She Lived in a Tree: The Spirit-Led Witness of Julia Butterfly Hill

At age eighteen she opened a restaurant, but a serious car accident three years later changed Julia Butterfly Hill forever. She needed to find a deeper purpose in life than running a successful business. She traveled to California and encountered a forest of giant redwoods, some of them a thousand years old, or maybe older. Among those ancient trees, she felt a powerful sense of aliveness she had never experienced before. She sensed something calling to her.  When she learned that the redwoods were being clear-cut by a lumber company, she prayed for guidance about how to help save the forests.

In mid November 1997, she contacted environmental activists, who told her that their base camp was closing for the winter, and that she wasn’t needed. She went to the camp anyway and eagerly volunteered to do a tree sit for five days.  That’s when she first met Luna, a towering, thousand-year-old redwood tree slated to be cut down soon by the Pacific Lumber Company/Maxxam Corporation.

Although the logging company was engaging in environmentally dangerous practices, legal efforts to stop them had failed. So environmentalists willing to commit civil disobedience had built platforms high in certain old trees and were maintaining a human presence on them, in an effort to prevent their destruction. A small platform had been built near the top of Luna’s 180-foot height. So Hill slogged up a muddy ridge in the rain to get to the tree. Using ropes and a harness patched with duct tape, she ascended to the top, terrified. It was a challenging ordeal to share the 6′ by 6′ platform with two others for five rainy, windy days, and she was eager to get to a warm shower and a real bed when she came down. Soon after her first sit in the tree, however, Hill returned for another five-day stint. Next, as the winter weather got worse and volunteers were harder to find, she offered to stay in the tree for three weeks or a month. She was committed to doing whatever she could to save the life of Luna.

She didn’t come down again for two years.

Luna was the tallest tree on a high ridge. From the platform covered with tarps near the top of Luna, where Hill made her home, Hill could see a nearby area that had been clear-cut the year before. Mud from the now barren hillside had been washed down by heavy rains onto the town of Stafford. Many houses were buried by the landslide and remained uninhabited. Now another swatch of forest was being clear cut on the other side of Luna. For Hill, it was heartbreaking to hear the chain saws day after day and witness one tall redwood after another falling to the ground, “screaming” on the way down and thudding heavily. The death of each tree that fell took a piece of her heart. The redwood trunks were sawed into smaller lengths. Helicopters moved them, and heavy machinery carted them off to be milled. In the wasteland of short stumps left by the loggers, rains washed away the top soil. Later Hill witnessed clear-cut areas being napalmed from a small airplane, to keep anything from growing

Two fiercely cold and windy winters damaged her health, but the intense harassment she experienced from loggers and the lumber company was worse. One day a helicopter, deliberately being flown dangerously close, threatened to knocked her out of the tree. For several weeks men and dogs guarded Luna around the clock to prevent her fellow activists from getting necessary supplies up to her. Although her courageous companions found a way to get through the blockade, after the first ninety days in Luna, Hill did not feel she could endure much more. A fellow activist climbed the tree to encourage her to stay for a record-breaking hundred days.

When receiving conflicting advice about when to descend from the tree, Hill turned to prayer to find her inward guidance.

Under pressure, I have trouble hearing the guidance I live my life by. While I take other people’s thoughts and concerns into account–I’ve never pretended to be a know-it-all–I get my ultimate guidance from prayer. That’s why I pray every morning and every night. … This world is so fast, and there’s so much pressure to move now, move quickly. But I knew that if I wasn’t feeling clarity, I had to take the time to let the right thing happen. I couldn’t let other people sway me just because I was unsure. That was part of the lesson that Luna had taught me: to be still and listen, even in the chaos of my life. I knew prayer had taken me to the Lost Coast, prayer is what guided me to the redwood forest, and prayer is what led me to this tree and up this tree. Prayer is what had given me the strength to continue all this time. (198)

In spite of many frightening moments, Hill persisted, hearing a call to give everything she had to protect Luna. She passed her record-breaking hundred days and felt guided to stay on, persisting even when she feared the winds of El Niño would sweep her to the ground, even when her toes turned purple and then black. She learned to relax and bend like the trees during the fierce winds. Her feet healed, but the dangers she faced were real. A man maintaining a tree-sit in a nearby tree fell and broke his pelvis. One day a logger, enraged by the presence of protesters in the woods, felled two giant trees in rapid succession in their direction. The second tree crushed a young man to death. No charges were brought against the logger.

