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Earth Spirit Rising
A Conference Reflection on
Ecology, Spirituality and the Great Work
by K. Lauren de Boer

EarthLight Magazine #42, Summer 2001

The light is fading in the Kentucky air as I sit outside Neuman Hall on the campus of Bellarmine University. A few fireflies make a tentative appearance across the grassy slope before me, as if probing the dusk for some worthy answer to their outrageous experiment with light. Rising and falling away, rising and falling away, their clear sparkles ignite odes of pleasure within me. It is the magical time of day - twilight - when things turn barely perceptible, then shape-shift into forms more suitable for the dream of the night.

The fireflies grow in number, first dotting the air, then surging as if in rhythm with the cricket song all around. Soon it is dark and now light has been swept up by the insect world into an awesome dance of pulse and sparkle.

I had been reflecting on the events of the weekend, a conference on Ecology, Spirituality, and the Great Work, feeling the excitement of the first day. Why had over 1,100 people come together in Louisville for the weekend of June 15-17 to be at this conference?

Now, taken up by the firefly dance, that excitement swirls into a clear, yet dazzling image: What I'm watching is a visual enactment, by the insect world, of just what is taking place this weekend.

In a time of darkness, where the light of the Cenozoic Age-its incredible florescence of life forms on Earth-is dimming, there are points of light charting a new course in the twilight. The Ecozoic Age is surging to awareness in 1,100 people-and in even more people who could not attend.

As with anything new, there is groping, fear, and faltering. And an occasional triumph or move forward. Several times over the course of the weekend words like "historic," "inaugural," and "pivotal" were floated outward like so many trial balloons.

To live at that twilight point, at the edge of rising and passing away, is to live at the edge of creativity. This was the overriding feeling for me at the conference. That we are at such a defining moment. We are perhaps tentative, groping fireflies, creating the Ecozoic Age. And yet we are strong in our "fierce, clear passion" (Drew Dellinger) for Creation's beauty and mystery. As with twilight, we live in a magical time.

As latecomers filed in for the opening gathering, the image of a spiral galaxy, immense beyond imagining, yet delicately elegant, appeared on the auditorium screen, accompanied by the dramatic trumpets and drumbeats of the music opening the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the fanfare reached its thundering crescendo, an image of the cloud-shrouded blue planet Earth flashed into focus to applause from 1,100 people. EarthSpirit Rising brought together scientists, spiritual leaders, artists, and environmental activists.

They came from as far as Australia and from every U.S. state. Planners stated its purpose was "to help us better understand the evolutionary heritage of our past, the physical and spiritual state of the planet today, and the direction we need to move in for a successful future." Over 190 groups and individuals sponsored the conference.

EarthSpirit Rising was also designed to honor and immerse participants in the work of cultural historian Thomas Berry. The weekend was subtitled: "A Conference on Ecology, Spirituality and the Great Work," referring to the title of Berry's latest book. The Great Work of our time, writes Berry, is to establish mutually enhancing human-Earth relations in all our endeavors and institutions. The 84-year old elder did not attend the conference, explaining that he felt it was now time for the work to be carried on by others.

Rap artist Drew Dellinger opened the conference Friday evening with a hip-hop celebration of the new cosmology. His organization, Center of the Universe in Prescott, Arizona, inspired by Berry's thought, is dedicated to making this message readily understandable to everyone, using pop culture. (See poem, page 18.)

In his opening address the same evening, Brian Swimme brought us into the profound awareness, again, of just what an awesome mystery our universe is. Referring to a recent interview with him in What is Enlightenment? magazine, Brian shared with us his response to a question from the interviewer asking him to give a basic outline of the vast scope of evolution. "Here's the whole story in one line," Brian responded, "This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans." (Call up for the interview.)

Here, at last, was a way to respond to those inevitable questions arising whenever you utter the words "universe story" in unindoctrinated company!

