As California Burns, Showing Up For the Planet Inspired by Standing Rock

An address for Showing Up for the Planet, August 22, 2020, hosted by Marin Sangha, California, alongside Bay area green, economic, social justice, political initiatives.  

I wrote this,  updating  a previous blog on  Standing  Rock , before “Showing Up for the Planet” because I was not sure if I could read it myself  as an invited presenter. This is due to being on the edge of  the fires and an Evacuation Warning Zone here in Sonoma County.

Yesterday afternoon, I was drawn into the garden by an eerie orange light, but instead of delighting, I was sobered by the sun’s strange light refracted through smoke. Small particles of ash were falling, and for some reason, my mind went to ash from the Nazi death camps. I’m not sure why, but there’s some connection to that horror and the horror we’ve inflicted on Mother Nature, and because of that, the horror we have now inflicted on ourselves. I’m aware I’m now breathing in incinerated trees, foliage, creatures, small animals, maybe large ones too, redwoods, buildings, structures, cars, maybe even some people. I don’t know yet.

Yesterday, the morning was all business as usual, a universe of normality. By afternoon, suddenly scrambling to find batteries, passports, water bottles and essentials to pack the car. The car is still packed as we waited another night through, not sure whether we’ll be in our bed, or in car seats in a parking lot with sleeping bags for comfort.

Nothing feels particularly comfortable anymore. The hijack of the economy by oligarchs, the destruction of an already teetering political body by fascists, and the evolutionary hope pulled under by a devolving toxic QAnon and co-conspirator’s viral reptilian psychotic brain cult.

The daily sinking feeling of life unraveling under Covid, the tightening breath at disappeared mailboxes and organized Post Office chaos and horror at a private militia disappearing people off the streets of Portland and other American cities.

All the while from that frozen wilderness, the raw beauty of Greenland, the devastating news its ice sheet “has melted to the point of no return.” Reports from the unsung gentle Swiss glaciologist, scientist, and data nerd, Konrad Steffan, working, exploring, and who lived for long periods of time at their ice base established in 1990, to study the melting of this massive ice sheet. He noted, that such a tipping point, now reached, means a 5-metre sea rise within 50 – 100 years triggering mass migrations from costal cities. (There is other  interpretations of the data, this is just quoting him.)

Saturday, August 15th, 2020, as if the icy and watery spirits of Greenland themselves were claiming him to their own, Steffen fell 8 metres through a fresh melt pond, a melt not meant to melt. They have not found his body.

This all comes down to the body; bodies in a hierarchy of systemic importance. Which bodies get to survive, who is lost to the sea? Migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean, their calling card, an empty life jacket. Those in cages at the Mexican border, invisible under their space blankets. The sheer weight of the battle for basic rights, food, freedom, all the love invested, crushed under a knee to the neck, of BIPOC, Palestinians, reporters.

The White House 4 year barrage of sadistic cruelty, projected hate vomit, the misogynistic, homophobic oppressive demand for the this white plantation dominator choked cookie cutter 1850’s to 1950’s only allowed world view.

It all is breathed with specks of ash, with smoke from the fury of fire, the ancient redwoods, our ancestors, on the front lines, as our beautiful mother nature, grandmother earth absorbs the impact of our minds, burning, as said the Buddha, by the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.

It’s hard not to feel beleaguered. It’s hard to stay above the despair lurking beneath the exhausted emotions of outrage, fear, grief for what is being destroyed…

It’s getting harder to breathe. I can’t breathe, we can’t breathe. It’s not just oxygen, but space, lightness, hope, some sense of cohesive stability, of a future. As all is fast eroding, the crushing multiple crises converging in our bodies, minds, and hearts has heralded our new radical curriculum.

If you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, dispirited, deeply anxious, laden with tears that can’t quite spill, then please be gentle, kind, spacious, and pace yourself, our selves, accordingly. While all is urgent, we still have long haul ahead.

