The Search for Greener Housing, Part One

For a long time, I have been saying to whomever might listen that my fantasy is to live in a zero-carbon home, a home that is so energy efficient that it doesn’t put carbon into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, or use energy that is based on fossil fuels.  There is more to it than that, but ultimately, I am hoping for a way to live more in harmony with the whole of the living earth, to live as if our human future holds life-sustaining possibilities.

So, my partner and I have started on a new adventure toward this greener living.  We have decided to downsize from our current home, and look for a smaller home that could be retrofitted to approach zero-carbon efficiency.  It is an adventure full of anxieties and tensions, so I decided to create a blog journal as we go.  I want to remind myself of the core values involved in this transition, and the grace and magic available to us when we take steps toward our deepest earth connection. It is also a way to honor the challenges we face as we seek to create change.

Our house with trees

Our house with trees

There are so many things we love about our current home–it is a well-built ranch-style house on one acre of land full of grand mature trees–large maples in the front yard, and tall oaks, pines, hemlocks, spruce, and birches in the back yard. We have such privacy and beauty around us when we go outside, and this place has been a teacher for my journey into deeper connection with the earth. There are birds and chipmunks and other critters who wander through. The house is full of light.

So why leave? For one reason, there are limits to what can be done with this house toward greater sustainability.  It doesn’t have the right alignment for solar power, for example. Secondly, it is out in the country/suburbs, and totally dependent on automobile transportation for every human need. So even if the house could be made more efficient, the location is oil-dependent. Thirdly, and perhaps most basically, it is more house and land than we really need, and expensive for us to maintain and take care of.  We couldn’t afford to do much more than we have already done toward greener living in this house. And as we look toward the possibility of future retirement, we realize we couldn’t afford to stay here at all on a retirement income.

One essential part of this process of change is the grief that emerges when we contemplate letting go of a home we have loved, and these trees that are older than we are. When we open our hearts to the land, we open our hearts to the particularity of a place.  This unique place.  I have taken hundreds of walks down this road, taken photos of these trees in all seasons, walked to the conservation land and the water district land just half a mile away.  I’ve cross-country skied back behind the yards and houses through little paths in woods out to hidden fields.  I know where the lady slippers bloom in the spring. We’ve planted flowers and bushes and young trees here, along with blueberries and raspberries.

Can a part of the magic of this change create protection for this land we have nurtured? Only if some new resident falls in love as we fell in love when we arrived here. Maybe someone with more resources could even take this place further on its own path to sustainability.  In the meantime, we keep our hands in the soil and our hearts open. We gather this season’s raspberries and keep going outside. Perhaps our love for this land is a part of the magic of this journey.

Next time, I will share our particular dreams for the new home we are seeking…

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Ecological Connection and the Wall of Grief

Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School, teaches young people the skills of wildlife tracking and plant identification, fostering an ecological connection to nature. Many skills and techniques are easy to learn, and there is a deepening sense of wonder and gratitude that grows along with their skills. But when the youth reach a certain stage in their learning, they hit what he calls the “wall of grief,” an experience of being overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss and degradation of the natural world around us. That grief is the most difficult challenge the young people face in all of the school’s programs.

Live-video-of-BP-oil-spil-004I felt such a wall of grief, during the spring and summer of 2010 watching millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP oil well. It seemed as if the earth itself was bleeding from this gaping human-made wound deep below the waters of the sea.

I believe that our spiritual growth depends on deepening our connection to the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. The natural world is vital to our spiritual journey. We might say that the earth is our Bible, our Quran, our sacred revelation, and our paradise. We echo this principle in the mission statement of my own congregation, when we say, simply, that we walk with care on this earth.

But there are times when that careful walk awakens deep sorrow and anguish. We know so much more than human beings have known before. We know what is happening all over the globe. We see the melting of ancient glaciers, as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know there is a vast soup of plastic refuse possibly twice the size of the continental United States floating in the Pacific Ocean. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted, and the rain forests which renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that there are nuclear stockpiles that could destroy most life on earth many times over.

We know so much more than human beings have known before, but we don’t know the solutions to these problems that threaten our future. And that is a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to walk with care on this earth. How do we live with the painful questions that do not yet have answers?  

I learned the story of the Wall of Grief in Starhawk, The Earth Path

How can we heal when we fail our ideals?

Gnarled Apple Tree DSC01742During the time when I was struggling with our failure to truly live our ideals, I read the novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks. The story is centered on the absent father figure, Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and draws on the actual life story of her father, Bronson Alcott. Mr. March has gone off to be a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War. He is passionately opposed to slavery. The whole family has been involved in the underground railroad, and Mr. March had lost most of his fortune supporting the work of abolitionists. So it seems unconscionable not also to support the military effort to free the slaves. He is following his highest ideals.

But Mr. March’s actual experience as a chaplain in the war proves profoundly disillusioning. The Union soldiers, his heroes, are often cruel to each other and to the former slaves who seek refuge. Many battles are ill-planned and disastrous, with horrific loss of life and injury and disease. Finding himself in a deadly situation, he lacks the courage to give up his own life to save the life of one of the slaves he has been teaching to read. When he tries to follow the abductors and help to save the other captured slaves, the mission ultimately fails, despite his efforts. Eventually, he succumbs to fever and is sent to a Union hospital, a broken and despairing man.

