How can we live skillfully with the natural world? And with each other? Sacred Fire interviews the irrepressible author and earth activist Starhawk.
The web of Starhawk's life is woven with integrity and passionate commitment: she is an author, teacher, environmental activist, permaculture designer, pagan, and witch. Her life long activism springs from an alternative vision of power—not the power of domination, but the creative and cooperative power within each of us to live in interdependence with the natural world, to see ourselves as much a part of nature as "an old growth redwood, a mosquito, or a wildflower."
Starhawk is the author of eleven books, including The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Webs of Power, and, most recently, an award-winning children’s book, The Last Wild Witch (Mother Tongue Ink Publishing, 2009). She has also written numerous essays, articles and communiqués from the front lines of Earth-centered activism.
We met at PantheaCon: the Ancient Ways Festival in San Jose, California where Starhawk was an honored speaker. As we find a table in the bustling hotel cafe amidst witches in velvet capes, masked hooded priests, and pagan revelers, we agree that a hill top or a meadow might be more fitting for this yearly Pagan gathering. I can't help but notice that Starhawk and I, dressed in jeans and sweaters, look a bit ordinary. But Starhawk is anything but ordinary.
Marilyn Berta: You have been an activist since high school and I wonder what has kept your fire burning all these years?
Starhawk: My activism is very much tied to my spirituality, my belief that the earth is sacred and that we're part of the earth. If you see the earth as alive, as a living being that we're all part of, you can't just sit back and watch idiots destroy her. If you see human beings as embodiments of the sacred, as embodiments of the divine, you can't sit back and let people be oppressed, hurt, or made to suffer. You try to do something to change those conditions.
Activism can be draining, tiring, and hard, but when it comes from a spiritual base it gives you something deeper to fall back on when you need a sense of hope, a sense of renewal, or sense of faith. You have firm ground underneath your feet that you can stand on and a community of other people who share the same values, so you can support one another, help one another; those are the kinds of things that keep my fire burning.
MB: The title of your blog Dirt Worship speaks to the melding of spirituality and environmentalism. Why is it important for us to bring spiritual practice to environmentalism? Is recycling, catching rain, and bicycling not enough?
S: To me, the guiding principles of environmentalism or permaculture, which is ecological design, are the same as my guiding spiritual principles: that everything is interconnected, that everything is alive and communicating, and that if we honor that, if we listen to what the natural world is telling us, if we observe what is being shown to us, then we have the power to work in harmony with nature instead of against nature. We have tremendously powerful allies that we can call upon in the natural world. They're often the simplest and humblest of beings, things like bacteria, fungi, and worms. But they're very, very powerful. They can break down toxins, create new forms of life, create fertility, they can create healing and health. They can also create disease and damage if they're disrespected.
MB: In The Earth path you write about humans as part of the natural world, not separate from and above nature, or worse than and dangerous to nature. How do these ideas of better than or less than keep us from living skillfully with the natural world?
S: Modern culture has a world view that human beings are very separate from nature. Either we're above nature and we have the divine right to try to dominate and control, exploit and use it. Or we have the environmentalists who have the idea that we're a blight on the planet, that nature would be better off without us. So the logical corollary to that is: the best thing you can do for the world is die. That's not a very hopeful philosophy! It's also not an attitude you can organize or motivate people around. Ultimately I believe it to be as false as the other view.
Either one of those perspectives is going to keep us split and separate, and not very effective at working with nature. We're not separate from nature, we're part of nature, and if we're messing nature up its because we're not being very skillful at what we're doing, or at understanding why we're here. Many people live their lives so separate from nature that it's become merely a concept that is very foreign, very scary to them.
I teach organic gardening and permaculture with at risk youth in public housing in San Francisco and every day we're in the garden I'll say something like, "Today we're going to pick some lettuce to eat," and a kid will say, "We ain't gonna eat some shit that grows in the dirt! " I don't know whether to laugh or cry!
There's such a deep disconnect to understanding where our food comes from, where life comes from. It's taken me weeks and weeks to encourage them to put their hands in the soil without gloves, to feel the earth. Human beings actually have a role to play in the natural world that we need to fulfill. We have awareness and the ability to use tools, to do amazing things that the earth really needs us to do, to clean up the mess we've made and restore the balance.
