WALKING IN BEAUTY
I've been in quite a funk lately. Yup, it really is possible to feel weird in paradise. I mean a real weirdness – the kind that can make one's face red and twisted.
It's probably due to thinking too much, which I certainly do, but that seems to be my nature. Maybe it's the way that I find the story?
Here's the current "chapter":
Those of you who know me, know of my history as a forest-defending anti-materialism sort of a guy. Now I'm in one of the most special places in the world watching as it enters a new time of material development -- legitimate and well-deserved development. And it's likely to have an enormous impact on the natural world as well. How do we rise out of poverty and achieve reasonable comfort levels AND save the forest? Somehow, I've taken it personally, so, as my Indian friends say, "there are heavy stones in my basket."
First, let me describe the setting...
This region of the Amazon is known by the acronym MAP by the scientists because it is comprised of the political districts of Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil and Pando in Bolivia.
The general region is one of the great global centers of biodiversity and, incredibly, home to some of the last remaining tribes of indigenous peoples who have never come into direct contact with modern society. The reason that much remains is that, without any bridges across the major rivers, the roads from every direction have ended here. End of the road, end of the world (at least the world of commerce). Unless you were a cocaine smuggler there was no serious cross-border traffic. It has been a "wilderness" inhabited by “lost tribes”, abandoned rubber tappers and renegades.
It's also the region where Raimundo Irineu Serra and Chico Mendes discovered and elaborated their respective spiritual and environment missions. Coincidently, these two famous Acreanos share the same day of birth -- December 15th. Acre can no longer be considered as the "end of the world" and their histories are part of the huge cultural diffusion unfolding from here. Indeed, tiny Fortaleza was recently written about in the magazine Rolling Stone Brasil.
Everything now seems to be caught in a surge of development. The new bridge has been opened at Assisi near the point where Peru, Bolivia and Brazil meet. When the road is complete through Peru it will form the first cross-continental trade route. As the signs of globalization and modernization appear it's easy to spot the changes. Even for a newcomer, the feeling of "something new" is pervasive. Commerce and enterprise abound. It causes me to wonder how it will impact the forest?
My first encounter with the Amazon forest was a number of years ago when I visited the Santo Daime community of Mapia (located in Amazonas but accessed via Acre). I arrived there both exhilarated and exhausted – exhilarated by my first visit to Amazonia and exhausted because during the previous two weeks I had traveled from the United States to Brasilia and then to the southeast of Brazil to participate in an intense four-day ceremony followed immediately by four more days of travel by bus and plane and taxi and boat to Mapia. Traveling through Acre was my first direct witnessing of the incredible forest destruction that the past has wreaked upon this region. I recall having the strange feeling of being both very glad to be here and also being incredibly sad. It was confusing.
There's a side story here:
My first morning in Mapia I awoke at daybreak, had a coffee with everyone and then headed out into the forest to gather Rainha leaves for the preparation of the Daime sacrament. I worked only for about 20 minutes in the already hot morning sun when suddenly I fell violently ill and started vomiting. It was as if all the stresses of the previous week were pouring out of me. My friends helped me back to the house where we were staying and I rested in a hammock, getting up only to throw up some more. I could not hold down anything – food or water – and this continued throughout the next day.
When I was starting to show the signs of serious dehydration, my friends called upon Francesca Corrente who is a very fine Mapia healer. She arrived and gave me some Daime to drink which (of course) I threw up immediately. Then she asked me to breathe with very slow deep breaths and she began to sing softly one of her beautiful hymns, the one about the blue butterfly – the spectacular Blue Morpho that inhabits the tropical forests. She repeated the hymn over and over again for what seemed like a very long time. Slowly, I felt a calm returning and reaching deeply into my body.
When I became tranquil, she began to speak to me through a translator. She said that I was very open and that there were now many “dark beings following me trying to cause confusion.” She said that I would feel or perceive them as “difficult thoughts.” She continued, saying that she had "sung the hymn into my body", sending it gliding inward with my deep breaths and that now it would always be there as a guide. “When you feel confused,” she said, “watch for the blue butterfly and follow it. It flies along the right path, the path of Juramidam.”
