Moving toward Environmental Action

Friends have a defining and mystical method for reaching personal decisions and taking action. Our practice of opening ourselves to be guided by the Spirit and to discern our leading has been helpful to me on several important occasions. As I approached retirement my "plan," reached instead through my own devices, was being tested by urgings that were taking me in a new direction. What I didn’t realize was that seeds sown years ago were just emerging.

The seed of God’s will may take a long time to move us to action. The Bible (Luke 8:4-8) tells us that these seeds may fall on rocky or fertile soil and that even a successful sowing does not assure fruition. Watering and cultivation are necessary and when the fruit emerges, it may still fall victim to unintended fates.

God will not call us to tasks that are foreign to us. God’s calling is the signal that our heart, mind, and soul are engaged and ready. We can prepare our "soil" by raising our consciousness to the broadest understanding of the concern. We need to feel emotionally tied to the concern, and we must become receptive to the Divine Spirit that will vitalize us. This holistic realization grounds us, gives integrity to the action that we resolve to take, and empowers us to speak authentically to those who may oppose us. In short, the mind, body, and spirit should all be in concert for moving forward.

I will share my experience with these three human dimensions as they relate to my environmental concern and my search to find a retirement vocation. Howard Brinton, in Friends for 300 Years, writes, "Participation in life as a whole reaches down below the level of ideas to the deeper feelings which move the will." My purpose is to show how a lifetime of experiential learning outweighed a plan rationally arrived at. Also, I cannot shirk making a plea on behalf of the only Mother Earth we have.

Over the years, my consciousness has been heightened by reading authors who conveyed a sense and love of place: for example, Thoreau’s Walden, John Burroughs’ In the Catskills, J. F. Cooper’s The Deerslayer (central New York), and Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (Cape Cod). I have gone to some of the exact spots described to feel their aura and to see if I could still experience the wildness, solitude, sacredness, or whatever quality had inspired the author. This attachment to places has been for me a prime motivator for connecting to the natural world. Thomas Berry’s The Great Work expands the author’s natural world from a childhood meadow to all of North America. Likewise, it helped to elevate my concern from the Waldens I know to the world arena. This book has moved me more than any other account of our way into the future.

Studying ecology gave me an appreciation for all of nature, its cycles, its habitats, and its interwovenness. Reading geology and evolution showed the vastness of time and eternity, and the minute but relentless change that fills every part of that continuum. Quaker writers who have influenced me include John Woolman, Kenneth Boulding, and a contemporary, Marshall Massey. They have given early insight into our economic and ecological prospects and have urged Friends to action.

My understanding of the environmental issue seeks to include the views of those who oppose environmental action as well as the perspectives of the advocates. It considers the care of the air, soils, and water that sustain us and the needs of future generations of all species that inhabit the Earth. It includes a deep reverence for the sun, the ultimate source of the energy that moves life, the light that colors our surroundings, and the brilliance and warmth that lift our spirits. Included are a respect for natural laws, the workings of economics, and the ways of human nature.

My emotional attachment to the natural world began as a boy, when I adopted the woods around my home as the place of adventure, discovery, and retreat. Often with bare feet and spear, I imagined myself to be an Indian scout. I can still see the paths, berry patches, snake dens, and sumac thicket hideaways where I would spend hot summer afternoons reveling in the sounds and smells around me. Scouting and summer camp were an eco-fraternalizing part of my pre-teen years. I was proud to row for the camp’s fishing champion, but I felt the agony of the boated fish, yanked from its element and gasping for life. Later I enjoyed hiking, winter camping, and nature photography, which brought me to places where I could visually experience wilderness in natural light, its life and death, its symmetries and randomness, and its sounds and stillness. These sensory experiences were transformed into emotional responses.

Now I can cool myself on a hot day by visualizing a hemlock-shaded glen with moss-covered rock and swaying ferns. Trees were a special love. I participated in a Council of All Beings, in which I took on the consciousness and voice of a grey birch, sharing my wonder and dismay over the changing world around me. My family’s vacations returned to the same familiar places, where I felt at home and where I could observe the changes that occurred from year to year. I recall my sense of loss over one small pond, slowly diminishing due to the receding water table caused by nearby residential development.