It’s hot, dry. I’m sweating

Mni Wiconi. Water is Life

Standing Rock was an act of resistance to stop the DAPL pipeline going through Sioux and Lakota lands, under the Missouri River, threatening 50 million people’s water down stream.

But it was also a training ground to resist the march of eco-destruction that is now triggering mass extinction and the collapse of human civilisation.

Seasoned activists taught new comers, like me, how to withstand militarised police and private militia, clean out tear gas from tender eyes, treat rubber bullets; how to huddle together, to move as one, arms locked, to circle and protect the vulnerable and those targeted first, Indigenous and People of Colour.

While a stretch from my safe world, it made perfect sense within the context of our dystopian future that is fast arriving. Interlocking my arms awkwardly while in a clumsy shuffle, a moment of prescience flashed, we will all likely find ourselves at a “Standing Rock” before too long.

Perhaps downtown on Main Street, at the shopping mall, outside a slaughterhouse, protecting a forest, at a fracking site, outside a bank, in any country, at any time, on any and at every street corner.

A few years after Standing Rock, at a climate protest in London, for moment I was back on those frozen lands of North Dakota. Of course, it made perfect sense. The spirit of Standing Rock was on the streets of London, in Extinction Rebellion, and was spreading around the globe through various forms of civil disobedience, protests, acts of challenge, and clear, brave words ringing out loud. The lines are drawn, internally and externally, and the fight for nature, for existence in all its astonishing diversity, is on. The question is what will be our response and contribution be?

Standing Rock brought everything to utter simplicity. There was no money to exchange or things to buy, none of our usual café’s and restaurants, no central heating or sheltered houses. It ran on sharing, on appreciation for a shaft of warm sunlight, a cup of hot tea, a shared meal, the warmth of human connection, and the passionate struggle for life, for justice, for a radically decolonised world.

Mni Wiconi

Water is Life.

It is an immense thing to try and understand that we are about to pull over the great planetary cauldron of life, bubbling for billions of years, and spill it into the dust. “How has it come to this?” as King Théoden said at Helm’s Deep, just before riding out, straight into the grotesque and overwhelming army of terrifying Orcs. The odds of success are low, the power of those who destroy is enormous; the seduction of money and the desire to control everything wired so profoundly into my brain with its insidious mechanisms that has made us all part of the machine.

However, there is another power that shone through with great brilliance at Standing Rock. The power of the spirit, of heart, of the collective, and of a learnt Indigenous history of what it means to survive centuries of extreme oppression while keeping the sacred fire alive.

Throughout, at Standing Rock, there was always the sacred fire, to sit by, to listen, to find solidarity with ancestors, the spirits, the elements, and with each other, often in a silence filled with pregnant presence.

Standing Rock was an Indigenous led resistance through the power of collective prayer and ceremony. Its context is the 500-year long impact of Colonialism on First Nation People, which inflicted one of the largest genocides in human history, alongside mass invasion of Native lands, a litany of broken treaties, legislated cultural oppression including removal of children through forced Christianised education at boarding “schools”, and the on-going marginalisation of Indigenous rights.

This generational domination was demonstrated by the State of North Dakota’s attempt to force, through intimidation and violence, the Sioux Tribe to accept what white society, a few dozen miles upriver at Bismarck city has rejected; the Dakota Pipeline through the heart of their community.

The assurance of Energy Transfers Partnership, who laid the pipeline, that there will not be an oil spill into the Missouri River, which the pipeline traverses, are empty given that that there have been hundreds, if not thousands of pipeline spills, including those from ETP pipelines.

In the fierce confrontation that unfolded, Standing Rock also became a learning ground for Energy Companies who ramped up their oppressive strategies with increasing violence and insidious tactics; it’s infiltration, surveillance and hacking of communications.

Standing Rock, one of the most unique resistance camps ever, was a front line against the most powerful and destructive corporation ever in the history of humankind, the Oil Industry. It was the first time, since the Battle of Little Bighorn in the 1800’s that Seven Lakota and Dakota Nations came together, alongside over 30 other Indigenous Nations.

