The first time I met Peter Forbes was in the back of a sturdy pickup truck powering us 9,000 feet above sea level into the Carson National Forest, where twenty-five staff members of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) were gathering for a weeklong meditation and mission retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico. These TPL members represented a diverse range of viewpoints as well as bioregions, hailing from the Mad River Valley of central Vermont, south to the Florida Panhandle, out to the Louisiana bayou country around New Orleans, and northwest to Seattle.
Since its founding in 1972 TPL has protected more than 1.9 million acres of land, pristine and endangered as well as land within the heart of our urban centers. The broad mission of TPL—to protect land for people—also contains its own challenge, for as Peter Forbes observes in this article, “To be a land conservationist is to be a shepherd for reconciliation, to translate the soul of the land back into the soul of our culture.”
The TPL staff members we practiced with at Vallecitos were eager for this challenge. Adept spokespeople for protecting the Earth, they also welcomed and needed a little breathing room in their lives. They took to meditation practice like thirsty travelers discovering an ancient spring bubbling up out of parched ground. As a body they tasted the deep water of silence and mindfulness practice, beginning each day with group sitting meditation followed by silent breakfast and simple work chores. Another short period of sitting meditation preceded a two-and-a-half hour session of lively dialog about TPL’s work and mission. In the afternoon we returned to silence and mindful speech, walking in the high mountains together until silent sitting meditation just before dinner. After a brief rest we regathered for slow, outdoor walking meditation into the dark embrace of the night. Encouraged by the trumpeting of wild elk and a host of autumn stars overhead, we closed each day with a period of sitting meditation that ended with a short, inspiring good-night story from the conservation world.
Mind you, these were alert and highly effective conservation activists, not seasoned meditators. Our greatest challenge as their meditation guides was to monitor and channel the huge upwelling of creative ideas that rose up in direct proportion to the participants’ growing settledness. “More sitting is required!” my coteacher Grove Burnett took to barking out in good humor, adopting Joseph Goldstein’s meditation mantra, and we all dropped down a notch, stopped our excited chatter, and returned to the deep anchorage of silence.
I learned a great deal from practicing with this spirited and effective TPL sangha, not just about the value of silent meditation in frontline conservation work but also about the complementary importance of well-grounded activism to meditation practice. These two disciplines interacted seamlessly during our TPL retreat, reminding me of one of my favorite root meanings of the word reconciliation: to become one again, to bring back into concord, and to reunite in harmony. —Wendy Johnson
One very hot Saturday in July, I found myself on 121st Street in central Harlem sitting on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard eating peaches and taking in the neighborhood. Motorcycles raced each other down the boulevard, vendors sold sunglasses and old record albums, children played games at my feet, and many people flowed past. But amid all the noise and pavement and broken glass, flanked by two townhouses, a quiet green garden flourished. An eight-foot-high chainlink fence could barely keep the sunflowers from pouring out into 121st Street. A dozen discarded lawn chairs were organized loosely around tables and empty crates for a card game, perhaps, or a good meal. I could see rows of corn, climbing snap peas, grapevines, fruit trees, and a dogwood. I could hear birds. Men and women of all ages were hanging on the chainlink fence talking to friends on the street and then turning back into the garden with a hoe or a laugh.
Classie Parker, a third-generation resident of Harlem, got the idea to turn a vacant lot into a garden so her aging parents could have a place to work and be outside. Now Classie produces food, beauty, tolerance and a relationship to land for people throughout her part of the city. Five Star Garden is almost absurdly small, less than a quarter acre, but for the people of 121st Street—who, for the most part, never leave Harlem—the garden is their own piece of land to which they have developed a very deep personal attachment. These are Classie’s words:
Once I started working with the earth, the love in people started coming out. People I didn’t even know, strangers literally, would come in and say, “Oh, I love this.” And they started telling me their life stories . . . where they came from, how old they were when they first started. They were telling me things that they didn’t even tell their own people. So it was like a healing for them, too. When they left they seemed changed.