I have lived in my home county for over 65 years and have seen wrenching changes. My suburban home stands on former farm land acquired by Paramount Pictures for the filming of rural scenes. Nearby, back in the early 1950s, stood a rambling country inn with a creek-fed duck pond and gazebo. This bucolic scene was balled, bulldozed, and buried; it was replaced by Burger King, Sleepy’s Mattress, halogen floodlights, and more-than-ample macadamized parking. When I first held my granddaughter, I suddenly felt an emotional attachment to future generations. It was then that the query "What wilt thou say to thy grandchildren?" sprang into my mind. This question, more than any other single opening, is now moving me to action. All of this experience, and much more, created bonds that I know I must work to preserve.

The spiritual connection to the natural world takes me beyond emotional ties and to relationship with all that was, is, and will, be. These relationships are a unique way of being, which is who I am and how I see the world. They have made me tender to the Great Spirit that moves us. When I consider that the atoms making up my body have been part of countless "others" since the Creation and will be part of countless "others" in the future, regardless of the fate of the human species, I feel an awesome sense of eternity. Knowing that some atoms making up my body, and yours, were joined in some prehistoric rose or reptile, gives me a loving sense of our kinship. I recall a vignette that relates how a Native American father appraises his son’s first year at university by asking, "What have you learned about that tall pine over there?" The befuddled young man awaits his father’s counsel: "You are that tree." This story does not imply that the young man will never chop down the tree, but that he will not do it without gratitude for its life, without a sense of personal loss, and without care for the daughter seedlings that have sprung up around it. Many Friends have valued and claimed a unity with nature as a worldview that can heal the alienation attributed to the Eden story.

The cultivation to bring our leadings to fruition requires that we confront the barriers and rationalizations that keep us from action. There are many reasons why I haven’t found the time, conviction, or courage to commit to the cause. The beliefs that have bogged me down have changed over the years since I joined the Sierra Club in 1976. Then I thought that science and technology would provide the solutions to environmental problems. The "green revolution" of the 1960s gave great promise for increased grain yields with the use of a few hybrid strains, but such monoculture made grain crops vulnerable to disease. Our solution to one problem often creates new problems. Later, I felt that our political leaders had time to deal with a distant problem in an orderly way, but it became apparent that they were too short-sighted or beholden to entrenched interests to inspire economic and environmental reforms. Soon I found myself overwhelmed by the enormity, complexity, and proximity of the environmental dilemma. This perception gave rise to notions such as "I can’t do anything until I learn more about it," "What could I possibly do that would have any impact?" and "How can I ask others to mobilize until I have cleaned up my own house?" Now I feel it is better to confess our own failings as a work in progress and to join the movement than to sit aside until we have achieved exemplary status. My emotional blockages have been feelings of remorse, recognizing my acquiescence to our way of life and my complicity in this system that is failing us. I am confronting my own indulgences, habits of convenience, inertia, and misperceptions and am clearing these thorns from my garden.

At times I have fallen into dejection and gloom over the prospect of even suggesting change in the direction of our free-market system and consumerist culture. Our propensities toward amassing wealth, planned obsolescence, and unlimited growth seem ingrained. Our violation of the Earth’s carrying capacity, caused by unrestrained population growth, is a spiritual issue that the world’s religious and political leaders are avoiding. To convince others that the environmental concern is both a moral and an existential issue has seemed daunting.

The reluctance for involvement by people of faith may be due to a failure to see the environmental dilemma as a spiritual concern, but finding right relationship with all of Creation is the heart of the matter. What is the human purpose and destiny on this planet? What legacy of the past should we bring to future generations? How do we express God’s love, our unique human endowment, for all of Creation? Issues of war, social and economic justice, and ethics and morality are all subsidiary to the overarching concern of this century: ecological integrity. Without a viable biosphere in which these human issues can play out, they all become irrelevant. Many of us have had a rising of consciousness in the last decade, but to move us to action, we all need to feel the concern in our heart and gut. Many people become emotionally involved only when ecological impacts appear in their backyards or in their pocketbooks. Others have an ethical concern for the future of civilization, but even some scientists are still in denial of the environmental peril, its gathering momentum, and its possible consequences.