The next evening I attended my first Santo Daime session in Mapia and drank some very strong Daime. I sat down and closed my eyes and a vision arrived almost immediately. It was a beautiful blue butterfly. I watched and became fascinated by the movement of its wings which seemed to have a special pattern of flapping three times and then gliding into the forest. It was following the rhythm of the maraca that was setting the tempo of the hymns that were being sung in the ceremony. Yes, it was following the path of Juramidam.
Nowadays, I somehow feel similarly open and even hypersensitive under the impact of the cleansing power of the strong Daime and powerful ceremonies here at Fortaleza. And, I often feel vulnerable, in awe and at times lost in confusion. It's hard to "locate myself."
For example, here I am, sitting at my computer,
in a somewhere-near-nowhere place, typing a story for a globally dispersed audience far from the Amazon forest. As I type, I gaze out upon a primal world of green, a veritable vista verde, but my thoughts are meandering through the contradictions of modern existence. My heart feels full of love for the forests and its peoples. My mind is obsessed with the challenges of achieving a harmony between human beings and the natural world. I'm used to having conversations about it on the Internet. But this is the Inter- Not-Yet zone.
So, periodically, I travel to Rio Branco to spend time on-line in its magnificent new state-of-the-art air-conditioned and digitally-equipped public library (clearly a product of economic development and modernization).
Surfing the Internet, I read that President Lula has announced an “economic stimulus package” of infrastructure development (big road and hydroelectric projects) in the interior (eg: the Amazon and the Cerrado) in hopes of warding off the negative effects of the global economic downfall. In another article, I read that EMBRAPA (Brazil's world-leading research institute for tropical agriculture) is launching a crash program to develop new drought-resistant varieties to prepare for the possible consequences of global warming. And I read another article saying that you can't expect IBAMA (Brazil's environmental ministry) to achieve a whole lot because its budget is less than BR$ 200 million, whereas the agricultural ministry has a budget that tops BR$ 22 billion. My friend Kelpie sends me a link to a report saying that much of the Amazon forest may be lost in the next few decades due to climate change. I have an on-line forum debate with her about whether empowering women and slowing the rate of population growth can be expected to lessen dramatically the human ecological impact on the earth?
None of the above seems very promising to me.
So I return to Fortaleza where even my physical location seems now as a metaphor for the great challenge of development and sustainability. Somehow, the little house that I'm building sits symbolically in the midst of the contradiction.
On one side, there's “downtown Fortaleza” with its commons and visitor center
and its “industrial zone” of a ceramics kiln, a garage, new water tank and “public baths”.
On the other side, the view from the window above my computer, looks over the “agricultural zone” of mixed plantings of bananas and corn and squash and rice and manioc and more.
The view ends at a horizon created by a great forest wall, a frontier.
But nowadays the forest frontier is shrinking worldwide at alarming rates. Of course, there's no deforestation going on at Fortaleza but it's impossible for me to be here without thinking about the overwhelming impact that humans are having on the earth and its forests. The post World War II consumer and fossil fuel binge in the industrial world was unprecedented across all human time on earth. The global statistics are dramatic. Half of all the primary forests worldwide have been cut since 1950. And now economic development and modernization are bringing purchasing power to previously impoverished populations.
NO, surely we are not land exploiters here and our material improvements are pretty small-scale. But when I multiply them by the millions of people who are now entering the cycle of material development worldwide, what can I say but that it doesn't seem so good for the earth and the forests. Indeed, sometimes I feel like I'm in the spiritual heart of the world and in the belly of the beast – the beast being our collective human nature that keeps expanding and consuming and wasting.
Like I said, we're pretty small-time here. Electricity arrived two years ago and now there's a couple of new refrigerators, a couple of kitchen appliances and TVs and, of course, my computer. And we all eat meat – the more natural open-range grass-fed non-chemical-laden Brazilian variety which is better for one's health and not so good for the forest. (Greenpeace recently released a study showing the 80% of the land deforested in Amazonia in the last 20 years is now used for grazing cows and beef production.) And, yup, my house is built out of wood. I could go on and on but, at the bottom line, the truth is that no one here is living at the level of consumption or making the ecological foot-print that I and my many of my small-is-beautiful environmentally-conscious natural-and-organic-lifestyle save-the-rainforest, politically-correct friends enjoy back in Southern Oregon. It's not even close.
