In late summer, I would swim and stream-walk a small section of the Raccoon River. While sedimented for decades now, the water was clear in the shallows. For a few years now, the water is pea-green from edge-to-edge. For decades and worse now, this water has strongly contributed to a vast hypoxia zone in the Gulf.

In the 1980s, I wrote about the wisdom of the river, focusing on the Des Moines River as a living, very open metaphor for the essential streaming dynamic of the universe that is within us as well in the streaming of our body metabolism and thought.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sacred Water & Iowa, Part Two

Christi Belcourt

See previous post, Sacred Water & Iowa, Part One, 10/13/16

SEEING A PHOTOGRAPH of the biosphere from space in 1970, brought the idea of ecology into everyday life.  It was apparent that there was an integrated, inseparable “Earth” that as no longer a land and water stageset upon which human life wa played out.  Human life was inside this “environment.”

One of the more radical ideas of that time was the idea that there should be legal rights for “natural objects” such as forests or for rivers and their watersheds such as the Grand Canyon.  Christopher Stone’s essay, Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects [NY, William Kaufmann, 1972] proposed that natural events such as trees and lakes--like corporations--have legal rights.  For many, this idea is deemed preposterous, especially because of the way that it is seen to limit “human rights.  But one of the increasing ideas since the 1070s is an understanding is that environmental quality either optimizes or degraded human life.  Now, having peopled the Earth, with no vast physical frontiers to exploit and absorb exploitation, what human life does to the environment feeds back negatively on human life and, in the long run, it is even more costly to repair both the land and human health.

By 2000, mainstream religions were beginning to incorporate an ecological ethic in their practices as a priority issue.  There was also an increasing profane movement that was captured by the term “deep ecology.”  Book titles such as This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, Seeking the Well-Being of the Earth and Humans begin to suggest this spiritual/ethical/religious shift.

As we begin to look at Iowa Water in relationship to this deeper connection to landscape for the long-term sustainability of both nature and culture, ideas such as Gandhi’s agrian values are worth a look--food, justice, sustainability--for the way that they offer a different core value  or baseline for agriculture.  These values really challenge the reality of a corporate agriculture that is very production-based and that uses very intensive methods.  And they really challenge the practicality of a radical shift in day-to-day practices if agriculture is to literally be viable if it were to shift to a different set of core values.  But consideration of a different set of core values also begins to challenge the fantasy of industrial ag as environmentally healthy when it extracts the most it can from the landscape.  New values priorities also begin to challenge the economic pressures to sell to the highest bidder rather than justly “feed the world” or assume that it is the epitome of a spiritual stewardship of the landscape.  In Iowa, there is a very high degree of conflict between agricultural practices and ecological/spiritual values rather than a sense of harmony.  

In the real context of Iowa water quality, the idea of the legal rights of, for example, streams and rivers and lakes is an impossibility for Iowa ag.

In New Zealand and Uruguay, the rights of nature are codified into public law.  This is the consequence of a shift  to a sense that the environment affects human life AND the “heartbeat” and health of the landscape that makes it valuable to assure that the rights, for example, of the water can be addressed through jurisprudence. 

From 1970 to the early decades of the 21st Century, there is a major shift toward a sense of inseparability of the interests of nature and culture.  Rather than being a inert commodity to be used to morally and ethically and spiritually activate it, there is a profane and sacred sense of the landscape as “living” and profoundly complex  and active in a healthy way, and inseparable from human life, and optimizing human life both  in economic and healthy ways.  

Ethical values can broaden beyond strict human interests and can potentially improve human life quality as well.  In 1988, Sweden enacted an animal welfare law requiring cattle, pigs and chickens to be freed from the restrictions of intensive, or factory-farming methods for both humane reasons and food quality.  In Iowa, animal rights “whistle-blowers” on factory farms can be prosecuted.

In Hinduism, the river Ganga is considered sacred and is personified as a goddess Gaṅgā. It is worshipped by Hindus who believe that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and facilitates Moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death) [Wikipedia].

While the sacredness of water and landscape can seem outside Western ethics and spirituality, and remain primarily as an aspect of indigenous societies and “pagan” and pantheistic and monist religions, the sacredness of water does appear in the West in the Sea of Galilee, the spring at Lourdes, the Jordan River, the holy well at Chartres....
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So very useful, humble, precious and chaste.
Francis of Assisi, from The Canticle of Brother Sun

Iowa is gifted with water, and yet a sense of moral responsibility toward water as the “custodian of life” and treatment of water with respect and dignity would seem to be archaic and superstitious.  However, as water quality continues to diminish with little real hope for free-running quality water irregardless of our mitigation, an appreciation of water will continue to increase and a revelation of water as sacred stands to appear.  

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