When Hill and Almond, her helper on the ground, were feeling overwhelmed by the demands of getting their word out, she fasted and prayed because, as she wrote in her book, “this tree-sit needed some divine intervention.”

“Please send someone,” she prayed to God. “We need someone with skills to help pull all of this together.” Four days after she began her fast, she received a call from a forest activist named Robert Parker, who proposed to set up a press office. He then began to run “a well-oiled, international outreach machine.”

Eventually Julia Butterfly Hill became a media celebrity. Her solar-powered cell phone enabled her to be a regular guest on radio talk shows. Some famous people, including Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez, climbed the tree to talk with her. Striking steelworkers, fighting against unfair labor practices by another company owned by Maxxam Corporation, found her tree-sit to be a source of inspiration. A leader of the United Steelworkers of America made a trip up Luna to thank her.

On radio shows, Hill talked about life in the tree, advocated for the protection of old-growth forests, and gave information about the destructive and sometimes illegal logging practices she witnessed. Using junk bonds, the Maxxum Corporation had taken over Pacific Lumber, an old company which had previously practiced more sustainable forestry. Now Charles Hurwitz, the owner of Maxxam Corporation, was trying to get as much quick cash from the forest as possible, without concern for the future.

Hill worked to develop personal human relationships with those who insulted, harassed, or threatened her.  One day she lowered a baggie containing a photograph of herself to some loggers below. When they saw that she was a beautiful young woman, their attitude toward her changed. Before she agreed to come down from Luna, Hill negotiated for more than half a year with the president of Pacific Lumber, with whom she maintained a cordial relationship.

The environmental group Earth First! built the platform on Luna and began the tree sit. During the early months of Hill’s residency in Luna, a twenty-minute video, LUNA The Stafford Giant TREE SIT, was made that showed the destruction of the redwood trees and featured Hill speaking from the platform on Luna.. Earth First! and a team of human helpers with activist names–such as Shakespeare, Geronimo, Spruce, Seppo, and Owl–were indispensable to starting and maintaining the tree-sit in Luna. In her book, The Legacy of Luna, Hill acknowledges dozens of people who helped support her witness. She also pays tribute to the ancient being who was her constant companion for two years. Luna herself provided the most tangible source of support for Hill’s tree-sit.

Early on, Hill learned to climb the tree without any harness or ropes. Keeping her feet bare enabled her to better sense which branches could bear her weight and which could not.  She used all of her limbs to distribute her weight as she climbed. She felt that Luna was guiding her.  During two critical moments, once during a terrible storm and then on the day she descended the tree, Hill sensed direct inner communication from the ancient tree.

By the time her feet touch the ground again in December 1999, Hill had secured a contractual promise of protection for Luna. Her 738-day tree-sit had also brought international attention to the ongoing destruction of ancient redwood forests on the Pacific coast.

Since then Julia Butterfly Hill has continued to work as an environmental activist and motivational speaker, teaching about spiritually-based activism. In 2002, she was arrested in Ecuador for protesting a proposed Occidental Petroleum oil pipeline being laid through a cloud forest in the Andes. She was sent to jail and then deported, along with other activists. That year Sounds True made a recording of Hill on a CD collection entitled Spiritual Activation: Why Each of Us Does Make the Difference. Meanwhile, both in court and in the trees, Earth First! and associated organizations are still fighting the ongoing unsustainable clear-cutting of forests that contain large, old trees.