We think of ourselves as farmers, city farmers. Never environmentalists. We love plants, we love being with the earth, working with the earth. There is something here in this garden for everyone. And any race, creed or color . . . now, can you explain that? This is one of the few places in Harlem where people can be free to be themselves. It’s hard to put into words what moves people to come in this garden and tell us their life stories, but it happens every day. There’s love here. People gonna go where they feel the flow of love.
There is a difference. You come in here and sit down, Peter—don’t you feel comfortable with us? Don’t you feel you’re free to be you? That we’re not going to judge you because you’re a different color or because you’re a male? Do you feel happy here? Do you feel intimidated? Don’t you feel like my dad’s your dad?
Classie boiled it all down: “Don’t you feel like my dad’s your dad?” I remember laughing as Classie said this, and I paused from our work to look up at her father, sitting ten feet across from me with his feet firmly planted on the earth, both hands resting on canes, eighty-seven years old, garden dirt on his face. What we had in common at that moment was profound: it was that soil and that place and the love and hope that Classie could wish for both of us.
This is the soul of the land. This is the sense of generosity, patience, respect and inclusiveness that comes naturally to us when we have a connection to the land and, through that, to one another. Land is a physical place, of course. Land means the mountains, streams, forests of our lives. Land means soil, trees, plants and animals, gardens in Harlem, but it is also an idea for something much larger. Land is also a process, a manner of being in relationship. By relationship I mean dependencies and reliances among people, among species, among the whole of the land community. Land is love, and land is reconciliation. When people care for the land, for example by planting a garden on what was a vacant lot, they are making peace, and the land gives them back one deep thing to share. It’s a sense of wholeness. And this breeds hope and possibility that humanity is worth sustaining, that we can overcome what divides us, that our own pulse beats in every stranger’s throat.
For a generation, I have called myself a land conservationist. But now I understand that the conservation movement has passed and that the land movement has been born. Frankly, I do not want to conserve the world we are in today. I am working for change, for relationships, for equity and fairness toward all of life, starting with our own. The root meaning of healing is to make whole. I want to make whole the land and the people. Today, to be a land conservationist is to be a shepherd for reconciliation, to translate the soul of the land back into the soul of our culture.
To struggle for a relationship with the land, through what we eat, appreciate, touch or admire from a distance, is transformational. Most people get this, without having to know all the science, because we humans—at our core—are nourished by meaning and connectivity, not isolation. We want the relationship. Five Star Garden is very rarely vandalized, though it is fragile and vulnerable, because it is an offering of peace and relationship without judgment or fee.
Looking to the land, no matter where one lives, is the personal act of returning to the values that the land has always taught: resilience, continuity, reliability, honesty, patience, tolerance, diversity, awe, connectivity, beauty and love. Living by those values brings us back to the land, no matter where we live.
My two young daughters will come of age when the Earth is expected to experience more change than anytime since the Ice Age. The maple trees that give our Vermont hillside its fiery red glow in the fall and that are tapped each spring to make maple syrup are among the last they will know; young ones are regenerating but will not likely grow to maturity in our forests. The black bears that roam our woods leaving bits of their fur on our fence posts will not likely be here when our girls are grown. Much of what lives and grows in the hills of Vermont, including us, will change dramatically over the next fifty years due to climate change. Our lives will be significantly diminished. How do I explain to my daughters that they, not me, will bear the burden of standing witness to that change?
It’s my commitment to them, and to this earthly life, that is the source of my activism, which means I choose to act out of love.
Human love offers a vital and yet complicated alternative to the fear that dominates our culture. And, let’s face it, not everyone is open to expressions of love. It is strange to me that love is such a powerful emotion in our lives, and yet anyone who speaks of it, especially in professional contexts, is often labeled “soft,” as if love weren’t valid or rational enough. Our culture has spent the last 500 years or more developing our rational minds, and that has brought us many advancements; what we need now is to develop our sympathetic minds so that the era of reconciliation can begin.
I hear from many Americans the refrain, “The world I knew is gone.” Indeed, this is the era of loss and diminishment. The loss in people’s lives gets played out every day across America: the loss of a cherished childhood landscape, the loss of a family farm, the loss of a forest, the loss of ways of life, the loss of life itself. What do we want to carry forward with us? What do we hope our love will create? What matters most?
