March 2018

How a walnut tree became my teacher

It may sound surprising, says Sally Neaves, but a walnut tree I discovered four years ago is among my greatest teachers, and like all wise teachers, it has given rise to a new worldview and new possibilities.

BY Sally Neaves

It’s 4:30am in the dead of winter 2014 in Melbourne’s inner north. I’m awake, at home, sitting comfortably as I look out my window onto the chilled concrete-jungle carpark below. In the moonlight I can just make out the branches of a mature walnut tree falling in a fan-like display over the paling fence of my neighbour’s garden. This walnut tree, the only vestige of natural life visible from my flat window, soon becomes the focus of my meditation. In time, it will also become my teacher.

This early-morning meditation becomes my daily ritual for months. It’s an attempt to reach out beyond my human-centred, ego-driven, consumerist worldview. I am discovering who I am – my true identity – this “ecological identity” I had heard mentioned by the wise. From this point on I can slowly begin to move into a sense of myself as one part of a whole, inter-related and reciprocal community of life.

This is new territory for me. It’s challenging and scary, but irresistible – like shedding cladding or breaking through cracks in a brittle shell. I am listening deeply for a new mode of existence. Passionist priest, cultural historian and “geologian” Thomas Berry provides me with some insights. “The adventure of the universe depends on our capacity to listen,” he says. “We have broken the great conversation…”

Despite everything my culture has ingrained in me, I am listening to a walnut tree. I ask, “Am I actually able to ‘hear’ you, walnut tree? Are you kin?” Tentatively, in the midst of suburban concrete, bricks and fences, I clumsily commit to a sort of ‘deep listening’ so as to get ‘inside’ this walnut tree and see if I can learn something from it.

Perhaps the biggest transformation of all comes with a sense of deep reverence for this alive world – this single, sacred community. Thomas Berry offers me some more insights: “Every existence is a mode of divine presence”.

Each morning for many months I armed myself with this same single line of Berry’s. I embraced these words and began to discover a new-found awareness which rearranged the ‘furniture’ of my world. It was difficult, slow work, but it felt like there was nothing more urgent.

This was no insignificant shift. I came to the walnut tree from the worldview of a devoted Catholic upbringing with studies in Christian theology and spirituality, years spent contemplating religious life, a career in religious education, and 10 years in Asia. My return to Australia was partly a quest to seek out my memory of the nourishment and belonging once offered by a spiritual community. It turned out to be the beginning of a journey in which I felt myself shedding the dualistic spiritual worldview of my childhood, also evident in my faith community.

As part of this quest, one experience stands out as particularly significant. It was a telling of the “universe story” by Brigidine Sister Anne Boyd, an Earth literacy presenter. This story, which traces the 13.7 billion-year journey from the big bang (also called the “Great Flaring Forth”) to the present, unites science and the humanities in a dramatic exploration of the unfolding of the universe, noting humanity’s evolving place in the story, and the boundless possibilities for our future.

Hearing the story, I remember being deeply drawn into Anne’s lilting, steady telling. The emphatic, fearless challenge of her invitation to consider its implications shook me. The words and phrases carried something very new, seemingly sacred.

Anne used a humble, visual tool that night – a plain strand of white wool formed into the shape of a small spiral at her feet. Markers on this piece of wool indicated the unfolding of life through deep time, from the “Great Flaring Forth” in the centre, to the eventual evolution of the human in the tiniest space at the very end of the spiral. Before me on the wool lay 13.7 billion years. I saw myself as part of a single, sacred community.

That simple visual tool changed everything for me in a moment. We are the first generation of humans to know this story. My mind became busy. What did this all mean for how we live? For what we believe? For how we move forward into the next threshold? For what I teach and model for others?

Many moments like this followed – retreats, rituals, reading, film nights, and of course the walnut tree next door. Slowly, I was transforming from a solitary spiritual seeker trying to get beyond this world, to honestly feeling sacred presence everywhere. The very perceived boundaries of ‘myself’ as a human being began to smudge.

