Tuesday, January 27, 2009
THE ORPHANED PLACES
In 1987, when I was living in New York, writing scripts and producing soundtracks for multimedia productions, I read an article about an Oneida Indian engineer, David Powless, who had received a National Foundation grant to research and develop a process for recycling hazardous waste from steel mills. Along with a small group of co-colleagues I made a short video about David, funded by IBM and later shown to international IBM employees at a conference in Miami Beach. (The photo at the left was taken at that event.) The video explored David’s work, both as an engineer and as an Oneida man dedicated to fostering the traditional ways of his people. While we were working together, he told this story:
When he learned that he had received the grant, David said, he drove out to an enormous mound of steel waste and scrambled to the top. Triumphantly, he declared, “I’m going to conquer you!” Almost immediately, however, he knew that this approach was all wrong. “I realized that the waste was an orphan,” he said. “It had been lost from the cycle of life. My job was to bring it back to the cycle of life.”
I never forgot this story, which seemed to me to offer a new perspective on ecological crisis: a way loving parts of the earth that were, by most standards, unlovable, and even unlivable.
Ten years later, in 1997, I was guiding a vision quest in the Utah Canyonlands with Bill Plotkin when I had a vision of my own. That day the questers had come back to base camp after their three-day solo. In council they had told the stories of their journey, and in the morning we would hike out of the canyon and head back to Durango.
All that night, I remained suspended in a chaotic, uneasy state of half-sleep/half-wakefulness. As I lay in my sleeping bag under the stars I kept hearing someone walking around me, perhaps twenty or thirty feet away. Surprisingly, this constant movement in the dark did not worry me. I felt only a vague curiosity about it.
Toward dawn I became alert enough to ask, “Who’s there?” In that instant I had a vision of a young Anasazi man. He paused, approached, and said to me, in effect, that my task was to take people to the wounded places on the earth and give them beauty and compassion.
I was deeply touched by this vision, and for years afterwards tried to figure out how I might carry it out. I led a weeklong vigil in a clearcut forest in British Columbia; worked with a small group to make a mandala out of trash on a Pensacola, Florida beach; and presented a ceremony at New York’s Ground Zero shortly after September 11. However, I found that most people weren’t interested in going to troubled places; they preferred to visit pristine, beautiful nature. I often grieved that I could not enact the task that had been given to me. Then, over the past eight or nine years, I became very involved in writing and teaching about the path of the inner lover, the Beloved, and put the vision of troubled places temporarily aside.
Recently, however, it has become clear to me that the time is now right to bring forth a new way of looking at and being in the company of the troubled places on earth, what David Powless called “the orphans from the cycle of life.” With serious attention now being devoted to global climate change and other ecological challenges, and a new willingness on the part of so many people to examine their behavior on and toward the earth, it feels as if what I now Radical Joy for Hard Times is ready to unfold.