Talking to Trees
Trebbe Johnson thinks that, in order to heal our broken relationship with the Earth, we can’t just protect and visit the most beautiful, most pristine natural places. We also have to pay attention to the sad, gray places where nature has been ruined and depleted.
A clear-cut forest, for example, or a fracking drill pad or a neglected urban river sandwiched between busy roads.
Johnson wants us to look at these wounded places with a clear, steady gaze and listen without judgment to hear what the place has to tell us. To facilitate this kind of deep listening, Johnson has developed a ritual called an “Earth Exchange.”
The principle of an Earth Exchange is to visit a wounded place and engage in “duologue,” a term borrowed from theater to describe a scene between two characters. So yes, Johnson is telling us to talk to rocks and trees.
I admit that when I first read about Earth Exchange in the pages of Orion Magazine it sounded a little crazy. In that article (included in this book) Johnson led a group to meditate in a heavily logged forest. When they arrived, the forest looked dead and mutilated, but after a while perception shifted. The participants began to experience beauty and meaning in the shattered landscape. “Willingness to look turned into curiosity, which turned into compassion, which turned into willingness to sit patiently with the other, which turned into love,” Johnson writes.
Johnson’s idea of love for wounded places is compelling. She says that the limitation of most environmental activism — a pattern she terms “scare-blame-rally” — is that the process goes straight from awareness to action without leaving room for emotional response. When a beloved place is injured or lost, people feel grief but they are not allowed to cry.
Since there was no formal ceremony to acknowledge place-based sorrow, Johnson invented one. She was inspired by conversation with David Powless, a Native American engineer working on a plan to clean up a gigantic pile of toxic industrial waste. “I realized that the waste wasn’t an enemy,” he told her. “It was an orphan from the circle of life. My job was not to conquer it, but to bring it back into the circle of life.”
Johnson believes healing happens through a mechanism of beauty, but that “love precedes the revelation of beauty, it does not follow from it.” So the ritual ends with beauty in a spirit of gratitude and reciprocity, using objects found on-site to make something beautiful as a gift for the place.
An Earth Exchange is not meant to excuse environmental abuse nor to substitute for activism. It is a way to establish a personal relationship with a place as it exists. “Seeing and eventually making beauty in sorrow, in damage, in chaos does not deny the dark reality,” Johnson writes. “Indeed it may exacerbate it. But it also opens me to compassion, connectedness, courage, and even joy.”
I have participated twice in Earth Exchanges led by Salt Lake City’s own Kinde Nebeker of New Moons Rites of Passage (she’s mentioned in this book). Most recently I joined an Earth Exchange with members of the Warm Springs Alliance, a citizen group hoping to revitalize hot springs on the north side of Salt Lake City. After our visit to the springs we shared our insights and arranged objects into a shrine that resembled a Buddhist wheel of life. After those experiences, I know I’ll be giving copies of this wise book to friends who are feeling sad about the state of the Earth.
“Implicit in all our responses must be the recognition of the reality that exists, even as we acknowledge that it’s a reality we do not want,” writes Johnson. But the core of her message is that to heal our relationship with the Earth, we must not just open ourselves to radical joy: We must deliberately create an occasion for it.
Amy Brunvand is a librarian with the University of Utah’s Sustainability Office and a longtime CATALYST contributor.