One of the basic problems today is that our land and many of inhabitants can’t speak for themselves and have no legal rights. The word “agency” in a philosophical or rhetorical sense refers to one’s ability to act in a given environment, to have power in that environment, and to have voice. In the case of our land, the non-human inhabitants speak a language that is simply not recognized as a language and those inhabitants and landscapes have been systematically reduced into mere objects of worth. The discourse of our civilization leaves no room for their rights or participation and yet that discourse determines, to a great extent, their fate. They cannot participate in the decision making about our world; they are not considered stakeholders. As such, they are the unfortunate passive experiencers of the many unfortunate exploitative decisions of that civilization.
This post was motivated by some recent occurrences in my town–these are things I would never have experienced or understood living on my secluded homestead in Michigan, but here, renting in a small town in PA, I see every day. A really simple example of this is what is happening on my street in the town where I live. We had a beautiful tree-lined street when I arrived, and with the cutting of nine old trees in a 4 block area, the street is now barren. These trees had no rights, they were “in the way” of the power company or the borough to repair sidewalks, and saving them is not a conversation that anyone is having, so they had to go. There was no consideration of their right to live there, the fact that they had been there probably as long as those sidewalks….people just don’t think about them at all these days in that way. I spoke to one of our borough representatives about it, and he shared various perspectives on why it was happening.
In a second simple example, the other day, I was arriving home from campus to see a truck with the rental company I am renting with stop, then park, and then two men get out with chainsaws. I had not been told anyone was coming, and I was quite surprised to see them there. I walked up to them, said hello, and inquired what they were doing. They said “we’re taking out the bushes on the side of the house.” There are five nice bushes there, some holly and rhododendron, mature and beautiful. “Why?” I inquired. “They are overgrown.” They replied. “Couldn’t you just trim them? I like the bushes, I’m renting here, and the house will look bare without them.” One looked at the other, “well, I guess we can try.” I added, “The other thing these bushes do in the summer is keep the house from overheating and help save on cooling costs in the summer. I think they are well worth trying to save.” They nodded and went back to their truck for a tree trimmer. In the end, they trimmed three of the bushes and cut one down (I have no idea).
So, with these experiences helping frame my discussion today, we return to the topic at hand: the need for inherent rights of nature. Its not that every culture has had such a problematic relationship with nature; some have recognized the inherent rights of the land and non-human inhabitants and included those rights in decision making processes. Other cultures could hear the singing of the trees, the sounds of the wind, the messages in a bubbling brook and respected those voices. Clearly, industrialized culture is not such a culture, and the very industry that made us industrialization has silenced our minds and hearts to the current plight of the land–growing more tragic by the day. The land and her non-human inhabitants, in nearly all countries in the world save Ecuador, also lack basic rights, such as the right to life, under our modern legal system. This makes them both non-entities in a legal sense and unable to respond in a way that will be heard. Of course, this goes beyond just trees–animals trapped in the industrialized farming nightmare also suffer this fate, along with just about every other non-human thing. Indigenous peoples without access to the same kinds of technology and processes, also suffer this, and have suffered this lack of agency for a long time.
What the land and its non-human inhabitants needs are some ambassadors. Dedicated humans who focus on learning as much as they can, sharing that information freely, and speaking on behalf of the land in a myriad of ways. I’d like to propose that druids and others walking earth-centered paths consider taking up that role. If we view the world as sacred, if we can hear and understand the messages from the land, and if we strive to live our principles, who better to advocate for it? Like the ancient druids of old, those who walk earth-centered paths such as druidry are poised to be leaders in our communities, offering a wealth of plant and nature knowledge and an example of ways of living more fully and consciously in our landscapes and lands and of the work of healing and of regeneration. This kind of advocacy work is so necessary in a culture that have so fully lost their connection with the natural world. Having “oak knowledge” puts you in a position to speak compassionately about the land and teach others of her magic. This may not be your calling, and it may not be something you are interested in right now—but it can be one outcome of this work if you feel you are called to into the service of our living earth. I’ll also note that, in the example I gave above, it doesn’t have to be a glamorous thing–it can be small, everyday moments in everyday living where you can positively advocate for change.
Ok, if you’re still reading, you are interested in the idea, so let’s take this a bit further and explore the concept of ambassadorship. “Ambassador” has two primary meanings, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The first has to do with being an official diplomat, which doesn’t really make sense in the context I’m describing here. The second meaning, however, is quite relevant to this discussion. Its two parts are, “an authorized representative or messenger” or “an unofficial representative, traveling abroad as ambassadors of goodwill.” Now putting this whole “official” vs. “unofficial” business aside, as its not really relevant, we can glean some important tidbits from this idea of ambassadorship. An ambassador is someone who is a representative, who speaks on that being’s behalf, and who has that being’s best interests in mind.
