Beauty May Save Us: The Power of Nature’s Beauty

sky color

By Madronna Holden

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, a young Appalachian woman’s longing for something different—something just for herself—pulls her toward disaster in her susceptibility to sexual manipulation.

But on her way to an illicit rendezvous, her course of self-destruction is interrupted by a natural wonder.  She see the woods full of what seems to be a mysterious orange fire that she later learns it is a gathering of monarch butterflies.  This experience tells her that the passion she seeks is not about giving herself away.  It is erotic in an entirely different way:  a way that turns her onto a path of care for herself, her children– and the miracle of nature endangered by climate change.

As this novel indicates, our response to beauty can be centrally implicated in our personal choices.  It is also implicated in our cultural story.

That story prompted pioneers to ravage the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in their attempt to tame the land.  Some felt a fear bordering on panic of the grandeur of the old growth forests –a fear of the beauty that not only set humans in their humble place in the nature of things but was simply too much for them—too overwhelming. The self-styled heroes of Manifest Destiny hardly sought to be overcome by wonder.

We can only imagine how different our history might be had pioneers instead told a story that honored the beauty of the world that bestowed them with life, as did the Seri of the Baja Peninsula. Seri tradition has it that inside each of us is a flower and inside that flower is a word– the seed of language. To lose the beauty of such words is to lose the world they belong to.

Indeed, words of this kind have the power to revitalize our lives.  Poet, initiated Seneca medicine person, and translator of world poetry Jerome Rothenberg tells us that poets today inhabit a “Neolithic subculture” in which nouns become verbs and the leaden surety of ownership, hierarchy and control become vision, vitality—and life.

This reverses the dynamic in advertising that moves in the direction of life to death– as it downplays natural beauty in favor of consumer icons.  The feminine bodies such ads sell us are flawless –in a mortuary version of beauty possible only in the death of the actual body.

The intrusion of death into so-called beauty products is reflected by their ingredients—which include lead and other toxins.

Unfortunately, ads that link eroticism and death reflect a cultural truism.  The majority of women murdered in the US are murdered by lovers or ex-lovers.

Eroticism is connected with violence in another way observed by Maria Mies in her essay, “White Man’s Dilemma”. She observes how those responsible for destruction of the environment and its indigenous lives tour “exotic” places and partake in “sex tourism” in the attempt to regain the mystery and excitement of what they have destroyed—to recover the vitality of their own lives.

Just as love is at odds with control, beauty is at odds with ownership– whether that beauty be in other humans or the natural world.

Expanses of monochrome lawns exhibit an aesthetic akin to the airbrushed complexion of women in ads—and with as much hazard to the vitality of each.  Such lawns showcase the control of nature reliant on the death of unwanted  insects and “weeds” —and of lives shortened by exposure to pesticides.

Expanses of unremitting sameness are not an element of natural beauty.  Indeed, as educator Jean Kilbourne points out, they are not an aspect of life.

By contrast, our affinity with the natural world—our perception of loveliness based on diversity and vitality—results from the hundred thousand years in which we became human in concert with the natural world.

In that history, our sensual alertness developed as a survivor’s trait.

To deaden this sensual alertness takes considerable denial—and can result in considerable destruction. Nazi doctors interviewed by Robert Lifton cut off their own sensual awareness to facilitate their terrible acts– since if they had been fully present to those acts, they knew they would have been incapable of going through with them.

I heard a member of the Allied Liberation Forces in World War II make a similar point.  For him, the horror of the camps was encompassed in their smell:  the smell of dead and decaying human bodies.  He washed his clothes for a month after returning home in the attempt to get the stench of death out of them.  Yet when he asked inhabitants of a village near the camps how they stood the smell, they replied, “We smelled nothing”.

Today we numb ourselves to the ugliness of bulldozer- scraped land, ignoring its ruin for the sake of “development”.  But we do so at our peril. The same peril that follows our ignoring climate change in spite of the droughts and storms currently escalating in our weather patterns.

Indeed, it is only at our peril that we ignore the results of any of our actions.

Natural beauty may save us from such peril by calling us back to the world– re-awakening us to our sensual presence in the world– and our conscience in the process.

According to Navajo tradition, the harmony of the natural world expresses a model of harmony  in human life.  To “walk in beauty” is to be blessed with goodness.