The earth will survive without us one way or another no matter how badly we mess up, ultimately the bacteria will sort it all out. But I don't particularly want the world to go back to it's bacterial roots and have to start all over. I believe that the earth is calling to us and that we are here to serve the planet as a whole by our ability to appreciate, to give gratitude and praise, to become ecstatic with wonder for the earth.
MB: In your books you teach that the earth is always speaking to us, and to connect with her is to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves. How can we begin the process of deepening our own personal connections with the natural world?
S: In The Earth Path I talk about developing a spiritual practice that's based on taking time to be in the natural world. That might be just as simple as stepping outside into your backyard or stopping while you're waiting for the bus and actually observing the trees. To BE there, to open your eyes, open your ears, look around you, listen and observe what's going on in the physical world. When you get to the point where you can actually observe what's going on, without getting caught up in your own story or inner dialogue, this can open up your understanding on deeper and more subtle levels where the natural world will speak to you.
MB: Can you name one simple action that we can take today to begin living a life that fosters the spiritual and ecological health of our people and our planet?
S: I don't know if there is just one simple action, I'd say foremost is developing your own spiritual connection to the earth, taking some time every day is a good place to start. Also start to connect with other people to figure out how you can support one another, how you can share resources, and be active. This is a tremendously exciting moment in time! We need to be able and willing to take action together if we're going to make some changes in the larger systems that have such an immense impact on the earth.
MB: You’ve been living communally for a long time. While I imagine it is empowering, doesn’t it provide its own set of challenges?
S: Absolutely! Back in the 80's, we were doing a lot of direct action around nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and military intervention. We'd have these intense bonding experiences organizing, facing the cops, and being in jail. We'd wonder why we felt so closely connected in jail, but that feeling was not carrying over into the rest of our lives. So a number of us began to live communally.
It can be difficult living collectively with the complexity of interrelationships. Think back to when you were a teenager bringing your date home for your parents’ approval, and then imagine doing that for the rest of your life with five housemates!
In our house we have gone to focusing on tolerance and affection rather than trying to perfect every interrelationship according to our highest political values. We've learned to settle for being just who we are. After a certain point in life, once you're past 40 or 50, if you expect you are going to perfect somebody else's character, you probably haven't learned very much.
I also live on forty acres in Sonoma, my refuge from communal living! I have a little cabin in the woods in an area where a lot of people "went back to the land" in the seventies and eighties. Many of the households started as communes and rapidly devolved. Most people will tell you that when they tried to live communally it didn't work. But when they made their own separate parcels and connected together as a looser kind of community, they felt a lot more balance come into their lives.
We work cooperatively to live in harmony with the earth and teach permaculture design courses. We also organize around local issues and personal events in people's lives. One of our neighbors is growing into senility, and we have gotten together to say, "What are we going to do for this person? We can't leave her in a situation that's dangerous for her. She doesn't have any family, we need to step in."
When one of my neighbor's daughters got married, she asked to have the ceremony on the land. The neighbors tended the meadow and planted flowers in the spring so she would be able to have flowers for her summer wedding.
In the kind of community where relationships are founded on that kind of support, even though there may be looser ties, we still know we're in it together. You can have those kinds of relationship with people that you couldn't, for a moment, live with. And when you are living with someone, their politics or their shining worth as a deeply compassionate spirit might not matter nearly as much as the level of cleanliness they keep on a day to day basis!
MB: What's on the horizon for you?
S: My friend, Donna Read, and I have just completed a documentary, Permaculture: The Growing Edge, which has interviews with wonderful people and stories of how they're successfully putting their values to work. It's very hopeful and very beautiful. We made this film because so many groups begin with wonderful intentions and then get stalled, become involved in conflicts that they can't resolve. We believe that clear ideas about power, structure, and process might help groups avoid this pitfall. By the fall I will be working on making my book, The Fifth Sacred Thing, into a film. It will be a tremendous project!
This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine, an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.
Marilyn Berta practices Plant Spirit Medicine and Integrative Bodywork in Santa Cruz, CA, where the redwoods meet the sea. For more information, please visit CenterForHealthSC.com.