a multi-part podcast produced in partnership with the Wisconsin Public Radio program, To the Best of Our Knowledge, which was titled Kinship With the More-Than Human World. Many of the episodes returned to the experience of kinship through "eye-to-eye epiphanies."
Avian Spirituality & Eye-to-Eye Epiphanies
I experienced another example of how "eye-to-eye" experiences can deepen kinship feelings toward non-human organisms in February 2008, while nearing completion of the manuscript for Dark Green Religion, when I attended the 4th International Partners in Flight (Compañeros en Vuelo) conference in McAllen Texas.
Partners in Flight is an organization devoted to bird conservation in the Americas. Ornithologists and environmental managers from government and academic sectors, from a variety of American nations, as well as a variety of nature interpreters and conservationists concerned about declining bird populations in the Americas, constitute the organization. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service provided the most significant financial support for this conference, which drew over 750 participants.
Since feeling deeply connected to nature is a central aspect to dark green spirituality, my first clue that the organization might have affinity with such spirituality was when I heard the title of the conference: “Tundra to Tropics: Connecting Birds, Habitats and People.”
My second clue was when I researched the organization after receiving an invitation to speak at its conference and discovered its central mission was to conserve avian biodiversity. This objective, of course, coheres with high priority dark green religion places on preserving the genetic and species variety of the planet.
My third clue was when the organizers expressed enthusiasm for the title I proposed for my keynote talk, “Science & Spirituality: Making the Connection in the Cause of Conservation.”
My hunch, that some involved with this organization would have affinity with what I was writing about in the book, was validated at the conference. After I gave my presentation, during which I described a variety of dark green organizations and individuals, many audience members indicated that they resonated with the spiritualities of those I was describing.
Many in the room were, themselves, a part of the phenomenon.
The most striking example of this came in a plenary session offered at the end of a long day that was organized by a USFW service ornithologist, Tom Will, and Nico Dauphiné, then at the cusp of completing her Ph.D. in wildlife ecology at the University of Georgia. The session was titled “Using the Power of Birds to Awaken Consciousness.” Since awakening consciousness is often a religious objective, I was intrigued, all the more so when I read the description of the session:
This event will celebrate birds and their power to illuminate our conception of being, transform consciousness, and reshape the human imagination. Presentations will consist of readings of poems by new and established poets, stories and myths involving birds, short skits and dramatizations, projections of visual art, original musical compositions using birdsong as source material—and a few surprises. We hope that the event will be engaging and fun, will remind us that we need birds as much as they need us, and will inspire new ideas to awaken the connections between humans and the universe.
This event, which nearly one hundred conference goers attended, certainly had its religion-resembling moments. There was beautiful and evocative music, commissioned from James Benhardus by Will, which mixed human music with bird song. This accompanied spoken narration woven in with photographic and painted images, poetry, and prose, some of which was penned by dark green luminaries including Mary Oliver, Robinson Jeffers and Loren Eiseley. Among other things, the selected words critiqued human arrogance, expressed biocentric sentiments, and celebrated the entire circle of life, including the ways that death is the wellspring of life, all common dark green themes. And more than one of the poems had an animistic ethos, including "Lost" by David Wagoner:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here, And you must treat it as a powerful stranger; Must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven. No two branches are the same to Wren. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows Where you are. You must let it find you.
The narration by Will and Dauphiné expressed kinship with birds, sometimes through stories from indigenous cultures, including ones in which people were once birds, and birds were once people. Scientifically informed descriptions of the personalities of different species suggested that birds, like us, have rich if different emotional lives. Suggestions were even made that individually and collectively, in various ways, “birds are saving us.”
One of the most striking movements during this ritual-resembling session was when, in the midst of the mixture of bird and human music, the projector displayed first a grid of bird eyes, followed by image after image of bird eye closeups. It reminded me of the diverse examples of ‘eye-to-eye’ epiphanies I had encountered within the global environmental milieu.The music, bird sounds, and these images, seemed designed to bring one into an aviary world, to evoke curiosity as to what is going on in the consciousness of these beings, and regarding whether communication and communion might be possible with them. (The collage of images in the initial grid shown were from the Brazilian photographer Carlos Renato Fernandes, and drawn from a poster used to promote a meeting of Brazilian Ornithologists in 2001. This poster's image is set in the box, above.)
The entire evening reminded me of how religious ritual is designed to focus attention on that which is considered most sacred and to deepen the ethical commitments that flow from such perception.
After the conference Dauphiné graciously sent me the poetry and prose that they read that night (in addition to the preceding poem by Waggoner).
