“Everything is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the Universe,” wrote Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947). He was challenging the basic assumptions of our modern, industrial world, which prefers to think of everything as separate. This was the most important message I heard in the classrooms of Pomona College, the location for the philosophy conference: Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The more I listened, the more I came to see that indigenous peoples had been living and breathing Whitehead’s ideas for thousands of years. When they say: “All my relations,” they’re not talking about aunts and uncles, unless you consider aunts and uncles to represent every rock, every mountain, every tree, and thunderstorm.
I found my way to the session on The Contributions of Indigenous People, where I met indigenous elders from Siberia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Arizona, California, and Brazil. From their perspective, we are constituted by our relations, past, present and future. In every act, we are responsible to everyone and everything in our past, present, and future. How they see themselves emerges from the land, and the community. Coyote, a Kenneste/Maidu/Huchme Elder from California advised us “settlers” in the room to “not get into our canoes; follow your own guides. Our elders teach simplicity,” he said. Danny Blackgoat, traditional Diné from Arizona, expressed his discomfort with the word civilization because of course it implies something more grandiose and unnatural than people living on and with the land.
Claudio Carvalhaes provided a moving experience. In theatrical fashion, he told the history of the Guarani of South America who dance in ritual for days, weeks, years, before they walk to The Land Without Evil. “I don’t start from thinking,” he said. “I don’t start from metaphysics. I start where it hurts. This is what colonialism has done to us – searching for who we truly are and where we belong.” Claudio, dressed at the beginning like a cool Brazilian dude, gradually undressed as he circled the room and took on the regalia of the Guarani. “The movement of the Earth must set the pace of our lives,” he said. “Perhaps the Guarani cosmology may be all we need. They hold the Land without Evil for all of us. The Guarani are calling us to dance, to walk, to keep moving.” It made one want to get up and dance and a few of us did.
Through a translator, Almaz, a Kyrgyzstan Elder, shared the heart and soul of his culture, explaining how the hunt is part of the foundation of their spiritual life, both survival and art. They raise dogs and eagles who communicate with each other in the hunt. Every eagle feather has been given a name. Another Kyrgyzstan Elder, Kamil, sang an episode from the Manas, a centuries-old epic poem – an encyclopedia of the Kyrgyzstan cosmology that contains instructions on how to maintain balance in times of uncertainty and rapid change. He sat cross-legged on the floor and dropped into an animated trance-like state. At the end, the room was transformed and energized.
Philosopher, John Cobb, Jr. who dreamed the conference into being calls climate change “both moral failure and opportunity. There are many things we should have done yesterday.” He wonders what business and finance would look like if the aim of creating a thriving ecosphere became the goal of the economy. Perhaps climate chaos will teach us how to relate to the Earth in a better way.
Many theologians at the conference viewed the environmental crisis as a moral crisis in the same way as Pope Francis. Theodore Walker is an associate professor of Ethics and Society at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and I met him on the last evening. He explained the simplest and most truthful way to understand the theories of Alfred North Whitehead. “You realize that everything is in the process of becoming – including the stories we tell about our world,” he said. I told him about my challenge to take these teachings – some more opaque than others – and write a play for children. He had a great laugh and explained that “Whiteheadians” are only able to talk to each other, and if he had the skill to write a play for children he wouldn’t be teaching process theology.
I returned home with an even deeper appreciation of the insights of western philosophy, the wisdom of indigenous peoples, motivation to get on with the play, and a large eagle feather from Kyrgyzstan. The feather’s name is chalgy kanat.