It's important, as Ecozoic fireflies, that we fly together in the dusk. As rainforest activist and author John Seed pointed out in one of the conference keynote talks: "It's too much for us to do alone. The momentum of the anthropocentric project is such that we need to draw ourselves into communities of like-minded people, to support and nourish each other." (See page 31 for "Ways to Get Active and Stay Connected.")

Pointing out that we cannot do this solely through the efforts of our intellect, John adds: "We need to encourage each other to be very, very authentic about our feeling response to the crisis we all face. Our ancestors made very good decisions based on feelings...Feelings move us...And yet, it's not appropriate in this culture to talk about the horror, the despair, about what is happening." Seed mentioned the litany of problems facing us, not the least of which is a growing scientific consensus that within 30 years half of all species on Earth will become extinct.

Author and University of Creation Spirituality president Matthew Fox (see interview, page 16) gave a rousing address, asking the question: Is creation sacred? "That is the spiritual question of our time," he stated, "It is a scandal that we even have to ask the question!" In response, Fox introduced "Ten Blessings we receive from being awakened by the new cosmology" (see box below).

Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor of religion at Bucknell University and editor of the Harvard series on Religions of the World on Ecology: Discovering the Common Ground, reminisced about her long friendship with her mentor and friend Thomas Berry.

Breakout workshops offered a feast of choices, some featuring well-known presenters in the field of spiritual ecology. But most workshops were facilitated by individuals who are quietly living out the Great Work in their own personal ways, and who presented experiential workshops to supplement the intellect.

Musical interludes graced every keynote presentation, and organizers interspersed time for reflection at key moments. Paul Winter broke my heart open on the final day with music from his CD Wolfeyes. And Michael Fitzpatrick brought sacred magic into the mix with a cello solo inspired by Earth and Spirit (see story, page 30).

But it was Dominican Sister Miriam MacGillis, founder of Genesis Farm, with a story from her visit to Ireland this spring, who ignited the first major post-conference activist surge.

Sister Miriam spoke of her ancestry from Ireland, Scotland, and England and her great longing in later years to discover who those ancestors were. Her ancestors communicated both cosmology and faith to her, and she realized that she would need to understand the landscape out of which her ancestors emerged in order to truly know the origins of the faith given to her. She was able to go to Ireland several times over the past decade to share the new universe story. "That very process," she related, "was gifting me with an invitation to trace my indigenous and feminist mind."

She was surprised to learn that there had been a deep, highly-evolved Irish mind with its own mythos and logos long before the invading Celts arrived. She realized that the indigenous mind of her ancestors was shaped by the landscape of that island. In the oldest cosmological stories, the island itself was believed to be the body of the Sun Goddess. Through an act of love and giving, the Sun Goddess became the land. This cosmology held this relationship of land and sun as the most primal of relationships. It was the basic shaping of the early imagination of the Irish people. The oldest place names, Miriam related, were of the anatomy of the body of the Goddess.

"I learned that the early Goddess was benevolent. She was about abundance and fertility, and Her gift was fire and the renewing cycle of the seasons. There were two times when She shape-shifted into other forms and became the warrior Goddess: That was if anything threatened the land or the children. Then, watch out!"

"This deep, instinctual knowing of the significance of protecting what was essential shaped the Irish psyche," she concluded.

Then, on a visit to the Emerald Isle this year, Miriam witnessed, as if for the first time, the rapid escalation of the commercial, industrial model into Ireland's reality. "The seduction of the western, technological worldview was rapidly changing thousands and thousands of years of an unbelievably coherent culture that had endured such suffering and oppression over so many invasions," she lamented.

Miriam was invited to take respite, on her last evening there, in a small cottage way up in the mountains of western Ireland. Aware of a grief and a sadness inside of her, she walked alone, marveling at the beauty of the place. She followed a path which would take her to the ruins of a small cluster of huts which were lived in at a time when the Irish had been displaced from their land and barely eked a living because the land had been taken from them. She noticed that the other cottages there had become vacation homes for the newly wealthy, that the farms were no longer farms, but "only a nostalgic decoration for the vacationing community."