How do any of us heal from the despair that evil or failure can bring to our hearts? Sometimes we try to isolate ourselves from what is broken—to separate the good from the bad. For our ecological values, this might mean we decide to build our own zero-carbon home off the grid, grow all our own food, and stop participating in the larger society. In some religious traditions, it takes the form of identifying sinners and banishing them from the community of the holy. For others, it may be more subtle: we may be tempted to connect only with people with whom we agree, who share our values and ideals, and stop relating to those who seem to us, “unenlightened.” We imagine ourselves on the right side of a very great conflict.

But it is not so simple as that. Mr. March found that the people on the “right” side of the civil war were also broken, that he himself failed to live up to his own high ideals. How can we heal from the wounds of self-betrayal?

Near the end of the Civil War, after securing the freedom of the slaves, Abraham Lincoln reached out to the whole nation, north and south, to try to bring people back together into one community. His second inaugural address closed with these words for healing:

With malice toward none; with charity for all;
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
to bind up the nation’s wounds;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle,
and for his widow and his orphan…
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace
among ourselves and with all nations.

Our brokenness tears us apart, but our healing must bring all of us together. Mr. March slowly finds his healing through the love of the people who care for him, just as he is. Marmee comes to him at the military hospital, and eventually he returns to his family, chastened, fragile, not whole yet, but able to be united to those familiar little women, his daughters.

Did the nation take to heart Lincoln’s words? A short time later, he was assassinated. Perhaps we are still living with the brokenness in our nation that erupted in the civil war. The divides between black and white, between south and north, between liberal and conservative, between rich and poor, still undermine our capacity to live up to our country’s ideals. I don’t have an answer to fix it.

But I believe that all people and all beings are connected, that the earth is a whole. That belief shapes how I can imagine a way forward. The way forward is always rooted in forgiveness. Forgiveness for the failures we see all around us, the ways that others betray the ideals we hold dear, and hurt and wound each other. And forgiveness for our selves, when we too are unable to live up to our values and ideals, which happens almost every day. Only when we can forgive, can we return to the dreams we hold, can we find wholeness, and receive a new start.

Mother Earth

Blue Marble EarthFor how many years have people been calling the earth our mother? The image dates to the days before history, in cultures all around the world. And no wonder. Our mother is the one who feeds us. Before we are born, in our mother’s womb, we are literally fed and shaped from out of her body. After we are born, we are fed milk from her body. The earth is our mother because we are created and fed from her body. We are a part of her, and all of our life is out from her.

We live in a time when this ancient understanding is coming to the fore again. During the industrial age, people treated the earth as a resource to be exploited. Whatever could be mined or cut down or damned up or harvested was taken for human use. So much was taken and destroyed that now for the first time in history, we can see the fearful limits of the earth’s abundance. In order to find wholeness, we must restore a relationship of respect and honor between people and the rest of nature. We are beginning to understand that we are not separate from the earth.

Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh speaks about this. He says,

You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment… Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities…. That is a dualistic way of seeing… So …breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth…

It is one thing to mentally acknowledge that we are part of the earth, that we and the earth are one. But it is more challenging to experience it in our bones. We have been taught by our culture to think of ourselves as separate from all that. We live in houses that divide the inside from the outside. We think of some things as human and other things as natural. It is a mental leap to imagine ourselves as a part of the larger life of the earth. But if we desire to understand our connection, to awaken our instinct for feeling the unity of it all, connecting to one tree, one rock, or one place, can bring it down to our human level. 

Here is a practice for paying attention to a very small place:

GrassMark out one square foot of earth, perhaps with some sort of string on a few sticks hammered into the ground. Then sit near your square foot, and observe all the life forms you find there. Look for the different kinds of plants—maybe clover and grass and wild strawberries and moss. Look for the insect life—some of it moving in and out, like bumble bees and flies; other staying close, maybe an earthworm or a group of ants. Perhaps you might take pictures of the ones you don’t know, and look for them on the internet, or with a biology teacher or friend.

Then, realize that there are also microscopic life forms in that square foot of soil. Thousands of them. If you are up for it, get a microscope and check out our hidden neighbors in the soil.

Biologists say,
When we are standing on the ground, we are really standing on the roof top of another world. Living in the soil are plant roots, viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, nematodes, worms, ants, maggots and other insects and insect larvae (grubs), and larger animals. Indeed, the volume of living organisms below ground is often far greater than that above ground.

 It is because of all these living beings that plants can grow and be fruitful.  If we want to wake up our awareness of connection to the whole, it can help to wake up our awareness of connection to the small.

Thich Naht Hanh goes on to say,

If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.

Thich Naht Hanh quotes from an article by Jo Confino, “Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth,” Feb 20 2012, The Guardian
Biology quote from Dr. Jill Clapperton and Dr. Megan Ryan, “Uncovering the Real Dirt on No Till