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Wild Halifax and The Parliament of Life – Sunday column, April 18, 2011

Posted on Apr 18, 2011

I’ve never participated in a Council of All Beings. Not yet.

Councils of All Beings were designed by proponents of “deep ecology” to give people a direct emotional experience of their profound connection with the rest of the natural world. Deep ecology holds that the world was not made for human exploitation, that all its features have intrinsic value, and that our most urgent task is to re-discover our proper place among the life-forms that share this green and spinning planet.

That task requires that we transform ourselves socially, politically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. The toughest part is the spiritual and emotional piece – and that’s what the Council of All Beings is about. It is one thing to understand intellectually that we are profoundly interconnected with the features and creatures that we are destroying. It is quite another thing to feel it on your skin and in your hair, and within your heart and spirit.

Participants adopt the roles of natural feature that will speak through each of them. Sometimes they make masks to represent themselves as bear, breeze, condor, river. They sit in a wide circle. A drum thumps, like a heartbeat. Participants may speak the names of extinct and endangered species. Or there may be a cairn of mourning, built as each participant adds a stone and speaks of a loss – a marsh filled, a stream poisoned, a forest razed.

Participants often adopt First Nations practices – sage, sweetgrass, prayers to the four directions. Then, perhaps, a roll call: I am Wild Goose, I speak for migratory birds. Grey Shark represents the life of the oceans. I am Flowing Water, speaking for the streams of the earth.

Each Being tells of the dangers it faces, the diminution of its life, the loss of other species. A few participants at a time shed their masks and move to the centre of the circle, resuming their human identity while the other Beings speak directly to them about dams and poisons, clear-cuts and oil spills, sewers and trawlers. The humans remain silent. For once, they have to listen.

Finally the Beings offer “gifts” to the humans. Lichen offers the gift of patience, Leaf offers release from the fear of death, Mountain offers a place of deep peace. The recipients carry those gifts away with them.

Such Councils have taken place all over the world – Russia, the US, South America, Pictou County – and in many different venues, including churches and schools. They are often profound and moving experiences. Participants rediscover their own moral imaginations, experience the pain of the natural world as their own pain, and find themselves transformed. They cease to see the world as a package of resources. They understand it in their guts as a community of life.

These Councils reveal the wisdom of the First Nations in choosing names. Grey Shark, Wild Goose, Flowing Water: these sound like aboriginal names. Real aboriginal names – Big Bear, Crowfoot, Little Flower – position their owners within the broader community of life.

I also realize, oddly, that I have been sensitized by the wildlife of Halifax, which I live with every day. My workroom window overlooks the Northwest Arm – and the wildlife here, four blocks from this newspaper’s offices, is astonishing. Gulls and terns wheel over the water. Ducks, loons and geese paddle and dive. Crabs scuttle through the mussel beds. Mink hump along the shore. Raccoons and otters breed under nearby buildings. Ospreys ride the breezes. Herons fish in the shallows. The morning air bursts with bird-song.

A bald eagle disembowels its prey, making red stains on the saltwater ice. Last month seals lay on the ice, basking in the sun. At sundown, the sky is thick with crows returning to roost at Mount Saint Vincent University. A couple of years ago a beluga circled behind our back yard for an hour. A beluga? Well, what else could it be, a white whale 20 feet long?

Another resident animal sits high in his aerie, watching and typing. The pulse of life drums all around him. Would he take part in a Council of All Beings? Oh yes. It would be like speaking in the Parliament of Life.

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  • David M Blackwell

    Thank you, Silver Donald Cameron, for yet another in a continuing series of enlightening and “right on” pieces in The Chronicle Herald. Your latest (again) champions what nearly a century ago was termed “the greatest need of the age,” viz. an abandonment of an anthropocentric, and its replacement by a biocentric, way of seeing and being in the world.

    Don is of course right when he says that merely being intellectually aware of oneself as an integral part and manifestation of nature is insufficient, and that we must as well feel and experience the “features and creatures” of what we (now perhaps inappropriately) label the “non-human” world as having intrinsic value. As participants have witnessed, one way of helping further the natural world as having value in and of itself can be participation in experiential activities like a Council of All Being.

    It was also instructive to read how Don has himself been sensitized to the world of animals by what he has been witnessing through his workroom window. From many sources, it also appears clear that such sensitizing can be nourished in childhood by others who are important in a child’s life and who themselves have a sense of identity with nature, and who, perhaps more often than not, act as mentors in activities or involvements of one kind or another, e.g. on camping trips in wilderness areas, by drawing attention to nature’s wonders in the course of everyday life. One can be pretty sure also that the personal example “important others” provide in how they act towards the non-human natural world is a hugely significant factor in influencing attitudes and behaviour.

    A last thing to mention is what scientific knowledge and continuing discoveries are telling us about the wonders of a natural world in which, to borrow words of Saul of Tarsus for present purposes, we live and move and have our being. Evolutionary science is a prominent example of this. Its revelations (for those who acknowledge evolution for the fact it is) surely can only reinforce, deepen and enrich our sense of affinity and oneness with the living world around us. For example, see (in ascending order of difficulty), Daniel Loxton’s Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be (2010), a children’s book containing first-rate illustrations and appropriate for adults looking for a very simple introduction to the subject; Steve Jones’s Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated (1999), itself in need of updating because of the many new and significant findings in relevant scientific fields that have occurred since the book was written; Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True (2009); the exquisitely illustrated and superbly written Weidenfeld & Nicolson hard-copy edition of Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life; and for those who’d like a philosophically-based treatment (my own original plunge more deeply into the field), Daniel C. Dennett’s impressive Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1996). As the main title of Richard Dawkins’s last book puts it, summing up what our current knowledge of evolution and of ourselves as an integral part of it reveal, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”