Our story begins some 500 years ago at a time of terrible feuds among people who have come to be known as the Iroquois in the region we now call upper New York state. The feuds had their origin in a long-standing practice call “mourning wars” that had entered a particularly bitter and bloody phase.
The practice was grounded in a belief about how the world worked. The people felt that there was a spiritual power that animated all things and that any time someone died the collective power of his or her family or clan was diminished. So, afterward the family or tribe would hold a ceremony in which social role and duties would be transferred to someone else.
Of course, sometimes there was no one else to take that role, and there was much grieving. In time, however, if the grief did not abate, women of the household could demand that a war party be assembled to raid a neighboring tribe and seek captives to make up for the loss. In some cases, those captives would be integrated or even enslaved by the clan, but in others, if the grief were particularly severe, they could be ritually killed and cannibalized. During this particular period, this exchange of mourning wars was incessant with clans raiding each other, tit for tat, while the killing just went on and on.
Among these folks, was one man, Hiawatha – not Longfellow’s noble savage but a very different figure – who had lost several daughters to this carnage and was driven mad by anger and depression.
In despair, he wandered off into the forest where he is said to have encountered what is described as a spiritual being who called himself Deganawidah, or the Peacemaker. The Peacemaker gave Hiawatha strings of shell beads and spoke words of Condolence that dried his eyes, that opened his ears, that unstopped his throat and so on until his grief was removed and his reason was restored. Those acts were woven into a ritual that became the center of a new teaching that, the Peacemaker assured Hiawatha, would make wars of mourning unnecessary.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker then traveled to surrounding tribes and in time persuaded them to join what was then called the Great League of Peace and Power. It was to be an alliance that would marshal the spiritual energy of every family group.
The five and later six Indian nations joined in this league became known as the Haudenosaunee, or people of the long house. The title refers to the large dwellings where the people lived, housing as many as 20 families, as well as the ethic they lived by, one that envisioned all members gathered around a common fire, respecting each other, involved in each other.
To secure and maintain the peace they declared, the League created a Grand Council made up of 50 leaders, or sachems, whose sole purpose was to prevent what was called “the disuniting of minds.” As one observer put it, their notion of peace “did not imply a negotiated agreement backed by sanctions of international law and mutual interest, It was a matter of ‘good thoughts’ between nations, a feeling as much as a reality.”
The council’s purpose, then, was not to adopt laws – in fact, it had little power over individual tribes – but to cultivate and deepen relationship. The League ended the mourning wars, but honored the spirit behind them by granting the leading women of each tribe the right to select each sachem.
It was among the sachems or chiefs in these councils that the notion that one should act with an eye to the welfare of the seventh generation ahead was articulated. In a forum focused on relationship, not only with each other but also with the land on which they depended, full of ceremonies of thanksgiving and honor for each other, such a declaration was a natural outcome.
Today, it is curious now to see what a popular meme that phrase has become in our culture. Run “Seventh Generation” through Google and your first hit is a company that has trademarked it for their line of home cleaning products, followed soon after by another selling disposable diapers.
And why not? You could argue that the popularity of the phrase among marketers is a testament to how powerful the idea behind it is, even if we seem to miss the irony of finding that label on a package of paper towels. But before I get too high and mighty, let me make a confession – I have bought those paper towels; I have bought those diapers. Because, even if, OK, there are hardly more conspicuous examples of products that contradict the ethic of environmental sustainability, that contribute to this nation’s ballooning waste stream and the depredation of its forests and water courses.
Even though I know that: I mean, well, there are times when paper towels come in handy – not often, of course, I usually use cloth – and, well, are cloth diapers really so much better than disposable? And, gosh, looking at the labels of these products they seem more “environmentally-friendly” – boy, talk about a loaded term – than others. I mean, don’t they say they’re made from more recycled or recyclable materials?
And . . . and . . . and . . . Well, you get the picture. This is where we live, isn’t it? There’s hardly a soul today who doesn’t at least give a nod to the environment in how she or he goes about their lives and hardly a soul who feels that he or she is doing enough.
And yet, however we feel, the fact remains that the world is changing before our eyes. We see it in birds or perennials appearing earlier in spring, in pests once killed by winter freezes sticking around, in colossal storms spawning killer tornados and hurricanes. Our climate is clearly in play, but we have no way of knowing how it will play out.
Just a month ago, scientists reported that the average level of carbon dioxide in the air has reached 400 parts per million, the highest it’s been for 3 million years, a time before humans had evolved as a species. What does it mean? Well, because carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space, it likely will lead to overall warming of the Earth.
But of course our climate is complex, the result of the interplay of many forces that we are only beginning to understand. So, the effects vary from place to place, and sometimes in unexpected ways: in one place a killing drought, in another, monsoon-like storms; in some places spring-like winters, in others increased snowfall. But the overall trend has been warmer. Overall global temperatures are higher than at any time in the past 4,000 years; last year, 2012, was the hottest on record in the U.S. And the effects are obvious: mountain glaciers and polar icecaps are shrinking; sea levels are rising. And around the world these rising temperatures are either stressing or killing forests and coral reefs, and changing the habitats for creatures ranging from insects to antelope, extinguishing some and threatening others.
