Volume 2: Editor’s Note — Spirituality, Identity and Professional Ethics

Introduction: Reflections from the Heart

by Todd W. Schongalla, Editor

Whole Terrain is grounded in the belief that a common ethic unites the diverse community of people who work professionally with the environment. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” Whole Terrain is a forum for environmental professionals, a place where we can find common ground by sharing our experiences, challenges and dreams. Our authors seek to delineate the common ethic that links the educators, ecologists, regulators, scientists, students, lawyers, writers, and many others who are foremost and fundamentally environmental professionals.

The authors for the inaugural Fall 1992 issue explored the meaning of the environmental profession and the special skills and philosophy it requires. They described the challenges they faced in their careers and the relation between their professional and personal identities. The authors in our second issue tell very personal stories about the connections between their professional lives, ecological identities and spiritual beliefs. Despite coming from a variety of academic disciplines, professional roles and spiritual practices, our authors all share the common goal of working to create a healthy balance between humanity and the earth.

All of the essays in this issue are truly reflections from the heart. Our authors have woven professional and spiritual aspects of their lives into stories that reveal their deepest hopes and fears. They have written as if we are their closest friends, inviting us to share insights that can illuminate the choices we face in our own lives.

The first three essays form a special section on ecology and spirituality. In his deeply philosophical essay, David Rothenberg challenges the commonly held belief among environmentalists “that being closer to nature will make us happier.” He warns against the naive assumption that experiencing the natural world automatically creates ecological consciousness and personal happiness. He points out that “we cannot bring joy to another, but we can light the way for them sporadically.” And we can never completely identify our happiness with the planet’s because we “remain only one part of a vast, insurmountable whole.”

Writing from her perspective as a Christian, Joy Ackerman finds that her yearnings for spiritual and ecological connectedness originate in the same place. She reminds us that “Days cannot consist of house, car, office, classroom, car, house–there is no sustenance. Let me begin each day, and weave into the time an attention to the real world: that which was made before us, not by us or for us.” Her personal meditations support historian Lynn White’s observation that the origins of our current ecological crisis are largely spiritual. Environmental professionals who also perceive the numinous aspects of the natural world can join Ackerman and White in the search for solutions that combine the insights of religion and ecology.

Many environmentalist learn to love nature by growing up in “outdoor” families. Cynthia Thomashow describes how she has nurtured her family’s and her own sense of connection to nature by celebrating sacred holidays out-of-doors. She finds that “Weaving my love for nature into sacred cultural events increases the significance and meaning of the event. It builds a web that weaves together the sanctity of family, our love of nature and our spiritual identity.” Her essay broadens contemporary religious boundaries by defining natural places as temples and trees as holy teachers. Her story also demonstrates that spiritual and environmental practice ultimately spring from the same roots: our capacity to love and our desire for transcendence.

In the second section of this issue, ecological identity, our authors investigate the formation of developmental relationships with nature. They find that their experiences in nature have provided the basis for their environmental beliefs and practice. Tom Wessels draws on the research of others and on his experience as an environmental educator to delineate the critical years when children are developmentally predisposed to bond with nature. He explains that “programs designed for children in the third through sixth grades and for juniors and seniors in high school will be the easiest to implement and will have the greatest impact.” He recommends that environmental educators should encourage children in both of these critical age groups to develop a special relationship with a specific part of the natural world. Noting that the vast majority of our children currently have no access to nature, he asks: “If they don’t develop a connection to the natural world, where will they look for fulfillment? And what kind of environmental citizens will they grow up to be?”

Some environmental professionals can trace their decision to work on behalf of the earth to a specific moment in time, while others describe a more gradual process of increasing identification with nature. Katie Hennessey writes about how she became connected to the natural world on a winter night that felt like the end of the world to her. She explains, “the moment I felt a connection to the earth, the moment I got grounded, my whole life changed.” Her story of personal transformation is testimony to the remarkable healing powers of the earth. It suggests that our efforts to heal the planet may be the best way to heal ourselves.

Our sixth essay, Voices of Ecological Identity, contains a group of graduate students’ explorations of their ties with the natural world and how these ties have influenced their professional choices. Ranging in subject from childhood memories to sacred places, these anonymous excerpts form a compendium of shared wisdom illuminating the ways people connect with and decide to fight for the earth. Their stories invite us to link the history of the environmental movement with our own lives. The feeling of solidarity with those who have gone before can be a powerful antidote to the isolation we sometimes feel. As one student writes, “The helpless feeling of not being able to make a difference in the world was gone. I realized that each person who struggled to change softened the struggle for the next environmentalist. Individuals who may not have a great impact when seen separately are integral parts of the whole movement.”

Our final section, professional choices, features the career paths taken by an entomologist, a government regulator, and an ecological educator/author. Environmentalists throughout history have had to make sacrifices to achieve their goals. David Simser describes how he struggled for seven years to create alternative pest control strategies, provide nontoxic biological control for growers, and make a living. As a Board Certified Entomologist and former researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he certainly had the knowledge and training needed to succeed, but he eventually relinquished his dream of providing alternatives to toxics. His essay ends with questions relevant to all of us who work as agents of social change: “Why bother when no one cares, or the only ones who do are merely patronizing or self-serving? How can you preach and plead a nontoxic future when everyone smokes tobacco, when everyone leads toxic lives?” His story is proof that the legacy of scientific arrogance and ecological illiteracy described by Rachel Carson continues to poison our society as insidiously as the toxic chemicals we still use. Visions of exotic, activist jobs often accompany the choice to work on behalf of the environment. Like many of us, Robert Sanford initially dreamed of becoming a sort of “green” Indiana Jones. Fortunately for the citizens of southern Vermont, he chose the less romantic but equally important work of trying to save his own backyard. In his job as a state regulator, he uses creative approaches inspired by corporate “intrapreneurs.” Despite the frustrating constraints of working within a bureaucracy, he and his co-workers find satisfaction by searching out “projects which, due to something we cared about, changed from a blight on the landscape to something tolerable, even beneficial.”

Michael Caduto ends our collection of reflections from the heart exploring the experiences that have tied him to the earth and inspired his work as an ecological educator, author, storyteller and musician. He writes, “Our hearts can embrace infinity, but there has to be a rootedness for our lives to flourish.” Although he relishes the creative freedom and time he has gained by working on his own, he closes with the affirmation that “Every individual effort combines with those of others into a force much larger than we could ever create alone.”

Sharing the heartfelt joys, sorrows and visions of these authors unites us with the larger community of those who work to create a healthy balance between humanity and nature. Whole Terrain is ultimately an invitation to reflect on our professional lives and our decision to work for the earth. Whether this decision arose from a sense of despair, duty or love, we all need the clarity and sense of renewal that reflection can bring. As T.S. Eliott wrote, “We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”

As David Rothenberg and David Simser point out, one of the penalties of environmental work is that our efforts to heal the planet and bring others closer to nature can leave us with a sense of despair. It is not an easy task to maintain our hope as we fight to reverse the effects of environmental deterioration. Our efforts to transform the way humans relate to nature are often blocked by limited organizational resources, public apathy, entrenched interests and archaic worldviews. Yet, we can share the insights provided by the authors in this issue, reaffirm that our efforts make a difference, and celebrate our membership in the community of those who love and work for the earth.

Once again we invite our readers to join us on a journey to what Gary Snyder describes as “a new part of the watershed.” “Stepping away from the road” gives us the space to search for new insights and reflect on the hidden meanings in our lives. And we can return strengthened and renewed by “the sense of coming home to our whole terrain” in the company of kindred spirits.