Tracking Down Ecological Guidance: Presence, Beauty, Survival

helmuthBy Keith Helmuth. Chapel Street Editions, 2015. 243 pages. $20/paperback.

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In the first chapter of Tracking Down Ecological Guidance, Keith Helmuth describes his experience of flying six miles above the Amazon on a moonlit night, and how what he saw—both the beauty and the destruction—has been forever imprinted in his mind and heart. This book feels like a gift from that height—a mind- and soul-stretching view of our place in time, space, and cosmology—from the wisest Quaker that I know in matters of Earth.

The title of chapter one, “Angels of History, the Storm of Progress, and Order of the Soul,” gives a hint of what’s in store. This is not your standard environmental crisis book that lays out all the dangers we are facing, and trumpets a call to action. Rather, Helmuth probes into our souls and into assumptions that we have no words for, assumptions that envelope us as does our skin. At the same time, with a love that is both gentle and fierce, he invites us into a deeper sense of connection with Earth than many of us have known.

Helmuth is deeply concerned about our future, noting that the expansionist dynamic of our current economic system has no apparent mechanism of limitation to prevent it from driving the planetary ecosystems into collapse. He sees fatalism, however, as a poor religion for our times. We may be tempted by the believable story that it suggests, and may prefer to “have a story with a bad outcome that is believable rather than a story that is unbelievable or no story at all.” Yet fatalism fails the test of certainty; its assumption that our current economic system is based on natural law is unfounded; and its closed-loop mindset sets up a self-fulfilling dynamic.

A recurring theme is the task of building spiritual resilience in the face of disaster. He maintains a steady, loving focus on the potential of the human-Earth relationship, and speaks of a “faith behind faith . . . a gift given to the earth process as a whole, manifesting in every form of life as an unquenchable urge to flourish.” Many religious stories can provide a home for this faith behind faith, though he warns that the Abrahamic religions will provide guidance for the future only to the extent that they can shift from an emphasis on monotheistic moral will, and bring to their center a refreshed understanding of the importance of the human-Earth relationship. He suggests the need for a new story, one in which ecological guidance and the presence of the Divine pivot into a single focus.

A chapter on technology encourages a shift from mindset to toolkit. With its focus on measurement, analysis, and efficiency, technology has come to surround and colonize our minds so they are made into accessories to its logic and bias. What would it take to get our minds out of the harness and instead surround technology with discernment, discrimination, and seasoned judgment? Can we envision, for example, a world with electricity but without the internal combustion engine?

In this wide-ranging collection of talks and essays, Helmuth looks at the core task of building a human-Earth relationship from a variety of angles. How can artists—poets, musicians, and others—illuminate the issues and help us find our way? What is the role of higher education? How can indigenous cosmology and practice provide guidance toward the human-Earth-Divine relationship? The epilogue, in a slight change of tone, offers a brief but cogent look at issues of energy, economics, finance, ecojustice, and public policy.

The breadth of scientific and cultural knowledge that he brings is astonishing—and some bits cry out to be retold. For instance, the Japanese have long had a word for “bathing in wood air,” and scientists have recently identified a host of chemical compounds emitted by trees. So the refreshment of a walk in the woods may actually come from being embedded in the chemical environment of the forest, an example of the human-Earth relationship at its best. Similarly delightful and thought-provoking, studies show that people with seasonal affective disorder are helped by exposure to the first light of day.

Holding out a goal of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship, Helmuth reminds us that what we are attuned to is what we get guidance from. This book offers guidance that we all need. So give yourself, your meeting, and all your friends a gift. Get a copy of Tracking Down Ecological Guidance, and let yourself be moved and shaped by this loving, challenging, sobering, deeply human, uncompromising, faith-infused, profound message for everyone who values connection, and cares about our future on this planet.

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