Ambassador from Earth

“Whereas we cannot make a blade of grass, there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless it is accepted, fostered and protected by humans. Protected mainly from ourselves so that the Earth can function.”

— Thomas Berry,
The Great Work

Cultural historian/eco-philosopher Thomas Berry speaks in a low and sometimes tremulous voice. But after 88 years, his passion for the earth is undiminished.

“For humans not to see the stars at night because of particle and light pollution is disgraceful,” he declared during a recent interview at his home in Greensboro. “It’s absurd to live in a world where you can’t see the stars. Or to live in a world where trees are diminished or wildlife is not available. … The most important thing is to recover the fragments of the natural world that have survived the [industrial] onslaught.”

WNC residents will have a chance to see and hear this eloquent environmental spokesperson at an upcoming conference in Black Mountain titled “EarthSpirit Rising: Earth Wisdom, Elder Wisdom” (see box).

One thing that sets Berry apart from other ecological thinkers is his background as a Catholic theologian, monk, historian and cultural scholar. That background, however, informs the very core of his message. His three most recent books — The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1988), The Great Work (Belltower, 1999) and The Universe Story (co-written with Brian Swimme — Harper, 1994) — all aim to re-situate the human community within the larger earth community. Berry believes our current environmental problems are symptoms of a deeper spiritual malaise, a damaged world-view that sees the natural world only in terms of use and profits. It’s a failing, says Berry, “that is healed as soon as we realize the universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited.”

Here in the United States, that confusion has been with us since the beginning. Berry says: “We wrote a Constitution based on freedom, participatory government, the rights to property and the use of property. In the Bill of Rights, the human was given all the basic rights, and anything not human had no rights and no defenses. When I say the Constitution of this country is a perfect prescription for destroying the planet, people think [of this document as] the soul of America. But it gives humans rights to do anything they wish with the natural world.”

Throughout most of human history, we lived intimately with all the other creatures in a world governed by seasonal cycles. The earth was a sacred presence — the source of life. Daily interactions with soil, trees, birds and animals kept us firmly grounded within the larger earth family even as they provided our food, water and stories. Just consider the abundance of Native American songs thanking the earth, the rain, the corn, the horse.

The Black Death that swept through Europe, killing a third of the population, marked the historical turning point, says Berry: That’s when Western civilization began to distance itself from nature. Because people had no concept of germs, they concluded that the natural world was evil and dangerous. Christianity began to emphasize the need to transcend the world rather than seeing Earth as a sacred reflection of the Creator.

The modern industrial age has taken exploitation of the natural world to unprecedented levels. Berry, born in 1914, has seen the industrial age burgeon and now, in his view, begin to collapse. “The industrial-extractive economy has lasted a century, but in that century, it has in a sense destroyed itself. It has not achieved its objective of solving the basic human problems; rather, it has created more problems. It has also withdrawn humans from the great human experiences,” Berry laments. “We live now in a prefabricated world, in a mechanistic contrived world, and we have to make our living in it. We no longer have our basic experiences within the natural world.” In other worlds, many grow up, give birth, live and die surrounded by a built environment rather than the living earth.

Modern humans live at such a remove from earth’s systems that we can forget how utterly dependent we are on those ecological processes for our survival. In The Great Work, Berry contrasts this modern way of being with that practiced by “indigenous peoples [who] know their region. They must know where the food is … where the medicinal plants are found. … Our studies in ecology must lead to such intimacy with our natural surroundings. Only intimacy can save us from our present commitment to a plundering industrial economy,” Berry writes.

Indeed, this loss of daily interaction with the natural world may be changing the very meaning of being human. To Berry, the earth’s incredible variety of landscapes and creatures is the source of the rich human imagination. If we lived on the moon, he says, both our language and our imaginative life would reflect the barren moonscape.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the bleak industrial landscape fails to satisfy the human imagination, much less the human heart. The factory owner’s home is not positioned to command a panoramic view of the factory out the picture window.

“Lack of fulfillment is what has driven the century,” says Berry. The industrial age “has sought fulfillment in the use of the planet, not in the delight of the planet. It has destroyed that which it was seeking. It has led us into a technological wonder world, but it took us away from a more significant wonder world: the vital, organic, living world.”

For Berry, significance comes down to soul. “The difference between spirit and soul is that spirit is not essentially related to body. Soul is the vital principle of a living, organic body,” Berry explains. “And the test of a vital world has to do with children. What kind of world do children really like? They can get fascinated with mechanical things for a while if they don’t know anything else. … But basically, it doesn’t nourish their vital emotional aesthetic — their soul.” It’s hard to imagine the most beloved children’s tales without the ever-present animal characters — lions and tigers and bears indeed.

Berry’s own awakening to the power of nature came early. At age 11, he found a beautiful field of wild irises at the edge of a creek, bathed in sunshine. That powerful, magical moment set the tone for Berry’s lifework. “It was not a conscious thing that happened just then,” he writes. “Yet as the years pass, the moment returns to me. … Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion.”

Berry will be both a presenter and a presence at the Black Mountain conference. The organizers apply the term “earth elder” to anyone — regardless of age — who can help our culture reconnect with the planet. Berry, however, takes the literal role of elder very seriously. In The Great Work, he acknowledges that there are many old people but few true elders. “My generation,” writes Berry, “has been an autistic generation in its inability to establish any intimate rapport with the natural world.”

“I don’t think older people have thought about their role in it all,” mused Berry during our interview. “I think they are too overwhelmed by all the razzle-dazzle of the modern world. It’s a kind of hypnosis, a kind of a mental overwhelming of the elderly.” But claiming the role and responsibility of elder is a vitally important one to Berry. “I think this movement, to have elders in a guiding role, is a very good move,” he says. “As I envisage it, the older people should give us a sense of an organic world.”

But whatever our age, we need guidance to learn to live within the limits of the earth’s capabilities. Our next breath, our next meal, our next healthy day all come by the grace of the living planet. Yet our species continues to mine, clear-cut and poison as if we grew our food and oxygen in some other corner of the galaxy and had it delivered here.

There is a different way, however. What Berry calls “a moment of grace” is the briefest interval in which we can restore our healing, intimate connection with the earth — and begin The Great Work.

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