The Earth as a Sacred Garden
By David Wann

Editor's note: A popular speaker at conferences and college events, David Wann is an author, filmmaker, and speaker about sustainable design and sustainable lifestyles. His most recent book, Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle, is a sequel to the best-selling book he coauthored, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic. David is the president of the Sustainable Futures Society and a fellow of the national Simplicity Forum. His forthcoming book, The New Normal: Agenda for a Healthy Planet -- scheduled for publication in January -- looks at how dysfunctional our current mega-systems have become due to their focus on quantity and profit, rather than quality, fairness, and balance.

When I was four or five, I wandered into the woods near our house with a young friend. My recollections of that distant morning include splotches of bright sunlight projected through the trees onto the dark forest floor; the earthy fragrance of leaves and rich Illinois soil; and knowing what it must feel like to be a butterfly. We fluttered further and further away from our yards, clueless that back home our moms were beginning to panic. After an hour or more of frantic searching, someone drove to the other side of the forest and found us near the highway, still in the throes of discovery and exploration. I seem to remember that everyone was very agitated, insisting that we’d gotten lost and could have been killed! But we didn’t see it that way. All we had lost was a sense of time, and a sense of imposed boundaries.

About fifty years later, I experienced a similar, unbounded feeling in a Costa Rican rainforest north of San José. I’ve always thought of myself as a nature guy, a backpacker and fanatical gardener who’s learned about the cycles and meaning of nature by observing them directly — on switch-backed mountain trails or in rich garden beds teeming with vegetables. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at Rara Avis, a biological reserve that is true, undeveloped wilderness. I was like that delighted young preschooler again, fluttering into the woods in search of anything. My girlfriend had gone home, and I stayed in a casita without electricity for eight days by myself, drifting further and further from the pace of life back home, where four feet of snow was falling on Colorado and the President, tragically, was sending the first troops to Iraq.

The story of that experience begins with a rigorous 3-hour, tractor-drawn wagon ride over boulders and potholes, the exact opposite of "luxurious." (Probably a little like having a baby in an earthquake.) But the other travelers and I somehow survive it, and within minutes of arriving near Waterfall Lodge and its outlying casitas, the forest begins to speak to us! A tiny, strawberry poison-dart frog hops across the trail; his bright red skin contains toxins so strong that he has no predators. He just hangs out in his territory — he needs no more than 100 square feet — and waits for females to come to him. What a life!

A little further up the trail, a boa constrictor wraps around the trunk of a small tree, in no hurry to get out of our way. Instead she relies on her camouflage, ability to constrict, and (maybe) trust in humanity for protection. A regiment of leaf-cutter ants ascends the trunk of a 100-foot tall tree to prune its leaves, increasing by a third the light that reaches the forest floor. The leaf fragments they bring back (like surfers carrying bright green surfboards) are composted underground to fertilize the fungus crop they find so tasty — an operation that puts nutrients back into the soil. En route, some ants become snacks for birds and other insects, so their niche provides several basic resources the rainforest needs — sun, soil, and food. Thousands of other species make similar contributions, weaving the rainforest together like a tapestry. Creeping over the forest floor toward the shadows is a Monstera vine, which "knows" that by climbing the tallest trees that cast the darkest shadows, it will ultimately bask in full sunlight.

Rara Avis is like a 2,500-acre lungful of fresh air — a masterpiece of biological abundance that provides undisturbed habitat for 362 different species of birds! Twenty different species of orchid were recently counted on a single fallen tree. In a way, this virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait — the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species, for example, the red, green, yellow, orange, turquoise and black of a keel-billed toucan (called a "flying banana" by another traveler); the dark, iridescent blue of a Morphos butterfly; and the dappled red of a stained glass palm.

I walk down to dinner one evening in the foggy twilight, and my flashlight beam falls on the orange and black stripes of a coral snake. I’m startled, knowing she’s poisonous, but fascinated that she’s slithered into my life. As I bend closer to get a better look, she retracts from the path into the bushes, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch’s striped sock melts away under the house that smashed her. With the hair on the back of my neck still bristling, I step gingerly from one stepping stone to another, watching the miniature headlights of fireflies hovering in the descending darkness, lit only by a rising crescent moon.

