The Shattered Image, A Personal Journey

I was an environmentalist from an early age, before the term had even come into use. I had always loved nature and been especially sensitive to nature’s beauty. In fact, I felt most at home, most safe and secure, out in the countryside or hiking in the woods. When I was eleven or twelve, I would take the family dogs for long walks alone in Alsop Park – a nature preserve behind our apartment house right in the middle of Little Rock – and I was never afraid. I think growing up in the south and being raised by a father who claimed the woods as his church had something to do with it. Even if one grows up in the suburban south, as I did, the wilderness was never far away – was always accessible for country drives and afternoon walks. My childhood dream after seeing Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in “King Solomon’s Mines” was to go on an African safari. I longed to experience nature at its wildest. That was far more appealing to me than a Roman Holiday.

Many years later, I was able to realize the dream of going to a rainforest, but it was not on the continent of Africa, but in Central America – in the Quaker community of Monteverde, Costa Rica. In August, 1972, I finished a graduate degree in English one week and left for Costa Rica to get married the next. It was quite a jolt, going from the Barsetshire of Anthony Trollope’s novels, which had been the subject of my thesis, to the world of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo.” Like most North Americans of that era, I knew something about Europe, but almost nothing about Central or South America. I had never even heard of Costa Rica. So, when I boarded LACSA, the national airline of Costa Rica, I felt like I was stepping off into the void. I had no idea what an impact this tiny beautiful country was going to have on my life. I was going to Costa Rica to join my husband to be; I was focused on my marriage, not the locale.

Upon my arrival at the small and simple airport just outside San Jose, I could see David standing among the crowd gathered to meet the plane. At the time, I had no idea how close we had come to missing each other. Communications were very difficult between the US and the mountain community where he was living and, unknown to me, he had never received my letter giving him the date and time of my arrival, but was relying on a previous letter which only generally alluded to my arrival time. I learned, years later, that he had been meeting planes from Miami for several days and had decided that if I didn’t arrive on the third day, he would return to the mountains. But arrive I did, and thereby hangs the tale.

After a week of trying to find our way around a city with no addresses, and trying to figure out how non-Catholics got married in a Catholic country, we ran into a friend who knew the ropes, took pity on us and got us an appointment with the governor of the province for a civil ceremony. David pulled in a couple of acquaintances, and we showed up at the governor’s palace after hours so he could charge us the overtime rates. The service was brief and in Spanish – which I neither spoke nor understood. We each said “Si” each time the governor paused and looked significantly at one or the other of us, signed our names, handed over $40 and were pronounced “hombre y mujer.”

Early the next morning we set out on a former United Fruit Company train with small wooden cars, which took us, rattling loudly, across rickety bridges spanning impossibly deep mountain gorges to our interim destination of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. We killed time in the stereotypical, seedy, waterfront bar drinking beer and eating ceviche, waiting for the recycled American school bus to arrive which would take us on the last leg of our trip. As we headed up into the mountains at sunset, on the scariest and most beautiful narrow dirt road I have ever traveled in my life, I fell head over heels in love – with a place.

The beauty was so overwhelming that I felt the experience was well worth the risk. I sat back and drank it all in: the view up close of hibiscus and bougainvillea and orchids and cattle with the softest sloe eyes standing at the most improbable angles, the view in the middle distance of deep green ravines with tiny colorful houses scattered around like game pieces, and the faraway view — coming and going as we climbed and wound through the mountains — of the peninsula separating the Gulf of Nicoya from the Pacific and of the volcanic islands, dark shadows, jutting through the sunset colors glittering on the surface of the sea.

Our destination was a Quaker dairy farming community known as Monteverde, where we were to make our home for the next four months. I spent my honeymoon in a one-room casita, waking up in the morning to the roars of howler monkeys and the musical gong of the bell birds. For four glorious months, I breathed in pure mountain air, drank and bathed in pure water piped in from a mountain spring, and ate food fresh from Quaker gardens. For four glorious months, I lived at the intersection of human settlement and virgin forest – and came to value the Quaker notion of living lightly on the land. And I found myself wedded not only to my new husband, but also to a community, a way of life, and the incredible natural beauty and diversity of the country of Costa Rica. So separated was Monteverde, in time, space, and way of life, from the everyday reality of my previous existence that, once I reached there, I felt like I was in Carl Sandburg’s “Village of Cream Puffs,” floating high above the earth, blown about by the winds, with only the most tenuous of connections keeping it from blowing away altogether.

