Where is ExxonMobile’s Doomsday Clock?

Actually, that should read “Giga Ton Clock.”

As this new article in Rolling Stone makes painfully clear, the math is simple. If we restrict future CO2 emissions to less than 565 gigatons, we might – hopefully – restrict climate change to 2 degrees Celsius or less. That’s enough to flood entire countries out of existence, to devastate Africa with famine, and to cause untold amounts of lives lost and property damaged by out-of-control weather, but it just might keep the human species and the biosphere as we know it alive.

But fossil fuel companies have so far discovered fuel reserves that will emit 2,795 gigatons of carbon. And their balance sheets depend absolutely and completely on them getting that fuel out of the ground, burning it, and releasing that carbon. That’s five times more than the limit we need to stick to to keep ourselves around.

Back when the primary threat to life on earth was nuclear weapons, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created a Doomsday Clock that showed how close we were to “midnight” – nuclear annihilation. These were atomic scientists, people (largely men) whose careers and livelihoods depended on using these technologies. When they spoke out about the problems their own expertise and industries were likely to create, people listened. And yeah, they’ve included climate change as one of the reasons they moved the clock hand in recent years, but that’s not their primary area of concentration.

More importantly, these numbers are just too simple not to communicate the message.

I will not believe that ExxonMobile, or Shell, or BP, or anyone else who has a stake in convincing us to deep-fry ourselves is actually concerned about the threat of global warming until they create a similar countdown. Because the clock’s ticking, and we’re running out of time to stop it.

Spring in the Garage

I live in a deeply urban area; the buildings are several stories tall, parking is hard to find and often underground, and I have to drive to find a green space that I can’t see across. But as I was going to my car in the underground garage, the house sparrows that live there were singing up a storm, and the sound spoke of the onset of spring.

This wasn’t just a reminder that nature is “out there” somewhere in a pristine wildness independent of the urban density. This is my nature; this is my world, my bit of earth, my ecosystem. When I ground and center, tendrils of my roots twine around the rails of the Metro; I notice changes in the seasons in terms of the shops and businesses on my daily walks as well as in the plants and animals. I know the people at nearest stores, and waving a greeting to them gives me a sense of home just as checking in with the nearest trees does.

My home area is a wonderful example of the way that “nature” and “human areas” are not mutually exclusive; they are everywhere interpenetrating, coexisting and adapting, competing, cooperating, and thriving.

One of my friends was writing recently about how some people see anything that they don’t control as “weeds” or “vermin,” that is, things that need to be eliminated. I know some people think that way, but I simply can’t wrap my mind around it; it’s impossible for us to “control” our environments completely, even in the most monitored and managed areas. The house sparrows are a reminder of that, too – they love to live in conjunction with humans.

It’s true that most of the plants around here are cultivated, landscaped or manicured, but that doesn’t mean they’re controlled. They have their own lessons to teach me as spring starts to break out all over.

The plants around here are living within limitations; they grow and bloom, but they’re trimmed, too, shaped and directed in ways that they don’t get to choose. Even within those limits, though, they don’t just survive: they thrive. They live, fully and extravagantly, and even when they come up against those limits, they don’t let it stop them. They adapt, they cope, they manage, they deal. And frequently, they surprise us with the creative ways they do so; spring’s resurgence of vitality simply can’t be contained completely.

This is something I need to be reminded of, because I’ve been coming up against hard limits rather frequently lately. I need to know that it’s possible to be verdant and vital even while constrained.

The sparrows and the plants show me, over and over again, that life can find a way, and life will find a way.

So mote it be.


This is what climate change looks like

This is what climate change looks like in my neighborhood right now. This tree is in a very well-maintained commercial area and has an automatic sprinkler in its bed. It’s still not getting enough water, and after the record high temperatures this summer, it has many leaves that are partially green and healthy but withered around the edges.

I know this is nothing compared to other instances of terrible damage done by weather in the last few seasons, but it tugs at my heart to see such blatant examples. The worst of the heat may be past, but its impact is still with us.