Early in the efforts to save Luna, a solar-powered light was placed on her crown, to signal from a distance that the ancient redwood was still standing. It was called the Beacon of Hope. The first time Hill struggled to slog up a muddy ridge toward Luna, the light from that beacon helped her to keep climbing. Today, the witness of Julia Butterfly Hill serves as a beacon of hope to others. When people–both young and old–discover that something is more important than worldly success and respond to the call of their souls, then a hopeful future is possible.

© 2019 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

Marcelle Martin is a core teacher in an upcoming 9-month program, to be held online and at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Massachusetts. Nurturing Faithfulness is a faith and leadership program designed to help Friends meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities back to home meetings, and beyond. Program participants become a community of practice to support each other in offering spiritual nurture and encouraging leadings, service, and faithful witness. August 2019 – May 2020

Here is a video in which past participants talk about the program:

An information webinar is scheduled for the evening of January 22nd. For more information click HERE.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, environmental activism, Facing Life with Faith, Following a Leading, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Giving Birth to Christ in Our Time

As Christmas nears, I often think of words by Meister Eckhart, a radical 14th-century Dominican priest, who said,

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the Divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself?  And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, but I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture?  This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.

There words strike me as true, but they are always a challenge.  I believe that Jesus was born in human flesh not in order to be adored and worshipped, but in order to reveal how divinity wants to incarnate in and as human beings.  We are all called to give birth to the fullness of the Light of God–Christ–in us.  We are meant to grow into our birthright as sons and daughters of God, revealing the image and likeness of the Creator in us.  Jesus came to show us how to do that.

As his life revealed, it’s not an easy path.  For him and for all who feel called to follow the Way he lighted for us, it involves relinquishing our own plans for our lives and surrendering to God’s plan, God’s purposes.

Detail Heinrich Hofman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler

Detail from Heinrich Hofman’s Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

The first Quakers, in the 17th century, knew themselves to be called to give birth to Christ within.  Collectively they did so in a manner that is still reverberating with Divine Truth and Love in our time.  Now, in our day, in contemporary culture, all are called to do so in ways that will affect the possibilities for humanity’s future on Earth.

Tonight, on the Eve of another Christmas (by the liturgical calendar), I am praying that we are all able to fully receive that divine Light that wants to incarnate in us, the Light of Christ that wants to manifest the healing, saving power of God among us.

Giving Birth to Christ in Our Time:  How is the divine Light seeking to be born in you?  What are you being asked to relinquish, and what are you being asked to welcome and become, in order that God’s loving purposes can be fulfilled in you?

@ 2018 by Marcelle Martin

Posted in Contemplative spirituality, Learning from Early Friends, Mysticism, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Leading of the Spirit: Witness to Peacemaking and War

Lyndon Back’s life was happily settled. But everything changed in 1993, when a beautiful old bridge collapsed. Until then, the war in Bosnia had been a distant event seen on the nightly news. After she watched the Stari Most Bridge shatter, she suddenly needed to understand why local people destroyed something that had connected Christian and Muslim neighbors for more than four hundred years. Experiencing what Quakers call a concern, she began to care deeply about a particular situation. Lyn learned about the civil war in Yugoslavia and joined a local group of people disturbed about reports of genocide.

Her children were grown and she lived alone, but Lyn’s life was full and busy. As a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee, she traveled frequently. When the Community of Bosnia Foundation brought over Bosnian Muslim high school students whose lives were in danger, Lyn financially sponsored one to attend a nearby Quaker boarding school. When it turned out that the girl was not happy with her host family, Lyn followed an impulse that melted her heart and agreed to take her in for the weekends. Not only that, she also welcomed another student, a Bosnian Serb (an Orthodox Christian). The two girls had become close friends.

