Awakening Spiritual Consciousness

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Sister Ivy, Climate Change Denial and the Search for Greater Awareness

Over the past few months we’ve been working hard at transforming Sweet Hollow in east Tennessee from a cozy private home into the Seven Springs holistic education center.  Embarking on this journey has presented me with lots of new experiences and ideas.  In fact, just the other day I ended up in a conversation that led me to question my spirituality, and our larger Kula Collective vision of a global awakening of spiritual consciousness.

I hadn't thought about my conversation with the born-again Christian clerk until yesterday. I was sitting burning some sage by one of our seven springs, thanking the nearby stumps of the recently felled pines for the material for our picnic tables.  Across the gully a bamboo forest beckoned beside the gurgling spring.  I was imagining the peace of the meditation sessions we would hold there during our retreats, until I noticed a carpet of poison ivy covering the ground.  

I didn’t think about him again until yesterday. I was sitting burning some sage by one of our seven springs, thanking the nearby stumps of the recently felled pines for the material for our picnic tables.  Across the gully a bamboo forest beckoned beside the gurgling spring.  I imagined holding meditation sessions there during our retreats, until I noticed a carpet of poison ivy covering the ground.  

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You see, our major struggle during these months has been against wisteria, a non-native invasive species. Four beautiful little vines with purple flowers, planted with loving care 20 years ago.  Left unchecked, they shot out underground vines on all sides, winding up anything they could climb and slowly choking and tearing down 6 acres of forest.  To stop it we had to clear-cut the entire hill, then go back and pull out the spaghetti tendricles one by one.  To save the rest of the forest we’ll be fighting it tooth and nail for years to come.  

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I imagine our team undertaking a similar but more dangerous task with the Poison Ivy, avoiding contact with the oily leaves, roots and stems while eradicating all the potential itchy threats to our future visitors.  My mind begins to devise eradication strategies when the pungent scent of sage smoke wafts toward me and jolts me back to a short-sighted climate-change-denying clerk I’d met a few days before.  

Our meeting started innocently enough, as I was waiting by the entrance to a big-box home improvement store, considering a recycling station for mini-fluorescent energy-saving bulbs. I’d heard about these being best handled in a Haz-Mat suit, so I read the fine print on the sign:

 - "Warning: mini-fluorescent light bulbs (MFLBs) contain trace amounts of mercury vapor.  Inhaling mercury may be hazardous to your health.  Please recycle your MFLBs, sealing them in plastic bags and depositing them in designated containers.  In the event you are nearby when they break, evacuate the area immediately and contact a poison control center."

I stood there pondering all the MFLBs in our house, weighing the energy savings with the danger of exposure to mercury vapor.  How “green” can these things be?  Does anyone ever really deposit their used bulbs in this box?

Deciding to investigate, I struck up a conversation with a nearby clerk: 
 - “It’s pretty crazy what happens when you break those lightbulbs, huh?”
Blank stare.  
He finally broke the silence: 
- “I don’t believe in all that.”
 - “All what?” I responded, intrigued by his line of reasoning.
 - “It’s Al Gore pushing all that stuff.  I use the old-school bulbs.  Even if I did buy one of them expensive ones, I wouldn’t recycle, I’d throw ‘em away.”
 - “How come?”
 - “It don’t matter no how.”
 - “Why not?” 
He glared at me sideways as I got more and more curious.
 - “Cause the Lord Jesus Christ is comin’ again.
In the moment I accepted that this could be one possible scenario for the end of our species, and made an appeal to his empathy:
 - “Don’t you think when he gets here he’d like to see things nice, like the way he left them?”
 - “It don’t matter, he gon’ change everything anyhow.”
By now I’m inspired to dig a bit further: 
 - “But, imagine you come home from work and your kids mowed the lawn and weeded the garden, your wife has dinner all ready for you.  Wouldn’t you like that?”
He paused for a minute here, his beady eyes lost in space behind is tiny glasses. I wonder how he gets by with such a narrow field of vision.
 - “You know, things ain’t so messed up as they sayin’ in the media.”

His denial of the effect humanity is having on the planet caught me off-guard.  I mean, who throws mercury vapor into the local landfill betting on Christ not really caring about all that sustainability stuff?  I kind of lost my cool.

 - “Are you kidding me?  There’s a plastic patch the size of Texas in the Pacific!”
 - “It ain’t real.  I was in the navy and I been on all seven seas.”
 - “Wow.” I pause for a moment to honor this man’s experiences, and I shake my head forlornly. 
 - “It must have been beautiful.  It ain’t that way now.”
 - “Yes it is, I just been there!”
His firm resolve to deny what his own eyes wouldn’t see still perplexes me.  Exasperated I blurt out:
 - “You can see it from a satellite!”
But apparently I was wrong.  Not in the essence of my argument, but I never checked my facts.  Something I was feeling pretty critical of this US Navy WWII veteran for not doing…

At that point the conversation was going nowhere fast.  Luckily the clerk I’d been waiting for appeared with heroic timing, and I took the opportunity to cut the conversation short.  He glared at me coldly as I wished him a good night, and sped out the door.

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With the sage smoke and the sounds of the cicadas bidding farewell to the setting sun, I reflected on the effect that our beliefs have on our actions.  That clerk’s spiritual consciousness blinds him to the ways in which his actions are interconnected with everyone else around him.  He believes so firmly in his vision of the future he’s willing to (sacrifice?) anything necessary to make it happen ASAP.  

All of a sudden I can identify with that.

I didn’t come back to nature to destroy, but that’s been my obsession these last few months.   So much so that I’m willing to commit plant ecocide on Wisteria, and am considering doing the same to Poison Ivy.  Thinking about all this I decided to research ecological means of removing this plant/nuisance. After a few minutes on Google, I had a whole new appreciation for the importance of investigation.

What I learned is that many have rejected the idea that this itch-inducing plant is toxic to our system.  I mean, it’s not like it’s mercury vapor or anything, right?  They’ve come to call her Sister Ivy, and they feel that her touch gives us a physical reaction that purifies our bodies and helps us confront our deepest fears.  This sister is native to these Appalachian Mountains (the oldest in the world), and she’s been here LONG before most animal life.  In fact, she doesn’t bother anyone but us humans. Perhaps we’re the “non-native” invaders and the Ivy is only trying to protect these sacred forest-floor spots from our tread.

As if on cue, the sage wafts up into my lungs and my train of thought is slowed.  Unsure what to do and feeling like a hypocrite, I simply sit with the smouldering sage and the growing midsummer cacophony.  Eventually I start talking out loud to the ivy nearest me, thanking it for its protection, and asking it to relax a little: 

 - “Dude, we’re on the same team!  We both want to see these 126 acres of smoky mountain woodland cared for and protected from strangling wisteria and roaming real-estate speculators dreaming of big box stores and discount supermarkets. I respect your motivations, but it gets a bit tricky if guests are constantly breaking out in an itchy rash. ”

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I sit with these questions for a while, absorbed in the fire’s crackle and in the forms the breathes of wind make in the rising sage smoke.  In the end it comes down to one question:

What makes my spirituality better than anyone else’s?  

What do YOU think?

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Zachary Towne-Smith is a passionate connector. His innate creativity, flexible perspective, and quick smile make him a natural leader, inspiring participation and thoughtful consensus in the wide array of groups he works with.  He has dedicated his life to the study and development of intercultural relations and the facilitation of innovative solutions for sustainable well-being.  

To learn more about Zachary and see his upcoming yoga teacher trainings and retreats, click here.