Justine Huxley reflects on St Ethelburga’s most recent online retreat, on the themes of solidarity, and the courage and resilience that come with a long-term vision.
“The sun filters through the leaves of the venerable old oak tree that graces my garden. I can hear the sound of children playing, and goldfinches congregating by the feeder. Today, inbetween bouts of quiet gardening, I’m digesting the fruits of our most recent deep adaptation and resilience retreat. Our aim was to explore the place where climate breakdown and racial injustice meet. It’s challenging work. We gather those brave enough to look the possibility of human extinction in the eye, walk ourselvse into a future of transition through collapse, and witness the plight of those in the Global South whose lives are being wrecked. We ask the questions, what does it mean to prepare for this future – and how can we stand in solidarity with those already in the firing line.
Dark work, but full of a strange, powerful joy. As Joanna Macy says, “When we dare to face the cruel social and ecological realities we have been accustomed to, courage is born and powers within us are liberated to reimagine…”
What’s left in my heart is a single image. Green shoots emerging from the black, charred remains after a wildfire.
When I first came to St Ethelburga’s, articulating a vision for a better world seemed easy. Like looking out of a window onto a green, harmonious valley. Now that seems naive. We may need to live through generations of disintegration. We, and those who come after us, may need to witness crops failing, seas rising, migration on a scale we have never seen before, the breakdown of our political and economic systems, tribal wars and mass starvation before those green shoots can be born from the blacked landscapes of our world.
To hope it won’t come to that, is to risk ‘hopium’, the passifying optimism that convinces us everything will be OK, that technology or the second coming, will save us in time. As leaders, if we are not brave enough or responsible enough to consider worst case scenarios in our planning, this is the drug we trade in. But when we look all the way into the abyss, what happens to our vision? Is it shattered? Or does a different source of hope become available to us?
Reflecting on our retreat, I senses two fundamental shifts taking place, within myself and others involved in this work.
Firstly, a new time frame. If we step back and zoom out, in a vastly expanded horizon we have access to a different vision. Focusing on own lifetime no longer serves us. More sustaining is to build a bridge across the years, to several generations ahead, when, God willing, this old civilisation will have released us from its dying grip of greed. We can envisage a time when the destruction has ceased, then perhaps our Earth can breathe again and begin to regenerate. Perhaps then a new society – as yet unimagined – a post-growth, post-colonial, post dualistic civilisation, can take hold. This is where my vision now resides. The task is to form a living, meaningful link with those future ones, resourcing them, transmitting what is essential across the decades into their hands and hearts. We are one part of a chain that may take a century or more to bridge the era of collapse, like Monarch butterflies, who despite their fragility, can migrate thousands of miles, but only across many generations.
Stepping into this expanded time frame, is also about reaching backwards too, through the millennia, back to the time before the worldview of separation and domination twisted the way we think about race and warped our relationship with Earth. Back to the ‘original instructions’ of the indigenous ones, to the time before our fall, when human beings lived with the knowing of creation as sacred. This knowing is precious beyond measure – beyond all our technological advancements and the ways of ‘progress’. In the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome, many knowledges were lost, and had to be relearned. This deeper wisdom of how to live in right relationship with each other and the natural world, the role human spirituality and stewardship play – this is the cardinal gift we have to give to the future ones. The countless new ways this ancient wisdom is being lived, in small regenerative projects around the world, often led by the younger generation, these are the seeds we must protect at all costs.
Zooming out also means to awaken to a truly global perspective, to shift away from being concerned primarily about what will happen in our own countries when the climate tipping points kick in. Instead we can hold attention inwardly on the many millions of people around the world already living through climate breakdown, many of them the least responsible for the carbon emissions causing the damage. We can begin to feel our way into this most essential question – what it means to think and act in solidarity as a whole human family. Rather than being overwhelming, identifying with the whole can be a much-needed source of resilience. By stretching our hearts wide enough to be walking with the Honduran climate refugees, feeling the hunger of the Kenyan farmers whose crops are decimated by locusts, or grieving the lost children in Yemen, we may come to know our liberation is bound up with each other, and seeing through the lens of our singular life is a choice that simply limits us.
If what I care about is my individual survival, my lifespan, protecting myself and my loved ones, holding on to my privileges and my way of life, then the next few decades could be unbearable. If my activism and my prayer have a panoramic view – telescoping back to the time when Earth was sacred, forward to the time when a new way of life might rise from the ashes, and stretching wide into the knowing that we are One Earth – then maybe I can source the fierce joy and inner resilience that belong to those who have put self-concern aside.
The second shift I sensed, reflecting on our retreat process, was about trust in cycles of death and birth. Long before man-made global heating, wildfires were part of a forest’s natural regeneration system. We know some seeds, like fire poppy and eucalyptus, lie dormant for years and only germinate in the aftermath of a fire. The Earth is in constant cycles of disintegration and regeneration. It is an archetype of human psychology, that destruction heralds inner transformation, expressed for example in the tarot deck as ‘the tower’, where an edifice struck by lightning clears the ground for a new cycle. We have many myths and stories that demonstrate this archetype on a collective scale, such as the story of Noah.
One story I am fond of repeating is told by the biologist, Elizabet Sahtouris, about the Precambrian era when Earth was home to a primeaval soup of unicellular organisms. These ancient precursors of life as we know it, faced some surprisingly familiar challenges. Over time, they polluted and colonised their environment, degraded their resources and brought the entire ecosystem to the brink of extinction. Eventually they learned how to collaborate, taking a phenomenal evolutionary leap, which led to the first multi-cellular life forms. That step didn’t come easily however. They were all but wiped out several times before succeeding, and this process took millions of years . So it’s a story that can put our own in perspective!
If we are prepared to put our trust in the Earth and the ancient rhythms behind creation, we can tap into a different source of hope. Greta Thunberg says, “It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take a fierce determination to act now to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take “cathedral thinking”
Cathedral thinking suggests building up, layer by layer. But perhaps we need to also change our relationship with destruction., to welcome transition through collapse. Can we allow the empire of greed and exploitation to crumble – both the outward systems and also their reflection inside us? Sometimes we can morph seamlessly from one way of doing things to another – and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes there needs first to be a complete dismantling of what has become corrupt. The short-term space where structures have falled, is full of potential and opportunities to reorganise, such as redesigning our financial system in the wake of Covid’s economic haitus. With the intelligence of natural cycles, can we set our sights further to the horizons and begin to trust this process of raising what no longer serves us to the ground?
Our task then becomes to plant seeds- in our lands, in our communities, and in our own hearts and minds. Seeds that can germinate after the fire. Just as the Svalbard global seed vault is designed to protect seeds through extreme conditions, we need seed banks of many kinds, capable of protecting what is essential to life.
Yes, we need to seize the opportunities the pandemic and the first hints of collapse are providing us with to re-engineer the foundations of our society. And alongside that we also need this longer-term view. We cannot survive without the inner resilience, the inner light, of a numinous shared vision. We need those prepared to dig, to plant, to organise, to care. We also need those who can keep the flames of a vision alive – fire tenders, myth makers, prophetic leaders, storytellers, afrofuturists – those who can form a bridge to a future, as yet unimagined, a future free of the exploitation and extraction that cloud our collective seeing now.
As I weed my vegetable patch and clear ivy from under the trees, these are the questions I’m left with. How can we come together, to quicken this link with the ancestors and the future ones? How do we get intimate with the archetypes of death and rebirth, breathe life into the symbols and stories of regeneration, and pass them, like a hidden olympic flame, from generation to generation? How do we nourish the seeds of the fire poppy?
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