The deepening darkness of this season demands an answer for how we hope. Where do we find the winged imagination for a perception of lengthening light? For what have you hoped, and where is that placed? Is hope amorphous, without shape and form, or does it take on the color of a local landscape? I believe that much of hope is rooted in an intrinsic understanding that, “We are, where we are.” “I am where I am.” Simple sounding, yes, but this is really quite profound and lays the foundational groundwork for a rewilding vision of re-membering our hope, our selves, back into the deep and wise mysteries that are made evident through the cycles of our precious planet and our cosmic neighborhood. This kind of re-membering requires a connection with and within the natural world; to be exposed to, and experience, the integral ecology of which we are a part.
This is the process of developing an understanding that our particular place helps us know who we are, where we are, and to an extent, why we are. And this particular place-or bioregion- becomes what historian and theologian Thomas Berry called a primary referent. It becomes the lens through which we make decisions on behalf of our community. It provides a critical placement through which all of life is lived, including institutions, establishments, communities and neighborhoods.
Berry identifies this concept of a primary referent through the story of when he was twelve years old his family moved to the edge of town. Down from the new home was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. He writes in his essay, “The Meadow Across the Creek":
“It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.
It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do. Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet, as the years pass, this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life.”
This early experience, what Berry refers to as a primary referent, became his normative lens. Whatever preserved and enhanced this meadow in its natural, biodiverse cycles was good; what was opposed to this meadow or negated it was not good. His life orientation was that simple and pervasive. It applied in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion and whatever.
The more a person is invited to be in the presence of, and reflect upon, the infinite number of interrelated activities and relationships occurring in our natural environments, the more mysterious it all becomes; the more meaning a person finds in the early flowering of the Indian Plum, the more awestruck a person might be in simply walking within and through the simple patch of Cheasty Greenspace's urban forest. It is none of the majesty of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Olympus, none of the immensity of the Salish Sea; yet in the Cheasty woods, a greenspace that has been transformed into a greenPLACE, the magnificence of life as celebration and connection is manifested and witnessed.
Space becomes place that has the capacity to be remembered and to evoke attention and care.
And so the slow and laborious work of changing the narrative of this particular stand of trees from one of separation into connection began. There was a deeply held hope that this land could be where children are. The place of children—where the play, where they inhabit, where they are—is one of the most potent indicators of how urban life is conceived and practiced. But there was also deep hope that as a result of coming alongside of these woods in solidarity, the children of our neighborhood would know this urban forest as their primary referent; that the interrelated health and well-being of this place would inform their own wellness and the general health of the city. Communion with the woods would be their own rewilding.
And now, before the weather turns, the children know in what seasonal direction it is going because of signs in the forest. They know when a red tailed hawk is about, as they’ve learned the signaling raucous calls of the crows; they then can turn their face upwards in time to witness the soaring, awe-inspiring flight and hear its exhilirating screech. They know the unique sound of the wind in various trees. They get anxious if life gets too busy and they cannot escape into this local hinterland to play and be. They removed blackberry and ivy. And as they began to dig up the invasive roots, they began to plant their own. Hundreds upon hundreds of trees have been planted alongside their sense of belonging. They now have feelings that spur action anticipating how governmental deregulation may impact the seasonal spring that flows through Cheasty’s snowberry meadow. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
Because they know this place, because they now can identify so thoroughly with it, they know themselves and their web of interrelated relationships more fully. French mystic Simone Weil once said,
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
They are, where they are. We are, where we are. You are, where you are.
This embedded relationship with a wilderness place is where hope resides. From here is where the imagination springs. An imagination that sees the connection between the health of a place and the health of a person, of a people, of a neighborhood. Here we come to know again the patterns and rhythms of the natural world, foundational ways of being. An remembered vision for how the health of an urban forest participates and forms the health of its surrounding biosphere-its ecology, its biodiversity, of which humanity is a part, cracks the light of hope into these winter-solsticing days.
What is your meadow experience? Reflect on a place that perhaps is your primary referent. It would be a place that at one time provided a profound sense of awe and wonder, and in some significant way, formed who you are. You became apart of this place as much as it became a part of you.