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April 26, 2007

Turning to Earth: Stories of Ecological Conversion

"Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion."

Thus spake Robert Frost. Personally, I have drunk and felt whole for moments at a time as I focused on a tree or a towhee or rock, but then I have quickly retreated to confusion. Frost's line affirms the creed that underlies Transcendentalism and American nature writing: when we open ourselves to the natural world, we will find wholeness and possibly divinity. This sounds nice. But who can experience this kind of conversion, and how does it come about? Will it happen on the way down the driveway as we stop to examine the juniper hedge? If it does, what next? Will such a conversion have any salutary effect on the hedge, or on the global environment? F. Marina Schauffler sees such conversion as the missing link in her own life and in much of today's environmental activism. In Turning to Earth: Stories of Ecological Conversion, she sets out to investigate this spiritual phenomenon. She outlines the process of ecological conversion, a process which she believes makes people feel intimately bound up in the natural world, spiritually satisfied, and environmentally motivated. Her sources are the personal narratives of Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, N. Scott Momaday, Scott Russell Sanders, Alice Walker, and Terry Tempest Williams. Turning to Earth is a kind of miniature Varieties of Religious Experience for the ecologically minded.

Thankfully, the slim volume is about as lucid, personal, and earnest as academic writing gets. It incorporates lyrical passages about Schauffler's own conversion experiences along with literary criticism and bits of biographical essays. I came across the book one afternoon in the Stanford Bookstore, perused it, bought it, and shoved its smooth green hide into my purse with almost fetishistic excitement. It did not disappoint. How often can a dissertation revised into a first-university-press-book generate such a response? Schauffler outlines the process of "turning to earth" in six steps: "Remembrance," "Reflection," "Revelation," "Reciprocity," "Resistance," and "Ritual." Though I found the alliteration annoying and the idea of steps a little cookie-cutter, in the end I was grateful for the structure. It allowed her to describe a varied and often cyclical spiritual process and draw on a gaggle of authors without making her prose structure byzantine.

I assumed she intends the framework as one tool for analyzing ecological conversion, not as an airtight, comprehensive model. She warns us that these elements of conversion don't follow a Twelve-Step-style progression. We should expect to jump around and start over. Schauffler begins with "Remembrance," which refers to formative experiences in nature in childhood. "Reflection" means adult introspection which may come in response to loss or pain. "Revelation" refers to mystical insight. "Reciprocity" means awareness of our relationship with non-human elements of nature. "Resistance," of course, means fighting to protect the environment. Schauffler frowns on the idea of nature as self-help. She encourages us to see the process of "turning to earth" as a way to embrace responsibility as well as healing. "Ritual" describes the way in which creative and ceremonial acts reinforce the sense of belonging in nature.

The only thing missing from this list, in my book, is "Mischief." For me, a sense of excitement, discovery, play and possibility are essential to my relationship to the natural world. Without these, nature piety can feel onerous or cliche. Schauffler celebrates the anti-institutional bent of much ecological writing and praises Terry Tempest Williams' embrace of Trickster Coyote, so I think she would agree. Still, it's tricky to balance reverence and irreverence. When the fate of the planet is at stake, it can seem better to err on the side of reverence, and that's the tendency of Turning to Earth.

My only fear about Schauffler's model of conversion is that it may be too narrow to include more than a handful of people. Her exemplary converts are naturalists or writers who spend much of their lives in nature. She sees them as "gifted at the art of narrative" but not "exceptional in their spiritual or moral capacities." I would argue that nature writers and nature critics figure as preachers rather than as common people. Their professions allow them to spend more time and accumulate more knowledge about about nature than the average concerned citizen. They may or may not experience more transcendent moments. Schauffler feels that "if they were extraordinary invidivuals, the patterns drawn from their narratives would be of limited value." I disagree. In religion, we have often turned to extraordinary ministers and prophets for guidance on how to live ordinary lives. Though our communion with nature may not take such dramatic or committed forms as theirs, we may follow their lead in more subtle ways.

Schauffler uses the term "converts" to refer to those awakened to their connection to nature. She seems to assume a demarcation between the oblivious masses and a small cadre of nature lovers. She extols the benefits of living "on the margins of mainstream culture." Schauffler comes close to suggesting that only the lucky who grew up racing through unkempt backyards can convert. She quotes Willa Cather, who observed that, "those ties with the earth and the farm animals and growing things are never made at all unless they are made early." A survey of environmental educators leads her to conclude that "significant experiences with the land may be essential prerequisites to any subsequent turn to earth." This amounts to a vision of predestination.

I would argue that while few have the fully-developed commitment and consciousness she describes, milder forms of nature love are not at all counter-culture. Hiking, skiing, camping, fishing, and rock climbing continue to be mainstream recreations. Photos of nature sell, Animal Planet draws viewers, and many people feel they should get into nature more often. As Schauffler herself points out, most of us want to live in "healthy, natural settings." From the Transcendentalists on, Americans have more or less taken for granted some level of romantic exaltation of the mysteries of the wild.

I am convinced that all humans have the capacity for ecological conversion. Any person can discover this form of spirituality just as any person can convert to Christianity. Many people do discover nature later in life through friends, partners, or their own children. Those who weren't raised with nature may have less inclination, but with a little help, it is possible to remove blinders. The wind blows through anyone's hair, and cold water cools anyone's face. Plenty of die-hard New Yorkers grow tomatoes and like to sit in the sun. The mass of nature sympathizers may not be full-fledged nature advocates, but their sympathies often motivate them to protect nature to some extent.

We should encourage children to form deep bonds with nature that may lead them to turn to earth, but we should also encourage the less dramatic partial conversions of ordinary adults whose lives will never resemble Terry Tempest Williams' or Edward Abbey's. A broad range of people can turn toward earth even if they turn only one degree. I see an ecological orientation as something to be cultivated and even taught, just as peace of mind can be taught, though not ensured, through meditation, yoga, or cognitive therapy. Many churches and synagogues in America now incorporate connection with nature and ecological responsibility into their spiritual teachings. We can turn to earth and turn away from organized religion, but we can also turn toward both at once. Schauffler notes that nature writers "resist overt proselytizing even as they clearly seek to touch and transform the hearts and minds of their readers." Perhaps she doesn't want to appear heavy-handed or manipulative, but she doesn't end the book with a resounding appeal to convert.

I don't think we need shy away from proselytizing because of its association with Christian Fundamentalism. Proselytizing is only evil when it becomes manipulative, judgmental, or profit-seeking. Why not invite everyone to feel their physical and spiritual ties to nature? Why not urge people to become aware that we belong in nature, and we are accountable to it? For the sake of our survival as a species, we should spread the good news.