Artist Lily Yeh would agree.  Her work  illustrates the potential for healing that exists in beauty.

In 1986 Yeh began an eighteen year campaign to bring beauty to impoverished neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.  She involved  local children in painting murals and constructing mosaics, creating oases of beauty in abandoned lots.  Eventually community adults joined her, including former drug lords who gave up their addictions to do so–and together they reclaimed large swathes of formerly devastated neighborhoods.

Yeh sees her creation of jewel-like mosaics as a powerful symbol, since we are all broken in some place–and mosaics use this brokenness as material with which to create beauty.

Yeh didn’t stop with the Village of the Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.  She next set out to bring beauty to the survivors of a massacre in Rwanda living beside the unburied bones of 10,000 victims of genocide. These survivors wanted most of all to give their dead a reverential burial– but did not have the resources or the heart to do it.

Yeh worked with them to construct an expansive mosaic monument to protect the bones of the dead. The ceremonial burial that followed caused many to collapse in reliving their grief years after the massacre.

But after this burial, the community continued working with Yeh with new energy, turning children’s drawings into community murals that expressed their dreams for the future.

The revitalized local spirit drew help from outside even as it sparked energy within.  By the time Yeh left Rwanda, the survivors’ village  had  recovered weaving, planting and harvesting traditions; they had goats and cows and a clean reliable water supply from harvested rainwater, and they had built  solar arrays to power the sewing machines in a business operated by orphans of genocide.

“We celebrate life in beauty”,  to use Yeh’s guiding words.

But we can only do so if we have the courage, as Yeh did, to face the consequences of our human actions.  In going to Rwanda, Yeh was terrified–yet beauty led her on, since she believes that in the heart of the worst tragedy is a point of light waiting to be brought out.  It is our task to find and ignite the beauty waiting there.

Such beauty may yet heal us:  yet show us the way to repair our world.

Thus we must guard this beauty in one another along with our own creative impulses and the natural beauty that reminds us of our place and responsibilities in life.

Such beauty cannot be controlled or purchased–nor can we guarantee its permanence.

We can only nurture it– and make ourselves available to wonder.


This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

How Vulnerability Weaves Natural and Human Communities

By Madronna Holden

“There’s a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Shortly after World War II, as the Japanese economy surged ahead, a survey set out to discover why the Japanese management style was so successful. One finding was surprising to those with a Western worldview:  successful Japanese CEOs characteristically revealed their personal vulnerability to others, including their subordinates. Once such vulnerabilities were revealed, the organization could work as a team to address them.

In his little gem of a book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree observes that managers that cannot weep are not intimate with their work: “these people must not be trying to live up to their potential. They must think they cannot fail.” DePree is not speaking of tears of “chagrin or frustration”, which he finds particularly useless.  But tears resulting from care, from responsibility, from involvement—from understanding that the best “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain”.

Indigenous peoples knew the value of such leadership as well.  Among some Plains peoples, there are joking stories of how one could barely find anyone to be “chief”– since one who assumed that status also assumed such vulnerability.  If there were hungry, they would find refuge in the leader’s tent, where the chief’s family went hungry until all others were fed.  And if there were disagreements, those involved would find both refuge and arbiter in that same tent.

This ancient idea of leadership not as dominance but service is something we could use more of in today’s world.  Under DePree’s leadership, Fortune 500 Company Herman Miller, a family business begun in 1923, excels in craftsmanship, personal care for its workers, creative physical design—and economic success.  DePree knows what he is talking about when he describes successful management.

His approach, however, is different from most CEOs in the US.  In the survey above, US CEOs felt that revealing their vulnerability would negate their power to lead. They worked to present themselves as strong – which they understood as invulnerable.  The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.

These corporate executives were enacting a key component of the Western worldview: the idea that vulnerability is dangerous and must be guarded against at all costs. This is what the athletic competitions that  hold the attention of millions of us on television annually tell us:   one should never expose a vulnerability.  Instead, one should exploit the vulnerability of others.

One problem with this approach, as indicated in the recent prevalence of head injuries in professional football, is its lead up to violence. Another, as analyzed in Michael Messner’s, Power at Play, is that young men who often go into athletics to honor their bodies are tragically taught to dishonor them instead:  to use their bodies as instruments as they learn to ignore their vulnerability– as they “play through the pain”.

