Today’s column spotlights the Gaian tradition. The essay is from Bart Everson, the author of Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. With M. Macha NightMare, he established the Earth-Based Spirituality Action Team of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. He currently serves as co-organizer for New Orleans Lamplight Circle, on the steering committee of the New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, and as convener of the Crescent City Gaian Guild. He is a co-founder of the Green Party of Louisiana and the Friends of Lafitte Greenway, a nonprofit that has played a key role in constructing a multimodal transportation corridor through the heart of New Orleans. You can find more at BartEverson.com.
She is the one who whispers to you
in your infinite dreaming.
— “Song of Gaia,” Julie Tara
The living Earth is abuzz with communication. Honeybees dance to signal the location of flowers with nectar to harvest. Whales sing to each other in the ocean deep. The human sphere is rife with innumerable messages, from song and dance to the written and spoken word, to say nothing of the digital messages pulsing through the silicon web we’ve spun around the planet.
If we take Gaia theory to heart, if we accept that we are all cells in Gaia’s body, then we may consider every one of these messages to be, in some sense, part of Gaia. Some messages seem to carry Gaia’s voice more clearly than others. We might hear Gaia’s voice in the song of a bird, but can we discern it in the billboard exhortation to BUY MORE STUFF, or in the hate-mongering effluvium of neo-fascist demagogues? That is more difficult.
We might investigate what we know of our bodies. When a foreign object punctures my epidermis, as an example, certain signals are transmitted: Intruder alert! Make more antibodies! White blood cells, activate! These are signals of and by my body.
The words that come out of my mouth are different: “Ouch,” I might say. “I cut myself. I need help. Can you please get me a bandage?” Obviously, I am not speaking to my platelets; I’m speaking to another human being like myself.
That distinction is clear enough, but the situation with Gaia is different. As far as we know, Gaia doesn’t speak like that, to another planetary being like herself. As far as we know, Gaia is unique. We don’t know of any other living planets.
All the Earthly messages that surround us are better understood as internal communication within the planetary system, component parts speaking to one another. Some may even be dysfunctional, counterproductive, cancerous. This is how I understand the endless advertising campaigns of American-style consumer capitalism, as well as the tweeting of Donald Trump.
The tweeting of the songbirds, however, carries a distinctly different message.
A Call to Wholeness
Among this sea of messages, some stand out as having a different character, of belonging to a different order of communication. There are some messages that remind us of our radical interconnectedness, that evoke a sense of sacred awe at the web of life. These messages may evoke in us an image of the whole Earth, Mother Earth, mother of us all. They may engender a welter of diverse and even contradictory feelings: concern, shame, alarm, devotion, fear, yearning, grief, love.
In these messages, we discern a call to a greater wholeness, of which we are a part. This is not the false promise of the ethno-nationalists. We discern the call of the entire Earth community. We hear Gaia’s call.
We are human, so many of us will hear Gaia’s call in a human song, in a poem, or in a speech. Despite the auditory metaphor, we might “hear” the call in visual works of art, or in the writings of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess, or even Pope Francis.
It was two scientists, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who brought the name of Gaia back to wide popular attention, though the name was in fact the suggestion of the poet and novelist William Golding. Pagans will be aware that Oberon Zell published similar thoughts as far back as 1970.
It isn’t always easy or pleasant to hear this call. To give the most pressing current example, many perceive a dire message in the novel coronavirus. I track such things, and I can confirm that in the earlier months of 2020 I’ve heard a steady drumbeat of essays and analyses making the connection between COVID-19 and Gaia theory:
- “Consider the COVID-19 virus as Gaia’s defensive system,” writes Sati Sil for the Statesman Journal, likening the viral assault to “an army of foot soldiers, conveying a strong message that our planet is sick and some remedial measures are necessary to restore its health.”
- A study by Ibrahim Berchin and José Baltazar Andrade Guerra in the scholarly journal Research in Globalization finds that “the COVID-19 pandemic urges for a common agenda for the future of humanity as part of the Gaia, not above it.”
- “COVID-19 is evidently a symptom of how sick of us is Gaia, our planet,” writes Roberto Cazzolla Gatti in a recent issue of Ecological Modelling. “We are receiving warning messages from Gaia,” he concludes, “some of the strongest and clearest of all our evolutionary time.”
- Dorion Sagan, son of Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan and an eloquent proponent of Gaia in his own right, adds some nuance in his interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books: “It is silly to think that the RNA coronavirus… was released ‘in order to’ battle the alleged human ecological plague that has raised Earth’s temperature and given it a fever. But that may be its effect, nonetheless.”
- An opinion piece from Tom Vincent in the Newport News-Times tells of “a profound shift in consciousness… an ecological awakening” underway now. Vincent further states that “COVID-19 will prove to be the spiritual purification of planet Earth.” He says we have two paths before us, one leading us to “the god/goddess Gaia” and the other one leading to hell on Earth.
