Speaks to the People of the World
I awaken to heavy rain. A short distance below my house, a landslide threatens
the only road and the small house perched above it. Some miles away at
the entrance to Topanga Canyon, where floods and firestorms have become
familiar occurrences, a huge boulder the size of a multistory house descended
in the last rains. Perhaps it was dislodged because earlier fires had
destroyed the root system that held it in its place on the mountain or
because the cycle of man-made drought and flood has undermined the land.
As I write these words, I am praying that Water will speak through me
in this critical time; the rain increases as if to confirm the remarkable
possibility that the Elementals may speak to us. In the past, the water
spirits have spoken eloquently to those who were faithful to them. Might
it happen again? I wouldn’t normally think to write these words.
But it seems that we are equally confronting devastation and the Mystery.
Which path we take the will determine the fate of the world and of creation.
For millennia, traditional societies have recognized and honored the deities
– Water, Fire, Earth and Air; these same societies have lived in
dynamic and harmonic relationship with the planet. Only the contemporary
world culture, that disdains such beliefs as primitive or heathen, has
enacted a holocaust upon the environment equal to the worst periods of
climactic change and extinction. In traditional societies, one approaches
the water deities or water spirits with reverence, knowing they nourish
and purify all things. Now, the water is itself defiled. If the water
is defiled, how can we heal the water?
At the zoo, I encounter a young father who has Mayan glyphs on his arms.
"I am of the Mayan-Aztec tradition," he says. “One glyph
is the dragon-water snake representing purification; the other glyph represents
the bones of the ancestors. Before we enter a conflict, we purify ourselves
in a sweat lodge,” he says. “Then, we ask the ancestors to
My colleague, Carol Sheppard, dreams a pterodactyl, First Bird, who flies
with her over the cities of the world so that she can see the autos, machines
and chimneys belching black smoke into the atmosphere. “You are
defiling the bone of the old ones, the ancestors,” the pterodactyl
berates her. Carol awakens knowing there are will be consequences of our
Donna Augustine Thunderbird Turtle Woman patiently disinters the improperly
buried bones of her Migmag ancestors, prepares the graves in the sacred
manner, cleans the bones, wraps them and reburies them with the right
prayers. Keeping a weeklong vigil in the snow and rain, she is nevertheless
restored herself, her soul eased, her heart lightened. Restoring the old
ways, entering into the rituals of respect and purification, honoring
the ancestors and accepting their guidance, changes our relationship to
the earth and revives people emotionally and spiritually.
If, over centuries, we have asked water to purify us, may we also attempt
now, the sacred obligation of reciprocation? How do we meet the divine
that we have defiled? Can we purify the water?
I was standing before the Ocean with environmentalist, Carolyn Raffensperger
who has been actively writing the Precautionary Principle into national
and international law. She had been speaking of the crippling despair
of environmentalists who must be aware of each detail of the process of
devastation, and of her anguish before the young students who ask her
why they should not hasten apocalypse so that the world can be rid of
the human element quickly enough for the natural world can restore itself.
It is as if they are considering being suicide bombers in a jihad on behalf
of the environment.
She pauses. The sun is about to set. She says, “You know, there
is only one ocean. We give the waters many different names, differentiating
one area from another, but there is only one ocean.” As she speaks,
I am aware of the ocean that is inside me as well as the ocean I am standing
before. I can no more distinguish the waters within from the Pacific without
than I can the Pacific from the Sea of Japan or the Coral Sea. I understand
we are one being. And then I hear her say what I have also thought so
many times that her words resound like a chorus sung, perhaps by the gulls
who had just hovered in the air around us as we threw bread into the wind,
so many winged angels receiving our offerings and prayers, “Any
act against the environment, is an act against God.”
At this moment, that sky and ocean are radiant as the light of the setting
sun expands orange and amber and catches on the spray and the waves, spilling
golden and pooling iridescent at the edge of the surge as it hits the
beach. In the Hebrew tradition, the word esh, fire, and mayim, water,
combine to form sh'mayim, heaven. So I assume that the Presence is revealing
itself to us and we must be humbly attentive.
