“We are the priests of a dying world.” My friend, Olivia Pepper, said that to me, a good while ago now. And I didn’t understand it then, when she first spoke those words to me, not the way I do now. For it is one thing to grasp a statement like that with the intellect alone – but it is another thing entirely to feel the weight of it in your body and in your bones, and in the depths of your being.
I have just returned from five months of solo cross-country travel It was a journey of mythical proportions, a time of gathering medicine to savor in solitude and to share among friends, a time of weaving stories I’ll treasures as secrets for myself as well as bold tales to offer to the world freely. I fell in love. I deepened in kinship with friends old and new. I became ill and nearly died one night. My truck broke down, horribly. I wept beside the ocean and gathered salt from her shores. I came to know and love a great many children and I sang late into the night with a circle of witches I have worked alongside for many lifetimes beyond this one. My trip was many things. It was a reminder of the deep longing which lives within me for home, most of all. A home I am not convinced that I will ever know. But I have already told you that story and it is time now for different tale.
Much about this trip felt pre-destined. As though, I’d dreamt it all long ago, laying in my bed as a child, listening to Joni Mitchell’s warm voice drift from the turn table beside me on the nightstand. This trip was vision that had lived within me for as long as I can recall. On the final day, precisely five months from my departure, I drove east from Balmorhea back toward Austin. Leaving at sunrise and stopping only to gather a few fistfuls sweet-smelling desert vervain, blooming for the second time this year at the first hint of Autumn on the air. I ate her purple flowers one by one as I drove, eager to remember her soothing medicine, and I felt myself at ease as I set out on that final stretch of highway. As I drove, I saw reflected in the pastel palette of the early morning sky, my own sense of completion, and of return. It is an odd thing – at once a privilege and a burden – to live out the dreams you’ve held so dear for so long, and to be forced, finally, to face them by light of day, seeing that they too are just a collection of imperfect moments like any other, unless you choose to savor them, which takes discipline and intention, and a certain degree of safety that I often find it difficult to conjure.
The Monarchs were migrating as I drove on this final day, filling the blue-grey skies all around me. Their journey echoed of my own, as they followed the timeless path of their yearly pilgrimage, listening to the Earth’s pull unquestioningly as they flew South toward Mexico. The route of my trip had been informed by a similarly mysterious and powerful internal compass, which guided me toward places I’d been destined to arrive, in this cycle and season of my own life. The butterflies flew uncharacteristically low, and head on into my truck. Their whisper light bodies of banded black and orange colored the highwayside. By the thousands, they were being hit and killed by semis and sedans — they were being killed by me. I froze, horrified and completely uncertain of how to act. I had to restrain myself to keep from swerving to avoid them as they flew into my windshield as though it were another dimension, entirely. Hot tears stung my tired face, as the weight of each winged creature fell upon my heart’s conscience. Desperate and frantic, I pulled over to the side of I-10 and began collecting their fragile corpses in my too-small palms. The wind blew hard with each passing semi and their lifeless bodies leapt from my hands as quickly as I’d gathered them. I found a basket and began to fill it, praying hard and crying salty crystal tears upon the hot asphalt as I went. My heart ached palpably as I knelt to collect each winged being. I felt as though I was gathering the tiny fallen angels, and I grieved in confusion with the knowing that I’d have to get back into my truck and continue to drive, headlong into the sacred route their ancient migration followed.
As painful as it was, the experience was also exquisitely beautiful. What a rare opportunity it was to admire these ephemeral creatures so intimately, to feel the dusty velvet of their bodies and the silk of their tangerine wings upon my skin. Try as it might my Mind could not make sense of the disparate emotions which consumed my Heart by turn. I was filled with awe as I beheld the preciousness of each tiny creature but then just as quickly, that awe was replaced by the harrowing reminder of what a truly dystopian scene I was baring witness to and participating in. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there were thousands of Monarchs lining the highway for nearly one hundred miles. While many drivers pressed onward hardly noticing, I am sure, I did not know what to do. But to have placed my tears upon the Earth’s surface, pausing to bless the Earth’s surface where each butterfly lay, I believe I was fulfilling my some sacred and long forgotten duty as a human.
After returning to Austin, the experience faded into the background of my awareness as I gathered myself fully present to celebrate my dear cousin’s wedding, and began to tend to and process the medicines I’d gathered along my travels. The 2016 presidential election loomed just a week away. It was raining in Austin and grey for days on end with no sunlight in sight. The basket of butterflies sat on the floor of my apothecary, unmoving, but far from forgotten. I spoke of them often, struggling to tell the tale. My words always fell short, my Heart unable to express the tug of war which went on within me still as I tried to make sense of the conflicting sense of beauty and death, awe and horror which I feel faced with when I consider the fate of our species and so many others. For how do you explain to your friends that you sense the world is dying? How do you tell the tale of your greatest fear coming true?