But, truthfully, I do worry about where the collective forces of economic and material development are carrying all of us. Thus, something got triggered in me when Saturnino said,
“Lou, I'd like you to document the things we're building and all the developments that we're making. It's important that people understand how much work goes into creating a physical space that can receive visitors and offer spiritual ceremonies. People often don't understand that there's lot more involved than just making and serving Daime and conducting spiritual sessions.”
But I'm afraid that his words tapped into my fears. Of course, it was a perfectly appropriate and reasonable request but it triggered a rebellion inside me. I was thinking like, “Oops, I'm a voice for the forest, perhaps even a little bit of a spiritual voice. I don't know how to be a voice for material development. I'm not that kind of a storyteller. How did this ever get into my job description? I'd much rather help develop some programs of environmental education or work on some innovative sustainability projects.”
Then Saturnino would show me recently mowed ground near the pineapple plantation
or the ground cleared of vegetation in the forest garden of Rainha or the big lawn in the commons area and say, “Beautiful, isn't it?” and I would think, “Oops, lawns aren't beautiful. They are a war against nature. Just look at all the wasted time and fuel and labor that goes into maintaining them.” But later I would realize that there's a reason for the lawns.
These tall tropical grasses
are home to a host of creatures. Look at what can be living there...
Kids play and people camp in these areas and folks spend a lot of time gathering leaves in the Rainha garden. Making areas humanly accessible, safe and attractive is also beautiful. That's certainly true, but the storyteller in me surely was not inspired. How might the "Jonny Appleseed of ecological idealism” tell this story? Ah, yet another dilemma.
Actually, these tensions have been building since I first arrived in Brazil and seem to have come to a head in recent months as I've begun making my own "developments" in Fortaleza. But it's been hard for me to find the "inspired story." And not posting much recently causes me to feel not very good about my performance as the “official photographer of Fortaleza”. I actually was beginning to wonder if I really should be here. I was discouraged and starting to feel that the whole situation was hopeless.
Last Saturday I did what I usually do when I'm feeling sad – I went for a long walk. I headed down the back-country lane and onto the road that connects with the main highway.
I saw the lone standing nut tree.
It's the standard practice to leave the nut trees during the deforestation and they remain as monuments to the past, their great branches reaching outward at the level just above what had been the canopy of a dense forest – a forest that had been laid to the ground.
For some reason I thought of the last verse of Mestre Irineu's final hymn:
My body in the grave
Neglected in the night air
Someone speaks in my name
Maybe in a thought
Back in the States I had been one of those voices, speaking not for the Santo Daime movement, but for the save-the-forest movement. Indeed, I still yearn to be that kind of a voice. I felt very sad.
I walked for a long time and didn't return to Fortaleza until dusk. When I arrived, people said, “Hurry Lou. Everyone is gathering at Padrinho's house. We're going to sing the prayers." Well, I just didn't feel like it. I was hot and sweaty and dirty and I really didn't want to be with people. I just wanted to take a shower and be quiet at home, which is what I did. But the thoughts began to rage and I did what I often do to escape – I buried myself in work. For me that means sitting at the computer and processing photos. When the current batch was done I decided to have some fun making some Photoshop art. Despite the presence of visitors and extended family in the community, I remained alone that night.
Of course, my thoughts kept raging all the time. I thought, “Wow, I've finally come home to be with my family and I discover that I can't talk with anyone. The language barrier is huge and besides everyone is always so busy working that probably no one would have the time or desire to sit around with an old retired guy and do “nature appreciation” as if on a park bench while discussing the “insurmountable problems of the modern world.” I felt very alone and I thought, “Perhaps, it could be different if I just had a friend who had time to sit around.”
The next day Edson Alexandre visited. To me, he seems as a man full of love and light. I always feel honored when he visits. He plays an important role in the spiritual community and regularly contributes beautiful hymns to the expanding Doctrine of the Santo Daime. For example, in the video below, he is presenting a new hymn. This one is called, "Light, Light, Light."