After dinner in the big log cabana, biologist Amanda Neill explains why she puts her energy into studying a single species of rainforest flower: the bright red gurania, or jungle cucumber. "Think what might happen if the taxonomists mistakenly lump two similar species together," she says. "We might assume that there are plenty of these — don’t worry about saving their habitat — when really there are only a few of each species left, that have traveled a billion years to get here."

The sense of ecological urgency in this blond-haired 30-year-old woman mixes well with her sense of delight. Even in her narrow niche of study, she’s traveled widely — to Ecuador, Belize, Peru, now Costa Rica — to study the taxonomy and ecology of her focus species. In effect, she’s found her own symbiotic niche in the rainforest, trading her skills at cataloging and protecting the gurania for the privilege of living a month at a time under the lush, protective canopy of the rainforest.

That night, when the cicadas, tree frogs, trogans, owls, howler monkeys, and hundreds of other species all join the chorus, the forest sounds like a smoothly-running factory — "Taca, taca, taca… sissit, sissit…" Given that the mission of each call is to be heard among a symphony of other calls, there are all varieties of pitch and syncopation — creating an incredibly rich and complex symphony. Over the eons, rainforest species don different colors and improvise different shapes so all nutrients will be used, and all niches occupied. (They utilize information and design, rather than superfluous resources, an important lesson for our civilization). In the morning I’m awakened by a cuckoo clock that turns out to be a bird with a very complex, mechanical-sounding call. I count the hours, groggily, but even in half-sleep, I know it can’t be nine o’clock already…

On a remote jungle trail toward the end of my retreat, I’m dressed only in shorts and rubber boots. I’ve taken off my T-shirt to feel the rainforest on my skin, despite the warnings that deadly fer-de-lance snakes could strike from overhead branches and vines. I’m thinking, "Remember this moment. Remember the way you feel, right now, as howler monkeys growl like lions way off in the distance, and the sun filters through the dense foliage onto your stupefied, grateful face."


David Wann's most recent book, Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth In A Sustainable Lifestyle, from which this article is excerpted, outlines a new way of life that can deliver twice the satisfaction for half the resources. What we eat, where we live, where we work, and what we buy are all topics of discussion, and all can be assets that build immunity to over -- consumption. The book's underlying theme is that current, unprecedented rates of consumption can't and won't continue. "Because of resource shortages, a reduced capacity of the environment to clean up after us, an epidemic of debt, a longing for meaning and purpose, and a deep--seated instinct for ecological stability, we'll invent a joyfully moderate and culturally abundant lifestyle,” author David Wann writes.

Sure, we can read about the rainforest and see it on TV, but until we spend quality time there, letting ourselves slow down, we don’t really grasp what tropical biology is all about. It struck me on that Costa Rican rainforest retreat that we over-consuming humans need to somehow absorb these colors, this bold brilliance, into our hearts, and re-value nature’s wealth all over the planet. There’s so much more to life than the gray of concrete and the drab green of paper currency! My feeling is that until we acknowledge the butterfly, orchid, maple, and wisteria colors inside each of us, we can’t feel truly at home in ourselves. We can’t see the deficiencies of our economic system clearly enough — that it isn’t programmed to preserve nature, or to optimize human potential.

Until we launch an unwavering Mission to Planet Earth, we’ll keep postponing the homecoming until there’s not much left to come home to. In that rainforest, I saw and felt complexity-in-balance, and realized how far out of balance our industrial complexity is — infantile and clunky by comparison, with only thousands of years of experience as opposed to billions. Rather than cooperating to make the overall system sustainable, our industrial species compete to attain their own, narrowly defined goals. The name Rara Avis comes from a medieval poem containing the phrase, "Rara avis in terris." The poem refers to a rare bird in the world — or figuratively, something new and fresh happening in human civilization. And so there is! From the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution — the highest peak of consumption — we now will transition to an Era in which the Earth is treated as a Sacred Garden.

What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone,
in the forest, at night, cherished by this
wonderful, unintelligible,
perfectly innocent speech,
the most comforting speech in the world,
the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges,
and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it.
It will talk as long as it wants, this rain.
As long as it talks I am going to listen.

— Thomas Merton