You Belong

It was raining softly at the end of our school day. After donning boots and jackets, we stepped outside to find dark spots forming and evaporating on the flagstone. The wind howled. As we walked the half-mile to Moose Crossing, our drop-off and pick-up spot, the kids feigned irritation. Rain. So bothersome. So wet. It was, I knew, joy on their lips, but the uninitiated sometimes hear complaint.

At Moose Crossing, there wasn’t a car in sight. The rain hadn’t grown heavy, but the sky was dark and luminous. Everywhere, gusts of wind picked up patches of dust and hurled them at us, adding a touch of caramel to the blues and greens in the distant mountains. Along the walk, the dappled collection of raindrops on the front of my pants had slowly expanded into a damp softness. No one was cold.

A small juniper sat across the road in a ditch. Other than that, endless miles of waist-height sage extended in every direction. It’s so easy to see emptiness here. The kids wasted no time in parting the boughs.

It’s such a small thing, embarrassing really. A few children and a young man got a little wet, then ducked inside a tree. That’s it. That’s the whole story. From the outside, it’s almost unnoticeable, a hedge of impenetrable unimportance. The eye has difficulty seeing it. It presents itself as one thing, a sphere of inconsequence, a discomfort even, a nothing. But you worm right through those guys, and suddenly you’re inside something entirely new and unexpected.

Look at the ground! It was covered six to eight inches deep with needles in various stages of decay – all the way from last year to half a century ago. Dig into it. It was striated like growth rings, soft like a mattress. What appeared to be a solid tree turned out to be rather spacious inside, sort of hollow, an empty ball of needle-like thorns that are no longer a nothing, but an inside with roof and walls. There are kids in here. It’s not waterproof. It’s a shelter that breathes and protects and moves with each gust of wind.

Raindrops landed outside. Inside, we had berries. They were milky blue, unlike any other blue in the world. Purple really, except there is an invisible yeast that becomes visible in great numbers as a soft white powder on their surfaces. It’s the same thing that’s on grapes and apples. The powdery yeast casts the dark purple berries in a white three-dimensional haze so that there is a depth of color, not one color, but a surface of color that smudges off in your fingertips. If you collect a few hundred of these berries and fill a small crack in the earth, a nowhere sort of place never before visited by human eyes, or perhaps visited by every human eye on the planet, the earth will suddenly ripple with delicate contour, much like your fingerprints, accented by dozens of tiny purple-blue berries all covered in yeasts. The earth is brown.

I once went for a long walk. About an hour from home, the storm clouds that had been swirling around me finally broke and I began to get wet. I picked up my pace in the hope of getting home before I was soaked.

Then I stopped. I dropped the tension in my shoulders and simply let the rain fall onto my body. I took a deep breath. As my chest expanded, my belly filled the wet garment of my shirt and I wondered - why do I hide from this? Who is fleeing whom? I stood still, listening to the multicolored earth. The storm grew heavy and the once dry mesa swelled with rosy-brown trickles. Water dripped through my hair, down my face, and soaked my shirt and pants to the skin. My underwear was wet. My butt was wet. The backs of my thighs, my feet, shoes and socks. This is what cold feels like. This is my thirty-eight year old body feeling cold. I’m magnificent, aren’t I?

Half a mile back, the mountain goats I had seen with their excitable new kids were standing in the same rain. Warm blood filled their bellies. Nostrils flared. I can no longer tell if this is boring. I don’t think it’s smart, insightful, or even good. It’s just simple.

That’s what captured me in the moment with the kids. Simplicity. It wasn’t exciting or unhappy. It was just raining. There was a tree, and without any fanfare or hesitation they walked inside. It was so natural to them. These kids, who have spent years now in a school that is largely out of doors. They know how to read the landscape. They act. Nature isn’t a burden to them. It’s home.

I found a story recently. I had been looking for a long time, so I wasn’t surprised when I found it. It’s going to take me three years to write it, but I’ll share a sneak preview with you. It goes like this - you belong.

From a human perspective, it’s understandable to think that we polluted the earth. But from a whole-earth perspective, the apes have no right to tell us what’s wrong. If people are simply a part of the earth, and there’s more and more evidence that this is the case, then there’s room for the fact that the earth isn’t innocent.

Do you know what stromatolites are? They formed billions of years ago, when the earth was still very young. Some of the earliest forms of life, they are basically pools of bacteria that, in that incongruous way of the planet, formed crusty boogers in the eyes and ears of the sea. For billions of years these bacteria, by far the longest period of life on earth, ate rocks and sunlight and passed gas. That’s the polite phrase my dad used for fart, and it’s why the planet has an atmosphere.

It took another billion years for other creatures to turn that atmosphere into one that you and I can breathe, but those stromatolites were critical. I can’t live for more than a couple minutes without exchanging breath with those ancient creatures. Just sitting. In tide pools and stuff. This was before there were fish, or organisms that had spines, brains or even two cells. Billions of years. Most of them died.

You belong. That’s the new story. The rest of it goes like this: the earth is whole. If you play the record backwards, it sounds like this: the earth isn’t broken. That’s the way a lot of us need to hear it these days, but if you play it forward you get: the earth is whole.

