Wild Halifax and The Parliament of Life – Sunday column, April 18, 2011
I’ve never participated in a Council of All Beings. Not yet.
Councils of All Beings were designed by proponents of “deep ecology” to give people a direct emotional experience of their profound connection with the rest of the natural world. Deep ecology holds that the world was not made for human exploitation, that all its features have intrinsic value, and that our most urgent task is to re-discover our proper place among the life-forms that share this green and spinning planet.
That task requires that we transform ourselves socially, politically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. The toughest part is the spiritual and emotional piece – and that’s what the Council of All Beings is about. It is one thing to understand intellectually that we are profoundly interconnected with the features and creatures that we are destroying. It is quite another thing to feel it on your skin and in your hair, and within your heart and spirit.
Participants adopt the roles of natural feature that will speak through each of them. Sometimes they make masks to represent themselves as bear, breeze, condor, river. They sit in a wide circle. A drum thumps, like a heartbeat. Participants may speak the names of extinct and endangered species. Or there may be a cairn of mourning, built as each participant adds a stone and speaks of a loss – a marsh filled, a stream poisoned, a forest razed.
Participants often adopt First Nations practices – sage, sweetgrass, prayers to the four directions. Then, perhaps, a roll call: I am Wild Goose, I speak for migratory birds. Grey Shark represents the life of the oceans. I am Flowing Water, speaking for the streams of the earth.
Each Being tells of the dangers it faces, the diminution of its life, the loss of other species. A few participants at a time shed their masks and move to the centre of the circle, resuming their human identity while the other Beings speak directly to them about dams and poisons, clear-cuts and oil spills, sewers and trawlers. The humans remain silent. For once, they have to listen.
Finally the Beings offer “gifts” to the humans. Lichen offers the gift of patience, Leaf offers release from the fear of death, Mountain offers a place of deep peace. The recipients carry those gifts away with them.
Such Councils have taken place all over the world – Russia, the US, South America, Pictou County – and in many different venues, including churches and schools. They are often profound and moving experiences. Participants rediscover their own moral imaginations, experience the pain of the natural world as their own pain, and find themselves transformed. They cease to see the world as a package of resources. They understand it in their guts as a community of life.
These Councils reveal the wisdom of the First Nations in choosing names. Grey Shark, Wild Goose, Flowing Water: these sound like aboriginal names. Real aboriginal names – Big Bear, Crowfoot, Little Flower – position their owners within the broader community of life.
I also realize, oddly, that I have been sensitized by the wildlife of Halifax, which I live with every day. My workroom window overlooks the Northwest Arm – and the wildlife here, four blocks from this newspaper’s offices, is astonishing. Gulls and terns wheel over the water. Ducks, loons and geese paddle and dive. Crabs scuttle through the mussel beds. Mink hump along the shore. Raccoons and otters breed under nearby buildings. Ospreys ride the breezes. Herons fish in the shallows. The morning air bursts with bird-song.
A bald eagle disembowels its prey, making red stains on the saltwater ice. Last month seals lay on the ice, basking in the sun. At sundown, the sky is thick with crows returning to roost at Mount Saint Vincent University. A couple of years ago a beluga circled behind our back yard for an hour. A beluga? Well, what else could it be, a white whale 20 feet long?
Another resident animal sits high in his aerie, watching and typing. The pulse of life drums all around him. Would he take part in a Council of All Beings? Oh yes. It would be like speaking in the Parliament of Life.