The defining quality of our mature human existence is our ability to identify with our sympathetic minds what matters most, to protect this and carry it forward with us.
I worry a great deal about our undeveloped sympathetic minds; our children don’t recognize even the common members of our natural community—they don’t know the song of the hermit thrush or the yelp of a coyote. This is another indication of the extinction of human experience, the diminishment of our lives. How can we possibly conserve biodiversity—fight against the extinction of the condor—while simultaneously allowing our own human experience to become extinct?
For twenty-five years, the conservation movement has been guided by the principles of conservation biology, which have expanded our understanding of the natural world, made us less blind to the impacts of our actions, and led to the protection of many species on the brink of extinction. However, that skill at observing and understanding the habitat needs of flora and fauna has rarely been focused on ourselves, the human species. Aldo Leopold spoke of this problem more than fifty years ago when he wrote:
One of the anomalies of modern ecology is the creation of two groups, each of which seems barely aware of the existence of the other. The one studies the human community and calls its findings sociology, economics and history. The other studies plants and animals . . . the inevitable fusion of these two lines of thought will constitute the outstanding advancement of our time.
Now, finally, sociologists are beginning to document what poets have always said: we hurt the land and we hurt ourselves. The evidence of this can be seen everywhere.
Today we live in a culture that produces more malls than high schools and more prisoners than farmers, and that devours the land at the warp speed of 363 acres per hour. The average American can recognize 1,000 corporate logos but can’t identify ten plants and animals native to their region. On the one hand, conservationists have been enormously successful in protecting land, marshalling the money and skills to purchase more than 14 million acres of land in the last decade. But are Americans any closer to that land or to the values that the land teaches?
The pathologies of isolation and alienation that characterize modern American life are sweeping biodiversity away. Most conservation biologists would agree and are asking themselves how their work can have a greater impact on the way our culture behaves. Conservationists must begin to treat human alienation as a root cause of biological devastation.
So this is the radical idea: the job of land conservation is to reverse this shrinking into separateness, our becoming lost to the connections between ourselves and the rest of life. The big work is to nurture the process of reconciliation, which, though buried beneath layers and layers, is what I truly believe most Americans want.
How can we possibly reinvent the conservation movement to value reconciliation and relationship as much as it values place and biodiversity? It would take a powerful evolution in thinking and action, and thankfully that has begun. I have been part of a profound shift in the work of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), one of the country’s largest and most successful conservation organizations. To help us develop the sympathetic mind of our own organization, TPL has turned to our brothers and sisters in the Buddhist community.
Five years ago, TPL engaged in a journey of exploring its greater purpose. The process began simply enough, by inviting open discussions about our mission, by exploring motivations, by bringing into our community the best thinkers and social critics. Early on we recognized the need to break out of our self-imposed boxes if we were to go deeper in our thinking. In 1999, our president and twenty other leaders of the organization journeyed to Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in New Mexico for six days of meditation, silence and facilitated dialogue. Five years later, more than 120 of our staff of 500 have been to Vallecitos.
Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it.” Embracing both meditation and silence as tools for our discovery, we are searching for our greater wisdom as an organization. TPL’s Buddhist teachers—Grove Burnett, Wendy Johnson, Mark Coleman and Steven Smith—have helped us to use meditation and silence as the most effective ways to help us discern and express our highest values as an organization. In our case, it is a fundamental belief in the capacity of the land to heal.
Meditation has helped us to ask difficult questions and to see our larger purpose. TPL is a highly skilled organization, buying and protecting land somewhere every day in America. The practice of meditation and deeper contemplation has allowed us to connect the dots between our work in Harlem and our work in the Sierra. It has helped us to articulate what before has only been an intuition, that there is certain power in making whole the land from inner cities to deep wilderness. We conserve land because we do not accept the illusion that the fate of humans is in any way separate from the fate of salmon or bald eagles, mollusks or liverwort. We conserve land because land is where our relationship with the rest of life, our fundamental happiness and security, is proven. We save land because it’s far more fun, healthy, sensual and enriching to live in a whole world than in a consumer culture (despite the very alluring promises of marketers claiming that this or that product will make us healthier, wealthier, sexier, more secure and more successful).
