S&H Staff Writer Julie Peters and author Cheryl Leutjen explore ways to connect with and honor the natural environment while managing the stress of living in what sometimes feels like environmental apocalypse.
Cheryl Leutjen is a writer in Los Angeles with a background as a geologist and an environmental attorney. Her book Love Earth Now chronicles her attempts to do her part to honor the earth as a wife, mom, and human being. Delightfully written, always earnest, and often funny, the book explores ways to connect with and respect the natural environment while managing the stress of living in what sometimes feels like environmental apocalypse.
S&H: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
Cheryl Leutjen: There are at least two ways I can answer that. The easy response is that it was inspired by a one-day writing workshop. I tell the whole story in my book, but the themes of Love Earth Now poured out that day. I was stunned. I was sure I lacked the patience to write an entire book, and I had no idea what I could say about the monumental environmental problems we face. Yet something I experienced at the end of that workshop inspired me to begin writing regularly. And to do it out in nature.
The second answer is that this book is a culmination of all my years of life on this earth. I was a child of the 1970s: the energy crisis, the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, songbirds dying from DDT, and polluted rivers catching on fire. It was not an environmental picnic back then, either.
I took it all in. I adjusted our home thermostat to President Carter-recommended levels to save energy when my parents weren’t looking. I taped my bedroom light switch in the off position—until my mom stubbed her toes on the junk on the floor in my dark room too many times. (Being a mom who has stepped on Legos in the dark, I get it now.)
I felt I had to do something. I also believed that more sophisticated answers would appear—like the mountaintop emerging through the fog—as I got older. I went on to study interdisciplinary ecology, environmental geology, and environmental law, ever searching for the class or the career that would help me do my part to stem the tide of ecocide.
And still, that mountaintop remained shrouded. It was only after I made that commitment to writing in nature that the pieces of the puzzle that became this book came together.
I consider my relationship with Earth like a relationship with a beloved parent. It’s complicated. Sometimes, it’s a shouting match, and other times, we aren’t on speaking terms. No matter what, it’s rooted in love.
I confess that there are days I’d like to pretend that I owe her nothing, that I can go about my merry way without a thought for excessive plastic packaging. Other days, I drop to my knees and weep in gratitude for Earth’s beneficence. I like to think there are more days like the latter than the former.
No matter many pounds of CO2 that were spewed into the atmosphere on my behalf yesterday, Earth still sends flowers and butterflies and hummingbirds to my yard. That kind of love breaks open my heart again and again and again.
We often think of saving the earth as saving the glaciers, the oceans, the woods, but your book is full of sweet little vignettes with pigeons with a broken leg or the ants that set up shop in your city home. What does Earth mean to you?
Earth is everything to me. We humans like to divide the world into the natural elements and the artificial. Earth means trees, flowers, skunks, grass, and rivers. Steel skyscrapers, plastic-encased flat screen TVs, and Splenda are human-made or artificial.
But where do we get the materials to make all of those things? To make steel, you need a lot of iron, which is extracted from minerals like hematite and magnetite. Most of the deposits of these minerals formed a couple billion years ago, which was a pivotal moment for life on Earth. Those minerals exist because the tiny cyanobacteria became the first living beings on Earth to employ photosynthesis.
Scientists still aren’t sure how these microscopic beings mastered this incredible process—the ability to convert sunlight and water into energy and oxygen. Suffice to say that plants as we know them today would not exist without this revolutionary event. Nor would the animals that eat plants exist, nor the animals that eat animals. In other words, there would be no us.
So when I see a skyscraper, I say, ‘Hurray for cyanobacteria!’ My husband, who studied architecture, says something different—both about the skyscraper and about me.
I know that seems like a way-off-course meander. (Welcome to my world!) My point, and I do have one, is that I see Earth in everything.
The book is essentially about eco-mindfulness. What is that and how do we use it?
Eco-mindfulness isn’t really any different than any other kind. Being present, embracing stillness, and obeying divine inspiration are some of the best ways I know to endure all the upsets of this life. I believe those same practices are essential tools for processing and responding to the bleak news about our environment.
The problems we face as a species, from extinction of the pollinators to the powerful storms made more intense by climate change, seem so complex, so gargantuan, that it’s easy to despair. When you add in the apparent lack of will by powers-that-be to address them—or even admit they exist—that’s my recipe for hopelessness. That’s when I’m tempted to turn to binge-watching Netflix and a heaping dose of medicinal Chardonnay.
The Modern Day Priestess training with Reverend Kate Rodger reminded me that we are so much more than our bodies and brains. We are also powerful spiritual beings. When we obey the stirrings of our hearts and honor our connections with the Divine, we amplify our intentions. Activating our spiritual selves may be the essential element to addressing the enormous challenges we face as a species.
One of the things you focus on is facing the feelings you have about all the problems we have when it comes to our relationship with our natural world. What advice do you give to someone who is feeling distressed about the environmental future?
I hear you. I am apoplectic myself. There are days when I consider picking myself up off the floor to be a monumental success.
I have developed a series of steps to employ in moments of outrage:
- ‘Feel the feelings’ is number one. It’s my least favorite, but my old system of coping-by-avoidance just made me the walking wounded. Bad news hit me, not as a single jab, but like a knockout punch. My aim now, when I read, for example, that koalas are now considered functionally extinct, is to give myself the space to grieve. The key, however, is not to linger there, lest I be marooned like a beached whale who has consumed too much plastic waste.
- The next crucial step is to ask for guidance from that which I call the Divine. ‘What is mine to do?’ is my favorite question. Asking a question creates space for new information. Rehashing the same old thoughts makes me feel like a rat hitting the same dead end over and over in a maze.
- Then I ‘entrust, thank, and bless.’ More than seven billion humans inhabit our planet journeying with their own soul work. This means I can entrust the problems that are not mine to address to all who are showing up to take them on. I thank and bless them for their sacred YES, for showing up and doing their work. This also reminds me to get back to doing mine.
I urge all to engage in the most effective and holy of all sacred practices as often as possible: laughter. Whether you choose silly cat videos or Monty Python, laughter truly can be the best medicine.
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