Weeping, Miriam came to an immense waterfall cascading down into a beautiful mountain lake. She looked into that waterfall, with its "absolute, unconditional giving of itself," giving, even though it would eventually flow down "into the industrialized farms, with nitrates running off, hedgerows being taken away, industrial tractors coming in, and trout streams with cautionary signs not to eat the fish."

She found herself, through opening up to the pain, "sounding," in what she would later come to understand was "keening." Keening, a groaning sound that carried the sorrow, mourning, and grief, was something women would do, Miriam explained, at the death of the members of families and communities. She realized, "that it is at this level that goddess, feminist wisdom must come forth. The energy must come forth from the deep grief of saying, 'no, we cannot do this!'" Then she began to imagine what would happen if the women of Ireland, and the farmers with their deep, feminine, intuitive knowing, began to put on black shrouds, and showed up when the earth movers came in or incinerators were being built which would devastate the lakes.

John Seed, a co-presenter with Miriam in her talk at EarthSpirit Rising, was deeply moved by the story. The next weekend, at a deep ecology workshop he facilitated In Ireland with two Irish women, Ann Kenny and Dolores Whelan, he felt it appropriate to share Miriam's story. He relates what happened as a result:

Ann Kenny invited the women to explore keening with her. Although they were afraid, some of them got together during the dinner break that evening. The next day, Ann and the other seven women who had participated sat in an inner circle around an altar, in the center of which was water we had collected from three sacred Brigid wells and a flame we had lit from the Brigid flame kept alive by Brigidine nuns in Dublin. Ann played a recording of an old lady keening and everyone called out what they wanted to keen for. The women in the center started keening and the rest of us joined in.

Later, in our final circle which was about networking, action, and taking our insights out into the world, one of the women who shared was an activist named after the goddess Onya. On Saturday morning, she had cried and raged about a proposed motorway through Kildare, the land of her birth. Now she spoke about how inspired she had been, both by the keening and the story of Miriam's vision of people dressed in black, keening in witness or protest. She resolved to take this vision back to her people, to those opposing the motorway. She promised to invite us all to dress in black and join such protests, which she would organize.*

Can we imagine the impact of keening at a George W. Bush photo-op in a national forest, or at a hearing on global warming, or drilling for oil in the Arctic?

We have Eileen and Jim Schenk of IMAGO, Catherine Browning and Mark Steiner of Cultivating Connections, and the dozens of volunteers and people on the planning committee to thank for creating the space for this conference to happen. "The enormous teamwork is really what made this conference work," said Catherine, referring to all of the co-sponsors and volunteers who contributed, "I have such a sense of gratitude, because it was such a collaborative effort."

"Our plans are still up in the air," says Eileen, "We're catching our breath." Then she added: "The staff is busy now just trying to contain Jim's enthusiasm!"

From the conference:


1. Return of a sense of the sacred

2. Return of community, expanded awareness of belonging

3. Return of awe and healthy mysticism

4. Rediscovery of the Cosmic Christ as wisdom

5. Return of generosity-the size of our hearts

6. Realization that we need spiritual practices like ritual and meditation to calm our "reptile" brain

7. Rediscovering the powers of our creativity

8. Redeeming the word "flesh," as holy and imbued with spirit (see page 16,
interview) <- click here to read

9. Redeeming of darkness, facing nothingness & emptying

10. Reinventing education to integrate all chakras


*  To find out more about the keening protests, e-mail Dolores Whelan at .  Dolores does tours of sacred Ireland and she and Ann Kenny do workshops in deep ecology and Irish spirituality.

Contact John Seed at for more details about upcoming deep ecology workshops in South Africa, Pakistan and the Netherlands and for events at Findhorn in Scotland and Schumacher College in England in 2002.

For more information on EarthSpirit Rising, see their website at, or call (513) 921-5124. To contact Cultivating Connections, email, or write 318 Primrose Dr., Louisville, KY 40207.

K. Lauren de Boer is EarthLight's editor and executive director, and was a workshop presenter at EarthSpirit Rising.

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