Lyn worried about opening her heart to young people whose families were living through a terrible war, but her life was happily enlivened by the presence of these engaging teenagers. They taught her about their beautiful, divided country and made her see the USA in new ways.  The war ended and the former Yugoslavia divided into smaller countries. As graduation neared, the families of both girls invited Lyn to visit. 

Though she hadn’t imagined visiting a place where she didn’t know the language, Lyn began to sense a leading of the Spirit. She asked her Quaker Meeting for a clearness committee, and four people volunteered to serve.  This group met with her several times. By asking questions and listening to the answers that came from deep inside her, they helped her discern first that she was truly being led by the Spirit, and next how to follow the leading. They called her trip a “ministry of witness.” Her intention was to listen and learn. Eligible for a three-month sabbatical from her job, she left home with a list of contacts and very few specific plans, open to how the Spirit would direct her day by day as she traveled.

Lyn’s Quaker Meeting approved a Travel Letter for her to take with her; it described the spiritual basis of her journey and the support of her Quaker community. Because the members of the clearness committee wanted to continue accompanying her in spiritual ways, they prayed with her (long distance) at the same time every morning. During periods of stress and confusion during her travels, the morning times of meditation and prayer helped Lyn connect again and again with the spiritual source of her leading.

While visiting the family of the student from Belgrade (Serbia), she learned about the complicated political and social situation of the Serbs, which they felt was misunderstood in the USA. She met the U.S. acting Ambassador in Serbia and his wife, both of them Quakers and spent an afternoon with them.  They told her how families of mixed identity were not welcome anywhere now that the former Yugoslavia was strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines. They also described tensions in the city of Kosovo. Eventually Lyn arrived in Tuzla, a city in the new country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she visited the Muslim girl’s family in their small apartment. The parents explained how they had managed to survive after losing their jobs during the war.

Traveling mostly by bus, Lyn accepted one invitation and then another, crossing borders and meeting strangers who welcomed her.  She learned more about the horrors of war and the complexities of the post-war situation. Finally she found herself visiting a family who had been kicked out of their own house and excluded from their country because of their mixed marriage (Muslim and Christian). They were living as refugees, on the edge of extreme poverty, with uncertain prospects, supported only by a teenage son who was working as a waiter in the Shark Cafe. At any time, he could be denied permission to work. Lyn soon realized that meeting this family had been orchestrated by grace. Because of what had seemed a chance meeting earlier, she was able to connect them with a person who could help.  Lyn went home grateful to have been used by God in some way.

Home no longer seemed the same after her travels, however. Something felt different inside. A voice in a dream instructed her to tell her boss that she needed to return to Tuzla. When she called together her clearness committee again, they sensed that more would emerge in time. They felt led to accompany her as her leading unfolded.


Eventually Lyn applied to volunteer with the Balkan Peace Teams, an international group working to promote local peace efforts in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. She was chosen for a three-person team operating out of Belgrade. She quit her long-time job. Her adult children were not happy about the risks she was taking, but, as she writes in her memoir, “I knew that I had to trust in my heart’s deep calling and take a leap of faith, even if it meant landing in a war zone.” Her Quaker meeting helped her with transportation expenses.

In her recently published memoir, Treading Water at the Shark Cafe, Lyn describes supporting young peace activists from both sides of the conflict who were working to avert war in Kosovo. The Balkans Peace Teams assisted brave efforts by young people to bridge the growing divides. Then those peace efforts were smashed by the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Lyn witnessed how that bombing, though motivated by a desire to stop genocide, led to terrible destruction, social chaos, deaths, and the unleashing of increased levels of ethnic violence, previously restrained by fear of international reprisal. Many Albanians from Kosovo were temporarily forced into exile as refugees.


She and her fellow Peace Team members went on a speaking tour to give an inside view of what was happening. After the bombing, they worked to reconstruct the web of displaced young activists and peace workers who had been scattered, imprisoned, or sent into exile. Lyn saw brave humanitarian efforts to help the refugees and was able to assist a few people in difficult situations.  She saw how small efforts can make a big difference, but she also how people can be drawn in by destructive forces.