Scientists, journalists, and other writers are hearing Gaia’s call in the form of this deadly disease sweeping through the human population.
We hear Gaia’s call when these humans name her.
A Religion of Gaia
These humans make the call to wholeness explicit and give us the language to think and communicate about our relation to the whole Earth, not in dry scientific terms, but in affective terms of respect, awe, even reverence, and devotion. In one sense, this is a simple linguistic move, putting a label to a concept. But it is so much more than that. With a name, we awaken the affective dimension of relationality. The name Gaia has increased general interest in a holistic view of Earth systems. Gaia can inspire feelings of gratitude, reverence, and responsibility. I hear Gaia’s call in the invocation of her name.
Lovelock is not shy in recognizing the spiritual or religious dimension of his innovation. “Science becomes holistic again and rediscovers soul,” he writes, “and theology, moved by ecumenical forces, begins to realise that Gaia is not to be subdivided for academic convenience.” Such assertions make some scientists nervous, leading them to disavow the language of Gaia theory, even while they accept its basic tenets. These spiritual dimensions have even led some opponents of the environmental movement to denigrate activists as Gaia-worshiping neo-pagans. (And they always use lowercase for that term.)
One might well wonder: Where is this religion of Gaia, exactly? I’ve been wondering and searching for years. I found hints in the environmental movement in general and the Green Party in particular. I’ve found some of the clearest explications of Gaian spirituality from those who proudly call themselves Pagans. I hear Gaia’s call in the work of Starhawk and Glenys Livingstone and many others. Most recently, I have heard that distinctive, explicit call to wholeness in the reflections posted on Gaianism.org. I have found here a movement still in early formation. It has motivated me to convene local meetings in my area.
I’m excited by the possibilities. The shape of this path is emerging and very much in process. We are developing our shared rituals and practices. Just before the June solstice, for instance, we observed a day of stillness, silence, and listening. My local group hosted an online ritual in honor of that seasonal moment at the beginning of August, generally known as Lammas or Lughnasadh in Pagan circles, which we styled as “Dog Days 2020.” We celebrated the harvest but also counted the cost, mourning the loss of a number of species recently declared extinct. And we fasted on Earth Overshoot Day, the day when it’s calculated that we humans have exhausted all Gaia’s resources from the planetary budget; it fell on the 22nd of August this year, three weeks later than 2019 because of the pandemic and concomitant reduction of human impact on the biosphere.
I would describe this new tradition as very Pagan-friendly, especially appealing to Naturalistic or Eco-Pagans, but also welcoming people of any religion or no religion. Some of us identify as Pagans, while others among us don’t even know what that means. The key is that we’ve all heard Gaia’s call, and we all share the desire to keep her at the center of our spiritual practice.
The call is universal, but different voices speak to different people, based on our varied life experiences and associations. While I’ve listed my inspirations here, we hear the call in many modes, from many directions.
Setting the Stage
What of the birdsong?
I’m pretty sure the main message the birds send is related to sex and reproduction, warning of nearby threats, and other matters urgent to the birds. We humans might simply appreciate the song as a lovely noise. But we might also perceive something deeper in it, something bigger. Any one of us might hear Gaia’s call in the song of a bird. We might “hear” the call in the beauty of a flower or a mountain. It can happen when we least expect it.
It’s a blessing, to be sure, to receive such messages from our more-than-human kin, or from the land. These mystical experiences can prove difficult to translate into human language. They may belong in another category altogether. There’s no point in seeking after such experiences. They ambush us, if they happen at all.
Nevertheless, we can be intentional. The best we can do is set the stage for such encounters, to relax our guard while continuing to pay careful attention, to maintain openness without expectation. It may be difficult to hear Gaia’s call if we are always distracted by the latest controversy on social media, or enraged by the headlines of the day. It’s right to be enraged at manifest injustice, and to take action, but rage without renewal exhausts us. The vast array of contemplative practices, from ritual to meditation, can bring a measure of clarity and peace. This may help us to be receptive.
A Call to Action
Having once heard the call, having become aware of our relation to the living Mother, whom we constitute with our very lives, we know that we are also called to right action on her behalf.
We are called to a different way of living, certainly, than the typical American consumerist lifestyle. Our radical individualism, ironically, can have the effect of subordinating us within systems of production and distribution in which we feel very little agency. We are called to change, and these changes require collective action.
We are called to join the struggle for justice, and it’s imperative to know that we are not alone. It’s imperative to reach out and connect to others who have also heard Gaia’s call, to discover how we can engage the transformative work that we know is necessary.
Gaia is calling. Will we hear? Will we answer?
If you would like to learn more about Gaianism, please consider visiting Gaianism.org.