Meditation is helping us to see the big-picture connections, beyond the specialization of our working groups, so that we might offer average Americans an integrated philosophy of how to live well, i.e., caring for the land as the only enduring way to care for ourselves.
Meditation has helped us to create a new set of guiding principles for land conservation, called Measures of Health, that gives the conservation movement its first-ever values-based ethical standard, honors the habitat needs of people, and reforms how and why land is conserved. Through the insights of meditation, we have come to see the need to change how success is measured in acres, dollars and protected endangered species to a more complex understanding of our movement’s ability to restore a sense of commonwealth—for humans and the other-than-humans—in a world increasingly made up of haves and have-nots.
Meditation has developed our sympathetic minds and given us the gift of whole thinking: viewing our work through the lens of kinship and integration. We are more able to take responsibility for the whole: linking cultural diversity and natural diversity, fusing civil rights and environmental rights, showing that the health of big wilderness is directly connected to the health of our core cities.
Meditation has helped us view land as reconciliation. What we are “saving” is not so much the piece of land but the quality and integrity of our relationship to the land in the context of time so that what we will and will not do is preserved
in perpetuity. If we’re lucky, the land will evolve and change forever, but it’s our human attitude—our values—that most need to be “protected.” Our laws protect land from us when we are at our worst rather than keep us together when we are
at our best. Meditation has helped us to express what we are for, as opposed to what we are against.
Fifty years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two things that interest me: the relationship of people to each other, and the relationship of people to the land.” Leopold was thinking deeply about both people and the land. He was part biologist and part sociologist, or more likely, he saw little distinction between biology and sociology. Leopold saw the health of people and the health of the land as inextricably linked.
The desire to be in relationship is the single most important and defining motivation in human life. And yet we also know that relationships of all kinds are under assault in our culture: unions, management, families, public values are all falling apart. Our disconnections with the land have become the pattern of how we live with one another. Making peace with the land through what we eat, where we shop, and what we demand will be protected is the first step in ending the long estrangement in our lives. Reconciliation with the land is not the answer to all of our cultural problems, but none of those problems can be solved until we first resolve our unhealthy relationship with the land.
Here’s a story that explains how our relationship to the land is the foundation of our culture, of how we behave as people and as neighbors. In 1997, TPL helped the Nez Perce people return to their ancestral grounds in eastern Oregon, from which they had been removed for more than 125 years. For a people who were forcefully removed from their land, becoming a good neighbor requires a Herculean act of forgiveness. The return of the Nez Perce to their Precious Lands somehow helped to inspire that forgiveness.
Allen Pinkham, former chairman of the Nez Perce tribal council, spoke for his tribe when he said: “Returning to this land allows us to practice being good neighbors again. Our neighbors are the salmon and the eagles and the wolves and, yes, particularly the white ranchers and even their ancestors who killed our ancestors and drove us off our land. The land teaches how we must all live together as good neighbors.”
The largely white community of Enterprise, Oregon, felt the same lessons and started thinking and acting differently because of the return of the Nez Perce. Many debated the appropriateness of the high school’s mascot, the Savages, when the Nez Perce became the new neighbors in town, and they eventually decided to do away with the Indian caricature that adorned their building and basketball floor. The school board initiated a six-month community discussion about race, civility and community life. Most remarkable, though, was the town’s ability to then deal morally with one of the most difficult issues of the West: the control of water. The Nez Perce partnered with white ranchers and irrigators to reduce the amount of water flowing to farms so that salmon could be restored to the local rivers, an initiative that shares control of the river and makes neighbors out of salmon.
People, land, water, salmon. Reconciliation.
Some walls grow higher and higher, it’s true. But others crumble down. Our healthy relationship to land is what our world desperately needs to resolve, rejoin, render whole and, finally, reconcile. Classie Parker in Harlem and the Nez Perce in Oregon have shown us the power of the land to make peace and to bring back together a world torn asunder. And meditation has helped us, as practitioners of land conservation, to do our part in restoring the dependencies and reliances among people, species and among the whole of the land community.