Lyanda Lynn Haupt explores where science, poetry, mysticism, and the traditions of earth-based cultures intersect in her book “Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit.”
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, writer, educator, and the author of six books, including Mozart's Starling, an account of the composer's relationship with a unique bird who sang a version of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major. In her latest work, Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, Haupt writes about how science, poetry, mysticism, and the traditions of earth-based cultures all point to the truth that we are interconnected and pose the “essential question of how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth.”
S&H: You describe coming to know the natural world in part through your childhood faith. How might your readers mine their spiritual experiences to find a connection to the earth?
Lyanda Lynn Haupt: I was raised Catholic. As a kid I didn’t know anything about the politics of the institution, but many of the saints captured my imagination. Saint Francis of Assisi is famous among ecologically-minded people; we know that he spoke with birds and wolves, and called all things Sister and Brother—the moon, the trees, and even elements like fire. But many lesser-known saints also had wild, creative relationships to the natural world and found the sacred everywhere: living in caves, baking bread in clay ovens, bowing to ravens, singing with trees. So I grew up with the idea that our connection to nature can be both intimate and very individual.
No one needs to be part of a particular religious tradition to know nature-based spiritual experience. Often when we are feeling exhausted, grief-stricken, or even filled with happiness we instinctively seek trees, sunlight, starlight, the embrace of darkness, the bank of a river, or the gaze of a wild animal (even if that wild animal is a chickadee at the windowsill). Everyone has at some time felt deep stillness or wonder or embrace or comfort in the natural world. Maybe it was in childhood, or maybe it was yesterday—just recalling that feeling of oneness can invite the possibility of deeper everyday connection.
So many of us are disconnected from the physical world. How can we begin to notice this?
You’re so right. It takes practice and attentiveness to connect with the earth when our lives are so influenced by technology and general busy-ness. But we don’t have to run away to a mountain cave in order to keep the flow of interconnection open. We begin with small but very tangible things. First: Go outside! There are so many creative ways to be outdoors and connect with the elements, even on workdays. I am doing this interview with you on my back porch, and I write as much I possibly can outside. It’s a chilly, early spring day, so I’m wearing fingerless gloves and a scarf.
From here I can breathe in the fragrance of the unfurling season, observe the new buds, and I just noticed a wren taking up residence in our nestbox. I’m not multitasking. I’m just being with life, not separated from it—this inspires, rather than detracts from, my work. Instead of going to the gym to do repetitive motions on a machine, we can take our lovely, wild bodies outside and walk the hills—(I live in Seattle, and there are hills everywhere—we can wander flatlands, too!)—our eyes and ears responsive to the birdlife and the whisperings of leaves. We can take our shoes off and feel the skin of our feet next to the skin of the earth (and we can not care that we might look weird—wildness is always a bit countercultural.)
When inside, let’s keep the window open a little to get a sense of the weather that all other beings are experiencing this day, and remember their presence on earth with gratitude and compassion. And of course, we need to step away from our phones. Taking a tech break gives our brain a reminder that we have deeper ways of being present to life.
Climate change and the degradation of our earth feel so urgent. How can we sit with that while at the same time deeply enjoying the natural world and our place in it?
I wrote Rooted in response to this exact question. I think we need to start by reframing the idea of “enjoying” nature. It’s great when we feel inspired in nature, or find joy in our wild adventures. But while authentic connection with nature is always good and always sacred, going deep into that connection might not always be fun. The situation is urgent. We live on an earth in crisis, compounded by the isolation of a pandemic. So the almost mystical interconnection we feel when we are truly open to the influence of the natural world is the center of a storm, where the truth is spoken. When we feel that interconnection, it’s complicated: there is beauty, compassion, grief, and the impulse to act on the earth’s behalf, all wrapped up together.
You write that many of us are “unnaturally comfortable,” and that being uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, spiritually—is part of not only rooting deeply into the physical world but even perhaps defending it. How can we get comfortable with being uncomfortable in this way?
Maybe we don’t get comfortable. In this complex moment on earth, we can act out of mature hope, deep love, and even deep peace, while honoring the fact that our grief is real, and our discomfort makes sense.
What is “creative activism”?
Forgive me for being a word nerd, but there is some wonderful etymology at play here. The word “create” is from the Latin word creare, which means to cause something to grow in the world, to bring something forth. Creature, of course, is from the same word. We are all creatures (everyone reading this is a human creature)—that means we are all simultaneously brought forth from the earth, and bringing something forth through our unique lives. I love this. Creativity is not just writing, painting, or composing—any of the traditional arts. It has to do with living authentically and responsibly upon the earth that gives us life—a great circle. Bringing our own gifts to the table on behalf of the imperiled earth is creative activism.
You write that each of us has a gift or call to contribute. How might we uncover and practice these gifts?
In spiritual circles we are often taught that there is one purpose that only we can fulfill, and our goal in life is to find and live this single purpose. Dang, that is a lot of pressure! I believe there are many pathways for bringing our gifts to this planet that needs our help.
We live in a dominant culture that values a particular kind of outcome for everyone. Most of us are educated for and praised for attaining a certain standard of material wealth, one the earth cannot sustain. Often the things we most love about ourselves—our deepest gifts—fall by the wayside. We need to stand outside of cultural norms and put our ear to the earth, where we can come into a deeper and older form of listening. When I don’t know what to write, I go to an ancient red cedar near my home, lean against her trunk, and whisper, “What do I say?” And then I listen. Sometimes there is silence, and even that is a kind of instruction: Be still. Keep listening.
How does practicing our particular gift or call translate into activism?
We get stuck thinking of activism as a particular set of activities: demonstrating, petitioning, lobbying. These are all important, and we may be one of the amazing people on the planet who is really good at such things (and if not, we can support these friends by showing up for their work!). But maybe our own gifts are wondrous in a different way: educating the young, tending the wisdom of the elders, planting gardens, singing up inspiration in other activists.
Think of water: Some people call the rain, some fetch the buckets, some sprinkle the seeds, some protect the river’s course. No one can do all these things at once, yet all are necessary. There is no one way to act on behalf of our beloved earth. But when we bring our own, most authentic gifts to this complex time in a form that is grounded in love and service—that is earth activism.
Want to discover more about creative activism? Read about Tia Richardson, Milwaukee muralist transforming a community.
Read our review of Rooted in our May/June 2021 issue of S&H.