Watering the Seeds of the Future

An interview with Michael Meade by K. Lauren de Boer of Earthlight magazine, January 2002.

In 1998, at a conference in San Francisco with Michael Meade, Robert Bly, and James Hillman, I encountered, in Michael’s work, the powerful role that storytelling can play in the work of change. In the following interview, Michael converses about myth, cosmology, eldering and youth, trees, mentoring, finding our work in the world, and more. Enjoy the feast.
—K. Lauren de Boer

Something you said a few years ago at a conference struck me: "Ecology without mythology will be defeated." It seems that this has something powerful to say to anyone concerned for Earth or ecology. Would you elaborate?

I was working with an old idea that there are two great creations in the world. One we call nature, the infinite production of this elaborate, amazing green garment. The other great creation of the world is the endless creation of stories. "Myth" come from muthos, a Greek word which means "stories", but also "the telling of the stories." I would say it also means the living out of the stories. Two great worlds—the garment of nature and the array of stories—endlessly intersecting in meaningful ways.

Would you say there is an ecology of story?

Yes. And ecology is a story. You can write a history of modern ecology. But then, you can take the word itself and find many meanings and stories inside it. To me, the world is all stories, because I approach it from the perspective of myth.

Nature is its own story with its own language, its own lexicon—the trees, animals, rivers. Our way of connecting to it has to be woven into story. If someone wants to save a particular forest, they may have to risk life and limb. But, they also have to explain what they’re doing and why it’s happening right there. That begins the story of it, and if the story is strong enough, that’s when the saving happens.

Cultural historian Thomas Berry states that it’s all a question of story. Being without a functional cosmology, a story that meets the needs of our time, is at the base of all our difficulties. The story of evolutionary cosmology, a gift that science has given us, has the potential for helping us create a new myth. Would you agree?

I agree with parts of it. I agree that we’re bereft of a living cosmology. We’re also at a loss for a living mythology. To me, cosmology is literature. I love cosmology. The stories of cosmos, how it came to be and how it stays around are also the creation myths of the world.

Cosmology, means the stories we keep making up about the world we find ourselves in, the literature of living in the world. Often, it gets captured by science or by religion. My sense is that it’s closer to literature, to storytelling. Certainly, there are provable facts and interesting artifacts that can tell an evolutionary story, an ongoing revelatory story. On the other side, religious folks tend to grab hold of cosmology. They make a certain story out of, interestingly enough, revelation as they see it. I would go another way and say that muthos, or mythology, tries to stay with the storied nature of cosmology. I’m looking for a third place that’s betwixt and between science and religion.

What do you mean by storied nature?

Our nature is to tell stories in order to find the meaning of our own lives. It’s what I call our “second nature,” what’s second nature to us, humans as part of nature. I don’t accept the idea that there is nature, and then us. In our second nature, you find that we are woven with greater nature. That weaving, its surprises and cycles, are what we call stories. Meanwhile, nature is feeding back to us its bio-version of the cosmic story. Nature is talking to us, we are responding with stories.

I grew up in New York City. I got to know the sky as slivers and sections suspended between tall buildings. I never saw enough trees. Maybe that’s why I’m surrounded by trees now. But even at that time, it seemed to me that certain parts of nature were talking to me. Now, it’s become more evident. When I go for a walk, I get this odd feeling that that little rock over there is trying to tell me something. I’ve tried to become more alert to that.

Where I sit and write in the morning is exactly where I can watch the birds coming and going in the big apple tree with seven trunks. They love to go in and out of that tree. It’s hard for me not to notice that the only separation between the images and thoughts going back and forth in my mind and the birds going back and forth in that tree, is the pane of glass that’s between us. So, I’ve learned to see nature as a storied thing, subtly weaving in and out of our lives.

If it’s talking to us, it’s something we can learn from, or use as guidance for our lives.

And converse with. I’ve wondered over the year why I stay here. It’s because I haven’t finished the story I’m getting from the tree.

You haven’t finished the conversation.

Conversation is an old word that means "to turn about with." I think we’re "turning about" with nature all the time. It’s speaking to us in very dramatic and very subtle ways. These things that we do to harm nature and the Earth cause the conversation to shift and become full of argument. An argument that begins where we reject what is “second nature” to us.