But what does this really look like? And how do we take on this role? I’m going to suggest it requires a few things: nature immersion; a deep knowledge of nature combined with practical skills that can reach people in a variety of ways; a nature oriented mindset and lifestyle; being an effective communicator; and seizing the opportunity.
#1 -Nature Immersion
The first key area to being an earth ambassador is being in nature, often, and frequently. We can’t be ambassadors for something that we admire from afar or setup on a pedestal in our minds. We also can’t be ambassadors if we stay on the perfectly paved paths of our state forests and local county parks. We have to be of nature and understand her intimately if we are to speak on her behalf. One of the best learning experiences I ever had being in nature in one sitting was when I went on a vision quest in Western Michigan two years ago. The vision quest involved fasting for two days, setting up a tarp to keep the rain out, bringing a sleeping bag to keep warm, bringing a journal to write in, doing some protective energy work to establish a sacred space and then sitting still. Staying put. Slowing down. Observing. Sitting with your back against a tree. For 48 full hours, those on the vision quest, in our chosen spots, simply were present with the land, present with ourselves, and quietly communing with the natural world (plus, doing something like this has its other benefits: it was this vision quest that gave me most of the druid tree workings series of posts).
The problem that most of us have when we go into the land is that we are moving quickly, we make noise, and we don’t really see what there is to see. But when we sit still for hours, then we see the animal life, then we notice the interactions….its this immersive experience that gives us the depth of awareness necessary to be ambassadors, to be insiders, to become part of nature rather than separate from it. Because when we slow down to nature’s time, we align our energies to her rhythms and pathways, and that gives us more conscious awareness of her needs.
#2 – Deep Knowledge, Oak Knowledge
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, by day I am a writing professor and learning researcher, so I have a pretty good sense of how people learn, or don’t learn, as the case may be. At least in the US, our education system has been so systematically gutted that most don’t have the basic literacy. critical reasoning, and study skills coming out of high school that makes learning a fun and effective process. And certainly, one isn’t going to learn much about the topics I am discussing in most primary or secondary schools, although university settings do have good things to offer (like, say, ecology, botany, or organic farming courses, some of which I was able to take at my former institution).
One of the things that an ambassador does is know those who they are representing intimately. This is not just a surface knowledge, or an abstract idea that they are “good” or have “needs” but rather this is a deep and intimate knowledge. If you want to be an earth ambassador, you have to really, really, and I mean really understand the land. In my recent post on seeing, I talk about the different levels of seeing the land–we need to move well beyond appreciation eyes and dedicate time and energy–a lot of it–to understanding the landscape. We need to understand a lot about ecology, biology, the things that have potential to harm the land, the things that can help heal it. We need to keep our eyes open, our hearts open, and our minds open and observe. If we are going to speak on behalf of someone or something else, deep knowledge is a base requirement.
To be an earth ambassador, then, we have to dedicate time to improving our own knowledge base, setting aside our assumptions, and recognizing how much we have to learn. There is no substitute for investing time in learning. This certainly includes getting some good books, studying them carefully, and applying them in some way (e.g. don’t just read gardening books, plant something. Don’t just read about tree identification; go out and identify some trees, and so on).
While picking up a book or two and reading carefully is a good start, its not sufficient for what I’m talking about here. I’m often saddened when I attend a druid gathering to see how much my fellow druids don’t yet know about nature or propagate assumptions about it that simply aren’t accurate–for all the time we spend in it, that critical awareness and deep understanding of what nature is and how it works is not always yet present. In their defense, most of them have been druids for a few years or less, and are still figuring out their own identity–this is not something I necessarily knew either when I started out either. But, to do this work well, its something you have to cultivate. Regardless, taking up the role of ambassador means the need for deep and broad knowledge about nature–which leads to a lifetime of dedication and study. When it comes to this stuff, you can never know any one topic deeply enough, nor can you ever know enough about the land :).
Druid study programs can help fill the gap by providing some means of dedicated adult education–AODA’s in particular teaches some of the skills and knowledge I’m suggesting by way of books on ecology, making earth path changes, potential for additional Ovate studies, and intimate time in local landscapes. It was through this study program that I grew a great deal of my initial knowledge–you might say the AODA’s study program sparked the deep changes within me that, 10 years later, allow me to write these words. There are a lot of other kinds of training out there is also really good–for me, studying herbalism with a few different teachers was really effective to increase my knowledge of healing plants, plant identification, and botany. Organic farming courses from the biology department at my previous institution not only taught me about farming, but also about soil biology and ecology. After years of study, my permaculture design course brought everything together in a really positive way. The point is, knowledge you need to be an ambassador is not all in one place, but once you get a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, its easy enough to learn with dedication and an open mind.
