Nonviolence toward the Earth and each other

This afternoon, before a torrent of rain cascaded down from the heavens, my hands were deep in dark soil and a gaggle of worms. I could have kept them there for hours but there was hard ground that needed to be tilled, plants that needed planting, a garden in the making. Still, I wanted to linger amidst the sound of bird call, the conversation with Ludmilla, a young student volunteer (and expert gardener!), the interplay of sun and cloud, which seemed to waltz together through the afternoon. And then there was the trash, so much of it: Chinese food containers buried in leaves, plastic bags hanging from tree limbs, candy wrappers fastened on the back fence and beer cans which had been flung over the fence.

The sight of the trash was jarring; it awakened me to how the earth is violated even in just the small act of dropping of litter. The practice of gardening, much like Zen meditation, is all absorbing and encourages a stillness within the mind. While I was raking a pile of dead leaves, questions started to emerge: Where does my body begin and end in relation to the earth’s body? Am I breathing in what the trees are breathing out and vice versa? Are we, in other words, breathing together? In light of such porosity, how can I treat the earth with such indifference?

Barbara Kingsolver, in her book of essays, Small Wonder, beautifully articulates what I had intuited during the work of raking leaves:

People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers … Wilderness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plan of earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.

As if taking a cue from Kingsolver, Ludmilla spotted planks of wood that, like much of the trash, had been flung over the fence. These planks, dank and moss covered, would serve as the borders of our vegetable garden. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she exclaimed while we dragged the planks out, “we don’t have to buy any wood!” Indeed, she had chosen carefully. It’s likely that our vegetable garden will not make the front cover of any garden magazine, but her choice to recycle and renew pointed to a grandness of vision. These planks, however humble, evinced a certain nobility after we set them up in a square formation; they would be the guardians of the new life soon to take root within their borders.

Prior to working in the garden, I was paging through Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Given the recent military coup in Honduras, I wanted to reacquaint myself with Galeano’s piercing analysis and poetic eloquence. I was not disappointed. Isabelle Allende, in her foreword to the book’s 25th anniversary edition, writes: “Great literary books like this one wake up consciousness, bring people together, interpret, explain, denounce, keep record and provoke change.” She finds within Galeano’s intimate reading of history reason for hope:

The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them and the land plows and loves them.

The land originates and sustains us; why is this obvious fact so often forgotten or neglected? When Galeano writes about Honduras, he reminds the reader of the 19th century exploits of William Walker, a North American pirate who was employed by US bankers. With full support of the U.S. government, this “national hero” as he was later hailed, “robbed, killed, burned, and in successive expeditions proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.

Not to be outdone by Walker, President William H. Taft upped the ante in the 20th century: “The day is not far distant when three Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal, and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it is already ours morally.”

The fact that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, defender of the workers and campesinos, was ousted by the military—with a two-time School of the Americas (now WHINSEC) graduate, General Romeo Vasquez, leading the charge—is not all that surprising, I suppose. As Father Daniel Berrigan, poet and peace activist, often says, we follow the same marching orders time and time again; we think that human community is formed out of the barrel of a gun. Along with humans, the land is also burned and destroyed.

Ten years ago, the “Red” Bishop of Recife, Brazil, Dom Helder Camara died. Dom Helder’s is a voice that we must resurrect in these days of coups and climate disasters. Camara, up by 2:00 am every morning, channeled his astonishing energy into uplifting the poor, particularly those who lived in the favelas, the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro. Though his early efforts found him creating anti-poverty programs, he soon came to see that such “band-aids” would never heal the structural wounds of poverty. In order to do that, Brazil had to re-think its process of industrialization and its care of the land:

Every day the agriculture industry expels more peasants from the interior. The big companies move in with their modern methods of cultivation which require far fewer hands and produce much higher yields. They buy vast tracks of land, and anyone who has been living there—probably without any official documents, but often for several generations—is forced to leave. They’re simply thrown out.

And they go to the towns. If they can, they go to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo … The peasants think that they’ll be able to find houses, schools, work, and hospitals in the city. And they end up in the favelas.

Or they may end up rebelling, and more often than not, imprisoned or killed. In Camara’s book, Spirals of Violence, he counsels nonviolent resistance as a means of transforming oneself as well as the unjust structures of society. In writing the book, however, Camara wanted first to defend the poor from the accusation that they were “inherently violent,” as was evident, to the elite at least, by the violence of their rebellions.

Camara pointed out that rebels were rebelling against the violence of politically and economically induced impoverishment backed up by a military intent to keep political and economic power in the hands of a small elite. This he called the first level of violence, which was met by the violence, at times, of a resistance movement, or the second level of violence. In the third level of violence, the elites strike back and most often with wildly disproportionate force. Camara, who often lived in the favelas, knew that his call for nonviolence was challenging: “Choosing the way of moral pressure is not choosing the easy way out. We are replacing the force of arms by moral force, the violence of truth.”

Reading Kingsolver, Galeano, and Camara, I better understood the nonviolence of earth stewardship, and its urgency. Working in the garden later that afternoon, I intensely felt that same urgency. Camara, in a meditation entitled, “The Co-Creator Went Mad,” claims that we have gone mad because our leaders stockpile weapons that can destroy the earth “more than thirty times.” I think now about worms I came close to today, silently writhing about in the dark soil. I think of how the “whole universe” was right there, at that moment. Who will speak for them in the midst of such madness?

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