It turns to more superficial conversation. As we diminish diversity, we diminish the richness of the language.

As we diminish the diversity of nature’s great story, which speaks with so many voices, and at the same time move toward global networking, we are causing a reduction of language. Studies are finding that for people to speak in broader terms across the globe, a simpler language is required. And modern language is already simpler than tribal languages, simpler in nuance.

It’s making things more monolithic?

Storied nature, the implication of nature’s abundance of stories that it wants to tell with every plant, tree, seed, fruit is paralleled by a similar potential explosion within people. It comes out in language, as if we’re spitting seeds and fruits and little broken twigs as we speak to each other.

This reminds me of the story you tell of the banana tree and the moon, where the gods give a choice to the first couple about death.

It’s one of our cosmological stories, from Madagascar. [The story says] that we’ve chosen this business of living and dying like the trees. We are like trees that produce fruit and seed; our living and dying fructify the world around us whether we know it or not. We have made, and keep making choices, that are related to the trees around us.

An interesting thing for me about that story is that it ties together the coming into the world of children and death. It seems to me it’s a story about learning generosity toward future generations by making the choice of dying to our own lives, but spreading seeds that go on.

When the idea comes up that we can make a new myth, I have to quibble over the words and some of the implications. I think, like the trees, we keep re-growing the same shape and similar forms. Yes it’s a new tree, but it’s also the same apple tree that started all that trouble back in that other garden. We keep encountering the tree of knowledge of good and evil, keep missing the Tree of Life.

It’s the second week of January now and right in front of where I sit and write, there’s one apple left hanging on the tree. All around it, the bare branches, within it the seeds of time. That apple has in it the story of the original garden, but also the story of all other apple possibilities. There it hangs, both fruit and seed, impervious to winter and the flooding rains we’ve had. There’s something persistent about cosmology and about myth, just the way there’s something persistent about nature. A new myth is really the old myth telling itself in a way that engages us once again, taking us back to origins. Originality, so highly prized in the Western world, means "a return to origins."

It’s like the trees and the seeds from the trees. We’re handling old seeds and assisting new growth. Is it a new myth in the sense that it’s another telling of the story?

Yes. Is it an old myth in the sense that the story’s telling itself again? Yes. Going back to the story from Madagascar, we participate in the ongoing creation by being and by saying that in order to be conscious of what we’re doing, we must accept that we will die. We’re going to continue this choice made by the original parents—to die and leave progeny, leave living seeds in the world. When that choice is made, we change the conversation from being about "me and my need" and "my culture and its hunger" to being about continuing the story in a way beyond oneself. Which is part of the sense of cosmology as something that goes beyond oneself, of myth as telling the bigger story and of nature as life continuing its many forms.

To future generations.

Including future generations of thought and of imagination. The seed opens up to mean everything from people to the seeds of thought.

If a new myth is about retelling the old stories in a way that’s needed, then it seems to me that youth are one of our primary sources of what’s needed.

Youth are the edge of the story that the culture’s telling itself. Youth are where the past and the future meet—the story is both being told and being found. It’s like the making of a poem. It’s a creation, but also a found experience. Youth live at that edge. They are strangers at the threshold of culture and at the threshold of nature, stumbling and striving into the story of their own nature, the nature around them, and the culture around them as well. Strangers at the threshold, they’re an explosive act of nature, in flux and flood and growth. They’re also the explosion of the culture. They’re the past of the culture speaking its story in a new way, and the potential and future of the culture as well.

Are they a symptom of what needs to be healed, or what needs attention?

A culture gets the youth it deserves, the youth it has made. They are always symptomatic, and a place where healing can begin. I’ve said to ecological groups that if you can get meaningful numbers of youth working at the story of ecology, change will occur more rapidly, more surprisingly, more beautifully.

You’ve said, in "Throw Yourself Like Seed," that stories are about change and that ritual is the art of change. How can story and mythology help?