In Monteverde, I was introduced to the Quakers and the peace of silent meeting, the sweetness and conflict of married life, and a staggeringly dramatic natural world. In four short months, one small community on a remote mountain top in a tiny country I had never heard of gave my life new meaning and new direction. Although I had been focused on the plot and the characters in planning for my trip, as it turned out, the setting was everything.

In Monteverde, living amidst a natural splendor I never even dreamed existed. I “found myself” (to use that old, ridiculed — but apt –60’s expression). Most days, David was off helping a local farmer with his vegetable garden, leaving me with lots of time alone, which was a gift, given that there was so much change in my life and so much to take in and think about. I read and walked and assisted an elderly friend with preparing the noon meal. Long peaceful silences, occasionally interrupted by the buzzing of a bee or the call of some exotic bird, made up much of my days, and gave me the mental and emotional openings to see what was most important to me in life. And although I was in a new relationship, in a Quaker community whose values and customs were alien to me, in a foreign country whose language I couldn’t speak, I had never felt more at home. My new relationships and surroundings began to call forth the spirits from the deeps of my own personal unconscious. Away from all the distractions of the modern world, all its conventional wisdom, and all its “normal” expectations and social pressures, I was able to hear and respond to different voices, which, like the buzzing of bees, the noise of mainstream urban society world had completely drowned out.

Silence was a real and powerful presence in the Monteverde of the early 70’s. Today there is little silence with the groaning and straining of huge tour buses trying to negotiate the narrow, winding potholed mountain road, mixed with the traffic jam noise of taxies, tourist cars and motos, carrying thousands of ecotourists to the now famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. But in 1972, the silence which pervaded every aspect of the community was peace bringing – as if the unifying and loving silence of Quaker meeting, which I attended on 1st day and 4th day, had spread out and embraced the entire mountain top.

I had never attended a Quaker meeting in my life and approached my first one with a terrible fear that my stomach would make embarrassing noises, but after the first meeting I realized it really wouldn’t matter to anyone if it did. As a natural-born introvert, I fell easily into the comfort of collective meditation – centering down and listening to what Quakers referred to as the “God within.” I loved the democratic, non-hierarchical Quaker notion that since God dwelled within every man woman and child, God’s truth was accessible to every man woman and child, regardless of race, color, gender, or creed and with no need of the services of a “hireling priest.” One only had to be silent and listen. Daily life, lived in a religious community, drew my attention to the nature of religion itself and living among Quakers taught me to treasure silence and to look within for my answers.
rocessing it inside – finding my answers within.

Living among Quakers also introduced me to the idea that pacifism was or should be a primary tenet of Christianity, a belief which I had not encountered head on in my previous existence as either a Methodist or Episcopalian. But to these Quakers, it was a belief so profound that it had led them, in the early 1950’s, to leave the United States in search of a country more hospitable to their pacifist beliefs. And they found what they were looking for in Costa Rica which had recently disbanded its army.

Living in Monteverde forced me to question and rethink many things: the serious and committed belief in pacifism made me conscious of and led me to question the predilection for war which I had assumed as a given of human nature. When I thought about it, it seemed to me that this predilection for war ran, like an unbroken thread, through all traditional western thinking, including the civilized world’s attitude toward and method of relating to nature. It seemed that the goal of the western way of life was to impose humanity’s will on nature at every turn – to relentlessly exploit nature without regard for the destructive consequences. By contrast, the Quakers adopted a more friendly attitude toward nature: true to their precept, they lived lightly on the land.