It is not just athletics that teaches us this, but the mechanized environment of modern industry.   As psychologist James Hillman puts it, an environment composed of “plastic, Styrofoam, cold metal” creates a “slow anesthetizing”, such that we “become brutal”. There is, after all, nothing vulnerable about plastic, Styrofoam or “cold metal”—no need to exercise our moral concern in such an arena.

The effects of our actions on others is ignored as their vulnerability becomes irrelevant, as in the case of the chemical company CEOs who viewed x-rays showing the bones of their workers dissolving from exposure to toxic chemicals— and saw this only as a problem to be hidden lest it detract from  their bottom line.

This is the same kind of  “psychic numbing” Robert Jay Lifton found in Nazi doctors who numbed their physical sensations lest they feel empathy for the pain they inflicted on others. Lifton gives examples in which professionals in the contemporary US today also exhibit “psychic numbing” as they carry out experiments on other lives.   Lifton suggests two remedies for the moral danger involved here:  that we become fully present in our bodies and that we focus our actions on empathy for other lives.

As eloquent Central American poet Daisy Zamora puts it, to be truly present in our bodies—to love our bodies for their uniqueness and their vulnerability– is to assume our place in the “unending chain of other bodies”.   It is to experience empathy for all the lives that inhabit a body as do we ourselves.

Vulnerability itself shapes human culture.  It is the reason why the developing brains of human children do not settle into their final physical configurations until a child reaches the age of ten or eleven.  Up until that, the child is dependent on adults to care for him or her.  And in those years of dependency the communication of culture takes place.

At the other end of life, the physical vulnerability of the elderly closes the circle of culture. As their community cares for the elderly who become physically dependent, elders give back the experience of their lifetimes, cached in stories,  to their community.  Vulnerability, at the beginning and end of life, creates the condition for the passing on of culture that makes humans unique among species.

Or at least it is that way in societies that keep their vital cultural heritage alive. If we see time as an arrow in which the past drops away from us—and the knowledge of our elders as useless, this link between physical vulnerability and intimacy is broken—and we come to the end of our lives as an abrupt wall, with no circle of legacy to re-enter. In this context, Madison Avenue has a heyday hawking youth culture.

But on a global scale, the youth culture is not always faring so well either. If we send children to work in factories at an early age–a capitalist tradition still followed in African chocolate plantations run by multi-nationals—or we allow them to go hungry (the greatest proportion of the hungry in the US today are children) — we also break the cycle that honors the children who depend on us as the carriers of our future.

I worry about a nation who can only see vulnerability (the hunger of children, the woundedness of returning soldiers) as a bit of red ink on a ledger somewhere.  We have nothing to hold us together as a nation if our impulse to care for one another is labeled as “socialism” (as various FOX news pundits characteristically label it) and thereby dismissed. If we cannot design ways to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to meet one another’s needs together– by what right do we call ourselves a nation?

To an isolated individual, a disabled veteran or hungry child on the streets, vulnerability is no asset.  In the context of “every man for himself”, one can understand why  some might wish to dump the “useless eaters” from the rolls of community support.  But I hope that their memory is not so short that they forget the origin of this term.  “Useless eaters” was the phrase used by Hitler to decide whom to send to the gas chambers.

By contrast, the society that understands and cares for the needs of its most vulnerable is also resilient.  When an individual  fell ill, mentally or physically, among many long enduring societies, that illness was a barometer of the health of the tribe. Among many such societies, an individual illness signed a way in which a family or whole community needed to change its behavior.

Such a culture would not have to wait to hear that their pregnant women carried toxins in their umbilical cords to do something about the toxins that currently pervade our environment.  One individual who came down with the cancer absent in ancient cultures would be enough for society to read oncoming disaster and change its ways.

We would need neither the demise of the renowned canary in a coal mine– or the pollinators of our crops– to expose the parallel vulnerability between humans and other natural lives. Just as the fabled canary was once used as a barometer of the health of mine air, colony collapse disorder among honeybees and other pollinators shows us what we are doing wrong–and what we need to change quickly.

