Category Archives: Ecology

A Time for ‘Self-Stripping’

DSC01928 Burn

In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.

We are now halfway through the period of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enough to experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis. Continue reading

The Vivid Color of Ixoras

freedom to pollute with bronze statue of refugee

Statue of Liberty carrying the declaration “Freedom to Pollute” next to a bronze statue of climate change refugee, at the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

It’s been a week since the closing of the Bonn Climate Change Conference. A small victory occurred with the passing of a global insurance plan that by 2020 will help protect 400 million poor and vulnerable people around the world. The project, called the InsuResilience Global Partnership, aims to provide insurance against damage caused by global warming.

Naturally, this project is fraught with controversy. Instead of having the richer nations, who are generally the bigger polluters, pay for climate disaster relief, this initiative actually pushes poor people in poor countries to pay an insurance premium.

016705 Dante on greed

Assagioli’s note on greed from his Archives,

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Stones and Seaweed (Part II of II)

Paidraich and his wall

Padriach with a bucket of seaweed standing in front of the stone wall he built with his two hands.

Summer is here again, and so I thought I would dig out a story from fifteen years ago, something I wrote while my husband and I spent six weeks on the island of Inishere, Ireland, helping Anita and Paraic with their new B&B and café not to mention their farm and four kids. I will always be grateful to them for their hospitality during the summer of 2001.

This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!

Inishere has one shop, three pubs, and a chipper (a place to buy fried foods), an art center displaying the resident artist’s work, a hotel, and a new library. Groceries were ordered by phone and delivered three times a week. This naturally altered our attitude to shopping and nothing was taken for granted. Still Kees and I had no desire to leave.

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Stones and Seaweed (Part I of II)


Inishere beach

Seal ag buain duilisg do charraig, seal ag aclaidh, seal ag tabhairt bhídh do bhoctaibh, seal i gcaracair.

(A while gathering dillisk from the rock, a while fishing, a while giving food to the poor, a while in my cell.)   – Irish monk (12th century?)

Summer is here again, and so I thought I would dig out a story from fifteen years ago, something I wrote while my husband and I spent six weeks on the island of Inishere, Ireland, helping Anita and Paraic with their new B&B and café not to mention their farm and four kids. I will always be grateful to them for their hospitality during the summer of 2001.

This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!

An hour by ferryboat from the city of Galway, Inishere (also known as Inis Oírr) means Eastern Island as it is the closest Aran Island to the mainland and the furthest east. This tiny island (2-1/2 by 1-1/2 miles) has been inhabited for 3500 years and Gaelic is the spoken language of the islanders. It has a population of about 300 people, and nearly everyone is related to someone else. Approximately 30,000 visitors descend on the island every year.

Anita, Paraic, and their children were there to meet us in their tractor when we disembarked from the boat. We greeted each other with hugs and kisses, loaded our bags onto the back of their tractor and climbed aboard. Tightly crunched inside the small cab and cushioned by children on our laps, we sighed with relief as the noisy engine pulled us up the hill to their spacious home.

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Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Nola

Nola the White Rhino (1974-2015)

Nola the White Rhino (1974-2015)

Perhaps you have already read the obituary for Nola the White Rhino (41) who recently died at the San Diego Zoo. She had arthritis and a painful bacterial infection, was a major park attraction and loved having her back scratched. Today only three white rhinos remain in the world.

The climate change conference in Paris has opened and millions of people across the globe are marching for a cleaner environment and protection for the animals and plants that share our home with us. I don’t need to reiterate all the reasons why we need to quickly transform our energy consumption into lives that gently walk on this planet. Unless we change along with the climate, our world is headed to become a silent and empty place. Like all animals on this planet, Nola has something unique to teach us about being more fully human.

Saint Francis preaching to the birds.

Saint Francis preaching to the birds.

Saint Francis of Assisi understood that by loving creatures, great and small, we learn more about God’s love for all of creation, including ourselves. The ascetic and mystic lived in the 13th century with a small group of like-minded followers, and together they were dedicated to helping lepers, the poor, and outcasts. They built themselves huts of branches and twigs to sleep in, wandered in pairs over the Umbrian countryside, dressed in the ordinary cloths of the peasants, and worked in the fields to earn their daily bread.