I also began to realise that this mysterious awakening is accompanied by deep pain. As eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says, Earth has become “a supply house and a sewer”. Yet, there is no clear enemy in this destruction; we all participate in it. But like the Chinese character for crisis, which also means opportunity, we must look our grief in the eye, break our hearts open and allow it to flow through us to generate an authentic response. This truth is known to every religious and spiritual tradition of the world.

By participating in regular community rituals I found a place to honour, with others, our pain for the world instead of suppressing it. By gathering with others I was also challenged to think further. Those I connected with described it as an outpouring of Earth expressing Earth’s own pain, charged with the potential of Earth’s capacity to self-heal.

Carl Jung believed that at the core of every life is a question that each of us must pursue. I felt this question arising and opening me up. After months of soul-searching, I left Melbourne to take up an educator role at Rahamim Ecology Centre in Bathurst, NSW, a ministry of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. This site of reciprocal living, spirituality and education now has a large spiral of pavers embedded in the grounds where the “universe story” continues to be told and walked. When we know this story we start to see our responsibilities with new eyes. It invites an intensification of intimacy between we humans and all other beings. We realise things we haven’t considered before, such as the inner subjectivity of all beings.

Just as I once ‘listened’ to my neighbour’s walnut tree, I now turn my attention to the landscape near my new home, the ancient living rock formations of the Greater Blue Mountains National Park. I receive great sustenance from being there and renewed motivation to ensure a little bit more beauty is preserved. I am starting to identify strongly with this place, recognising that the same forces of dramatic uplift that formed those mountains some 50 million years ago are still alive today in the mountains, and somehow, flow through us as well.

At the same time, I am confronted by other forces threatening this place: the re-opening of the Manildra ‘Invincible’ Coal Mine, a project that threatens the pagoda formations of the Gardens of Stone; and the proposed raising of the Warragamba dam wall, which will stifle wild rivers and flood many hectares of some of the most protected places in Australia. Being present to these sites of great beauty and destruction with others is where my work takes me today.

Fortunately, we are not alone. I rejoice in the connective tissue that unites us in our distress for Earth’s destruction. I immediately think of peaceful actions by ‘craftivist’ groups such as the River Yarners (of which I’m a member) who met in Bathurst each week for two years to create a crocheted representation of the Macquarie River after the river was threatened by a proposed new gold mine.

Later, when plane trees were to be cut down by the local council, our group got to work again and created beautiful crocheted banners displaying the words “love”, “hope” and “life”, which were wrapped around the threatened trees. The “Yarners” seemed to be ‘listening’ to the river and ‘listening’ to the trees, and found a way to act. In the movement of yarn over hands together we create a visible celebration of our love of Earth’s beauty and a collective space of lamentation for Earth’s distress in our region.

It may sound surprising, but that walnut tree I discovered four years ago is among my greatest teachers. Like all wise teachers it has given rise to a new worldview and new possibilities. Maybe this is Earth’s potential for self-healing spreading into the human community as we awaken to our ecological self? This is what Thomas Berry called the “Great Work” of these times something I believe wholeheartedly:

“The Great Work now is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner”.

Sally Neaves and Pat Long will lead a three-day retreat at Mount St Benedict Centre, Pennant Hills from April 26-28, 2018. Entitled “Rockforest Reawakening”, this immersion experience will give participants the opportunity to deepen their appreciation of the beauty and sacredness of the natural world, hear the cry of the Earth and bring forth imaginative responses to the challenges of our time and place. Find out more here.

Sally Neaves

Sally Neaves is the Eco-Education Coordinator at Rahamim Ecology Centre, a ministry of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Her work involves designing Earth literacy programs and place-based contemplative practices for reconnection, healing and imaginative action. Her background includes studies in ecological theology, philosophy and spirituality.

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