Someone once described mythology as "the lie that reveals the truth." Mythology’s modern connotation means "something false." But the word itself has to do with emerging truth. Something people usually see as fiction is actually carrying meaning and truth in the depths. Young people are just like that. People say "they just want attention," and I say, "what’s your point?" Attention is required for them to find themselves. "Themselves" is something that’s a deeper story in them that modern culture would deny, reject, overlook.

People often send kids to camps in nature. It’s a smart idea. They fit in with nature because they’re exploring their own nature. I work with all kinds of young people. At fourteen, young people are having the seed ideas of their life. What we call middle school, early high school, is the time when the seed, the core imagination and seed ideas of their life are bursting within them and are seeking what I call the "waters of attention," the blessing, blessed waters from the culture around them that will allow those seed imaginations to grow.

What happens if they’re not shown the recognition of that seed?

Now, we’re back to death. William Blake said that the garden of the soul is already planted and is waiting for the water of life. Call it the water of attention. There are innate ideas, dreams, stories, buried in people. When we don’t water those seeds, culture loses ideas. It loses imagination. It loses the capacity to dream itself forward. I mean that literally.

What happens to someone whose innate core cannot grow?

The “second nature” of a person (the innate capacities) needs two kinds of attention. The person has to attend to it themselves. It also needs the other kind of attention which used to be called a blessing—the attention, especially from someone who’s respected, someone who says, "I saw that. I heard that. I see the seed of life you’re coming from." If these two kinds of attention don’t happen, a kind of death is occurring, a withering.

The gift atrophies.

Atrophy occurs and we it call depression and suicidal tendencies. For some, there’s too much fire in the seed to simply atrophy and those burst into violence. Each young person is like an extreme story compelled into this world. Because of the intensity of life each person carries, there are two big tendencies, one toward suicide, one toward homicide. Either atrophy, withdrawal, and implosion or the explosion in which the seeds are cracked, blown, and strewn about to become the kind of seeds that don’t find an earth in which to grow.

There’s violence that comes from the lack of attention to one’s seed. How does that relate to the violence from outside?

What happens if we don’t deal with the reverberations of violence from September 11th with young people?

September 11th was a horrible thing, incomprehensible in many ways. At the same time, I was doing work in South Central Los Angeles. When I’m there, I see terrorism every day. We have an internal terrorism in this culture. You can look in both directions—the outer terrorist and the homegrown, inner terror—both come from seeds of life so consistently rejected over generations or an extended period of time, that they can’t grow in a meaningful way. They can become dead seeds and seeds of death.

To my eye, a terrorist is someone who’s already dead. That’s why they’re so hard to deal with. None of the things that normally apply to human psychology, apply to them. They found a suicide note in the car that a terrorist left in the Boston airport. It had been written two years before the attack. He was carrying his death note for two years…he was already dead. Terrorists are in the world of the dead, trying to drag other people there.

I’ve been with fifteen, sixteen year old kids holding a gun, planning to go shoot someone based on some neighborhood revenge drama, and they intend to be shot while doing it. If you say, to them, "what about your future?", they’ll say, "I don’t have one." If you say, "isn’t there anything you want out of life," they say "I won’t get anything out of this life." It’s a tragic, grievous thing—to sit with someone of that age and realize not just that this person is about to kill and be killed, but that this person might already be dead.

They haven’t had that inner seed recognized.

And something has happened that’s caused that to seem impossible. I don’t know if it’s ever completely removed. I would say there’s always the possibility of bringing that seed to life. But, seeing the terrorists made me realize they were in the same condition. Their story has stopped, and they want to take everyone to the land where their stories are frozen or dead.

We don’t recognize the terrorist in our own youth.

Even more seriously, we don’t recognize the terror we’ve visited upon our youth. Someone planning major destruction, including destroying their own life, has made a suicide pact. I’ve seen it with kids who shoot at cops. They usually don’t even hit very well. What they’re doing is trying to get the cops to shoot them. It’s a suicide plot. A lot of gang killing is actually mutual suicide. There are many things that a culture does that stops the story of some of its people. That’s a form of terrorism.

K. Lauren de Boer is a writer who "explores the Great Work of our time: the emergence of an ecological spirituality." He currently teaches online classes on Ecology and Cosmology for The Institute for Educational Studies, Endicott College.