The light fades as quickly as it emerged and we make our way back along
the beach. A small bird is seated on the sand as if on a nest and watches
us intently but without moving at all and yet meeting us eye to eye; its
gaze is intentional. We slow down, move respectfully away so as not to
cause it any trepidation. Finally, we stop altogether and watch. It stands
up and turns toward the sea. Walks. Falls flat on its face. It is awful
to watch this. Gets up. Falls flat. Then gets up again. It is rare to
see sick birds. Finally, it makes its way to the surf and enters the sea
where it seems comfortable. We do not speak. We are both wondering what
we can do and are praying for its health though we do not know what has
afflicted it. “May this grebe thrive.”
Hours later, I read that a mysterious weeklong oil leak, due possibly
to the torrential rains uncapping oil wells has damaged more wildlife
than any spill in state coastal waters since 1990 when a tanker spilled
The next day I find myself driving in rains so fierce, I cannot see the
road ahead of me. It has been only eight months since I dreamed a fire
coming over the ridge near my house. A friend rushes for his djembe and
begins drumming in welcome the way we would in Zimbabwe if a spirit had
entered the daré hut during an ngoma ceremony. The meaning I gather
from the dream is that Fire is a deity. The elementals are deities. This
is not rhetorical.
Later that June, I drove through three forest fires raging in the vicinity
of Los Angeles. Recognizing the divine in the fire, I asked Fire: What
do you want? How shall we meet you? How shall we serve you?
Now, almost blinded by the crush of water, I ask the rain: What do you
want? How shall we meet you? How shall we serve you?
I do not expect an answer, and yet there are unexpected words in my mind
that seem to explain that this brutal rain is the release of the old water,
the ancestors that have been preserved for thousands of years in the pristine
glaciers, another form of living crystals whose quality, intent and intelligence
is not understood by contemporary humans who observe them as dead phenomena.
As in Carol Sheppard’s dream, the old ones are returning, seeking
a reckoning: ‘You will not contain us. You will not control us.
You will not destroy us. You will not use us. You will not dominate us.
We are autonomous and beyond you.’
The old adage: Oil and water do not mix. The oil spills. The grebe as
messenger, rhyming, as it were, with the Mayan-Aztec man with glyphs on
his arms, the dragon snake, the old one, the water for purification not
contamination, the bones of the ancestors, pristine and honored. Cynical
corporate aggressors cheer the melting of the northern seas so they can
drill for oil where polar ice had once made the area inviolable. There
will be further consequences. No one and no thing are spared in the activity
of healing and realignment. The glaciers and ice caps are melting and
as we cannot protect the polar bears, arctic birds and other creatures,
as we cannot spare the grebes, as we cannot spare the rain, the water
itself, from the consequences of our activities, we can be sure we, also,
will not be spared either.
Still driving in the downpour, I know it was not right to pray for my
own safety, I can only pray for the rain.
No one and nothing is spared in the great extinctions. When the smoke
covers the sun, no one and no thing escapes the consequences of the lessening
of the light and the intensification of the heat and the subsequent loosening
of the great waters. Even as the shadow obscures the sun, the heat increases,
the droughts increase as do the floodwaters, tsunamis batter us as great
winds whirl about the globe in what in many languages is likened to fury.
The rains pummel the mountains, the earth slides, trees are uprooted and
tumble down among the boulders even as the vegetation multiplies in time
to feed fire storms which will come as surely as the rain.
The rain continues as I write. The wind comes up fierce. In the Hebrew
tradition, we call the wind ruach; it also means breath and spirit. Rabbi
Jonathan Omer-man tells me that the Hebrew word for ark, Teyvah, also
means prayer. The ark, then, that will carry us across the water, forty
days and forty nights – forty implying always, a measure of water
sufficient for purification and also two generations, enough to have our
minds changed sufficiently to enter a new way of being – is a prayer.
I pray for Fire. I pray for Water. I pray for the Air. I pray for the
Earth. I pray for the old ones, the rain, and, again, I pray for Water.
May the Waters be sacred again. May we purify them as they have purified
us. May the rains come again as blessings. May the bones of our ancestors
be purified, buried deeply again, laid to rest.
Deena Metzger on behalf of Water