In March, 2010 Dauphiné was working for the London Zoological Society’s wildlife project in Ghana. A Facebook fan site for the project displays some of her stunning photographs of birds. She was not, however, optimistic about their fate, describing the indifference to nature and the rapacious logging that had been going on there for decades, and was continuing unabated.
Will and Dauphiné were far from the only ones present at that Texas conference who feel and promote a connection to birds – so are many involved in bird conservation around the world. Government agencies, through their conservation efforts, also are engaged in and promote such spirituality, even if they would not recognize it as a form of nature religion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for just one example, “offers a course to help educators, volunteers, bird enthusiasts, and biologists gain techniques and confidence for connecting people with birds.” Indeed, the title of the course, Connecting People to Nature through Birds, conveys a conviction in dark green religion, that reconnecting to nature is a prerequisite to the restoration of proper nature-human relations.
One of my favorite videos illustrating the internationalization of dark green ritualizing is from the Welcome Ceremony at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. I have made this video available in the Chapter 8 video section, which corresponds to the chapter where I discussed the pageant in the book.
SYMPHONY OF SCIENCE MUSIC VIDEOS
The Symphony of Science is the website established by John Boswell which creatively fuses the images and words from many of the scientific luminaries of Dark Green Religion with techno-inspired music. The entire website is well worth the visit. Below are direct links to the two music video which most directly exemply dark green nature spirituality.
We Are All Connected features Carl Sagan, who was specifically mentioned in Dark Green Religion, and a number of other prominent scientists, all of whom have come to similar perceptions and feelings of belonging and connection to nature.
No theme in dark green religion is more central than its ecological metaphysics of of interconnection, and the sense of humility and mutual dependence that flows from such recognition. This video also so well captures the excitement, meaning, and joy many find in such understandings.
This video has had well over a million viewings. That many resonate with it is also clear by viewing the comments people give in response to it at youtube and elsewhere in the blogosphere. A quick search of YouTube with the words "we're all connected" and similar phrases reveals dozens of examples of people expressing affinity with this dark green theme.
The Unbroken Thread is another music video featuring Sagan but this one also features two figures Dark Green Religion focuses on in detail, the primatologist Jane Goodall and the nature documentarian David Attenborough.
Here you can here many themes central to dark green spirituality, an embrace of an evolutionary understanding about how all living things came to be who they are, a corresponding perception there is no sharp break between humans and non-human organisms and a concomitant critique of anthropocentric arrogance, and a clear sence that life on earth is a miracle, maybe even the only place in the universei life exists, and a clear, biocentric expression that we should protect it, for its fate rests in our hands.
A Glorious Dawn begins with Carl Sagan's musing, "if you wish to maike an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." This music video also features Stephen Hawking and expresses joy at being alive on this planet at at time when we are learning so much about the nature of nature. It even suggests, with qualified optimism that -- "if we do not destroy ourselves" -- we will eventually explore the stars.
For more in this genre of dark green spirituality go the the Symphony of Science website and view "Our Place in the Cosmos," in which science is a revelation of our belonging to the universe and need to recognize the fragility of life on this planet.
SCIENCE-RELATED EXEMPLARS ~ PETER MAYER MUSIC VIDEOS
Drawing on an evolutionary/ecological worldview, the singer-songwriter Peter Mayer expresses perceptions and feelings common in dark green religion.
Holy Now, for example, "extols the sacredness of the natural world," according to Evolutionary Evangelist Connie Barlow, who alerted me to Mayer's affinity with dark green religion. She wrote that the song "is used in many liberal churches in America, thus bringing dark green religion fully into traditional religious institutions." (For more on Barlow's work, and that of her life partner the Reverend Michael Dowd, see the websites section, below.)
The Play, another Mayer song, in Barlow's words, "exults in one's kinship with the whole cosmos, while celebrating the entire epic of evolution."
Cetacean Surfing Spirituality? Dark green religion also discusses surfing spirituality (ch. 5) and David Attenborough's documentaries ( ch. 7). This video seems to bring the two threads together, showing human and dolphin surfers at Jeffrey's Bay, South Africa, among other places. Does it evidence dark green surfing spirituality, among dolphins, humans . . . and Attenborough?
Alice DiMicelle provides a great example of aquatic nature spirituality in this music-video about whitewater kayak-surfing:
Another DiMicelle tune is provided in the Sound section, which follows.
Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” produced an apocalyptic "Earth Song" in 1995. Adrian Ivakhiv's blog post about it suggested that it may be the “most popular environmentally themed song ever produced,” adding that “the song remains Jackson's biggest seller in the U.K., having sold over a million copies there -- more than either "Thriller" or "Billie Jean." Oddly, Ivakhiv noted, it was never even released as a single in the U.S.” (Ivakhiv also helpfully mentioned a number of website locations where one can find "earth songs" and "eco-tunes." These links are provided under the favorites/sounds link in these supplemental materials.)