On the morning of November 9th, I woke to learn the results of the 2016 presidential election, still in bed and staring at my phone for what seemed an eternity, as I lay motionless, frozen. I felt as though the sun would never return, that it would rain forever, that the whole world and all that I loved would be swallowed by a river of raindrops which returned us to the Sea. I reached out to everyone who came to mind that morning, everyone I was scared for, everyone I loved, everyone I hoped could help me to make sense of it all. I cried in the arms of the kind stranger who taught the exercise class I forced myself to attend that morning. No one knew what to say. One friend in particular, who never fails to bring uncanny wisdom and remembrance to even the most dire moments, offered only that the hills were on fire around her, that she didn’t know what was happening either. I spent the week grieving our uncertain future, waking and sleeping in a daze of unending grey.
The Sunday after the election, I went out to lunch with my grandmother, 86, a trail-blazing liberal and feminist since her early life as well as one of the first ever program directors of Planned Parenthood. The skies had cleared and it was a pleasant early Autumn afternoon. We sat outside, waiting for our meal, talking about my work, about my cousin’s recent wedding, about her dog, who’d joined us for the outing. I spotted a bee wandering haphazardly across her blouse and leaned over the table, gently coaxing it onto my finger. The bee was disturbingly suggestible, crawling onto my finger and seeming to have no plans of flying away anytime soon. I placed her on my own shoulder, welcoming her presence. When she still had not alighted, minutes later, I understood. I picked her up again and walked over to a nearby blooming Rose, waiting patiently as she crawled, uncertain, into its center. Feeling somber now, I explained to my grandmother that it seemed as though the bee had been exposed to neonicotinoids – a relatively new class of pesticides which disrupt the nervous system of insects who come in contact with it, leaving them disoriented, and in the case of bees – unable to find their way home to the hive. These extremely harmful compounds are likely one of the causes underlying, the very scary phenomenon of colony collapse disorder. I asked my grandmother what she thought – about what I’d said, about the election, about the world. She nodded, solemnly, shrugged, and squinched her face in this way that she does, just barely shaking her head. She told me she thought it’d be best if the Earth was hit by an asteroid – swift + immediate – rather than enduring the natural disasters, degradation of ecosystems, and immanent collapse of civilization, which she predicted as the relatively slow and painful alternative. I sighed deep and excused myself as I let her words penetrate my reality.
It is a truly haunting thing to have your worst fears affirmed by the words of your Elders. Walking to the bathroom, through the crowded restaurant, all clean lines and laughing customers, I felt the immense weight of it all – and Olivia’s words returned to my mind. We are the priests of a dying world. I do not yet know, fully what that means, only that it is true, and increasingly so. We are actively midwifing our planet through a process of transformation, the other side of which remains a mystery. I know that Death is the very thing which gives rise to new Life, but on what timeline is that possible, when the organism of which we speak is as vast and ancient and complex in its wisdom as the Earth, our Home. When we think of things such as this, we are no longer considering a scale of biological time, but rather geological time. To speak of these things, we must remember that a mountain’s rise and fall upon this Earth is as brief as a wave upon the ocean.
Stephen Harrod Buhner, a favorite herbalist and earth poet, reminds us that most creatures are not consciously aware of the ecological niche that they fill, or the irreplaceable function that they serve as within the larger ecosystem of which they are a part. When bees travel from blossom to blossom, to nourish themselves with nectar and pollen, I believe that is their singular thought. But as they gather sustenance, they are in fact, acting with incredible grace and efficiency to simultaneously and effortlessly pollinate flowers and perpetuate Life’s flourishing — simply by doing what they do to survive. Buhner says, and I agree, that Nature does not make mistakes. And if this is true, then what could be the ecological role of the human species? What sacred service are we here to carry out? Is there any possibility that through our presence, we are somehow ultimately contributing to the Earth’s fertility on a scale of time far beyond our comprehension?
