While I was listening to various people talk about Earth Day on the radio this past week, one comment struck me with a ping of terror. The commentator, a scientist of some type, said that our brains did not evolve to solve long-term problems; that our minds don’t work well when thinking about the far future. The point he was making is that by nature we are not very good at solving problems that require long-range planning, as do most of the environmental challenges that face us. We are only good at tackling an immediate crisis with quick solutions, and sometimes we’re not very good at even that. But worse, we can’t even think acutely enough to develop the will to act now for some future scenario.
What if this is true? If we can’t “think well” about problems that require the long view, then we may not be able to imagine solutions to those problems whether they be environmental, economic, political, or social. We are genetically or developmentally incapable of long-range planning when confronted with the serious changes the Earth is now creating that challenge our way of life.
Ironically while listening to Earth Day chatter on the radio, there were also daily reports from northern Europe (wittily labeled “Strandednavia” by one program) about the volcanic ash from Iceland grounding planes over most of Europe and stranding travelers in almost all parts of the world due to interconnected flight backups. My friend Barbara was caught in Belgium and emailed a number of us about her (and others’) frustrations. She queried us about what we should ask of Nature. Does the ash cloud need to stay? Is it proper to ask it to move on? It is a dilemma, she concluded, to know what to ask of Mother Nature.
The same week I was ruminating on these lines in Verse 6 in the Tao Te Ching, translated by Jonathan Star:
The Spirit of the Valley never dies
She is called the Hidden Creator
Although She becomes the whole universe
Her immaculate purity is never lost
Although She assumes countless forms
Her true identity remains intact
Whatever we see or don’t see
Whatever exists or doesn’t exist
Is nothing but the creation of this Supreme Power
So we return to the question of what should we ask of Her—Mother Nature, the Spirit of the Valley, the Hidden Creator, the Supreme Power. Because this Power manifests in diverse forms of life, we have to figure out ways to relate to the Life Force in all its diversity. And the countless forms that the Life Force takes sometimes collide with one another, and so we have collisions that we call earthquakes, forest fires, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, mud slides, flooded rivers, and volcanic ash hanging over a continent. Do we know, or can we imagine, what, if anything, is the right response to the great earth-shaping powers of the planet as they collide with each other and us? In some way we must discover how to listen in the midst of a collision, in the midst of Earth’s powers endlessly pulsating, endlessly creating.
In the previous River Current article I wrote about the Cro-Magnons relying on their spirit-view of life and the assistance that shamans were able to offer in moments of crisis and danger. One of the major responsibilities of shamans in all cultures is to interpret. Shamans explain to their peoples what is going on. So we are back to Barbara’s question: what is going on with this volcanic ash cloud? How can we answer Barbara, who is a shamanic practitioner herself committed to understanding the ways of the Earth?
We may never have all the answers, but we should not cease to look for them. If any type of person has the skill to take the long view, it should be shamans who can temporarily leave the present moment and place, and observe the situation from a more cosmic point of view. We ought to be able to find ways to honor and be present with the cosmic, earth-shaping Powers that we live with on this planet. They are earth-shaping and earth-sharing. And still the answers may not come. The Earth protects and guards her mysteries. She reveals herself slowly and at her own pace. But we must never cease to listen deeply to her.
Verse 6 concludes:
Listen to Her voice
Hear it echo through creation
Without fail, She reveals her presence
Without fail, She brings us to our own perfection
Praying and listening. Maybe the ash cloud is a reminder to stop where we are, pray, and listen. If we can pray and listen in our own shamanic ways, we may be able to live more intimately with the Hidden Creator. We may feel more comfortable with the collisions that bring disaster and suffering to us and other beings. We may even begin to imagine solutions to our problems (for they are really our problems, not Hers), and we’ll figure out ways to accept the various manifestations of the Life Force so that when they collide in the future we can manage and minimize the pain, suffering, and harm they cause us. We may even learn how to live well with this endlessly pulsating creation.
I am reminded that Native American traditions speak of making decisions in light of how they will effect seven generations from the present. Did native people somehow walk a different evolutionary path that allowed their brains to think long-range? Or is it not a question so much of how our brains develop, or how we think, but how close we live—or don’t live—with the Spirit of the Valley?