This realization makes me worried for the future, but it also makes me renew my commitments to living mindfully and striving to reduce or offset my negative environmental impacts.

What does climate change look like where you are?

(Photo by the author; if you use it, please link back.)

CIRCLE Magazine publishes TRI cleanup piece

The Summer 2011 issue of CIRCLE Magazine features an article I wrote about the cleanup on Teddy Roosevelt Island! CIRCLE Magazine, published by Circle Sanctuary, has a regular feature called Eco Magic that highlights Pagan interactions with the ecosphere.

The article is adapted from two posts about the TRI cleanup and my personal reflections about it. They published three photos as well, but a few more (and all of them in color!) are on the blog entry for anyone who’s curious. This is the first time I’ve ever been published in print, so I’m pretty excited about it! I’d like to offer my thanks and gratitude again to everyone who came out to make the event such a great day, and especially to OHF.

Meditation Moment: Bringing the Outdoors In

Last month I wrote about how being deeply present in a single moment helps us relate to all moments; this month, I want to extend that approach to thinking about space as well as time. As Pagans, we tend to cultivate our connections to the world around us, especially the natural world. Meditation can help us deepen that connection.

Many of us practice in urban areas, but still want to connect to the rhythm of the seasons and natural cycles. It can be ideal to find a location outdoors in which to meditate, but few of us have the luxury of doing that every day. So we need to find ways of bringing the outdoors in for us to connect with during meditation.

The goal here is to be present in a particular place, just as last month we talked about being present in the particular moment. We want to be present with this individual stone, or shell, or flower, or twig; not with all stones, or all flowers, but this one, in particular, in all of its uniqueness. It is an example of the place it came from, a connection to that one spot. But just as being present in each unique moment helps us connect to all moments, narrowing our focus to a deeper contemplation of this one location can paradoxically help us appreciate the totality of the world we live in.

Meditation’s connection between the minuscule and the majestic – now and all time, here and everywhere, myself and all living things – makes this contemplation of nature much more than a decoration, more than a superficial acknowledgement, and into a deep act of awareness. When we want to have a more meaningful relationship with the web of life and the natural cycles that support it, we can start small. Recognizing the uniqueness of one thing and the richness in one small corner of reality helps us appreciate that each corner is similarly rich and full.

If you can make meditating outdoors in a particular spot an occasional addition to your regular practice, that can help you establish a relationship with a specific place. Then taking a small reminder – a stone, a leaf – back to your usual meditation space is part of an ongoing process of connection anchored in that location, not just a scattershot series of one-off connections with a multitude of places. Even if there’s no special place where you can go and meditate, maintaining a connection with a particular spot is a better way to anchor yourself in the rhythms of nature; connect to one tree or one group of living things in your area, and use reminders of them as your focus for meditation.

If you really want to connect to the seasons in that place, make sure to change your focus on a regular basis. Take your reminder back to the place you got it, and return it to nature with your thanks, then find something else, something new, to focus on, to help you experience the constant change and wonderful variety found in your particular location. Especially at this time of year, when flowers are blooming and trees are unfurling their leaves as fast as possible, don’t let your focus get fixed on a single object to the extent that you ignore the changes taking place in your little corner of the world.

Get physical about your experience of place, too! The physical world engages our senses in ways that an abstraction like time can’t. Feel the texture of trees’ bark with your fingers, taste the tart sweetness of blackberries later on, listen to the birds and the wind in the leaves and the patter of the rain. And yes, stop and smell the roses – and the honeysuckle and lilacs and everything else, too.

I mentioned that a connection to place can serve as a kind of anchor. Just as the ability to draw one’s attention to the present moment can be a part of grounding and centering, the deep awareness of a particular place can also be a form of grounding – the literal meaning behind the metaphor. That familiarity with a location can be a touchstone, a reminder of the relationship that we hearken back to every time we pause over a meal or give thanks for coming home safely after a trip.