In Monteverde, there was very little “built environment;” we lived among animals and plants and insects and quickly learned what was harmful and what was not. Houses were built to keep out the rain and not much else, and so “much else” walked right on in. Evenings were often spent, not watching television, but identifying the various beautiful beetles – often silver and gold – attracted by the light which shone through the cracks in the siding. Walking was our only means of transportation, through tropical downpours or on breezy, sunshiney days. Our feet, so used to the intervening concrete of urban America, were in direct contact with the earth on dirt roads and forest paths.

The environment itself was so compelling and so present that I could not help but be mindful of it and recognize my complete dependence on it — as a source of food, as a source of building materials, as a source of everything humans or any other animals needed for life, including entertainment and pleasure. Given our complete dependence on the natural world – which is often obscured by the urban landscape and human technology, I began to wonder why my culture should have adopted such a hostile and destructive attitude toward it.

In 1982, my husband and I returned to Monteverde with our two sons to live for a year. In the intervening ten years since I had first discovered Costa Rica, environmental issues were beginning to come to the fore and Monteverde was becoming a center for scientific inquiry, especially in terms of biodiversity. The steep mountain sides were home to hundreds of microclimates and hundreds of thousands of organisms especially adapted to each. Every Thursday afternoon, a different biologist would hold court and deliver a talk on her or his particular speciality – complete with slide shows and live specimens. My younger son, who was four, was especially entertained by the show and tell at the herpetology lecture. And, it was during that time that I began to grasp the significance to humanity of the species loss brought about by human development. In July of 1983, however, we had to leave our beloved Monteverde, and it was eight years and one divorce later before I could figure out a way to return.

In the fall of 1991, in the spirit of the upcoming Earth Summit, I had the bright idea of persuading the computer company I worked for to donate, as a public relations gesture, a biodiversity information management system (yet to be developed) to the country of Costa Rica – which had recently established an organization dedicated to performing a species inventory for the whole country. This organization was known as INBio, (the National Institute for Biodiversity). In all honesty, I must admit that my motivaton for promoting this project was not entirely altruistic; I was hoping that if the company bought my idea they would pay my way to Costa Rica – which, due to financial constraints, I had been unable to visit for some time. I was also hoping that I could create a project which would be in line with my personal philosophy – a project which would help stave off species loss and operate to conserve nature. I was looking for that almost unattainable goal in American business – work that had deeply personal meaning.

Over the course of six months or so, I cajoled, buttonholed, and in every way possible tried to get my company to go along with my idea. Luckily, the conservation community was totally onboard, recognizing that the enormous task INBio had taken on required computing power far beyond anything that was even known in the scientific community and also recognizing that the company I represented had the tools to get the job done. Finally, with the help of a couple of the more enlightened Intergraph executives , all our joint efforts paid off, and, at the Earth Summit in June of 1992, the deal was announced: Intergraph would provide three-quarter of a million dollars worth of computing equipment and expertise, INBio would provide the scientific knowledge, the world of conservation would get a new tool to combat the relentless destruction of biodiversity, and I would get to go back to Costa Rica.

During the campaign to get the INBio project approved, I learned a great deal. I learned that, in spite of the enthusiasm surrounding the Earth Summit, environmentalists, like myself, who viewed environmentalism as a moral issue – an issue critical to human survival — were very much in the minority. I learned that companies, like the one I worked for, devoted to serving various types of engineering applications, viewed their work as assisting in the task of controlling, exploiting, and reshaping nature, not conserving or promoting the survival of non-human nature – and that the ability to control and exploit nature was considered to be a very manly endeavor. Biodiversity Information Management was viewed as a “wimp” application, not suitable for macho computer engineers.

I was astonished to discover just how resistant most people were to even thinking about environmentalist issues – and how “knee-jerk” this resistance was. As a part of my growing commitment to the conservation of nature (with a view to the conservation of the human species, which is, after all a part of nature), I wanted to solve the mystery of this seemingly self-destructive resistance. Particularly as those most hostile to nature seemed to be born again Christians I worked with. To me, the conservation of non-human nature seemed paramount to the conservation of the human species, while to almost everyone else, the future of the species seemed to lie with the control, exploitation, and in many cases the all out destruction of non-human nature. How could everyone be getting it so wrong? But, for some miraculous reason, and against all odds, the project was approved.