The honeybee–and native pollinators like the bumblebee– illustrate stunningly the ways in which the lives of natural systems are interwoven as vulnerable to one another. These insects are covered with fine hairs that trap pollen as they visit the flowers from which they gather nectar as they fertilize them.  However, those same hairs now trap chemical pollutants.  Penn State researchers found that samples of bees from 23 states carried remnants of 98 different pesticides in their bodies.

The sticky hairs with which the bees clung to their diversity of pollen was such an asset in natural systems that the honeybees evidently did not have to worry much about toxins as they went.  A recent analysis of their genes indicates they have very few enzymes allowing them to detoxify pesticides.

In this sense, the little creatures whose brains perform complex locational and social functions we cannot mimic on any computer as they pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops annually are our new canary in a coal mine.

The fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together. That is the thing about vulnerability:  it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.

The vulnerability we entrust to one another as we express our highest purposes:   the vulnerability that arises from a vision yet to be made real, a mistake for which we take responsibility, a need to lean on another for a time, from being present to the wondrous gift of a body that also ages and gets ill—points the way to creating stronger community.

As Thomas Berry has observed, not a one of  us nourishes ourselves.  Just as we depend on other lives for our own survival, our vulnerability to one another teaches us to treat with tenderness the vulnerable natural systems that provide us with clean air, fertile growing land, drinkable water and climate control.

These are things we can only protect together.   Just as we must protect together the social commons that provides us with learning from the past– with family, community and legacy—the commons that is as fragile as it is precious.

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Thanks to dear friend Leia Hart for reminding me of the great line by Leonard Cohen that begins this essay.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.


And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

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By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Thomas Berry 1914-2009

By Madronna Holden

“We must rethink all our basic values, the structure and functioning of our entire cultural tradition…This is undoubtedly the most awesome moment for rethinking our situation since the beginning of the Western civilizational enterprise some five thousand years ago.”
Thomas Berry, “Foreword”, Earth and Spirit


On the occasion of the death of Catholic priest and theologian (or “geologian”, as he preferred to call himself) Thomas Berry at age 94, I would like to reflect upon his model of a morality centered in the earthly community of life.

Thomas Berry’s philosophy was strikingly immanent and earth-centered.  In his seminal Dream of the Earth, he lamented the fact that too many Christians placed themselves in “a state of exile from our true country”, in that “the natural world is little mentioned”.   This state of “exile” was due to an inordinate emphasis on the hereafter in Christian theology.

But for Berry humans are an inescapable part of an earth community and thus “We should be clear about what happens when we destroy the living forms of this planet…we destroy the modes of divine presence.”

He took the bold step of siding with ecofeminist authors as he described the dynamics of Western history in which patriarchy ushered in social and environmental injustice.

Berry also stressed the necessity of recognizing our national obligations to native peoples: “Our first duty is to see that the Indians dwelling here have the land, the resources, and the independence to be themselves”. Our second duty is to honor the ways in which native traditions belong “among the great spiritual traditions” of humankind. Thirdly, we should respect the historical continuity of native communities.

Berry joined many modern ecologists in stressing the need for an earth-centered stance to replace the human-centered one of the industrial age. Such a stance is the only realistic one given our  interdependence with other natural life. As Berry noted, not a single species on earth nourishes itself.

As opposed to the worldview which sees the natural world as set in place for human use, Berry stated, “We need to present ourselves to the planet as the planet presents itself to us, in an avocatory rather than a dominating relationship.  There is need for a great courtesy toward the earth.” This is a courtesy; he went on, that we might learn from indigenous peoples such as the Iroquois, who modeled reverent gratitude toward the earth in their thanksgiving ceremonies.

In this context, he developed a detailed outline supporting the rights of all the beings with whom we share our earthly community. He insisted that all earth others (including not only plants and animals but natural landscape features such as rivers) have three essential rights: the right to existence, the right to habitat, and the right to “fulfill their role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community”.   Human rights do not cancel out the rights of earth others to exist in their natural state. Indeed, human rights are limited in a community which recognizes the rights of all life.

Whereas rights of nature are enduring, they are limited to the unique identity of those involved:  rights of a river or a tree are specific to themselves.  It would mean little to a river, for instance, to have the rights of a tree—or a human or an insect. Thus these rights are not in competition with each other, but an expression of the interdependent cycle of life in which each plays a role. In this context humans also have a right to wonder, beauty and intimacy that only our connection with a vital earthly community can fulfill.

