Listening in Place as Practice & Poetry-A Workshop with David Whyte


On Saturday, March 3 I had the opportunity to do a workshop with the cultural luminary, David Whyte through The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology's Alumni Lecture Series. Following are some of the thoughts and themes that came through our sharing, interaction, and play.


When we listen deeply to the places that create our homescapes, our bioregions, we learn the stories of the land and create an imagination for how to mutually belong within these places. This practice of listening becomes a ritual in that it connects us to the great belonging within the community of creation, and also invites the Spirit to break in afresh, posturing us forward toward possibilities of a flourishing future. These are acts of remembrance and re-membering, practices that remind us of our interrelationship with the more-than-human world and bring us back into membership within this assembly. 

The practice of listening in place will ultimately draw forth sorrow and lament, especially when one begins to attune to the silence of the beings (biodiversity) that are no longer there. How do we respond when the natural world no longer functions with resilience, when the bird’s song is still and the forests no longer refresh after the fires?

Where is the habitat of hope when the ice melts, the seas rise, and the forests burn? Can we find it in the silence? Will the still small voice call from within the wilderness, calling us to lean deeper into the silence and there find our true belonging?  

Ecotheologian and ethicist Larry Rasmussen says it this way,

“We are not so much at home on earth, as we are home as earth.”

The integrity of the natural world renders our most basic and fundamental task: to live in such ways that ensure a flourishing and regenerative life for all of the created world and for all future generations within it. So how we live in our particular places does matter as we are meant to be in deep relationship with the whole assembly of creation. David Whyte's poetry guided us into an imagination for this relationship, a kind of dialogue with the natural world and the particularity of place that transforms one's soul. He spoke of this growing sense of interrelationship as a journey, a pilgrimage that would ultimately lead one to and through the most fundamental questions of life. 


For me, my practice of of listening to my place has brought me to and through a question and process of acknowledging how my understanding of stewardship was based on superiority. My decades long urban forest restoration work hit a false floor; for me to continue to learn from this land, I had to engage in not just restoration, but personal deconstruction. And so I began the work of learning how my Whiteness granted me the privilege of choice to move to the Rainier Valley, and allowed my access to systems to change land policy. I had to confront the reality that white supremacy allowed me to be a steward of this land. And that even the theological idea of stewardship was one based on hierarchy, dominion, and power. I learned about how the oppression of the earth and the oppression of people are two sides of the same coin—you will not have liberation of one without the liberation of the other. My practice led me into important times of learning from tribal elders, who taught me that the land speaks. They showed me how they listen to the land. I began to realize that my understanding of stewardship had actually caused me to become deaf to the sacred soils of my particular place. 

Stewarding this forest would only allow so much access to the spirit of this place. I had to begin the work, the practice of perceiving and participating within my bioregion. Bioregionalism is what environmental activist and poet Gary Snyder calls the “Spirit of Place.” To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is a whole. I began to reconstruct my understanding of Cheasty through a whole perspective, leaning into the wisdom and teaching inherent in the land. It is this process of listening into a place, or perception and participation of a place, that will reveal sacred stories and ultimately encourage a move towards solidarity and a deep sense of belonging within our bioregion. Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways.

Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place and it must be grounded in information and experience. Learning about the forest through the lens of sacred and storied ecology has not only taught me about the land, it has taught me how to be human and a member of an ecological community.

The lessons of the forest are those humanity need most right now. 


Within this practice of knowing, we can find our habitat of hope. A habitat of hope acknowledges the suffering that Western stewardship has wielded that has resulted in the silencing and extinction of species, and it invites a new way of seeing, a new way of being that is in solidarity with the natural world. It is Aldo Leopold’s think like a mountain. I’ve found it as I’ve begun to think like a forest. It is looking at the landscape through the lenses of foundational power, intersectional engagement, and revelatory awareness so to bring us into a profound sense of home and belonging as the earth.

 Through this workshop, David and I attempted to bring these lessons to the participants. We brought in elements from my homescape, lowland urban forest plants that were honorably harvested for workshop attendees to co-create nature mandalas, an activity that encourages a way of meeting and knowing the natural world that invites communion and revelatory understanding. The 13th century Japanese Buddhist priest, write, poet, and philosopher Dōgen once said,

“When you find your place where you are, practice occurs.” 

The mandala, which is ancient Sanskrit for “circle,” is a symbolic circular design that portrays balance, symmetry, and wholeness. Mandalas are found in almost every culture, and can serve as a sacred reminder of the path we seek to walk. My nature mandalas, which I co-create monthly, are a continuing practice of learning the land—connecting to the plant and tree life that make up my homescape, learning from them of the medicine and food they offer, leaning into their seasonal stories, remembering our interrelatedness and meant-for-ness. This is a practice of forming what theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger calls an ecological perception of place. That is, a practice to get to know your ecology by becoming familiar over time with as many components of your ecology as you can. In other words, this is a practice of learning to listen and attune to storied and sacred land.

 And so this workshop was one that brought us through the terrain of our imagination, a journey that led us to participate with the sacredness that is within the wild world that exists all around us. It was a time of inviting a profound shift in how we understand ourselves in relationship with the environment that values it for its inherent integrity and particular revelatory qualities.

I am deeply grateful to The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology for inviting me into this opportunity to share of my experience and learning, and to David for his willingness to share space with me in this context. May we all be inspired to engage this deep work of practicing listening in place! 

Are you curious about co-creating nature mandalas as a spiritual practice? Read more about this way of learning with the land here!