In the version of Jackson’s song available as youtube video, Jackson expressed his love for the earth and his concern about its destruction and the callous killing of animals. It even symbolically seemed to express an earthen spirituality as he and others dug their hands in the soil. At the end of the song, the words displayed stated that "The 'Earth Song music video was shot on four continents, all of which are in some form of distress created by man and his technology, and about the segment filmed in the Amazon Rainforest, it said, that forest was "totally destroyed within a week of this video shoot. The people featured here are native to the region and are not professional actors." Although Jackson might be an unlikely and far from perfect representative of dark green religion given his exceptionally high consumption lifestyle, the song shows that many people who have not taken much of an environmentalist turn are nevertheless moved by the beauty and fecundity of nature and feel a love for nature.
A focus on environmental messages in popular music, however, doesn't tell us much about the ways music reshapes the material, social, and perceptual 'ecologies' within which it is produced, consumed, and lived. (I've been developing this idea of "three ecologies," inspired originally by Felix Guattari's book of that title, in my writing on film, but it applies just as well to music.) The focus on media messages tends toward an instrumentalist understanding of cultural artifacts -- which is helpful enough within an environmental culture that seeks to 'market' the 'right ideas' and images to audiences, but if those ideas/images remain subject to the short memory spans and limited issue-attention cycles of popular media interest, any effort at social or environmental change remains an uphill struggle. Jackson's "Earth Song" is a fascinating artifact, and I have no doubt that it got some of his youthful fans excited about environmental issues at the time it came out, but I would want to know to what extent it set this affective energy into motion -- the ways it informed fans' identities (or failed to), shaped the ways they felt and thought about things, and moved them to discussion and even action on environmental issues.
Another moment within the song's and video's cultural circulation that does get mentioned in some of this environmental commentary is its production. Pasternack writes, "It was named by MTV one of the top 40 most expensive music videos, and was also likely one of the most carbon-heavy, too: locations included the Amazon rainforest, Croatia, Tanzania, and Warwick, New York, where a safe forest fire was simulated in a corn field." Ecocritical film scholars have been urging 'greener' forms of film production, and the same could be done (and is being done) with music. But ultimately an ecocritical approach to music would have to deal not only with the ways music and its related media forms (such as videos) are produced and the cultural meanings they convey, but also the ways in which they might broaden, or dampen, collective and institutional capacities for socio-ecological change. Popular music of the kind Michael Jackson excelled at did change people through the meanings and affects it conveyed about movement/dance and race (blurring the black-white divide in America perhaps more than any other artist to that time), but I doubt the same could be said of the environmental or eco-social imagery in this song, which isn't particularly original (neither the video's romanticization of indigenous people nor Jackson's role as messianic agent leading a magical movement reversing "man's" environmental sins were new ideas). What was new was that this was Michael Jackson doing it. But that has a history, too -- Marvin Gaye's What's Going On preceded it by over two decades, and it's interesting to compare the cool, heady optimism of Gaye's video (just folks gettin' together to change things, man) with the hot jeremiadic fervor of Jackson's.
The message-focused instrumentalism -- a focus on songs that would convey or encode new ecological meanings and sensibilities -- reaches its apogee, perhaps, in A Singable Earth Charter, a project that relates this task to a broader set of cognitive-psychological and cultural contexts than found in most discussion of popular ecoculture. But there remains plenty of room for the development of a broader agenda within ecocritical studies of music, which would look at the connections between the production of music (including the ways its production enables or constrains the democratic capacity for music/culture-making) and music's many meanings and uses, including in relation to popular and alternative cultures, dance and body cultures, communication and new media, soundscapes or 'sound ecologies', and so on. The work of musicologists like Steven Feld, Charles Keil, Philip Bohlman, and Tim Taylor provides some avenues for the kind of ethnographically informed cultural analysis of music that ecocritics could try to emulate. The Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society has put out an impressive bibliography of resources that should be required reading for aspiring 'ecomusicologists.' The ESG leans toward the kind of eco-pastoral (rurality and wilderness favoring) normativity that has shaped the field of acoustic ecology since its inception, but there is clearly more brewing in this area than that. More cross-fertillization between the fields of environmental communication, cultural studies, musicology (including ecomusicology), and ecophilosophy could bear much interesting fruit.
