E S S A Y S , A R T I C L E S A N D R E V I E W S
Giving Voice To Earth
by Joanna Macy
Magazine #46, Summer 2002
Seventeen years ago in 1985, on a workshop tour in
Australia, I helped create a group ritual called the Council of All Beings. I had just met rainforest activist
John Seed, who shared my passionate interest in deep ecology. John wished we could devise a "deep ecological" group experience, that would directly challenge the anthropocentrism of industrial society. So, at a camp near Sydney with forty environmental activists, we led a ritual council in which participants stepped aside from their human identity to speak on behalf of other life-forms.
From that moment on, the Council of All Beings began to spread as a communal practice. From Australia to North America to Europe and Asia, in forest groves and classrooms, churches and conference centers, people were soon gathering to shed their personae as humans and give voice to the plight of the Earth. They spoke as whale and wolf and wind, redwood and marsh and any other nonhuman they felt called to represent.
Articles and books soon helped the Councils unfold in a consistent fashion. After being "chosen" by another life-form, and often making masks to wear, the participants assemble in a circle. First they talk among themselves about the changes and hardships coming upon them; then they summon humans to hear them, and setting their masks aside, some move to the center to listen in silence. In closing, recognizing their ultimate dependence on humankind, each being offers a gift to the two-leggeds, to help them wake up for Earth’s sake.
The Councils of All Beings, that I have personally experienced, number in the hundreds by now. I can think of nothing I would give in exchange for them–nothing that equals their mixture of laughter and tears, or that can replace the insights they engender. Sometimes, before I start, I fear that people will reject the ritual as beneath their dignity, as too childish or "new age." But each time, when it is offered calmly, with confidence, the outcome is similar. Each time, whether in Nebraska or Germany, Russia or Japan, people seem ready and able to step free from their human roles, if only for a moment, and give voice to wider and more ancient knowings.
Why is this so? Why do people often emerge from a Council of All Beings with a stronger sense of guidance than they do from discussions of environmental strategies and tactics? And, aside from such practical benefits, there’s the surprising beauty of expression, the depth of feeling. Why does that, of itself, seem sufficient?
Now, as I read the last chapters of Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth, I find new ways to understand the Council of All Beings.
After presenting the total, unprecedented nature of our ecological crisis, Berry summons us to break free from our culture’s anthropocentrism and know our roots in the web of life. The powers that shaped our bodies and minds, from the beginning of time, are still present within us as "deep spontaneities," which we can trust for guidance, and gain access to through the imagination. This creative capacity to experience and express our interexistence with all life-forms is the hallmark of the shaman. The shamanic personality, that can understand and speak for the creatures of Earth, is essential to our survival, says Berry.
"I am Lichen. I turn rock into soil. I worked as the glaciers retreated, as other life-forms came and went. I thought nothing could hinder my work–until now. Now I’m being poisoned by acid rain."
"Your pesticides are in me now. The eggshells are so fragile they break under my weight, break before my young are ready to hatch."
"Humans! I am Mountain speaking. For millennia your ancestors venerated my holy places, found wisdom in my heights. Now you dig and gouge for the ore in my veins. Stripping my forests, you take away my capacity to hold water and release it slowly. See the silted rivers? See the floods? In destroying me, you will destroy yourselves."
These are words from a Council of All Beings. Now I recognize them as shamanic voices. In the simple ritual context we create, utterances such as these arise effortlessly. No fasting or drugs or arduous disciplines are required to awaken the inner shaman. Nor does anyone fancy that they’re channeling or shapeshifting, or using any powers but those of the imagination. All that is required is a straightforward setting of intention. It’s like opening a door in the mind, and walking through.
The knowings we uncover go beyond destruction and suffering. The deep spontaneities within us, as members of the living body of Earth, bring forth our strengths as well. These strengths are voiced before the Council concludes, as gifts which are offered to the humans.
"As Lichen, I work with time, great spans of time. I know time is my friend. I give you patience for the long haul."
"Humans, I offer you our power as Weeds: tenacity. However hard the ground, we don’t give up! We know how to keep at it, slowly at first, resting when we need to, keeping on–until suddenly, crack!–and we’re in the sunlight again. That’s what we share with you, our persistence."
"I, Condor, give you my keen, far-seeing eye. From a great distance I can see what is there and what is coming. Use this power to look beyond the hurry of your days, to heed what you see and plan."
These gifts could not be named, if they were not already present, as seeds within the psyche. There is such abundance around us and within us, that even a simple ritual structure, like the Council of All Beings, can bring it forth.
Instructional material about the Council of All Beings can be found in Chapter 10 of Coming Back to Life (Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown), and Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (John Seed and Joanna Macy with Pat Fleming and Arne Naess). Also see John Seed’s website (www.rainforestinfo.org.au).
Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is an ecophilosopher grounded in Buddhism and living systems theory, who works worldwide with movements for peace, justice, and ecology. Her books include Coming Back to Life; World as Lover, World as Self; Rilke’s Book of Hours; Mutual Causality; and her memoir, Widening Circles. Her website (www.joannamacy.net) tells more about The Great Turning and includes her teaching schedule.
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