— by Blair Nelsen, Executive Director, Waterspirit
We are walking ecosystems. Inside of our intestines live microbes that produce up to 90% of our serotonin, a neurotransmitter; in other words, there are beings producing thoughts in our guts.[i]
When I first learned this, I experienced an ontological shift — a rearrangement of the reality I had known. I was never alone. I was made up of other beings who participated in a body that I had always believed to be just mine. Where, then, were the limits of my “self” if they did not align with that enclosed, isolated body?
The form of attention triggered by learning this fact led to a kind of self-emptying, steps that Douglas Christie describes in Blue Sapphire of the Mind (2013) in Christian monastic terms as prosoche and kenosis, respectively. These are necessary steps on the path to practicing contemplative ecology. They allow the practitioner to “notice and cherish the koinonia or community in which one had been invited to dwell, and to commit oneself to the life and health of the community.”[ii]
It is almost paradoxical that we build this larger community through attention to the specific, through knowing where we are and what the local communities are in which we participate. “Nature” cannot be connected to in the abstract — only in the specific — lest we run the risk of producing inaccurate, alienating generalizations. Vandana Shiva calls this “decentered diversity”, which is agency-producing and justice-enacting.[iii] Womanist theologian Melanie L. Harris suggests starting with our own “eco-memories”, or “one’s own environmental familial roots and spiritual connections,” in order to achieve the attention to the specific that leads to greater community.[iv] We must bring this attention-informed specificity to our Earth community in order to truly appreciate it and participate in it.
The land places demands on us. Water places demands on us. They demand our attention (prosoche); they demand the emptying of the little ego of the self (kenosis); they demand the identification of the self with the larger Earth community (koinonia). The soil is our external metabolism. Our bodies are integral components of the greater body of the earth. Identity, individuality, and selfhood are extended over place and time, reaching out toward all life forms who surround us, who came before us and who will come after us. This is why the land and waters can place demands on us: because they are us. We are overlapping points in a great ecology of selves.
I join the Waterspirit community with my own eco-memories of bioregions far from the one we occupy in coastal New Jersey, yet also carrying my mother’s fond childhood memories of going “down the Shore.” I feel new ones forming in the little awe-produced place-out-of-time when the Navesink River opens before me on Oceanic Bridge, heading toward Waterspirit’s headquarters. These new waters are placing demands on me. They are already me; I am already them.
[i] Caltech. “Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in the Gut.” April 9, 2015. Available at https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/microbes-help-produce-serotonin-gut-46495
[ii] Christie, Douglas E. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p.6.
[iii] Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1999, p.44.
[iv] Harris, Melanie L. Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017, p. 7.