Pledge allegiance to the Earth, not a flag

Raise up the vulnerable voices of the elderly, impoverished and the wild earth, too.

 

Photo Illustration: Brooke Warren | Photos: Jim Patterson, K Danko/CC Wikimedia, bottom

When I stopped standing for the national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, no one noticed. Not only was I not famous, I wasn’t even popular. But it was already clear to me — almost 50 years ago — that I was primarily a citizen of a planet, not of a nation, especially not one using young people as fodder in a baffling war, a nation that diminished women and demonized people of color, although I would not have had that language then, only images from the cauldron of civil rights courtesy of television and Life magazine.

My lack of small-town fame or adolescent popularity guaranteed invisibility when I didn’t rise at assemblies for what I saw as the perplexing Pledge of Allegiance. I didn’t get the ritual of allying with, or idolizing, a flag. And though the idea of “liberty and justice for all,” was noble, in practice it was a farce — the words just subtle propaganda that, if they were repeated enough, people might believe had been achieved. Maybe knowing that I was basically invisible gave me the courage to resist the flag-waving agenda. Perhaps I was slightly odder than other 16- or 17-year-olds. I’d grown up a little wild and a little dreamy, by a lake in the remnant forest of Washington state, and so I felt allied with the earth, with land and creatures. I felt allied with the planet — not its political boundaries — well before the first Earth Day in 1970, and long before the language and concepts of biodiversity and ecology became widespread.

In recent months, sports players, protesting racial injustice, have made headlines for “taking a knee” during the national anthem. I admire the courage of risking a career in public dissent. Sometimes I feel like a privileged coward. I don’t attend events that include the national anthem or flag allegiance these days, so I have no occasion to demonstrate my opposition to them. But there are plenty of atrocities that have been enacted in our names without my visible protest: torture, drone assassinations — even of children and other innocents — institutionalized intolerance and fear of people unlike “our own kind,” poisoned water, desecrated land, and more. I write letters to government officials; I sign petitions; I make modest donations. For years now, though, my opposition to the politics and policies that undermine our life-support system has shape-shifted into a different kind of participation in the world — a kind of deep listening to the wild earth, practices of sacred reciprocity, and the lived exploration of our capacity to bring forth a new human/earth relationship.

While wandering in wildish places, I often play a wood flute or sing, as if simple music — offered intentionally to the ears of earth and water, chickadee and unseen cougar — matters, as if the manner in which I participate with my fellow creatures, including human beings, makes its own difference. At the least, it’s a way of participating that changes my own awareness, brings keener perception and greater intimacy to my experience: My body notices the sudden silence of song sparrows as the raptor’s shadow cruises overhead. Sometimes my imagination ignites, or I find myself awash in palpable waves of vitality, or awe, or grief.

Since the breakdown of civil discourse and rise of anonymous internet bullying (and worse), it’s risky to be regarded as “unpatriotic” — a word with multiple interpretations. For some, patriotism involves protecting water or the integrity of wild ecosystems, or creating resilient communities; for others, it means strip-mining or clear-cutting to create jobs. For some, patriotism is entrenched with religion, politics or borders. Some patriots focus on the common good; for others, self-interest may be primary. In the rural West, patriotism may run in the Bundy direction.

Disparate views and voices clash with intent to dominate, intimidate or silence the less powerful. Respectful listening is no longer a high priority, if it ever was. Yet democracy depends on the flourishing of a spectrum of voices. Biodiversity, as well, is robustly expressed by an orchestra of wild voices.

Over decades, the bio-acoustic engineer Bernie Krause has recorded natural sound habitats all over the world. His careful listening led to the discovery that creatures vocalize in relationship to one another, in a specific frequency and timeframe — or acoustic bandwidth — in which their voices can be heard. Krause proposed the once-radical idea that, if a species’ particular vocal niche is lost, the creature can no longer survive in that ecosystem, and will move on, or die out. Today, many of the once-thriving wild habitats that Krause has recorded have gone mute, overcome by human activity, including a changing climate with its companion events of extreme weather and drought.

In our tweet-infested social media maelstrom, dominant voices are often mistaken for those that contribute meaningfully to the cultural conversation, mistaken for offerings that nourish our collective ecosystem. Numbers of likes and followers are mistaken for genuine significance. And too many voices are absent, disregarded, or so soft that few hear them: the impoverished, exiled, elders, children and more — including the voices of the wild earth.

In divisive times, it’s challenging to refrain from demonizing those with different views. But one who accepts the subjectivity and intelligence of stone and water and aspen plummets into a philosophical quandary when refusing to accept the diversity of human perspectives. It’s easy to regard others as uninformed or somehow deficient. Easy, and about as fruitful as adding motor oil to compost.

Healthy ecosystems include predators and prey, grass and grass-eaters, bacteria and hosts. Ecosystems self-organize, or attempt to self-organize, in response to disturbances in the field. Does any species but our own engage in such divisive conduct and yet remain a single species? Is there is a more ecologically coherent response to our moment than bludgeoning one another with opinions, shouting over the shy ones, cordoning off those whose views disagree with our own?

I want to honor the quiet speech of the most vulnerable. I want, especially, to honor and offer wild prayers for the continued howls, creaks, grunts, chitters and caws of the Others. In the early days of the new American regime, I go out on skis to sing to riparian conifers and willow, to hidden moose and coyote. I sing praises to creek waters; I praise snow and glaciated granite peaks hidden in the clouds. I call out devotions as if the wild ones lean forward, listening, willing to participate in conversation from which I am ever the learner. I ski through the bottomland forest with unspeakable gratitude for all that remains of the world’s wild intelligence, even now.  

Somehow, nearly 50 years ago, I recognized that my primary allegiance was to a planet, to the land, to the wild Earth — not to a nation-state or flag. I did not have Gary Snyder’s poet-philosopher sensibilities, or even his poem “For All,” which may not have been written yet. But when I came across the poem decades later, I resonated, and still do, with Snyder’s vow:

I pledge allegiance to the soil

of Turtle Island,

and to the beings who thereon dwell

one ecosystem

in diversity

under the sun

With joyful interpenetration for all.

When the trail disappears in rubble, or when there are a thousand plotlines to choose from, or when the conditions are divisive and the dominant voices are clashing, it’s essential to have some kind of compass, some allegiance, to steer by.

 

Geneen Marie Haugen’s writing appears in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and in various other publications; she guides for Animas Valley Institute.