In 1997, at the age of 56, twenty-five years after my introduction to Monteverde and the beginning of my quest to discover the poisoned spring which poured forth the toxins which were killing western civilization, I entered Vanderbilt Divinity School. During the intervening years, I had evolved from a woman with a traditional view of family values and marriage to a radical feminist, from a woman who merely appreciated and was sensitive to nature’s beauty to a committed conservationist, and from a devout – if liberal – Christian, to a woman who found herself on the verge of evolving out of Christianity altogether. Because, as a part of my evolution in values, I had developed a very troubling suspicion: I suspected that the Christian God was the cause rather than the solution to what I viewed as the three greatest social evils confronting human kind — – the deliberate degradation of the earth, the use of war as the primary means of solving international disputes, and the institutionalized subjugation of women (and other groups which, at one time or another, it had been convenient to believe were not fully human).

This suspicion had lead to a severe case of cognitive dissonance. The liberal Christian I once was could not reconcile these practices with the “God of love” I had believed in. But, conservative Christianity was not only reconciled to these practices, it promoted them. In fact, it was beginning to appear to me that it was right-wing, conservative, Christian values which provided the cultural rationale for war, sexism, and environmental destruction. So the question came down to, “How could the God I believed in lead me to deplore these activities, while the same God led others to promote them as doing God’s will?” Who were the “real Christians”?

I became obsessed with trying to make sense out of these conflicting worldviews — both of which claimed to be “Christian.” If God loves humanity, as I had been taught, how could the destruction of the environment be in accordance with God’s will, when we are a part of the environment? If God loves humanity, how could the oppression and mistreatment of women be in accordance with God’s will, when women, who are also human, have the primary responsibility for nurturing and bringing to adulthood each new generation of humans? If God loves humanity, how could going to war be in accordance with God’s will when 20th century wars had led to the deaths of millions and future wars promised the annihilation of the human race?

The more I read and the more I studied, however, the less sense either worldview seemed to make. Although the conservative interpretation of God’s will appeared to be supported by the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine and teaching, it was clearly destructive. Yet the liberal interpretation of God’s will appeared more and more to me to be a matter of wishful thinking, with little to back it up – and almost no real resonance in the places of power where the big decisions were made. Given the destructive nature of the conservative worldview and the weakness of the liberal position, I began to doubt the value of Christian teachings altogether. But, before I ditched Christianity completely (since it looked like it was ditching me and the rest of the human race), I decided that the whole matter deserved more study — which is why I entered divinity school. Surely, I couldn’t be correct. Surely Christian beliefs could not be powering the juggernaut of our self destruction. But, if they were, my next quest was to discover the source of the power of a religious teaching, which, if continued to be followed, seemed destined to doom humanity.

More and more I came to see that the right wing interpretation of Christianity had a great deal of evidence to back it up; while liberal Christianity was always skating on thin ice – that right wing Christianity more clearly reflected Western values as lived while left wing reflected western values as promoted by intellectual elites, and that, au fond, the west believed in the rightness of the exploitation and control of nature, the subjugation of women, and the use of military force to solve international problems. Tragically, there was plenty of scripture and Christian doctrine to back up these beliefs; therefore, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that belief in the Christian God was the problem and not the solution.

But, I still had doubts. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe intensive study of Christian doctrine and practice would prove me wrong. I wanted to find out. So, I applied to and was accepted into an excellent program of study at Vanderbilt Divinity School. However, my three years of study only confirmed my worst suspicions – in spite of and because of my very able teachers – most of whom were as sincere and devout believers as they were excellent scholars and teachers. It was not their fault that I no longer believed. I just couldn’t any more. The main focus of my study was the analysis and the taking apart piece by piece that entity which we know as God as a means to understanding its power in our culture and the role it plays in compelling us to do the things we do. I wanted to answer to my own satisfaction “what is this thing called God.” And, I did. In the process, I was freed from an enchantment. The spell was broken. My consciousness was irrevocably changed. Deconstructing god had the effect of reconstructing me. The image was shattered.

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