The fossil record says that the last time the concentration of carbon dioxide was 400 parts per million, average temperatures were 4 to 7 degrees warmer and sea levels were much higher. We can’t be sure of how things will go now, though, since it takes time for the effects of warming to ripple through the Earth’s systems.
And, of course, we have every reason to believe that carbon dioxide levels will continue to rise. That’s because we have a pretty good idea as to why they’re rising. We’ve endured the debates as to the causes over the last half century, and at this point it’s all over but the shouting. We humans are the drivers on this bus. Some two centuries of industrial development have disrupted this planet so profoundly that we have put our own survival and that of many of our fellow creatures in peril.
It’s astonishing to think that we comparatively tiny beings, so easily tossed by storm and tide, could make such an impact on this vast globe. Yet, it turns out that the conditions that sustain beings like us are fairly narrow, and it doesn’t take all that much to knock them off kilter. We need only look at the record of history to find civilizations that have disappeared due to fairly minor shifts in weather. What can we look forward to in a world warmer than humankind has ever known?
It’s a scary prospect, so it’s little wonder that so many of us choose simply to avert our eyes, or satisfy ourselves as doing our part by buying “green” and recycling our trash. Part of what makes this so hard is that the problem is woven into the details of our lives as we now live them. Every time we drive our cars, or ride in a plane, every light or appliance we switch on, plug in, or boot up adds carbon dioxide to the air.
It makes me understand a dimension of Hiawatha’s grief of half a millennium ago. Here we sit in the 21st century with that which sustains life on this planet under assault from the very patterns and practices of our living, and not just any practices, but those that we have come to equate with “the good life,” the life we aspire to.
What a disconnect! What an impossible irony! But it’s not lost, I believe, on our psyches. It may offer one explanation for the dystopic images scattered across our films and video games of a ravaged world with Hiawatha-like figures wandering the landscape in frustration and despair.
But the story of the Iroquois offers us more the just an image of despair. It also offers a frame for hope. The figure who appears to Hiawatha, linked closely in the story to one of the creator figures in that people’s mythology, finds a way to release him from his grief: in the story, to dry his weeping eyes, to open his ears, to unstop his throat so that his sorrow may be relieved and his reason restored.
Climate changed has been framed as a technical problem in need of technical fixes, and yet, to be honest, like the grieving Hiawatha, I’m not sure we are yet in the place where we are ready to sort this out in a rational way. About a decade ago, an engineering professor, Robert Socolow, detailed more than a dozen strategies, stabilizing wedges he called them, that he argued could slow and even halt the warming of the atmosphere.
They were things like dramatically expanding the use of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, adding more nuclear power plants, even capturing and storing carbon. The problem was that every wedge required a monumental effort. In the case of photovoltaics, for example, to make any significant difference we would need arrays covering a surface of five million acres – about the size of Connecticut.
The question is not what we can do to solve this problem; it’s what we are prepared to do. In an interview at the time, Scolow said the task before us is on the scale of abolishing slavery. “It’s the kind of issue,” he said, “where something looked extremely difficult, and not worth it, and then people changed their minds.”
Years ago as a science writer I got to cover the spring “booming” or mating rituals of prairie chickens in central Wisconsin. These endangered creatures surely would have been erased from that landscape long before I arrived but for the work of the naturalist Aldo Leopold. Leopold was most famous for arguing for the awakening of what he called “a land ethic”: a way of looking at the world that, in his words, “enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or, collectively, the land.”
These words echo those of the Peacemaker in the Iroquois story who invites Hiawatha to understand his identity more broadly and to see the larger spiritual unity of all things. When we in this religious tradition agree among ourselves to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, we make a similar connection.
Taking our lead from what the Iroquois discovered in their Grand Councils, while scientists strategize possible solutions to our approaching peril, the rest of us must be about the work of building of relationship. Remember that the Iroquois commitment to the “seventh generation” was rooted in their love for the people and the land of their present day.
And so it will be for us if we are to find a solution to the train wreck that climate change presents us. As Wendell Berry put it, love is not an abstract proposition. It is tied, in his words, to “particular things, places, people and creatures.”
I can profess my love for the world and all things in it, but that alone has little purchase. When I can name what I love and tell how that love has changed my behavior, changed my thinking, changed my life I am getting a little closer to the true thing. Again, from Wendell Berry, “love proposes no abstract vision but the work of settled households and communities,” communities that act, that take stands, that take risks, and still stay in relationship
So, what is our work as a settled community affirming respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part? It is a question I want to invite you to join me in answering. How might we as a people of memory and hope learn to widen our hearts to embrace a world now under assault by the very patterns and practices of our lives?
You have my commitment in the coming year to finding ways for us to engage in that conversation. We have long passed the time when we could delegate this issue to others. It is ours to confront, and it will require educating ourselves and thinking, and adjusting our lives to an emerging reality.
But, as Lew Patrie suggested earlier, it will also require deeper work fitting of a religious community. It will require learning to transcend the fear, despair and forgetfulness that paralyze us, that set us against each other, so that we might awaken to the wonder of our lives and each other, to the gift of a planet that seven times seven generations ahead might yet sustain our own kind and the vast web of life.
Resources for this sermon include:
The Ordeal of the Longhouse by Daniel K. Richter
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, eds. Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson
Love God, Heal Earth, ed. Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham