In "Hallowed Ground," Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder discusses the importance of myth and story in countering the narratives that foster the ecological destruction of our world. Steinauer-Scudder's essay is focused on the work of theologian Martin Palmer, exploring how the sacred stories of world religion can change the world for the better (or worse) -- but secular stories are powerful too. As storytellers, myth-makers and artists of all stripes, what kind of narratives are we creating? And are we cognizant of their potency? Steinauer-Scudder writes:
"There are Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand who follow the Buddha’s example of meditating in natural settings, particularly beneath trees; they have a practice of going into the forest during the rainy season of Phansa and building small huts, where they remain for several months to meditate. Traditionally, when the huts appeared, it was understood that human beings were not to disturb or damage the surrounding forest; it became an extension of the monks’ prayers and practice: sacred land.
"Thailand and Cambodia have seen some of the most devastating logging and clear-cutting in a world where 18.7 million acres of forest across the globe are lost to deforestation annually. Between 1961 and 1998, an estimated two-thirds of Thailand’s remaining forest was destroyed. In the 1980s, the logging effort increased and entire forests began to disappear, sometimes in the course of a single day.
"In 1988 the excessive deforestation of a mountainside led to a landslide, exacerbating floods and killing over three hundred people. The monks saw the land suffering and the people suffering as a result. A small number of monks began to reexamine Buddhist scriptures, seeking ways to protect the forests through traditional rituals and teachings. The Buddha taught that all things are interconnected, that the health of the whole is bound to the health of every sentient being. If you harm rivers, trees, animals, soil, you harm yourself. Some of the monks began to intentionally seek out threatened and illegally logged forests for their Phansa meditation, but it became increasingly dangerous for them. Some were assassinated.
"And then one monk began a practice of ordaining trees. After locating the oldest and largest trees in a forest, he -- in the presence of members of his surrounding lay community -- recited the appropriate scripture and then wrapped the trees in traditional orange robes, just as is done for a novice monk. The practice has spread across Thailand and into Cambodia. Most loggers will not commit the taboo of harming a monk, even if that monk is a tree.
" 'We are a narrative species. The faiths are successful because they tell bloody good stories and they adapt them as they go along,' Martin is telling me over a coffee break in Bristol. 'So all across Southeast Asia, there are these trees that have been ordained as monks, and that means that within a sort of half-mile penumbra of that, it’s sacred. There’s no way a Cambodian or a Thai is going to cut down a monk tree.' ARC has worked with monks in Thailand and Cambodia to set up environmental-education centers, trainings, and awareness campaigns. It helped to found ABE, the Association of Buddhists for the Environment, a network of monks and nuns grounded in Buddhist teachings and traditions. 'It’s been very local, very specific [work]. And most of it is built on the fact that, whatever else is gone, a sense that a sacred place is something other still remains.'
"It’s this sense of place and the stories that go along with it, Martin says, that can become catalysts for change. When it comes to addressing ecological degradation and potential collapse, most of us have not been telling the right ones. A transformative story, when told at the right time in the right place, has the ability to alter the course of things. 'There’s only two things that have ever done that successfully in history: art and religion. And for most of history, they’ve been synonymous,' Martin says. ARC works with Jains in India, Shintōists in Japan, Taoists in China, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians—operating on the belief that religion has consistently told humanity’s most enduring stories, that parable can be more effective than science, that myths are more powerful than data.
"As we wend our way through the city, I’m beginning to picture Martin as a real-life, intellectual version of Roald Dahl’s BFG: a lanky, well-intentioned giant who roams the globe, but instead of collecting dreams and delivering them to sleeping children, he is collecting stories. Fables and myths, parables and songs. His life’s work has been to pull forward or uncover narratives from traditions and texts, and support local faith communities in doing the same."
Later in the piece, Steinauer-Scudder adds a note of caution:
"To seek and reveal stories on behalf of others is, in many ways, a fraught strategy; it can carry the odor of imposition when it comes from outside a local culture. But in a time when perhaps the most imposing and pervasive story of all -- consumerism -- is driving species to extinction, deforesting lands, fueling wildfires in the American West, and depleting topsoil and the oceans, one wonders how we can help one another to turn our attention and efforts to different ends. How can we remember that stories, too, have agency? ARC, as an organization, is international, but its lifeblood is comprised of communities around the world, each facing their own version of environmental crisis, each working within the narratives and traditions that have shaped its landscapes and identities. Such stories cannot be arbitrarily deposited. In order to thrive, they need fertile soil, a caring hand, relationship, understanding, shared history. When the conditions are right, they can root themselves or unfurl a new leaf.
“'[Religion is] not the silver bullet,' Martin says. It certainly should not be left to faith communities alone to cultivate the stories that might begin to heal a world in crisis, environmentally and spiritually. But he does believe that religion holds our most enduring stories, told again and again throughout the ages, even when humanity sometimes uses them to destructive ends. Secular communities can look to the faiths as examples of what it means to embody powerful narratives. Religious or no, we can find new ways to tell ancient stories. New language to bring people back to an ancient understanding.
" 'Human beings are capable of extraordinary change if given the space to do it,' says Martin. 'Not by fear, and not by data. But by story.'”
I highly recommend reading Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder's "Hallowed Ground" in full in Emergence Magazine. You'll find it here. The wondrous art today is by our good friend David Wyatt, a great lover of trees and stories. To learn more about his work, go here.
Words: The two passages above are quoted from "Hallowed Ground" by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, published in Emergence Magazine (January 15, 2019); all rights reserved by the author. Emergence, by the way, is terrific, if you're not reading it already.
Pictures: The paintings above are Winter Beech, Gidleigh Goat, Fetching Water, Acorn, and Spinning Moonlit by David Wyatt; all rights reserved by the artist.