This reflection was originally delivered at Wildflower UU Church in Austin, Texas, on March 24, 2017
Six years ago, in the Spring of 2013, I was one year out of college, dividing my time between resisting the Keystone XL pipeline construction in East Texas with a group called the Tar Sands Blockade and working part time for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas.
One very rainy morning, I was leading a program for fourth and fifth grade girls from a public school in Dallas, who came to a girl scout camp for morning activities and then went back to school after lunch. The programs went well, the girls ate lunch, and before long they were on their bus again heading back to school.
Meanwhile, I’m back in the cafeteria digging through trash cans and pulling mostly-full water bottles out of the trash; emptying the water out into the soil to save it from the discomfort of a plastic prison in the Duncanville landfill.
I start feeling pretty bummed out, thinking about all the reasons why these kids have come to see water — one of the most important and live giving elements on our planet — as something that comes wrapped in plastic that you throw in a trashcan when you aren’t thirsty anymore. In that moment, the water bottles were a small but symbolic manifestation of the disconnection our society has to our place in the ecosystems that sustain us.
We’ve got to teach them better, I thought, as I emptied those water bottles…
As I’m driving out of the camp, feeling sad and totally ready for a nap, I see something lying in the middle of the road that looks like a flier that we had just handed to the girls on their way out the door.
Out of continued exasperation (and that ingrained girl scout promise to leave a place cleaner than I found it), I stop my car and run through the torrential rain to pick up this piece of paper out of the middle of the road.
When I get back to my car and I unfold the paper, I find something I never expected. Wrapped up in that Girl Scouts flier was a soaking wet piece of notebook paper with a prophetic piece of prose written in pencil on it.
My whole mood, my whole spirit shifted from despair to wonder, as I read this soaking wet, delicate little piece of paper — and I must admit that I have lost it in the years since, or else I would read it to you verbatim.
To paraphrase: once upon a time, humanity used to live in connection with the earth — but then we lost our connection and started taking the Earth for granted until things got so bad that it became hard for humanity to live — people suffered and got sick. Eventually humanity makes amends with the Earth and finds balance again.
This was truly one of the most ephemeral moments of my life. Here I am, having a one-person pity-party about how water is trashed and taken for granted, and on this bus of kids-I-just-cleaned-up-after is an 8- or 9-year old girl who pencils down this prophetic story and then she tosses it out of a bus window, into the rain — with no way of knowing that I would stop my car and pick it up ten minutes later, and read exactly the words I needed to hear that day.
I’ll never know why she did that, and I still wonder… were her actions a prayer? Or was she just tossing out an unsatisfactory first draft?
I guess it doesn’t matter. I learned that day that wisdom and grace have a way of showing up unexpectedly, and in many ways, shapes, and sizes. And that every gaggle of 8 year olds probably has at least one prophet among them…
But, let’s talk more about this story — or prophecy — if you will. I’ve heard it in many different ways, from many sources, since this day 6 years ago.
This, for example, is an excerpt of The Sacred Tree: Reflections on Native American Spirituality by Phil Lane, Jr, Judie Bopp, Michael Bopp, Lee Brown, and elders:
For all the people of the earth, the Creator has planted a Sacred Tree under which they may gather, and there find healing, power, wisdom, and security. The roots of this tree spread deep into the body of Mother Earth. Its branches reach upward like hands praying to Father Sky. The fruits of this tree are the good things the Creator has given to people: teachings that show the path to love, compassion, generosity, patience, wisdom, justice, courage, respect, humility and many other wonderful gifts.
The ancient ones taught us that the life of the Tree is the life of the people. If the people wander far away from the protective shadow of the Tree, if they forget to seek the nourishment of its fruit, or if they should turn against the Tree and attempt to destroy it, great sorrow will fall upon the people. Many will become sick at heart. The people will lose their power. They will cease to dream dreams and see visions. They will begin to quarrel among themselves over worthless trifles. They will become unable to tell the truth and to deal with each other honestly. They will forget how to survive in their own land. Their lives will become filled with anger and gloom. Little by little, they will poison themselves and all they touch.
It was foretold that these things would come to pass, but that the Tree would never die. And as long as the Tree lives, the people live. It was also foretold that the day would come when the people would awaken, as if from a long, drugged sleep; that they would begin timidly as first, but then with a great urgency, to search again for the Sacred Tree.”
I share these words with you because I question every single day of my life whether humanity will plunge this planet into climate chaos and a mass ecological extinction, or whether we will transform our habits, systems, and spirits on the timeline and scale required to stop the worst from happening.
Stories, prophecies and sacred texts can inspire us, give us hope or grounding, and calibrate our moral compasses as we navigate the world; but we must be wary of the tendency to sit back and think, “oh, it’ll all work out — a prophecy or sacred text told me so”.
We are not merely observers here. Whether or not you believe that our souls transcend this realm, it is important to acknowledge and understand that our actions and decisions as human beings will have a ripple effect on the course of life on this planet for thousands of years to come. We are accountable to each other and to the Earth’s web of life.
As the Program Director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth, it is my mission to empower Unitarian Universalists to be a positive force for social transformation and climate justice.
This Spring, our message is to “spring for change”. From today, to Earth Day on April 22nd, to World Biodiversity Day on May 22nd, I invite you into a season of sacred activism. Every day is an opportunity to deepen our spiritual and daily practices in relationship to this great Earth, and to participate in the growing movement to create climate justice instead of climate chaos.
The seas are rising and so are we. The youth are striking — and they are suing — and they are changing the debate — and they are sitting in the offices of elected officials — and they are calling for change as loud as they can — and so must we.