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When Spider Webs Combine

Faith in the Future Conference. Photo by ARC

Faith leaders representing 24 world religions gathered at Bristol, England, this month and committed to helping the world’s poorest people. Photo by ARC.

One of my favorite Assagioli quotes, which I actually have printed on my business card, is as follows:

“When spiritual light is focused on the most complex of individual or collective problems, it produces solutions…and spares us much suffering.”

These words resonate with the news that the UN is now actively inviting spiritual leaders to become involved in 17 sustainability commitments for the next 15 years. On 25 September, world leaders will gather at the United Nations in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These commitments include a worldwide end to poverty and hunger, full employment across the globe, and gender equality in every country.

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Soul Harvest – Part 1

Signora Giuseppa in her Garden

Signora Giuseppa in her garden north of Rome.

It took me a long time and a good deal of sweat to understand it — just how much our Earth is a sanctuary for our souls. And this awareness evolved only thanks to Signora Giuseppa. Having worked the land for more than seventy years, Giuseppa quietly and wisely guided me towards this realization while we walked around her fields or campetto. Through her simple and daily vigil of being with, caring for, and depending upon the Earth, she initiated me into the profound experience of gardening and growing what one eats. For it is through this deeply experiential reality that we are best able to integrate the sacredness of the Earth with our own humanity.

Signora Giuseppa is a round but sturdy widow whose hands are small, yet broad and strong. Whenever she stands before you, her feet are firmly planted and her eyes steady upon you. She is eighty-two years old and one of the few people I have ever met that is really present to all that is around her. Every afternoon you can find her tending her two-acre campetto in the Italian countryside north of Rome. Since she was five years old, she has lived all her life (literally) off the fruits of her labor. From olive oil to fava beans to wine grapes and, of course, tomatoes, her harvest is as varied as it is delicious.

Whenever I visit, she chatters away in her Italian dialect as she heads out to feed her chickens with a bucket of soggy bread and milled corn in hand and an assortment of half-wild cats underfoot. She knows I don’t always understand, but what she seems to find more important is our time together. It is always a pleasure to visit her and see what she is sowing, planting, harvesting, gathering, drying, and feeding her chickens.

Only educated to the third grade (and only thanks to Mussolini insisting that all Italian children learn to read and write), Giuseppa has managed to integrate life’s lessons. For some time now, I have declared her farm “The University of Gardening” and she la professoressa. Whenever I say this in front of the many visitors and relatives that often drop by, Giuseppa beams proudly and quickly adds, “I was never much educated, but I do have some esperienza.”

It wasn’t until I too had this esperienza of hoeing, planting, composting, weeding, watering, and finally reaping the harvest of my own garden did I come to understand how holy the Earth really is. My education evolved mostly from my following Giuseppa around her campetto and simply watching. She used to tease me by telling everyone that I liked to come by and steal her secrets. Yet, while she showed me how far apart to plant tomatoes, when to harvest the garlic, and how to recognize a cauliflower that wouldn’t produce fruit, Giuseppa was also teaching me how to relate to the land, how to observe, care, tend, and support its needs, how to appreciate its bounty, receive its gifts, and surrender that which doesn’t survive.

Oh sure, I had been ecologically aware for years—bicycling to work, recycling my plastics, picking up tossed garbage left along the roadside, hanging up wash instead of using a dryer, and buying a fuel-efficient car. All these small conscious acts of conservation are vital to the planet’s ultimate survival. But until one actually works the Earth, one cannot appreciate the lessons it holds, nor how fundamentally attached we are to it, nor how much working on the land can actually help us to become fully human. As Gandhi once said, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Note: This story was written while I was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the first part of a three part series to be continued next time…

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 2

Soul Harvest – Part 2

Signora Giuseppa and the author during the grape harvest in 2010.

Signora Giuseppa and the author during the grape harvest in 2010.

What makes gardening such a precise mirror for the soul? There are many biblical parables that invoke the imagery of the garden – the pruning of vines, sowing of seeds, and harvesting of grapes. Taoists believe that miniature gardens are the Earthly copy of Paradise. In Islam the four gardens of Paradise – Soul, Heart, Spirit, and Essence – symbolize the mystical journey of the soul. And then there’s my retired neighbor Angelo who once told me that gardening was the most humble of tasks. “Your head is always bowed and sometimes you have to go down on your knees.”