And since you know that by connecting to your one place, you are also connecting to all places, even when you are in unfamiliar surroundings you know you have the ability to ground yourself there as well, to tap into the connection to the same deeper reality, and if you need to, to become familiar with this new place as well.

The beginning of this month is the celebration of Beltane; it’s time to fall in love again. One of love’s amazing qualities is that it takes us outside of ourselves. By engaging with someone else, we gain a whole new perspective on the world, and on ourselves, and we gain the opportunity to change and grow in ways we could hardly have imagined alone. This Beltane, consider falling in love with the land. When we do, when we bring the outdoors in, if we fully engage with it and start to develop a relationship, it too, like all good loves, will take us outside of ourselves.

TRI cleanup: Personal reflections

I’d like to share a few personal reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup. First, I’m deeply touched that so many people thought this project was worth their time and effort. I respect organizations that require community service or volunteer efforts as part of their membership policies, like The Firefly House, and I am surprised there’s not more of this kind of putting our words and wills into real, direct action going on in the Pagan community. I’m thrilled that OHF is considering starting a volunteer program and I hope that such efforts will spread. I think it is absolutely necessary for such efforts to happen in order to keep our beliefs and practices authentic and meaningful.

I tried to express in my opening prayer how I saw this action as an integral part of what it means to me to be Pagan in general and Wiccan in particular. We recognize the divine in everything around us; it is our Mother Earth, on whose body we stand, in the Horned Lord who watches over the wild animals, in the Green Man, the very spirit of the vegetation beginning to awaken after the long winter sleep, and it is in the very spirits of the river and the island, the spirits of the place.

I asked that we dedicated our work as an offering to the divine, in recognition of the holy trust that has been given to us, when the divine entrusts us with not just our bodies but our environment as well. The work of caring for that environment is part of that relationship: it is a way of creating that relationship, repairing it where it has been damaged, and strengthening it. I asked that the divine blessed and empowered our work for that relationship.

And that work is so badly needed right now. It was in some ways deeply depressing to see so much trash, so much thoughtlessness and carelessness embodied in drifts of styrofoam and plastic water bottles, Starbucks cups and potato chip baggies. And, yes, so much sheer laziness: who scoops their dog’s poop, neatly ties the baggie off, and then leaves it carefully by the side of the trail when there’s a trash can every quarter-mile or less on that island?

There is no such thing as “unspoiled” nature or areas “untouched” by humans; the whole idea is a social construction that romanticizes the present and ignores the past. But the idea that we are embedding plastics in the geological record is deeply disturbing to me. We are making more and more things that are taking resources out of the natural cycles for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. This has never happened before on the planet. And these things, these nearly indestructible remnants, are what we treat so casually that their fragments float down our rivers in the hundreds and thousands.

I also know that my very life depends on parts of our material culture that use plastics and weren’t available fifty or sixty years ago. But when those resources aren’t just being used to make IV tubing and respirators to save lives but to make plastic eating utensils that are just a few cents cheaper than the biodegradable counterparts, I have to ask myself whether that is a good thing or not. And I can’t find a way to understand my relationship with the earth that makes styrofoam carryout containers a worthwhile thing.

The fact that we live in relationship with our environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we imbue that relationship with spiritual meaning or not, means that both parties affect each other. We have to ask ourselves whether we are treating our partners in that relationship in a way that makes the relationship likely to continue. The cleanup effort on TRI affected me much more deeply than I imagined, and has moved my relationship with the land, and with immanent deity, to a whole new level. I know, viscerally, in a way that I never did before, how and why waste matters, why petroleum-based plastics are a problem, how my individual decisions make a difference.

This kind of awareness can’t be gained through meditation or prayer. This is the kind of awareness that comes from truly and openly engaging with the other parties in a relationship. I can’t get to know my partner better by staring at his photograph, or thinking about him. Those things only reflect back to me what I already know: I’m relating to my ideas of him, not to the real him, the human being I love. The real person does things I could never expect or imagine; interacting with my ideas about him doesn’t give me that challenge, the kind of challenge that makes me grow, and keeps our love alive.

I fear that many Pagans and Wiccans who do not challenge themselves, who do not make a point of offering their work and engaging actively in their relationships with the land and immanent deity, are relating more to their ideas about the environment, and their mental pictures of it, than with the real thing, with the world they want to love. So I challenge you: go on a date with the world. Don’t make it easy for yourself by doing another guided meditation. Get out into the world where something that you could never imagine might happen, where your love will surprise you, maybe in positive ways, maybe in negative ways, because having that real interaction is the only way to sustain your love, to keep your relationship alive and growing.

Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup photos and story

The Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup event yesterday was amazing in so many ways. Sixteen people picked up over a hundred pounds of trash, helping Mother Nature and the National Park Service while building community and enjoying the onset of spring at the same time. This was a great volunteer effort and a serious demonstration of what the Pagan community can accomplish when we put our minds – and hands – to it.

More photos and the full story are below the fold. Read more

Bringing the outdoors in

Continuing my series of thoughts on living in relationship and daily practice, I want to talk about a Wiccan idea that often gets taken too superficially: bringing the outdoors in.

A lot of people talk about how you can make your personal altar or devotional space nicer by including items you discover in nature, especially vegetation – fresh flowers, autumn leaves, pine cones, and so on. At the simplest, yes, this is a way of “bringing the outdoors in.” But it’s also so much more than that.

For example, Lipp, in The Way of Four, emphasizes the idea of offering, and includes fresh flowers on the altar as an appropriate offering to deity. That’s part of a larger discussion of the importance of offering and how contemporary Wicca often ignores its role in worship and devotion. That aside, it’s a recognition that the flowers are there for something more than to just make me feel happy when I spend time with my altar. (Making me happy at my altar is a decent goal, by the way, it’s just not the only thing that bringing the outside in is there for.) They’re there in recognition of something other than, in some sense larger than, myself – which is why it’s an altar and a space for devotion, and not just a nice decorating touch.

The idea of including seasonal items, especially vegetation, on the altar can be a way of bringing one’s relationship with the land and one’s daily practice at home closer together. Even if I can’t get out today, if I see the fall leaves that I picked up on my usual walk the other day, I am reminded of that, and am able to go back, in my mind and heart, to that time and place. It gives me a stronger mental and emotional anchor to the land that is part of my devotions, in a way similar to how sacred statuary can provide a solid anchor for devotion to deities.

This is also slightly different from including items on one’s altar that come from different locations or experiences. Yes, I love having a stone that I picked up from a sacred site and a seashell from the beach on my altar, but those are examples of – and links to – the elements, and the experiences I had that helped me develop my connections to those elements. There’s something unique about having an example of the living experience of your local land on your altar; it should change with the seasons, while one’s experience of the elements is more continuous; the representation that stitches together one’s daily practice and one’s relationship with the land is of necessity a thread of variable color and consistency.

Of course, if one is lucky enough to have a regular devotional practice that is in the land, this becomes unnecessary; but being an urban Witch myself, I know first-hand that’s not always possible. So we go on, living our practice every day, in the ways we can, and often being the unity in a fragmented world. It’s hard, but it’s the healer’s life.

Seasons shifting, 14 Nov

I took a walk on Teddy Roosevelt Island again today. The weather is amazing here; it’s in the mid-60s, very comfortable with just a t-shirt on, and some people were even enjoying shorts. Still, I can tell that it’s getting later in the fall not just by the change of the angle of the light, but by the way the leaves aren’t quite as thick on the trail as they were a month ago. They’re getting swept aside by feet and paws and wind, and they’re breaking down until just the feathery ribs and veins are left. The constant crunch underfoot is dying away. Still, there’s plenty of green on the island, and I wonder if that’s because of the relatively mild weather so far or something else. In the last week, the big beech trees on the eastern side have gone from green to copper leaves, and they’ll be falling soon. I’m left enjoying the weather but also worrying if t-shirt weather in mid-November is making toxins stronger. And I wondered if I’ll still live in DC a year from now, and if not, where I’ll be. And…

And then, out of nowhere, the Horned Lord showed up in the form of a four-pointed whitetail buck, calmly picking his way along the marshy edge.

