Monday, August 10, 2009

Lessons From The Colombia Plateau

(This is a sermon I gave for a local Unitarian Universalist congregation)

The most common definition of animism is the belief of spirits inhabiting animals, plants, and inanimate objects. However, this is an over simplification based upon western-colonial concepts. Animism, is being re-evaluated by many in the fields of comparative religion and anthropology. A new understanding is surfacing. In the writings of Graham Harvey, he explains that animism is not the projection of human qualities upon objects. He argues that these old ideas are outdated. On the contrary, animism is and absence of the idea that humans are superior and/or separate from the living world. Animism relates to the world as a community of people, only some of whom are human. By relinquishing our dominion over the rights, and consideration of person-hood, the world is no longer a collection of resources for consumption, but is seen as a delicate web of relationships.

The center of experience, sentience, conscience, awareness and life is the immediate surroundings we interact with on a daily basis; it is our life-place. It is logical that the center of our life traditions are likewise the life-place. This is one of the lessons of Bioregional Animism, and can be found within the foundations of people around the world, with Moses on Mt Sinai, Jesus in Gethsemane, the Greek gods on Mt Olympus, or the Ganges River flowing from the head of Shiva. These are all physical places with deep spiritual meaning embedded within the lives of the people. If one wishes they can visit these places today; however, one does not need to seek pilgrimage to distant lands but can find sacred places all around them. Even in the most populated and urban of cities we can look underneath the cement, asphalt, pavement, concrete, steel, and in between the cracks of modernization to find the most sacred of places.

The stories I am going to tell may seem fantastical to some, but to an animist the world is a fantastical place. We revel in it, and rejoice in it. Even though at times we may fear it's sheer size, power, and force, we respect it. Stories are a powerful communication device in animist traditions. It is my belief that new stories and new oral traditions need to emerge in order to teach how to relate to the other-then-human and human people, and rediscover the sacredness of our life-places. This is why many of us are compelled to share our stories. Because, in so doing the land is expressing itself.

This summer my grandfather passed away at the end of the semester. In a rush I drove down to Rupert Idaho near the banks of the Snake River, where I was born. On all sides of my family, several generations called that region home. My grandfather had spent almost all of his 90 plus years along the Snake River Plain. He diligently farmed the land, married, and raised four daughters. My family moved upriver a few years after my birth. Many times in my adulthood I have left the Snake River behind; however, my friend has drawn me back too many times too count. I could see how interconnected that river has become in my family's lives and history and in my own life. In that moment I felt my grandfather like I hadn't felt before. He was in the air, the river, songs of birds, the baking sun, the trees, and in the farmland. I realized with many of my immediate ancestors who spent most of their lives along the Snake River Plain, that it was an ancestral home to me -- Much closer in space, time, and heart then England, Scotland, Germany, or Russia. I found a new understanding for the power of life-place.

As i rediscovered the sacredness of the Snake River Plain, I thought about my new home where the Snake and Clearwater find union. I thought back upon the lessons it has shared with me and on the relationship I have developed over two years of being here. The Colombia Plateau has been known among the tribal people for its power of dreams and songs. I have discovered this power on a personal level. Since moving here, prayer and ceremony have come back into my life.

On the autumn equinox two years ago, I was driving randomly, as I often get the intuition to do so. I ended up driving through the town of Orofino, Idaho and I kept on going. After several miles I wondered if I should head back towards the Clearwater, or head north. I heard Raven caw. I looked in time to see him take flight north. I interpreted this to mean I was to follow. A few more miles, and had seen Raven again, perched on a sign for a sportsmen access. I took the dirt road to the small reservoir, and a fawn leaped along side me for several yards, letting me know I was going in the right direction.

I came to the reservoir where a few locals where fishing. I noticed a trail that followed along the rim of the reservoir and walked until I came to a clearing that had been partially clear-cut an d burned. The trail took me away from the reservoir. The usual casual chatter of the forest was around me, cicadas, songbirds, the wind. I heard Raven caw again, I looked up to see him circling above me. I sat down on a fallen tree trunk and cawed back contentedly (caw ca-caw c aw). Naturally he spoke back, and I spent an hour engaged in conversation with Raven. Often times, these kinds of conversation are not immediately understood. It takes me time to contemplate the experience and find the hidden nuances in the interaction.

Living in the Colombia Plateau, I have learned how friction can be deliberated to bring forth desired change. The forest fire, is an example. Many trees parish in the fire. By clearing the foliage and old growth new growth is allowed to breath. I have learned to listen to instinct, intuition, and inspiration, and that they are the same language in which the living world communicates and deliberates. we are a voice among many voices in a diverse community of life, but often our kind talk t oo load and can only hear our own voices .

Living in the LC valley I have found my self more rooted in this Unitarian Universalist community. When at all possible, I make a point to travel so I can participate and be a part of this community. These travels between here and there have given birth to other conversations and experiences. There is a definite shift between the valley an d the Palouse. The warm weather of Lewiston often contrasts with Moscow, when it is lightly raining, you may be snowed in up here. I can feel the transition into two places as I drive up and down the Lewiston grade. It is not a sudden transition, but a gradual one.

All of this place was once a giant sea bed, with the formations of hills through the collection of blown dirt, and the shifting eart h due to volcanic activity forming the basalt and hills that shapes this life-place. Mighty forces of the living world deliberated to give us fertile ground. However, 99% of the native vegetation of the Palouse have been destroyed by Agro-Industry. Lewiston was once known as Siminikum (the Nez Perce word meaning confluence), before the coming of the humans it was the place for deliberation between the animal people. Now Lewiston has a strange odor and feel to it, which I have never entirely become accustom to. However, both pl aces have become valuable teachers to me an d have shared with me their stories. They have shown me how their stories run through my story like a current.

The LC Valley has taught me, more then an y other place, that regardless of man-made adaptations to the land, there is always a sacred place to be honored and respected. The Palouse has shown me how to heal within adversity and pain. The Wallowa region of Oregon has opened me up to my dreams. Through its great wine, The Colombia Valley of Washington has reminds me to be joyful.

Graham Harvey said, “Animists are more pragmatic than romantic and know that people of different kinds eat one another. [. . .] Rules about eating, or those concerned with the proper treatment of animal and plant bodies, are important ways in which animist respect is worked out, even in the case of killing or taking life.” In other words, We know that frightened and hurt people often lash out. We know that not all people mean well. We know that community requires great compromise. We are careful about our relationships and strive to be mindful of how fragile life is. We strive to respect our relationships. We also know that we are people too, and people falter, and forget things, and do not always act in each others best interest, and do not always understand the ramifications of our actions.

In my own life animism, brings the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, "To respect and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person" full circle with the last, "To respect and affirm the interconnected web of all existence." As an animist and a UU these are but one principle, and expands the concept of a person to include all the connecting points on the web of existence. I will not go into the logistic differences between animist traditions and what is considered a person, this is beyond the scope of this speech. However, Bioregional Animism relates to the very ecology of where we live as being a person itself, seeing the web as a person, and that we are that person, and that person is the land. Think about this, when you step outside and breath the air and look upon the beautiful landscape that is your life-place.

Glen "Fishbowl"

August 9th, 2009