This gathering of Indigenous Nations from all over Turtle Island (the Native name for America) has not been known in historical memory. The tribes represented were joined by First Nation peoples from South America, New Zealand, and beyond, and allies from around America and further afield. Over  two thousand military veterans who vowed to protect this courageous and determined community also joined up.

At the heart of this resistance is a commitment to break the cycles of violence born of a colonial mind-set, which feels entitled to extract for self-benefit regardless of the impact.

This mind-set is now the front line everywhere, within and around us all. Increasingly, our choices are influenced by a colonising, psychopathic corporate agenda extracting extortionate amounts of wealth for a tiny percentage of the global population (8 men now own as much as 50% of the world wealth, according to Oxfam).

But we can also make different choices, mindful choices that aid a necessary resistance upon which our survival now depends. Such a radically different path, demonstrated at Standing Rock, was the bedrock of an indigenous template for wise choice informed by seven Lakota values around which the community orientated itself.

These values speak to collective resistance as both an inner training as well as guidelines for family, community, society, and business.

This is how I heard them.

  1. Prayer: Honour and respect the sacred within all life, which includes nature, the earth, the elements of fire, water, air, and those living beings that are not two legged. (The reductive term, animals, is not in indigenous language, instead the term ‘our relatives’ is used.) Purify the heart. Connect with ancestors, and the overall indwelling spirit of creation while aligning within community through ceremony. This involves ceremony as resistance, resistance as ceremony.

 

  1. Respect: Respect begins with deferential listening, and from that, a willingness to shift into new ways internally and behaviour externally. It means not pushing ego agendas and strategies. Instead be willing to listen to wise elders, children, to feedback, to what is needed for the overall good of the community.

 

  1. Compassion: Take care of one another. Be compassionate towards ones self, and to self and others when making mistakes. The stronger let the physically weaker go first, for example, at meals, the elders, women and children go first. As a practice, step aside from assuming entitlement due to race, gender, class, wealth, and instead tune into the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable.

 

  1. Honesty: Be true and authentic with each other, while being self honest about our conditioning and how that plays out in ways that generate harm, even subtly, to others and the environment.

 

  1. Generosity: Put in more than you take out. Generosity is not just sharing physical goods, but is essential to generating sustainable life for all. It is the direct opposite of colonisation, which is based in domination and ownership at the expense of others.

 

  1. Humility: Be grounded in your own being, while checking your expectations of others and what is around you. Hold off from pushing your agenda, particularly if it is dominating the space with “I have a better way” or “My idea is best.” Be sensitive to internalised colonised conditioning, and be willing to own it.

 

  1. Wisdom: We all carry wisdom within us, but within the context of Indigenous or Elder wisdom spaces, listen and be guided by the understandings offered. Resist an “extractive” mind-set, or cultural appropriation of what is not offered. Be respectful of elders and learn to listen to all voices, even those you don’t agree with.

Bring it Home!

Not everyone could get to Standing Rock, and not everyone at Standing Rock could go on the front lines. But every one of us must now pay heed to what unfolded there, because Standing Rock is now our part of our strategy to ensure a liveable planet for future generations.

We are on a precipice and the lights are going out. We are losing the Arctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the great forests, most wild life, and we are being threatened by a craven political and corporate agenda that cares for no one, except its own profit. Those who crave money will find out soon that they cannot eat their money. But, as said by the Elders, those at Standing Rock stand for them too, and for their children and their grandchildren.

At the heart of this sacred, prayerful and ceremonial resistance at Standing Rock is a commitment to complete non-violence.

My understanding of this, from what I witnessed, heard, and experienced, is that there is an invitation to align with a deeper power. This power, articulated as guidance of ancestors, forces of nature, and the overall guiding intelligence of the Great Spirit, that pulses within us.

At Standing Rock, the heart was stripped down to its essential rawness. In place of socialisation strategies, what arose was strength of authenticity, of sharing, of camaraderie, and a wonder at the resilience of human beings rising up.

Here’s what I heard from an Indigenous man who is a Water Protector and leader of the heart and spirit.