And as the gardener creates, so does the garden transform the inner life of its creator. The word ‘create’ actually derives from the Latin creare which means to produce, to make life. The garden’s cycle mirrors our own growth, complete with floods, heat, drought, infestation, dying, resurrecting, blossoming, blooming, maturing, rotting, bounty, beauty, and miracles. In our deeper psyche we tend to our life’s garden of sorrows and joys. We pull out, cut back, dig up, bury, sow, support, and nourish hoping one day to harvest our life’s experiences into wisdom. Without all this soul/gardening work, our spirits are swamped under the weeds, our creative gifts choked, our true selves unable to flourish.

As we relate to the Earth with hoe, shovel and watering can, the Earth begins to teach us about ourselves. Working the Earth is like dreaming, it can act as a medium between self and soul. When we take time to garden, we are allowing our souls to speak to our conscious selves, to display outwardly where in the soul process we really are.  And as we gain in awareness, we can equally influence the soul to move to its next necessary task by outwardly performing the chore in the garden.

Signora Giuseppa's village in Italy

Signora Giuseppa’s village.

There were days when I found myself tearing at weeds, only moments later to feel the fierce roots of long-buried anger and resentment clinging to my heart. Other days I was filled with joy, longing to spill seeds upon every patch of bare Earth. By gardening we unearth a place where our inner and outer worlds can merge. And in this space, with time and nourishment, we encourage the self closer to universal truths.

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Soul Harvest – Part 3

This year's harvest from the author's garden in Germany.

This year’s harvest from the author’s garden in Germany.

With gardening always comes the harvest — a communion with our Earth, the holy connection between us and the planet. What better way to participate in this than by eating a cherry tomato or snap pea that we have grown in relationship with the Earth? This replenishment of our bodies with what the Earth offers us through our own labor aided by nature’s gifts of sun and rain creates a circular relationship of spiritual unity. Perhaps this is the true meaning of Eucharist, which comes from the Greek for gratitude. By receiving the garden’s bounty into our bodies, we gain the strength, energy, and respect to continue our lives in tandem with it.

Signora Giuseppa enjoys the fruits of her labor - homemade foccacia baked in the wood-burning oven.

Signora Giuseppa enjoys the fruits of her labor – homemade foccacia baked in the wood-burning oven.

One August, when most Italians flee their homes for holidays in the countryside or al mare, Giuseppa was faithfully tending her rows of tomato plants. I passed by one cloudy afternoon to find her worried over the possibility of rain. “If it rains, Caterì, it will ruin all the ripe tomatoes.” She and her extended family spend two days peeling and canning these tomatoes for the winter months. I offered to help her pick them without realizing what I was actually getting into. She accepted my offer, grabbed some crates, and bounded out into the field, calling for me to follow with the wheelbarrow. We spent nearly four hours picking tomatoes that afternoon with her chatting the entire time.

“We used to work for a patrone,” she told me. “Half of what we harvested went to the landowner. One hot summer day, I carried a heavy basket of tomatoes the long road up to the landowner’s house. I used to carry everything on my head in those days, but the wet wash from the lavanderia was always the worst, especially in winter.

“I arrived in the midday heat with those tomatoes. I had been working all morning in the fields and hadn’t eaten a thing. It was a thirty-minute walk straight uphill. The sweat was pouring down me. Do you think that Signora offered me a glass of water or a shady place to rest for a moment?”

We hauled the crates onto the wheelbarrow. “Wait, Caterì, let me help you. These crates are too heavy.” She worked like a twenty-year-old and didn’t seem to tire. Visibly rejoicing in the summer harvest, she became more animated and energized as the number of crates of tomatoes grew and grew. Meanwhile, my back was killing me even as I marveled over the variety and seemingly endless number of tomatoes that lay hidden inside the masses of vines.

As we returned to the fields, Giuseppa lingered for a moment next to the tiny clusters of unripe grapes. “Do you remember last year?” my professoressa quizzed me. “The grapes were ruined with disease. This year the plants are green and lush with fruit. It will be a good year for wine.”

She brushed one hand tenderly over the grapes. “Every year has its own season. Just like our lives. One year there is fruit, another only ruin.”

“But at least here in the campo,” Giuseppa laughed, “there’s always something to eat.”

Note: This story was written while the author was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the last of a three part series.

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 1

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 2