Berry’s guidelines for a healing technology come down to following the patterns of nature—as gained most clearly in the intimate knowledge of place in bioregionalism. As we set such a technology in place, “the earth itself would be seen as the primary model in architecture, the primary scientist, the primary educator, healer, and technologist, even the primary manifestation of the ultimate mystery of things”.

Coincident with his work with indigenous and Eastern traditions, Berry felt that each subject in a universe of subjects had a story– and that story was interwoven into the universe’s story.  He found hope in the work of modern scientists who abandoned the objective distancing of their tradition to tell the story of natural life.  If we told the story of the natural world in this way, we would understand how to treat it differently as we developed a new “mythos” to replace the all too prevalent Judeo-Christian one that sees humans as standing over and apart from creation as a collection of objects–and licenses so much destruction as a result.

Berry offered a different interpretation of Christianity that led to responsibility to creation.

He joined with physicist Brian Swimme in developing a “universe story” in which humans had a special role as witnesses of the universe’s self-development and evolution.  The human role was not one of dominating or controlling creation, but of appreciating it.  In this sense, the human sense of wonder was a holy impulse: as Matthew Fox put it, Thomas Berry “sacralized curiosity”.   His intellectual and spiritual openness in this regard was linked to his personal engagement.

Notably, Swimme with whom Berry developed the “universe story”, emphatically declared himself an ecofeminist (“How to Heal a Lobotomy” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred) as a means of healing the dangerous dualism in Western thought that splits the world into hierarchical frames of subject/object, human/nature and male/female.

Though Berry saw nature as imbued with spirit in that it was the cradle of life (and he saw everything that lived as having a soul), he did not romanticize or idealize the natural world.  In that it existed for itself and not for humans, it could be destructive as well as life-giving from the human point of view.  But humans should become intimate with the larger story of nature that both gave them life and interwove all lives in its vast cosmic story.

Here are the words Berry chose to feature on his website—words that eloquently express the guiding principle of his work:  “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Thomas Berry left us with much to think about—and much to live up to.

The Dangers of False Reverence: Destroying What We Think We Love

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.21.2012

In Crossing the Next Meridian, Land, Water and the Future of the West, Charles Wilkinson notes two ideologies that resulted in the destruction of the salmon runs that once yielded 42 million pounds annually on the Columbia River alone.

The first is the sense of dominance that saw the land only as a resource for human exploitation. But the other is perhaps not so obvious.  It is a reverence for that which it destroys.

We don’t have to imagine the destructiveness of the first attitude:  we have history to inform us of it.  This attitude created a free for all in the Pacific Northwest in which, as Wilkinson puts it, the “fish hardly had a chance”.  This was expressed in the waste in the taking of salmon in the late 1800s, as in the case of the trap on Puget Sound that wiped out an entire run of sockeye salmon when tens of thousands of fish wedged themselves into that trap and suffocated before they could be released.

Wilkinson also notes that some pioneers, by contrast, held the salmon in reverence. But it was a strange reverence, an idealization that never really saw the salmon for what they were– or as anything that incited human responsibility. In their awe for the overwhelming abundance of the salmon runs, pioneers never saw their limits.  Unlike the indigenous system which set up seasonal harvest limits orchestrated by religious leaders, pioneer harvesters depleted that which they never thought would end.

Partly this was because they had no historical experience with the runs—but the destructiveness of their actions was also mingled with their idealization of Western lands as something larger than life.

I spoke with those who logged the old growth forests they found on arriving in Western Washington in the late 1800s– who had experienced the grace and power of those forests as they took them down with crosscut saws, leaving stumps twenty feet high– since mills couldn’t handle logs over five feet in diameter. As they grappled with those great trees body to body, they did not stop to think that the forest that defined their lives would ever be gone.

In their minds, the hugeness of the land bestowed it with a sense of eternity—a sense that it would endure no matter how humans behaved toward it.

After he had been a logger, one man I interviewed served as a fire lookout, living alone in a cabin on Mt. Rainier. In those days the animals were not afraid of humans–and just watching from his mountaintop as various animals came by, day after day, he felt a reverence for the natural world that was no longer entangled in struggling with something larger than life.

That was when he looked around and saw the old forests were going.   He was in a state of shock as a result.

When I interviewed him he was in his nineties and had spent several years tracking the changing weather patterns resulting from those missing trees.  He filled his notebooks, day after day, with his record of the lost forest, as if his faithfulness could redeem his former carelessness.

He wanted most of all for our generation to understand the mistakes made by his.

The pioneer west is not alone in expressing the dangers of such a reverence toward an idealized part of nature. The Ganges River in India is both one of the most revered and one of the most polluted rivers in the world.  In effect, this river is loved to death, as its idealization licenses some to overlook the fact that it has any limits—any needs of its own which might depend on human responsibility towards it.

The good news is that while political will in India has not taken up the cause of cleaning the sacred Ganges, this project has recently united Muslims and Hindus.

The idealization of women expresses a parallel dynamic of failed or too idealized reverence.  At the beginning of an abusive relationship, a man classically expresses intense reverence for the object of his desire.  Indeed, in modern Western culture, many relationships are characterized by a “romantic fallacy”—an idealized projection on the other that prevents each from seeing who they really are.

The romantic fallacy is exceedingly dangerous to the object of its projection.  For the Ganges, the salmon, the trees, the idealized woman, the object of such reverence loses subjective identity—the right to act on their own and have their  needs honored.  As Jean Kilbourne points out in her analysis of the idealized woman in modern advertising, that ideal portrays the woman as a kind of corpse.  The airbrushed presentations of her face are like mummified parodies of real life. Such an objectification of anything, she observes, is the first step toward licensing violence toward it.

Those who idealize another cast see them in terms of their own needs—and thus are all too liable to exact of them the kind of sacrifice Trask exacts of the indigenous elder who befriends him in Don Berry’s historical novel Trask, situated on the Oregon Coast.  In this novel, the pioneer protagonist kills the elder in the midst of his attempt to initiate himself in a spirit quest like that of traditional indigenous peoples.  In a profound metaphor for real history, the pioneer is literally out of his mind as he commits this murder, unaware that establishing his own “spiritual” connection to the land costs the life of another.  In his trance, he carries the dead body of the elder through the landscape in his personal search for a spiritual home.

The ambivalence of this murderous reverence—in which the land and its people become a sacrifice on the altar of human need– is expressed in this quote from the novel:

“Taking possession of the land is the first and final grasping of a man … toward immortality…As a child clutches blindly at his mother’s breast, so a man will strain to the land without understanding…

The thing that possesses a man to open a land is simple lust…A molding and carving and forging takes place between [man and land].. bitterly, happily, angrily, exultantly…  And in time there is no …clear edge of difference where … the land ends and the man begins.”

As this quote expresses, there is a profound human need to belong to something larger than oneself—something that begins before an individual’s birth and continues after death.  But such belonging cannot be had by seizing it:  “possession” and “land lust” are the contrary to belonging established in the mutual inter-working of the land and its human residents over time.

Moreover, we can never see a land so entwined in our own need for what it really is.  Idealization of the land, that is, inhibits true intimacy with it.

By contrast, indigenous reverence for their land rests on intimacy with it—on gratitude and humility for the daily gift of life the land provides. It is characterized by the reciprocity between a people and a land that is not larger than life, that is, but bound up in life itself.

In its link to daily life, such reverence motivates care for the land and for all life that shares it. This reverence is illustrated in the words of native naturalist Linda Hogan in Dwellings: “What does god look like? These fish, this water, this land.”

In such recognition of the divine in creation, there is quietude and fullness, as expressed by Rebecca Adamson, Founder of the First Nations Development Institute: “God is in the space and silence. That is where it is sacred. You look up on a starry night and you feel yourself unfold, and that silence is where God is.”

In her interview in  YES magazine (summer 2009), Adamson indicates an essential difference between opening to the silence of the divine in the stance above and the idealization in the pioneer perspective.  The indigenous perspective is based on fullness and gratefulness;  the pioneer perspective, like that of modern capitalism in general, is based on hunger and need:  on a “self-fulfilling scarcity”.

In the indigenous case, humans adapt to the fullness of natural life, in the pioneer case,  the land becomes a projection of human need.

Thus the latter sees the land as that which might redeem humans from their hunger for  belonging and security–even if they have to destroy it in order to possess it.

On Knowing What You Want

By Madronna Holden

What I’d like for Mother’s Day is for our children to get what they want. But first they have to know what that is.

And that isn’t an easy determination for any of us in the modern age–and especially for women. According to the authors of the Mother-Daughter Revolution, girls in our society start out with an open eroticism toward the natural world, a sensual love of life.  Their presence in their own bodies gives them a vital sense of who they are:  so that they touch the world around them by being in touch with themselves.

Such girls are feisty, as full of joy and experimentation as they are full of themselves.

But if they follow our primary social narrative, they change all that connection to the natural world to desire for a single man—and if they please him, they may, in the sexual act, earn back their original eroticism.  A mother accomplishes a “revolution” by siding with her daughter’s voice as she grows, honoring her real sense of desire—so that she does not get caught in the trap that causes white middle class girls’ self-esteem to plummet in half as they reach puberty today.

No wonder Freud declared women masochistic.  We’d have to be to follow this script. But we’ve had lots of practice, beginning with ancient Greece, in which the philosopher Aristotle told women that they could become virtuous (which, according to this sage, made them happy) by hitching their star to a virtuous man. They couldn’t earn such happiness, he stressed, on their own.

As in this case, those in power in societies like our own have always manipulated the desire of those on the bottom to keep them there.  Aristotle’s main focus in his Politics was to put down the irksome impulse of oppressed people to revolt in a “democracy” that excluded women, colonial subjects, and slaves.

And all of us today are to some extent victims of manipulated desire.  Ads shout “more” to us—telling us how much we need more food, more convenience, more newness, more improvement.  Such ads assure us that we can buy whatever it is we want—after they tell us what that is.

The first part of this media blitz is deficit or scarcity thinking, as traced in the history of advertising by Stuart Ewen, where we learn of corporate meetings back in the 1920s that concluded the fostering of psychological deficits was beneficial to selling more products.  Juliet Schor’s shocking Born to Buy details the ways in which modern advertising indoctrinates children from the youngest age with the idea that they are what they own.

This dynamic also gives girls and women the idea that their self-esteem is coincident with their image. Peggy Orenstein spent time with young women in four different schools from varied social classes and ethnic backgrounds.  Her findings indicate that these girls’ self-esteem plummeted when they reached puberty precisely because they were under so much pressure of appearances.

Educator Jean Kilbourne’s work details the deadly way ads manipulate desire for particular appearances—since they link sexuality with the objectification of and violence towards not only women but girls.  Altogether, such manipulation of desire muddies the water considerably in terms of young men and women coming of age today, for whom modern media is as much an influence as their education or their families.

Like all other earth dwellers, we are all intentional creatures.  In the 1900s Wild Bill, an elder of the Pit River people said this well: everything alive is for a purpose. As living creatures, we have a meaning, a sense of belonging, an orientation toward something.  But if we don’t know what this is, we are susceptible to the infinite desire for more and more upon which capitalistic growth is based.  “You can never get enough of what you didn’t want in the first place”, as the astute addiction counselor put it.   So never getting what we really want fuels the engine of growth as we keep consuming more and more in the hopes we will finally be satisfied.

In this age of the gluttonous consumer, we don’t need less.  We need less of those things that give us no real satisfaction, that destroy our self-esteem—and our environment.

But when we have a clear conversation with our own desires, we may find we want more.  I know I do.

For Mother’s Day, I want lots more.  I want clean water, fresh air, contact with a live natural world, a society that allows the unique gifts of each of us to come to fruition, a place of belonging for my daughter and the generations that follow.

In telling the story of a stalk of corn that mothered itself, persisting and reseeding without water in a dark cave for generations, Linda Hogan has these eloquent words to say about natural desire in Linda Hogan’s Dwellings (p.62): “The stalks of the corn want clean water… The leaves of the corn want good earth. The earth wants peace. The birds who eat the corn do not want poison.  Nothing wants to suffer. The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”

This stalk that continues in a dark cave by itself is like buried human desire waiting for the sun and the rain all this time—so that is can rejoin the community of earthly life again.