Edson doesn't speak English so we could not talk much but I knew that he really enjoys listening to music. I started playing mp3s stored in the computer and burning a disk of the albums he liked and I really enjoyed watching the way he sat so long on my veranda looking at the forest view. Without many words it was nevertheless a wonderful sharing. I felt a little less lonely. Maybe it wasn't as hopeless as I had thought.
The next day 9 year-old Polidoro visited. He loves nature and often brings his pet birds along in case I'd like to make a video clip. Polidoro has a real fascination for the computer. He has this calm but intensely watchful demeanor as he stands quietly behind me checking out whatever I'm working on. I was still perfecting the image from the other night, applying some Photoshop filters.
I asked, “Do you like it?” and he gave me a very strong nod, YES! Then I glanced out the window and said, “But I really think that nature is much better, what do you think?”
A smile flashed on his sunburned and somewhat dirty face and light blazed forth from his eyes.
Another memory moved across my mindscape... A few years ago, a couple of months after Murilo's youngest daughter was born, I asked, “How does it feel to be a father bringing a new child into our difficult times?” He thought for a moment and then very quietly, almost in a whisper, said, “Lou, children are our hope.”
I came back to the present and asked Polidoro if he would like to explore nature with me and said, “Maybe I could also teach you some English and you could be my Portuguese teacher. Would you like that?” He flashed another one of his great smiles and reached out to shake my hand.” I think I have found my friend.
Padrinho Luiz loves to laughingly say that “simplicity is the path to emotional tranquility”
and the motto of this spiritual center says, “Humility is the Symbol of Nobility.”
Yet, here I was still wondering how I might get humble and simple. My inner voice responded, “You could join the human race and admit that you really don't know any of the answers for the great dilemmas of sustainable development. Perhaps sharing your photos of the beauties that you discover in nature and in the human-created world around you is all you can do right now.”
It sure felt right. I returned from my thoughts and glanced outward just in time to see a blue butterfly glide past my little “room with a view.”
Below is another window with a digital view, a slide show of a few of the beauties of Fortaleza – natural and human-created ones.
[Note: If you have a low bandwith connection and the slide show
doesn't load very well, please use this LINK to the thumbnails where
you can choose individual photos to view.]
So how do we harmonize people and the forest? Is nature or culture more important? Those polarizing questions now seem to me as a source of much of my mental confusion. The simple truth is that nature is the very ground of our being and culture creates the choices of how we might live with her. The emergent and challenging truth is that, in these current times of ecological crisis, culture and nature are going to rise or fall together. People and creatures too! Hopefully, Fortaleza is one of the places where we can learn a little about how to nurture a healthy reconnection -- to spirit, to culture, to nature and to the each other.
It's true that it really does take an awful lot of work to create and maintain and keep expanding Fortaleza. Much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. It's always perfecting, a labor of love. Perhaps you'd like to visit and sit a bit on my veranda. Or volunteer to help with the work. Or make a little contribution. There's no best way. What I keep realizing is that following one's heart is the true and never-ending work. That's what I've been learning to do.
As I was sitting here with computer and view putting the final touches on this post, I was listening to the beautiful hinario of Rosana Cristiane Pereira. Just as her hymn, "I Call Juramidam" came on, a Blue Morpho butterfly passed by. (No kidding!) I guess this is what it means to be "living in the Doctrine." My friend Jonathan suggested that this is also what the Native Americans mean when they speak of "Walking in Beauty." I dunno. Words are inadequate. Being here is better.
[CORRECTION: As I reconstructed the day of the Polidoro's photo, I realized that his face is not sunburned. About an hour earlier he had been playing in tall grass and had stirred a nest of bees. He was stung 9 times, including once on the face. Nevertheless he had a smile for the camera and said that nature was "better." What a guy!]
[NOTE: 10 April 2009 -- This post was selected as an "Editor's Choice" in the NY Times blog DotEarth. Thanks to Andy Revkin for his continuing work with a great blog http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/]