What should be remembered about Standing Rock is that it began with children calling us to pray with them. Elders too. We must mean and do what we say. Fighting from violence disrespects the ancestors. The ancestors are fighting the battle also, and they need us to be here without violence. You must pray for yourself, to take out your pain and have love put in your heart instead. As we unify with nature, she will heal us. Respect Mother Earth.

He also said,

One day, at the height of the Iraq War, an Elder Grandmother prayed to the ancestors at the sacred fire to ask that the war stop. They responded by saying to her that her prayer was a good prayer, but it was not enough. That everyone must pray to stop war. We are at a precipice. Everyone must now pray.

Water is Life.

This meme is the underlying stream of consciousness at Standing Rock. The pipeline threatens the clear and beautiful waters of the Missouri River.

Every morning, as day broke with its icy chill, the pre-dawn circle around the sacred fire, buoyed by shared wisdom from Elders and water protectors, enacted a ceremonial and collective walk to the frozen bank of the river.

There, offerings are made. Sometimes we saw formations of geese fly across the limpid snow grey sky over the still glass waters and sometimes we felt spirit of the Missouri respond. It was felt as a subtle jubilant uplift within the heart. This earth is alive and she feels our intentions, our actions, and our hearts. The evocative experience of this living prayer was an invitation for us all to reclaim a sacred relationship to water, air, earth, fire, and to be attentive to our indwelling consciousness.

Everyday we use water. We depend on it for life, and yet we entirely take it for granted. One late afternoon, a woman spoke at the sacred circle fire. She had come from Flint, Michigan to join forces. She spoke of poisoned water in her city, of people drinking and having their teeth dissolve, of people getting sick, dying, and of her own infertility and pain at not being able to mother children due to the poisoned water.

Standing Rock is not just about Standing Rock. It is about everywhere. It’s about our struggle to reclaim the sacredness of water, of the elements, and of Grandmother Earth.

It speaks to our need to reconnect with each other in more direct, generous, authentic and respectful ways, and it speaks to our true spirit, which seeks to release from the mechanistic, disassociated, drudgery of a de-sacralised life by undertaking acts of loving service and sacrifice. We do this for all of us.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse asked people of faith to come together at Standing Rock in prayer and ceremony. To do so can help avert our catastrophe.

We must continue to honour his request.

Standing Rock and its blazing heart lives on, through the myriad, potent seeds planted long ago, as I was told, by ancestors of that very land who knew these times would come. The seeds are now fast growing as collective resistance. The Indigenous People are showing the way, as have many oppressed people throughout history, and for this, words of gratitude seem paltry.

The gift of Standing Rock bequeathed a clarified, strong, heart burning with a light of commitment and passion in the face of such wanton destruction, hate, and ignorance. This then, is our offering of gratitude. To pick up that flame of hope, and to carry it long into the shadowy night that is fast circling us all.

I want to finish by returning to Greenland, with a true story from my Danish friend. To help us consider perhaps, not only ‘what to do’ but where we ‘do’ from.

There was a man in the early 1900’s, he was half Danish and half Inuit, an anthropologist, who spent long periods of time with the Inuit First Nation People’s of Greenland.

One day, out on the ice, with a hunting group, they cornered a large polar bear. As the man crept forward and the polar bear, knowing he was about to be killed, he suddenly lifted his front paws and smashed them on the ice.

The ice broke and both the polar bear and the explorer found themselves suddenly thrust into freezing water. Immediately the bear and the man recoiled from each other, even as they were rapidly freezing to death. However, the urgency of survival turned them back toward each other. The man later recorded that looking in each others’ eyes in a moment of intense intimacy, the sense of ‘man’ and ‘bear’ dropped away, there was only one soul looking back at another.

They both moved toward each other, as the rest of the hunting party hauled them up and out. Immediately the bear and the man ran in opposite directions.

When I heard this story, what I understood, is this is where we are now. Struggling to survive against increasingly devastating odds. How then, are we going to see ourselves, this world, and each other and how will that seeing inform what we do?