An Altar in the Wilderness, by Kaleeg Hainsworth (Rocky Mountain Books, 2014) is grounded in the literary, philosophical, mystical and historical teachings of the spiritual masters of both East and West, outlining the human experience of the sacred in nature. The spiritual ecology described here is fully engaged with the wilderness beyond our backyard. It is an ecology that takes in nature as “red in tooth and claw” and offers a way forward in the face of accelerating climate change. This manifesto also challenges our modern self-conception as dominators or stewards of the natural world, claiming these roles emerged from Western industrial history and are directly responsible for the environmental damage and alienation from nature we see today.
Sacrament and Ecology
The first time I realized that the universe had something to say to me, I was 12 years old and hiking in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains. My family and I had spent a long weekend trekking to a remote lake high in the alpine, reached only by a steep shale traverse up a mountain pass. The pass presented itself only at the end of an already long day of hiking and climbing it seemed to take forever. When the trail levelled, however, and the view opened, my eyes widened at the sight waiting for us. An alpine meadow stretched as far as I could see, flanked by two snowy peaks and crammed with red paintbrushes, purple crocuses, blue forget-me-nots and shooting stars. The wildflowers were bright with sun under a wide blue sky and swaying this way and that in the haphazard breezes from the slopes. There are moments in life that are different from any other; they seem fixed in time and history, like waypoints in a journey. We arrive at them without warning, stumbling, and depart a different person with new purpose, with transformed vision and self-revelation. I had seen such beauty before, but in this moment I suddenly felt like Keats’s “Watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”
What I had stumbled into as a dorky pre-teen boy was indeed a new planet, not a different one, but I saw this planet through eyes of wonder and awe. I remembered a quote I saw on a greeting card as a boy that claimed, “If we would see this world as the angels do, we would be ravished and enraptured as the angels are.” I was seeing like his angels and wondering how I could have missed until now the radiant inner world around me. I say inner world, but perhaps inter-world would be a better spatial designation. This world, of which I had known only the natural part until now, was as much a revelation of individual elements as one of a complex network of relatedness. Each flower seemed to proclaim itself, but in relation to all the other flowers and the scenery in general. Everything around me was communicating and I felt invited to join the conversation. “It is a blessed thing,” observed John Muir, “to go free in the light of this beautiful world, to see God playing upon everything as on an instrument, His fingers upon the lightning and torrent, on every wave of sea and sky, and every living thing, making all together sing and shine in sweet accord, the one love-harmony of the Universe.”
This “see[ing] God playing upon everything as on an instrument” is essentially seeing the world as sacramental and is vital to spiritual ecology. I know well that the word “sacrament” is most often associated with Christianity and it certainly has a lot of baggage that goes with it. But spiritual ecology, indeed spirituality in general, is nothing without it. Simply put, a sacrament is something that reveals the sacred. The alpine flowers I witnessed in the Kananaskis were a sacrament, as was the wind in that valley. Perhaps to the flowers and the wind I was a sacrament too. Everything was communicating something of itself, and that something was inherently sacred.
If We Listen, We Thrive
The key message here is that nature is communicating constantly. The genius of Indigenous spirituality is that it understands this and listens. The “voices” of the great bear or the caribou, the salmon or the eagle, are vitally important to survival; indeed, these voices speak to us and can even help reveal our identities to us. In Eric Collier’s classic memoir Three Against the Wilderness, about being a pioneering family in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia, there is a description of a wise old First Nations woman with whom he converses about where to settle and how. In this wonderful piece of reportage, we have a first-hand picture of the kind of wisdom these Native peoples, so much a part of the land, possess:
Tucked away within the recesses of Lala’s wise old mind was a veritable storehouse of knowledge concerning the land as it was when the white man first came to it. Though she knew nothing of biology as printed in any book, the everyday chores of an era when she and the others of her tribe were entirely reliant upon the wildlife resources of the land had brought her into almost daily contact with the complex laws of Nature. Lala knew well of the seven kind years and the seven lean years, and her knowledge was not gleaned from a Bible. The interplay of the cycles that have such paramount bearing upon the fortunes of all wildlife communities was as familiar to Lala as the letters of the alphabet to a child of civilization. If Lala’s biological knowledge came to her from the campus of the wilderness itself, she could not perhaps have attended a better school of learning.
