When my mother died we were all too overwhelmed with grief to decide what to do with her ashes so they sat in a brown box in my office for the remainder of the year. Towards the end of the year I met a man who was selling a young willow tree and remembered a poem my mother had written about how the willow tree, unlike the Oak Tree, can bend with the wind. My mother wanted to be like a willow tree so I buried her ashes underneath one.
For years the willow tree struggled to survive but eventually grew strong and resilient. It became the largest tree in the yard and a playground for my granddaughter to swing beneath its watchful branches. All seemed well but, as the drought took its toll, slowly the willow’s branches began to turn brown and wither. Before I knew it there were more brown branches than green. The tree was dying. The land beneath the willow had become parched from years of drought and a lowered water table leaving the plant life in Sonoma vulnerable. Climate change was no longer an abstraction, as the mother tree that nurtured my family became a fire hazard threatening my home.
Global warming is affecting different communities in different ways. Climate deniers say the climate is always changing, and that is true. However, it is changing so rapidly now, someone who lives on the land can see dramatic changes in their lifetime. And the pace is accelerating as the Earth’s elements rise up. Some of us are visited by water demons of hurricanes, floods and tsunamis, others by fire demons ready to consume vast swaths of land, jump over freeways and bridges and take out entire neighborhoods. This land I live on is in fire demon territory. This demon that lurks in the mountains above the valley, ready to pounce, has licked the land dry with its tongue. I feel its presence when the sun beats down relentlessly and the winds blow earlier and stronger. What was once a gentle Mediterranean climate has become more arid and dangerous. The willow tree, the roses and even the grapes are relics of a different, kinder time.
The Buddha advised us to walk the middle path between passivity and activism. As the Earth groans, good stewards are challenged to reconcile an understanding of the basic Buddhist tenet of impermanence, which reminds us that everything is always changing, with a desire to steer that change in a positive direction. If we are detached from taking responsibility as co- creators of this human experiment the lowest common denominator, greed and ignorance, takes over and the planet’s demise is hastened. If we become attached to results we become discouraged, burnt out, have trouble staying the course and, once again, greed and ignorance take over. Our challenge is to walk between attachment to results and detachment in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Just as with raising our children, we do our best to help the Earth thrive then release it into an unknown destiny. Ultimately, we have no control only influence. But influence can be powerful.
I’m reminded of the bodhisattva vow, beings are numberless, I vow to awaken them. The bodhisattva takes on a task that has no end in sight. We wake up each morning, brush our teeth, take out the trash, get dressed and go to work, day after day. When infused with a sense of purpose these endless tasks not only keep our world in order they bring more peace to our lives. We protect the vulnerable, the planet and all the beings on it, not because we expect to see the results but because this is what it means to be a human being. We may not see results, they may not even emerge in our lifetime, but we continue serving the greater good.
I must admit, I grieve for the land and the creatures on it. Still, each morning I wake up, feed the cat and dog, water the plants and support my friends and family. I reduce my carbon footprint, send money to people who are fighting for a sustainable future, sign petitions, vote and march. I haven’t given up on this planet but can’t say I know what the outcome will be. I have the dead branches pruned off the mother tree even though she may be set ablaze tomorrow. We do the best we can with what is in front of us and continue to love this beautiful, miraculous planet, its mother trees and oceans.