As I’ve explored this question over the years, it has become very closely linked with the question of what it means to be in right relation with Mother. Hindu traditions, like many around the world, express a strong feeling that Earth is Mother. And it’s often hard not to feel that way. Earth gives everything we need for life – not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Who hasn’t been moved almost to tears by a certain sunset, a certain vista, handiwork representing natural features, or geological and archaeological features from eons past? Who hasn’t eaten from Her fruits, drunk from Her waters, or played in the grass that is said to be Her hair, standing up in ecstasy because of the footprints of Krishna?

If Earth is Mother, then as Her children we respect and treat Her as such. We serve Her with reciprocity, celebrate in gratitude for the ways in which She sustains us, and protect Her from harm. If Earth is Mother, then many of the features underpinning contemporary society should be considered abusive. And far too much of the human population – particularly in the most industrialized nations – is either oblivious to these extractive processes, or considers them necessary. But what of us who do find these processes, and our dependence on them, troubling? How do we honor Earth Mother while entangled in a world of dishonor?

Some philosophical traditions take an absolutist approach to these ethical challenges, arguing that the only ethically defensible position is complete disconnection from extractive processes. Jainism represents this standpoint, as do Amish communities and some communities of tree-dwelling hippies.

Others focus on living simply to the greatest extent possible, engaging in reciprocity, and trying to use extractive processes and products only for service. With our principles of yukta-vairagya, devotional service, and loving reciprocation, bhakti-oriented traditions might fall in the latter category. For Krishna bhaktas, honoring Earth has a theological dimension: beyond being “just” our mother and the source of life, She is also the consort of Krishna; one whom he loves very, very much; and His representative as the deliverer of mercy and sustenance. These theological dimensions might be extra incentive for earth-honoring practice.

I’d spent the weekend with Varsana Swami, a monk in a Krishna Bhakti lineage who lives on a hilltop in West Virginia. I find Varsana Swami to be a living example of this practice of yukta-vairagya and loving devotional service to Earth Mother. He has chosen a life of reliance on God and trying to separate from the industrial order as much as possible. He farmed for many years with oxen and a tractor that runs on biodiesel, while raising horses and mules. Today, he lives in a one-room cabin and relies on donations from others, offered in exchange for the spiritual inspiration which he shares. But even Varsana Swami is no stranger to heavy machinery used in construction and earthworks; no stranger to their twin power and risk. He considers them a somewhat necessary evil that can accelerate a mission of service but that also do harm. Even when used prayerfully – even when run on biofuel – they cut, break, compress, and rend not only roots and soils, but also the fibers of our dependency, our loving relationship with Earth Mother.

How do we restore that loving relationship with Earth after so many years of thoughtless harm? Acts of service transform our consciousness and invoke reciprocity from Her. After all, “Mother Earth” is not just a nice phrase. Mother Earth means She is a person. Trying to reawaken that awareness and offering service unlocks the most joyful reciprocal relationship. Such reciprocity takes place on multiple levels: intellectual, physical and emotional. For example, reducing consumption and waste enlightens the mind to consumer markets and brings peace to the heart with greater simplicity. Engaging in advocacy to protect Mother Earth engages the body and mind in dharma and strengthens the spirit with courage. Gardening, too, is nourishing for body, mind, and spirit; through this physical act of service, of bending and bowing down and touching the Earth with gratitude, humility and joy arise. Gardening awakens a thirst for knowledge about the food system and ecology and traditional foodways and bestows the joy of sharing food and flowers we’ve grown with others and of offering them to God.

One could easily protest that these kinds of reciprocity are not enough. What about the big picture of systemic violence? What about all the atrocities going on in the world? But Earth is a person – and these loving offerings mean a lot. As adolescents, most of us were probably unkind to our human mothers. Yet even so, a small act of love offered – a card, a gift, a misshapen pancake – was received with love. Maybe we treat our human mothers better today; maybe we still have wounded relationships. But we have to start somewhere. We may not be able to fully untangle ourselves from extractive processes, but we do what we can, step by step – trusting in Mother Earth and, for some of us, in Krishna, to guide us to the next step.

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