A couple of other takes on Michael Jackson which are, in very different ways, attuned to a few of the broader 'ecologies' of music, are ANTHEM's brief but provocative actor-network account of the Michael Jackson "assemblage" and Steven Shaviro's more freewheeling cultural analysis of Jackson.
Sacred Nature ~ To the Best of our Knowledge with Bill McKibben, Bron Taylor, & Others
NPR/PRI (Public Radio International), 2 May 2010. MP3
Dana Lyons, a collaborator with Jane Goodall, was discussed on pages 26-30. His music touches on many dark green themes. Time Bomb is an excellent example of environmental apocalypticism. His animistic experience and perceptions of peace in the forest, which so moved Jane Goodall, are found in The Tree and in Magic. Meanwhile, Animal, which has often been sung at environmental gatherings, can be seen as a is a ritual of inclusion, underscoring continuity and kinship with other organisms, and Dancin in the Dirt. The song envisions a future restoration of harmony between human beings and the rest of nature.
Danny Dollinger, wrote Hillbilly Hippie in the 1990s when participating in radical environmental campaigns in North America. The song is a perfect illustration of the process of bricolage described in Dark Green Religion, showing that activists involved in the environmental milieu can see these hybridizing processes on as easily as religion scholars! Dollinger, however, does his analysis in a much more entertaining way. Two other songs, Ghost of a Chance and End of the World are exemplary of both the deep sadness that often overcomes those with dark green spiritual sentiments at the impoverishment of nature at the hands of human beings, as well as the feeling of community found among those who have such feelings and unite to resist these trends
Alice DiMicelle is another musician whose music is a form of activism. She considers the forest her church and hopes to help people feel what she feels there through her music. She also calls for action through her music, including in Defend the Earth. A recent album by DiMIcelle also provides a great example of aquatic nature spirituality, including a song accompanied by whitewater kayak-surfing she titled ‘Take me Out On the Water,’ which is available with the other video favorites. In an earlier album, “Circle of Women,” she integrated ecofeminist goddess spirituality with animistic perception and Gaian spirituality.
Joanne Rand is another musician who conveys animistic perception and kinship feeling in her music. One striking example can be found in Wild Ones.
John Trudellis a Native American activist, poet, and musician, popular among within the environmental milieu in North America. This song urging respect for Mother Earth, was the coda on an environmental anthology produced in the 1990s, and expressed an animistic perception that has affinity with much in dark green religion.
Richard Wallace's environmental music, provides an extensive compilation of environmental music and links to more. Much of it is apocalyptic in tone most has affinity for dark green spirituality. Wallace is an Environmental Studies professor at Ursinus College and this material is hosted on the Conservation Biology list serve. The affinity for dark green spirituality among the founders of Conservation Biology and many environmental studies scholars is discussed in Dark Green Religion (e.g., pps. 157, 167).
The Sierra Club’s Greenlife, website Planet Patriot, provide access to additional music that has affinity with dark green spirituality. While the nature spirituality common in the Sierra Club was discussed in Dark Green Religion, the Planet Patriot was not. But it clearly has affinity with dark green spirituality, both in the music it promotes, and with its “I pledge allegiance to the Earth” verse on its home page.
The Great Story is a website created by the science writer Connie Barlow and the Reverend Michael Dowd, as part of their efforts promote understanding scientific narratives of cosmological and biological evolution as sacred stories, whether grafted onto longstanding religions, or as purely naturalistic forms of nature religion. Their site provides many examples of and links to dark green religion.
Indeed, Barlow and Dowd are among the most prominent proponents of dark green religion in North America. Inspired by Thomas Berry (and many others), as well as the American revivalist tradition that once produced an evangelical “Great Awakening,” they have travelled widely as itinerant “evolutionary evangelists.”
I elected not to discuss them in depth in DGR because my priority was to examine little known examples of nature spirituality and those outside of the United States, and because they are relatively well known and their books are widely available. See, for example, Green Space, Green Time: the Way of Science (1997) and Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution!: How the Marriage of Science and Religion will Transform your Life and our World (2007). Given their growing influence, however, they certainly merit attention as prominent exemplars of dark green religion. See reflections and excerpts from emails I received from Barlow (whom with Dowd I have known for a number of years), after the book was published. These emails shows their affinity with dark green religion while also providing additional examples of it.
The Forum on Religion and Ecology, founded by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, is the premier scholarly organization promoting the greening of the world’s predominant religious traditions. Although not a focus of my book, a significant amount of the scholarship emerging under its umbrella has affinity with the characteristics common in dark green religion.
Immanence, a fascinating and sophisticated blog by University of Vermont Professor Adrian Ivakhiv.
Spinoza's immanent philosophy, reflections by Adrian Ivakhiv, with additional helpful links.