I wish the churches would listen more to this kind of spirituality. Indeed, I wish the churches would listen more in general! Father Alexander Schmemann, a well-known Russian theologian, asked in one of his journals, “what is there to talk about so much in Christianity, and what for?” What colonial spirituality needs to learn (among other things) from the faith traditions of the First Nations is simply this: stop telling people things and listen to what the natural world is telling us. Theirs is a journey from a human isolation to a harmony with the natural world. I have always picked up a sense from their stories and rituals that it is nature, and not humans, that is the real authority. It speaks to us, and if we listen, we thrive; if we do not, we die. One thing is clear: listening is love in action. We must love the world God created and lean in to hear his voice in it.
Plenty of Other Nice Valleys
I recently overheard a revealing conversation between a young engineer and an older builder/contractor at the racquet club where I play squash. They had just finished their game and were chatting within my earshot outside the court. The older man asked what the other’s summer plans were. The engineer replied that he was heading into the interior of British Columbia to work on a new dam. The older man offered congratulations to the engineer on his first major gig since graduating from engineering school at university. The engineer, however, was more reserved. He said he had visited the place where they were going to build the dam and he was struck by the beauty of the valleys and forests that would soon be submerged by the new lake he would help to create. The other man was dismissive in his reply, telling him this was a necessary loss for progress, adding that “there are too many wacky environmentalists getting in the way anyway.” But the engineer had more to say. He agreed the dam needed to be built to meet the power needs of British Columbians and the Americans who would be buying some of the power generated by it. But he returned again to how beautiful this valley actually was. He spoke as if haunted by it, as if a voice from the valley were calling to him and he yearned to listen but felt he couldn’t.
“Plenty of other nice valleys, though,” the contractor said, and with that the young engineer jumped back with both feet into his life path. He was an engineer, after all, and couldn’t get distracted by these things.
The older man was right, of course. There are plenty of other nice valleys, and it is a ludicrous position to suggest that we not build a dam (and therefore withhold the jobs and the revenues it will bring) just because something is beautiful. What really struck me, though, was the contrast between the pragmatic voice of progress and the still, small voice speaking to the conscience of the engineer. The pragmatism held all the power, but really the small voice was, and is in general, a reaction to the more primal human sense of responsibility to the natural world. In other words, the older man’s pragmatism was used to quell the younger one’s innate desire to listen to what the valley he was about to help submerge had to say. It is far from ludicrous to suggest that something be preserved for its beauty. There may be more nice valleys, but none are this nice valley.
In fact, this nice valley is the only one of its kind in the universe. We have developed powerful defence mechanisms against, and justifications to subdue, our impulse to listen to the sacred in our world. But it is naive to think that beauty is a luxury we can really afford to sacrifice for energy. What if this engineer followed his heart into the beauty speaking to him from the valley? Remember how Native spirituality listens to nature as a course of survival? It is very reasonable to say that if he had followed it, he might have found other ways to generate power or perhaps discovered a reason why the valley was crucial to the ecosystems around it. Who knows? But listening to the voice calling us to deeper engagement in any course of life is always better than the defences and justifications we throw up to ignore it. I’m not saying don’t build dams, and I, like anyone, support jobs and revenue. I’m saying that the whole thrust of modern Western life ignores, and is manufactured to ignore, spiritual ecology with its sacramental vision. I’m saying that we are so inoculated to the sacred voices of nature that we consider them either imaginary or irrelevant or both. And finally, I’m saying that listening will certainly make us vulnerable to change, but what we hear will only benefit us in the long run.
Reprinted with permission from An Altar in the Wilderness by Kaleeg Hainsworth and published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2014.