For the rest of my walk, I treasured that sight, and enjoyed the weather and the way the sycamores are gradually dropping their leaves to show their white-grey dappled branches along the shore. I made my way home again, where I work on conserving energy, and making the most of every day, and somehow, my spirits are uplifted enough to get me through.

Review: Starhawk, The Earth Path

This is the first of what I intend to make a recurring feature: reviews of books that matter to me as a Wiccan. Some of them will be Pagan books, some not; all of them will be related to how I study and practice my spirituality. I hope the reviews can expand your thinking, help you decide what books you want to read in more detail, and be generally informative and interesting.

Starhawk. The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature. HarperCollins, 2004. Paperback, 230 pages.

True to its name, this book focuses on the “earth-based” part of Neo-Paganism as a group of earth-based religions. Starhawk has integrated her decades of Goddess worship with the experience she’s gained in ecological activism and practice. The result is something I might call Spiral Dance for the Ecologically-Minded. In fact, she says up front that her thinking has evolved in that direction: “For me, now, the Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world.” (5)

The twelve chapters are organized into an introduction, discussion of the problems facing a world disconnected from its natural environment, and an approach to spirituality focused on nature that might be a healthier, holier, and wholer world. The second half (which contains the majority of the pages) takes a circle approach, going through the four elements, and center, as if casting a circle. Each topic’s chapter is filled with writing on a variety of topics ranging from the personal – her own efforts to “green” her environment – to the practical – both environmentally-friendly suggestions, exercises, and rituals – to the overtly political discussion of activisim.

Starhawk’s approach to engaging with nature sounds simple: observation. In fact, much of the book is an exploration of how difficult this task is, once you realize that Starhawk means for us to observe nature on its own terms, not ours. We are encouraged to ask “How does this group of plants work together in this environment?” rather than notice “There’s a big enough rosemary bush for me to get the three tablespoons I need.” As in The Spiral Dance, Starhawk remains firmly focused on this goal, and provides a wealth of approaches to help readers shift their ways of thinking. Since changing consciousness is her definition of magic, I’d say that this book is an act of magic – and a generally successful one, at that.

At first, though, part of my reaction to this book was anger. It was a strange mix with the delight in her depth of observation and in the way she handled her subject. That anger tells me more about myself than it does about her book; that anger was rooted in fear, and in guilt. Her passion for swift and significant change is, I agree, justified by the worsening crisis of our environmental situation. But deep down, I know that she’s truly committed to what she’s saying, and her commitment runs deeper than a little superficial “greenwashing” of the same old patterns of thinking and behavior. Deep down, I’m afraid that the kind of change she wants to work for would mean changes in my life that I don’t know if I’m prepared to accept. It would mean changes that affect my comforts, my conveniences. And possibly it would mean changes that would make my life a little more dangerous, especially because of my particular health situation. That’s scary. Change is scary. It’s okay to be scared about it; what’s not okay is letting that fear turn me away from her message entirely. Starhawk is, in the best tradition of the Feri and the hedge witch and the feminist, those who live on the boundaries and often push them, calling out to us from over the edges of our normal experience and asking us to join her, or at least take steps in that direction.

Partially because of my own fears and susceptibility to eco-guilt, but partially for practical reasons, I wish she had spent more time engaging with the potential paths from the “here” of those of us not blessed with extensive gardens and a place to put a micro-hydro power generator to the “there” filled with those things. She claims that this book is addressed to urban Witches as well as rural ones, and that she doesn’t expect everyone to move to the countryside and grow their own food. But it is hard to avoid the implication that until we do at least some of that, we’re not “real” Witches or nature-worshippers.