My own spiritual difficulty has been discerning the calling. Until a few months before my retirement, I was sure that my calling was to go into holistic health counseling and education, for which I had been preparing for several years. Suddenly, with the birth of my granddaughter, and sensing the potential for great change in our national priorities, I felt a new urgency to defend the planet, or at least my little corner of it. Does God call us to two vocations at once? For several weeks I struggled with this question until it became clear that my emotional ties to the Earth were lifelong, perhaps from my Germanic ancestry and its roots in the primeval forest. These connections were stronger than my ties to holistic health, which had formed more recently and which were based on a yearning to help people, after a career in engineering and technology. Years of experience had outweighed my well-intentioned plan. It was like rediscovering my childhood sweetheart.

Retirement vocation is an important life decision. John Yungblut, in his Pendle Hill pamphlet subtitled, An Octogenarian’s Counsel on Living and Dying, in talking about cultivating one’s gifts, says, "One must search the depths of his or her own psyche for signs of hidden gifts. This means being attentive to one’s dreams and fantasies and awaiting evidence of a spontaneous resonance." Although my opening has appeared without great rapture, I now realize that the seeds that were sown over the years are gifts that have finally burst forth. I also see that the leading I was given lies between two concerns that are different only in scale: the wholeness of the individual and the wholeness of the planet. Everything in humanity has its correspondence in nature. God’s design reveals that humanity and nature are one. This spiritual perspective is both humbling and empowering.

My calling now is to work within Quaker and other faith groups to encourage people to greater consciousness and active involvement. Several people in my meeting formed an Eco-Spirituality interest group to advance Friends’ understanding of the human unity with nature and to enable us to practice sustainable living and pursue witness and outreach as individuals and as a meeting community. We have sponsored activities such as adult classes, meetings for worship with a concern for the environment, regular articles in our monthly newsletter, and meeting-wide consideration of a Peace Testimony for the 21st century that incorporates peace with the Earth. I would like to bring nature’s song and the environmental ethic to young people in schools, camps, and community organizations. Many parents (and grandparents) need to learn the importance of raising their children in ways that nurture their emotional bonding with the natural world.

The challenge is to carry on this work in a spirit of hope and joy. It is important to realize that we have not been brought to this crisis by an evil conspiracy. We are all partners in a system that rewarded hard work and lifted millions to a comfortable life. However, it did not adapt to the changes happening in the world: increasing population and pollution, the rise in the religion of materialism, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and exhaustion of resources formerly considered infinite. We have all been subsidized by the Earth’s natural bounty.

There are a number of reasons for optimism. First and foremost is the understanding that all of the factors causing the environmental dilemma are within human control: population, consumerism, and financial and technological excesses. We have the choice and the capability to set things right. Second is the great increase in consciousness within the last few years, from our children to our national political leadership. Several national Quaker organizations are wholly dedicated to the environmental concern. There are many community and regional organizations for involving ourselves in local planning, practice of sustainable living, political action, or environmental activism with which we can affiliate. Third are the Quaker testimonies: Peace, Simplicity, Stewardship, Equality, and Integrity; values that are highly relevant to ecological wholeness. And fourth is the proven Quaker way of leadership and consciousness-raising by example, listening, querying, and discovery by firsthand experience and inner search. Finally, I can embark on this mission, no matter how limited, with the knowledge that I am doing the right thing in helping to spread the seeds of a better world.

Recently, in meeting for worship, a Friend’s message reminded me that if the human species chooses to extinguish itself, God’s Creation will go on long after. It existed long before humans arrived and is resilient enough to recover from the human visit. The planet is not dependent on us, but we are fully dependent on the natural world. Civilizations before ours have come and gone, typically due to ecological and economic shortsightedness rather than conquest. Will we obey God’s leading to the Peaceable Kingdom before it is too late? What will you say to your grandchildren?


Fred W. Doneit, a member of Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Meeting, is currently serving as clerk of the meeting's Eco-Spirituality Interest Group. He has just begun retirement after a career in communications, computers, and mechanical construction.