I live in a social world where many people are concerned about the future of the planet for a mix of environmental and political reasons. I too like the planet, and question some of its politics, but I don’t subscribe to the astringency common in a lot of human circles. The Occupy Movement was a good example. I resonated with some of its values, but I took immediate exception to the 99% versus 1% language. That is the old story, which is that there are good people and bad people, and it’s us versus them. I’m interested in the new story, which is you belong. The earth is whole. We’re 100%.

The old story creates trouble by dividing people, first amongst themselves, and then against the earth. No matter what side of the division you’re on, there’s bad guys on the other side. But human nature is such that if you tell me I’m evil or wrong, then I have the tendency to disagree and we have an argument. The new story includes the 1%, or whoever the bad guys are, because we (the 100%) can’t afford to have bad guys out there. You belong.

The old story also pits us against the earth. Most of us are beginning to reject the idea of outright dominion, but many are still focused on fixing the problem dominion created. What’s the problem? The earth. I might put it this way – if we’re trying to fix something, then we have to see it as broken, or wrong. I’m not willing to look at the earth that way anymore. People live on it. No one saw this coming. Not the trees, not god, not the people. We’re all just here, doing this. Having problems. There’s nothing wrong with that. This is just how it goes. People are born. Apocalypses come and go. It’s the vision that fails, never the earth.

What’s happening to the planet is real. It’s important, and we should pay attention. But it’s not our fault. Humans aren’t the problem, but if you tell them that they are then they will be. This is just what happens to the earth when it fills itself with living creatures.

This does not mean that we’re blameless, just that we don’t have dominion over the earth, so we don’t have any standing with which to fix it. In the legal system it’s called jurisdiction. We do not have jurisdiction over the earth. Because it’s not separate. The earth is whole. You belong.

Here’s what we do have: choice. That’s the final chapter of the story. You belong. The earth is not broken. You have a choice. I’m going to rewrite this story till I have it right. Not true, mind you, but useful. I hope somebody beats me to it.

I have been wrestling with my death for years. I want to be at peace with it, not because I go to heaven but because I end. I might be fooling myself, but I believe I’ve gained that peace. As long as I’m alive, I feel an obligation to share the goodwill I’ve been gifted with, but when I die it will be no great loss.

As the father of a seven-year-old, I now face a more difficult question. I love her so deeply that I have tears as I write this. She’s the one I’m writing for. And her kids. And their kids. I’m asking myself to face her death, and not just in the future, but right now. What if my seven-year-old daughter died right now? That grieves me well beyond the idea of the loss of my own life.

I don’t make a practice of dwelling on this, but I face it occasionally because I like what’s real. I don’t fear it. I want my daughter to live a long and fruitful life, and it’s likely she will. But young people die. They actually die more frequently than middle-aged folks. It’s just the truth of life. A sparrow is far more likely to die before fledgling than at any time after.

For many years I sensed that my daughter’s death would be a great loss – to me, to her, to the planet. It would be a failure of sorts, a not-quite-made-it. Something about it would be wrong. That’s why I sat with it so much. The emotional content made it clear that it was important. As I brought the subject to the light of consciousness, I began to see that I would not have lost something. I would have gained all those years with this precious being. It wouldn’t be wrong. It would be right. A human isn’t destined to be thirty-five or seventy-eight. A seven-year-old is a wonder. So is an infant. Life is fulfilled in the very moment of being alive.

This is the attitude with which I want to approach death. This is the attitude with which I want to approach life. It is, I believe, the bearing which will help us escape the problematization of the earth, of plastic, and of humans. It will not take away the pain. I will cry my face off if my daughter dies. I will tear my hair and the walls of my house. I’m not going out quietly. But I won’t allow anyone to see it as a loss. It’s something we’ve gained. We gained that life. Then it ended.

These are the creatures that are coming in 1,000,000 years. There will be billions of us, maybe starfish and sparrows too. We’ll all be in as much pain as we are today. There will be scars all over the planet. But we will share the light of consciousness with each other in richer and deeper ways. The best word we have for it so far is love.

When that loving consciousness gets shared, the planet’s creatures will spontaneously stop wasting resources and fighting needlessly. Resources will still get wasted, and creatures will still fight for them, but the majority will see the futility of excess wealth and materialism. We’ll see that the real value of life is in sharing this consciousness, or love, and it will be plain as day. No one will value a huge bank account over a neighborhood of love and connection. And the 99% won’t want the money back. They’ll want to share the love they have, because they want the 1% to be happy like they are. Like we are.

And they won’t even be people! They’ll be different creatures altogether. Those are the folks we have to live for right now. We’re like stromatolites puffing out little pockets of awareness so that we can build an atmosphere for the future of life.

You belong. The earth is whole. You have a choice.

It’s such a small thing, embarrassing really. From the outside, it’s almost unnoticeable, a hedge of impenetrable unimportance. The eye has difficulty seeing it. It presents itself as one thing, a sphere of inconsequence, a discomfort even, a nothing. But you worm right through those guys, and suddenly you’re inside something entirely new and unexpected.

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