Most of the exercises and rituals are about making that trip in a spiritual fashion; and that’s fine, because I did buy a book on Paganism, not a handbook on vermiculture or composting. On the other hand, Starhawk’s adherence to the idea that the personal is political makes it hard to imagine not getting wrapped up in practical action as well. There are other works on eco-conscious action, it’s true, and Starhawk also provides further resources for those who do want to get their very own worms. But the gap between that and what I can do in a deeply urban apartment is huge, and I find myself seriously challenged about how to integrate these ideals into my practice.

Starhawk explicitly rejects the idea that humans are a blight on the environment as well as the idea that humans are somehow separate from the environment and may exploit it. In trying to find a third way, she encourages individual action and the awareness that individual action alone will not be sufficient to make the necessary changes. Her sense of urgency and commitment to activism are hard to reconcile with her suggestion that progress towards a healthy relationship with the Earth be a “gradual, joyful process.” (36)

I do have to say, though, that it’s refreshing to see a Pagan author so deeply involved in the reality of nature. There are plenty of pagans who know more about the exotic gemstones available at the local Pagan store than about the ground under their feet, Pagans who can recite the magical properties of plants ad nauseam but haven’t so much as watered a houseplant, Pagans who are more concerned with developing astral projection skills than taking a walk in the park; all of them are seriously missing one of the major distinguishing features of Paganism. When a book instructs the budding Witch to ‘ask the plant’s permission’ before gathering herbs, there is usually no guidance given on how to recognize the difference between the plant’s opinion and my own desire to get the herb. Starhawk’s emphasis on integrating science and spirituality directly addresses that tendency towards self-absorption: “…like most Witches, I’ve always talked to tress. But now, when they talk back, I can assess whether what I’m hearing is truly their message or my own fantasies.” (5) As she says later, “Unless our spiritual practice is grounded in a real connection to the natural world, we run the risk of simply manipulating our own internal imagery.” (11)

Her discussion of frames and magic is particularly useful; the connection between changing an entire mental approach and magical working is even clearer here than in her more poetic description of “twilight consciousness” in Spiral Dance. Starhawk’s psychological approach to magic makes it easily integrated with scientific knowledge and approaches. This book contains some lovely examples of psychological magic, which have been designed with her usual expertise and obviously honed through trial runs in her classes. Her community-building exercises and elements of teaching nonviolent activism reflect her interests and activities. She develops at length the metaphor of group-building as fire-building: you need individuals who can be easily inflamed, you can’t drop a huge log or idea or task on a group when it’s still in its early stages, and so on.

Of interest to me personally is her excellent discussion of the issue of eating meat, starting about page 114. She clearly explains the position I have been working to articulate. I also appreciated her emphasis on working with the local Wheel of the Year, recognizing that it will be different in different ecologies; a little more discussion of the necessity of adapting these approaches to the local situation, and perhaps some ways to do that, would have been a great addition.

I do wonder how leading scientists would respond to her emphasis on the importance of cooperation, not just competition, in evolution and survival. In response to the typical modern focus on competition, she may have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, or perhaps just made her rhetoric so forceful in trying to get across a seldom-used viewpoint that it seems that way. This is, of course, similar to some critiques raised about the feminism of Spiral Dance. I am also a bit surprised that she does not dwell a little more on the importance of death in the process of evolution; that would seem a natural topic when discussing a faith that includes death in the range of experience, rather than setting it aside.

Finally, you simply can’t miss the paean to chlorophyll, in the form of a song to the tune of “O Tannenbaum.” “O chlorophyll, o chlorophyll / if we don’t love you, no one will…”

Each element discussion ends with a blessing, and so does the final chapter, “Healing the Earth.” The last blessing begins: “We give thanks for all those who are moved, in their lives, to heal and protect the earth, in small ways and in large.” (229) I give thanks for those people, and for Starhawk being moved to write this work. And regardless of the (hopefully constructive) criticism offered here, her effort – her magic – to change my consciousness has been successful. I admire her firm grounding in Nature, and her example of the possibilities for that path will influence my own path. I will face up to the challenge to improve my relationship with the natural world in both knowledge and action.