Ideally we all would grow up with a legacy that teaches the beauty and mystery of the natural world and the connection of all beings. Some of that legacy is passed on in Bay Area writer Charlene Spretnak’s recent book States of Grace. Ms. Spretnak, known for her contributions to the women’s spirituality and Green movements, presents teachings from Buddhism, Native American traditions and Goddess spirituality as well as the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions as medicine for our current ecological and spiritual disease.
Here’s one example: a series of riddles from the Koyukon Athabaskan people of Alaska. These riddles, revealing a playful and focused interaction with the natural world, are passed to us by Ms. Spretnak who received them from Richard Nelson (Make Prayers to the Raven):
Wait, I see something: We are sitting all puffed up across from each other, in coats of mountain sheep skin.
Answer: duhnooyh, snow clumps on the tree branches.
Wait, I see something: My end sweeps this way and that way and this way around me.
Answer: Grass tassels moving back and forth in the wind, making little curved trails on the snow.
Wait, I see something: We whistle along the hillside.
Answer: Loose, half-peeled bits of birchbark, hissing in the wind.
Wait, I see something: It has taken the color of cloudberries.
Answer: The bill of the white-fronted goose.
Wait, I see something: Tiny bits of charcoal scattered in the snow.
Answer: The bills of ptarmigan.
Wait, I see something: They are like bushes bending in the wind.
Answer: The “ears” of the great horned owl.
Wait, I see something: We are wide open in the bushes.
Answer: The snowshoe hare’s eyes.
Wait, I see something: It looks like a bit of charred wood waving around in the air.
Answer: The short-tailed weasel’s tail in winter.
Wait, I see something: Far away yonder a fireflash comes down.
Answer: A red fox, glimpsed as it dashes brightly through the brush.
The alertness and connectedness revealed in these riddles may be easily dulled and lost. Watching television is a quick way to extinguish the light. Another Bay Area writer, Jerry Mander (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), has an excellent and disturbing new book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Mander shows us how the eyes once locked with those of a horseshoe hare and the ears that recognized the sound of birchbark in the wind may very likely now be tuned to Dallas or The Edge of Night. In one of many chilling sections, Mander visits Yellowknife, a remote Dene community in Canada, once reached only by airplane, radio and dog team, and now, by television. Cindy Gilday, a Dene woman, describes this scene:
People are sitting in their log houses alongside frozen lakes with dog teams tied up outside, watching a bunch of white people in Dallas standing around their swimming pools, drinking martinis and plotting to destroy each other or steal from each other, or to get their friends’ wives into bed. Then after that they see a show that is about a man turning into a machine. The effect has been to glamorize behaviors and values that are poisonous to life up here. . . . People lost interest in the native stories, legends and languages, which are really important because they teach people how to live. And it’s hurting the relationships between men and women too, and between the young and the old. We used to honor our old people and listen to them . . . but that’s changing fast.
Television is only one of many agents of destruction for Native cultures and, therefore, the natural world. Mander shares his personal experience of watching the path he walked as a child change from dirt to gravel to asphalt and later into the New York Thruway. He presents a strong case against computers, and, in his investigations of space travel and bioengineering, he takes us farther into the future than I had previously dared to look.
I recently heard a panel discussion, in which Mander participated. Someone asked whether ecology books have become overly bleak in their projections on the future. Mander answered that the truth must be told, and, if we are uncomfortable, we may be moved to action. Mander himself, once president of a commercial advertising agency, is now a senior fellow at the Public Media Center, the nation’s only nonprofit ad agency. In the Absence of the Sacred closes with a list of periodicals and organizations that may inform the reader’s movement to action.
Charlene Spretnak, another member of the same panel, an activist and certainly a teller of truth, asks in States of Grace that we trace the global crisis to its roots in greed, hatred and delusion: “Something more than all the ‘shoulds’ of moral exhortation is needed. They are no match for the agitated mind.” She urges her readers to “. . .find a way that reveals to you the joy of our profound unity, the subtle interrelatedness of you and every being, every manifestation of the unfolding universe. Find a way that will continually deepen your understanding of that knowledge.”
These books work very well in tandem. The awareness of the sacred, which Mander shows to be increasingly absent in our modern technological world, is reaffirmed by Spretnak as she shares the wisdom traditions. Mander’s personal accounts of people and places add immediacy and humor to Spretnak’s moving intelligence and healing wisdom.