I believe that functions have been many, during the relatively short time we’ve existed on this planet. Certainly, in recent history, we have changed the landscape in an irreversible way that no other species during this era of life on Earth has even come close to. There was a time, though, not long ago when your ancestors and mine, tended to land as both sentient and sacred. When they were allied with and in direct relationship to the elements which sustained them. Though we now live quite far from this place, I sense that it is much closer to us than we collectively acknowledge. Despite what the mind may tell us, a world where we honor all our relations is just on the other side of softening to allow it. A world where each we act undertake has as its goal, the weaving of a steadfast community which honors all of its members, both human and non-human, as equally precious and essential parts of the whole. I do not doubt that we can return to it, and must, but I see also that we have a more seemingly subtle role to play at this time – that what is most needed of us now is our prayer, our ceremony, our honoring, our witnessing. For, what if it is through these acts that we are as the bee to the flower?
It is a deep form of honoring, to simply offer your presence and curiosity to a place. Just showing up to do this is a sacred and healing act in and of itself. Go to those landscapes which are hurting, which were once lush with life and now lay eerily still. Tell them that you see them, that you have not forgotten them, but adore them even now. Be with them as you would someone who fell ill and needed your care and belief in their ability to heal. Let your tears fall upon the Earth, to let her know she is not alone. For we are the Earth, experiencing herself. We are her heart, her hands, her prayer. And I believe that as humans, our sacred responsibility is to feel it all. To experience it all. Not a single one of us is here at this time by accident. We all have precious gifts to share with one another, and as my friend Vanessa pointed out, to make the most potent elixir, we must bring together the medicine of many.
Later that same day, after having lunch with my grandmother, I returned home feeling totally spent, and I texted Olivia, asking her without pretense – Do you think the world is dying? She replied right away – I do. Though she quickly added – but I believe in cyclical time // it need not die forever. I agreed and told her I loved her. She told me she loved me too. I dropped my phone onto the soft surface of my bed and collapsed into tired sobbing, as I had so many times in the days prior. And then I knew — it was time to write the words you are reading now.
If you found out that someone you loved dearly had only six months to live, the irreplaceable nature and incredible treasure of that connection would surely come into clear focus. I imagine that you would go far out of your way to see them, and do all that you knew how, to honor the kinship that shared. You’d notice every detail about them, savoring the sound of their voice, and the way their eyes crinkled each time they smiled. You would soften into an acknowledgement of your own ephemeral nature, and each moment of life would become more potent for its rarity.
Just as you would not leave this loved one alone at the time of their passing, your full presence is needed now as we witness the world we love, dying all around us. Which is an odd thing to say, I know, and what that means I am not yet certain. But it is so essential that we not look away as we watch hillsides go up in flame and butterflies fall from the sky. It is dangerously seductive to go numb. Luckily, this is one of the many gifts that the dying offer, so graciously to the living – this reminder of the sheer preciousness of each moment, the exquisite pain and beauty of simply existing during this or any time. We are woken out of our habitual numbness by the reality of death. So, try your best instead to soften into whatever it is you feel – for this is the medicine the world needs. Do not be afraid to witness our beloved world as she is. And ask yourself, how can we continue to nurture and feed the seeds that will give rise to new life? How can we, as individuals and as a collective, tend the soil of the worlds within and without, so that when the time comes – whether it is tomorrow or in three billion years from now – that which is sacred will have fertile dirt from which to blossom and flourish?
Hard as it may be, it is so important that we continue to gather, that we again and again come together and make ourselves vulnerable by showing up, for it is this act of community through which we will ultimately find our own strength. I am healed by you, by your friendship, and by your presence. In moments such as this, it is dangerously seductive to isolate myself in my grief. But that is the last thing that this world needs right now and by grieving together, we can act together.
And I don’t really know of any way to wrap this up neatly, with some clever or tender insight that offers consolation in a world so badly in need of such. I guess all I can do right now, is ask for your help. And offer mine to you, from the deepest place sincerity, and tenderness, and strength that we all must draw upon during this time. This was a really difficult piece to write, for it is a dangerous thing to believe your own thinking. But when thoughts persist, I’ve found it wise to remain curious about them. And the themes of which I have written have been relentless of late – finding their way into my consciousness and conversations, filling the very air around me. My energy wanes as my heart hangs heavy with this new knowing that grows in my bones as I watch the bees waggle with confusion, uncertain of how to find their way home to the hive. But I do know that to show up right now – that is the work, that is medicine. So, please keep feeling, please keep fighting, please keep showing up. Know that I promise do to the same and that I am here to be of service to you and offer my support in whatever way you need it most. Thank you Olivia Pepper, dear friend of my Heart, for seeing and naming so eloquently, just exactly who we are and what it is that being asked of us. I am here, I am ready, and I sense that you are too.