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 Michaels 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 worldsthe garment of nature and the array of storiesendlessly 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 lexiconthe 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 theyre doing and why its happening right there. That begins the story of it, and if the story
is strong enough, thats when the saving happens.
Cultural historian Thomas Berry states that its 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 were bereft of a living cosmology. Were 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 its 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. Im looking for a third place thats 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. Its what I call our second nature, whats second nature to us, humans as part of nature.
I dont 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 thats why Im surrounded by trees now.
But even at that time, it seemed to me that certain parts of nature were talking to me. Now, its 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. Ive 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. Its 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 thats
between us. So, Ive learned to see nature as a storied thing, subtly weaving in and out of our lives.
If its talking to us, its something we can learn from, or use as guidance for our lives.
And converse with. Ive wondered over the year why I stay here. Its because I havent finished the story Im getting from the tree.
You havent finished the conversation.
Conversation is an old word that means "to turn about with." I think were "turning about" with nature all the time. Its 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 natures 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.
Its making things more monolithic?
Storied nature, the implication of natures 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 were 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.
Its one of our cosmological stories, from Madagascar. [The story says] that weve 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 its 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 its a new tree, but its 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.
Its the second week of January now and right in front of where I sit and write, theres 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 weve had. Theres something persistent about cosmology and about myth, just the way theres 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."
Its like the trees and the seeds from the trees. Were handling old seeds and assisting new growth. Is it a new myth in the sense that its another telling of the story?
Yes. Is it an old myth in the sense that the storys 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 were doing, we must accept that we will die. Were going to continue this choice made by the original parentsto 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 thats needed, then it seems to me that youth are one of our primary sources of whats needed.
Youth are the edge of the story that the cultures telling itself. Youth are where the past and the future meetthe story is both being told and being found. Its like the
making of a poem. Its 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, theyre an explosive act of nature, in flux and
flood and growth. Theyre also the explosion of the culture. Theyre 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. Ive 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.
Youve 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." Mythologys 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, "whats your point?" Attention is required for them to find themselves. "Themselves" is something thats a deeper story in them that modern culture
would deny, reject, overlook.
People often send kids to camps in nature. Its a smart idea. They fit in with nature because theyre 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 theyre not shown the recognition of that seed?
Now, were 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 dont 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 blessingthe attention, especially from someone whos respected, someone who says, "I saw that. I heard that. I see the seed of life youre coming
from." If these two kinds of attention dont happen, a kind of death is occurring, a withering.
The gift atrophies.
Atrophy occurs and we it call depression and suicidal tendencies. For some, theres 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 dont find an earth in which to grow.
Theres violence that comes from the lack of attention to ones seed. How does that relate to the violence from outside?
What happens if we dont 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 Im there, I see terrorism every day. We have
an internal terrorism in this culture. You can look in both directionsthe outer terrorist and the homegrown, inner terrorboth come from seeds of life so consistently rejected
over generations or an extended period of time, that they cant grow in a meaningful way. They can become dead seeds and seeds of death.
To my eye, a terrorist is someone whos already dead. Thats why theyre 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.
Ive 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?", theyll say, "I dont have one." If you say, "isnt there anything you want out of life," they say "I
wont get anything out of this life." Its a tragic, grievous thingto 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 havent had that inner seed recognized.
And something has happened thats caused that to seem impossible. I dont know if its ever completely removed. I would say theres 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 dont recognize the terrorist in our own youth.
Even more seriously, we dont recognize the terror weve visited upon our youth. Someone planning major destruction, including destroying their own life, has made a suicide pact.
Ive seen it with kids who shoot at cops. They usually dont even hit very well. What theyre doing is trying to get the cops to shoot them. Its 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. Thats 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,