A new cosmology

The past five weeks, since I last posted here, are a bit of a blur.  Anne and I took a short vacation, I got sick for a week, Anne and I went to a "Introduction to Transition Town"weekend at Genesis Farm, and then I returned to Genesis Farm for an "Introduction to the New Cosmology" course.  And sadly, I neglected this little digital nook that whole time.  

In between trips, there was the garden, with its seemingly endless fertility.  We've been harvesting baskets of husk cherries, tomatoes, and tomatillos, and we've still got 10 beds of potatoes to bring in.  And now we're prepping the ground for garlic-planting, and are actually a few days behind our ideal schedule.  The last month has been exhilarating and exhausting, and I'm really ready for the quiet of winter.

I want to share some of what I learned during my time at Genesis Farm.  It's a wonderful place for getting in touch with the land, and exploring how to respond to the challenges we currently face on our planet.  The Farm was founded 30 years ago by Sister Miriam MacGillis, a Catholic nun of the order of St Dominic, located in Caldwell, NJ.  Miriam was introduced to the work of Thomas Berry, a Catholic monk and scholar, in the 1970s, and the Farm is a way of furthering and living out his ideas.  

Berry, along with his mathematician colleague Brian Swimme, sought to understand how humanity--especially industrialized societies with a long tradition of Judeo-Christian values--could end up poisoning ourselves, our Earth, our home.  The two worked together to integrate what all the science of the last century can tell us about how the Universe came to be, how it works, and humanity's role within these processes into something now called "the new cosmology," "the new story," or "the Universe story."  

Berry, a historian of religions and professor at Fordham University, began this exploration after the publication of Rachel Carson's  important 1962 book "Silent Spring," which detailed the effect of DDT (a wartime chemical repurposed for a time into a pesticide) on bird reproduction (and which arguably catalyzed the work leading to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts).  (Boiling down 40 years of inquiry into a few paragraphs is a fraught enterprise, and I encourage you all to read his work for yourself...The books The Dream of the Earth, and The Great Work, are good places to start.)

Berry's basic idea, which I find incredibly compelling, is that modern humanity has become deeply alienated from nature, and that the roots of this condition can be traced back through a long history to Ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian cosmology (cosmology means "a story about the origin of the Universe").  A shared theme in these cosmologies is that there is a perfect God or Gods who created a perfect world, where humans were supposed to live in happiness.  But then something happened--Pandora, Eve--and the perfect world was spoiled.  In this cosmology, death and suffering were not supposed to be the lot of humanity--we only got stuck with them because someone goofed.  This planet, Earth, with its death and suffering, then, is not where we are really supposed to be.  It is just a temporary place, an imperfect place, and, as such, a place we feel free to mess around with, to use for our benefit, and to try to improve upon.  Re-shaping the flow of the Colorado River, blowing up the tops of mountains for coal, playing around with genetic codes--all of these activities show a deep sense of separation between humans and the rest of the natural world.  The perception of such a gulf between humans and nature is what has allowed us to pursue human progress at the expense of the health of the planet.  

Berry and Swimme looked to the last century of science to help formulate a new cosmology, a new story that would portray humanity as a part of nature, rather than outside of it. It is a powerful idea, and one that frames, for me, a meaningful re-engagement with science.  During our weekend, we learned about the origins and evolution of the Universe--and it's fascinating!!  Seriously, fascinating.  Did you know that all the galaxies were formed at the same time?  That there are billions and billions of galaxies out there?  That the periodic table tells a history, because the burning of hydrogen stars released helium, and that when those stars died, as supernovas, they created the elements that follow?  That the iron that is in your body was created during one of those supernovas, and has been recycled through billions of years in the form of stardust, rock, then soil, then living thing?  Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's old refrain, "We are stardust, we are golden..." is actually true!  

I can't adequately convey here what immersing oneself in this history of our Universe feels like.  But to deeply understand that humanity emerged out of the life and the incredible evolutionary diversification of Earth makes me feel more connected to this little planet, and this vast, incomprehensibly vast, Universe.  Our little planet, with its thin veil of atmosphere that allows life to flourish...it is such a beautiful thing, such an amazing thing to have come to be.  It's taken nearly 14 billion years to create, and I feel passionately about doing what I can to ensure that the conditions for life to continue on Earth are maintained. 

Humans lived on Earth for thousands and thousands of years without damaging its biosystems--the seas and rivers, soils and plant life, the air and the climate.  We forget this.  We think that the way of life that we have right now is the best way to be.  But, for just one example, the Lenape tribe lived on the land where Genesis Farm now is for 11,000 years.  Think about that.  11,000 years.  How did they do that?  Their cosmology was quite different: everything was filled with spirit, everything had value.  And so they took only what they needed, and they did so with respect.  And in just 300 years, in the name of manifest destiny and progress, we've invented 80,000 new chemicals that the planet never evolved to heal from.  We've torn down the old growth forests, quarried the land, and dumped our waste everywhere.  

We've not treated this land as our home.  We've not respected what we've been given.  We thought we were supposed to have a perfect planet, without death, without suffering.  But death and suffering are part of the package--the death of one being allows for the elements and materials of that being to be upcycled into new life. 

This is our home.  It's our only home.  

Lying down in the grass at Genesis Farm, I felt part of the Universe.  Slowing down, I heard the sounds around me.  I could sense the deep-time history, get a glimpse of how my life is just a blip, not even a nano-second in the whole history of Earth.  I felt related, felt kinship to all that surrounded me.  And the truth of it, as the mystics long knew and as scientists have been discovering, is that we are related.  We're made from the same stuff, from those same elements of carbon, iron, calcium, and nitrogen that were created when our grandmother star, Tiamat, exploded in a supernova.

My hope is to somehow integrate this perspective into my daily life.  My hope is to share this perspective with others.  More than simple facts about pollution, this perspective, this new story about our origins, may be able to help us change the way we're living.  I can't keep living as if I was separate from all other life on this planet, as if plastic was a natural thing, as if fossil fuels were infinite and problem-free.  I want to make sure this beautiful planet can be a home to my niece's grandchildren, as well as the future generations of all creatures and living things.  

Part of this, for me, means deeply learning the history of place--Miriam introduced us to Genesis Farm not by taking us on a walking tour of the buildings and fields, but by having us sit and listen to her tell the story of the land.  How it was created through geological time, how western New Jersey was once covered by a warm shallow ocean, and how over millions of years, and tectonic shifts, and glaciation, a valley and ridge came to be, with a layer of limestone buried under the soil.  Limestone, I learned, is made up of trillions of tiny sea creatures--their bones, to be exact.  Their bones, which are high in calcium.  Their bones, which are fired into a powder, and then spread on fields to fertilize crops.  

We are alive thanks to all that has come before, and this deep-time knowledge makes me want to live at a more creaturely scale, be part of the ecosystem, to get off the grid.  To appreciate simpler comforts, to be grateful for all my ancestors, to walk carefully, with respect, and with love on this living Earth.