The principle behind these first two points is simple: by spending a lot of time directly in nature, by interacting with nature, and by growing ecological knowledge, you develop a robust knowledge base that can be drawn upon when the need arises–and that need can sometimes happen quickly and without warning.
#3 – A Nature-Oriented Mindset and Lifestyle
Its one thing to know about nature, and its a completely different thing to have a mindset and lifestyle oriented to nature. We can’t be ambassadors for nature if we say one thing and do another; if our words don’t match our actions. For one, it will be hypocritical and for two, ineffective. And for examples of this, I point to Thomas Friedman and Al Gore, both of whom tried to make strong points about the earth and climate change, encouraging less consumption, and new ways of living, and both of whom were called out publicly in many venues because of their personal living conditions and for not walking the walk. Thomas Friedman lives in a 12,000 square foot house and advocates for smaller dwellings and less consumption. Gore, who advocates that climate change is human caused and that we need to radically change our lives, lives in a 20,000 square foot house and uses up $30,000 of electricity–that’s 221,000 KWH–in a single year. And you are lecturing everyone else on reducing consumption? Uh, yeah. Don’t be these guys.
Living consciously and earth-centered is hard work–it takes continual monitoring, dedicated effort, and critical awareness. A lot of what I’ve been doing on this blog for years is helping all of us (myself included) take more and more steps in this direction by thinking about the stuff we buy, our waste, the food we eat, the way we manage our lands/lawns, our workplaces, or relationship with weather, the list goes on and on.
I think its important to be forthcoming with where you are in your own shifts, and to be open about that with others. I always try to do that here–I talk about my struggles at various points with wrestling with the issues I’m presenting on this blog, and I encourage others to do the same. Its honest and realistic. People like Gore and Friedan haven’t actually tried anything they are advocating, and in fact, very much live in the extreme opposite direction–so nobody believes them. And worse, the topics that they are talking about–which are really serious and important–are discredited. Gore and Friedan attempted to be earth ambassadors; they have the knowledge and good communication skills backing them, but they fell flat when they told everyone else what to to do rather than living by examples. A much better strategy is to life the lifestyle first and others will come, they will seek your knowledge, and they will want to learn more–that’s what ambassadorship is about!
People will look to you for guidance when they see how you are living each day. This allows you to begin to fill an ambassador role–you show how we can live differently and that lifestyle alone opens up countless possibilities for earth ambassador work. At this point, on a weekly basis, I have people ask me questions that can lead to good conversations: they ask about my beehives and what happened and then we can talk about the dangers of pesticides (I even had this conversation with my students in my first-year writing class a few weeks ago when they asked about my weekend, and I told them about my hive), they hear about the work I’m doing in town to start a food co-op to bring more local and sustainable food choices to our town, or they ask about my front lawn or permaculture, the list goes on and on. People send me photos of wild food and mushrooms to identify, like a photo of a “weed” and I tell them about its medicinal use so they keep it in their yards, and so on. I didn’t get into this with the idea of being an earth ambassador–but that’s what’s evolved from it :).
#4 – A willingness to serve and seizing opportunity
Most of the work of an earth ambassador is quiet work. Building knowledge, immersing yourself in nature, making shifts, just working to do good work everyday, celebrating the turning wheel of the year with good friends. But then, an opportunity arises–and when it does–take advantage of it! My own opportunity came two years ago, where I ended up on NPR talking about Eastern Hemlock trees, their mythology, and their plight with the Emerald Ash Borer. A producer saw my blog post on them and contacted me to speak about the hemlocks. This was a rare opportunity, and one I decided not to pass up. It was a really interesting experience and allowed me to get the word out. Other opportunities happen all the time–not as public, perhaps, as being on NPR, but no less important.
Opportunities to be earth ambassadors often come in unexpected ways or places. A dear friend and fellow druid in New Hampshire has found himself in a leadership position fighting an oil pipeline and compressor station–and building an incredible community in the process. Having a deep awareness of the sacred earth has helped him tremendously on this path.
Another druid friend was invited to a local conference to give talks on wild food foraging, composting, and permaculture. A third druid friend finds herself often in the position of advocacy. Another converted her front lawn to vegetables and now teaches others to do the same. I can list dozens of examples; my point is, when you have the knowledge, you can use it to strongly advocate for our land and its rights.
So to conclude, druids and others walking earth-centered spiritual paths have a unique opportunity to fill in a very important role in our communities–that of earth ambassadors. What, exactly, is the potential of those in modern earth-based spiritual paths to serve as earth ambassadors? We only know if we try!