Her story is a witness to the terrible effects of violence, even that done in hopes of preventing further evils. It is also a witness to the way that God can work in people’s lives. It leaves the reader with awe at how the Spirit comes alive again and again in those who have hope for a better future and are willing to take the risk to follow the heart’s leading to help others.

Pixabay photo

Lyn’s unfolding leading has continued with the writing of her memoir, in which she shares what she witnessed and how she was changed.  Recently she came to speak at my Quaker Meeting. I also heard her give a talk at Pendle Hill Conference Center.  She’s an engaging and thought-provoking speaker.

A Leading of the Spirit: Witness to Peacemaking and War: Has God placed a concern in your heart? Have you followed a leading? How did it develop over time?

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

Marcelle Martin will serve as a core teacher in the upcoming 9-month Nurturing Faithfulness program, to be held online and at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Massachusetts. Nurturing Faithfulness is a faith and leadership program designed to help Friends meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities back to home meetings, and beyond. Program participants will become a community of practice to support each other in offering spiritual nurture and encouraging leadings, service, and faithful witness. August 2019 – May 2020

Below is a video in which past participants talk about the program:

An information webinar is scheduled for the evening of January 22nd. For more information:

Posted in Facing Life with Faith, Following a Leading, Quaker Faith Today, Working for Peace and Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

An Ancient Forest and the Ground of Being

We had waited a long time to walk among those ancient trees. Finally we rented a cabin in Cook Forest State Park, and there we were, walking between towering pines and hemlocks. Some are as old as Quakerism, having gotten their start in the mid seventeenth-century, after a forest fire. Then centuries later, in the midst of a logging boom, three generations of the Cook family preserved what they called “The Forest Cathedral.”  The tallest trees rise 160 feet or more, their canopy of green crowns higher than the naves of man-made cathedrals. My husband, Terry, and I looked up at them in astonishment.

We were eager to visit Cook Forest after hearing Dr. Joan Maloof, a professor of biology and environmental studies, speak about old-growth forests, ones that have never been logged. Scientific studies show that such forests have an incredible diversity not equaled by any woodlands ever cut or managed by human beings. The tallest trees of various species are found in such forests, whether they be redwoods on the West Coast or tulip poplars and white pines in the East. After hearing Maloof’s talk, I was eager to read her book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests, in which she describes the astoundingly fertile way that trees, plants, fungi, insects, birds, humus, water, air, and sunlight interact in cycles of birth, growth, death, and mutuality in old-growth forests. She tells how the ancient trees within such forests sequester far more carbon from our atmosphere than younger trees or previously logged woods, even second growth forests that have been untouched for more than a century.

At her talk, Maloof showed pictures of the devastating, rapid destruction of the ancient forests that used to cover most of North America. In many areas of the U.S. today, only small pockets of old-growth forest remain, much of it on land too rocky and hilly to have been profitably farmed or forested. In Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, Maloof describes visits she made to old-growth forests in each of the eastern states, from Maine to Florida and from Delaware to Wisconsin and Kentucky. Since reading it, I have been eager to make my own visits, especially to Cook Forest in Pennsylvania, the largest old-growth forest in the eastern United States.

We had a beautiful day for a long walk in the woods and were awed by the tall white pines and hemlocks in the old-growth part of the forest, some of them as old as three or four hundred years. Of course, not all the trees are huge and old. Young saplings and sinewy middle-aged trees have their place, too. And all around, feeding them, are the moldering remains of huge trees that have fallen, some recently to wind and tornadoes, some a very long time ago. We were also struck by seeing trees growing out of huge rocks. It helped us understand how trees and other plants transform rock into soil over time.

In the 19th century, the Cook family operated an extensive logging and sawmill business in the woods around what is now Cook Forest State Park. John Cook purchased hundreds of acres in 1836 and decided to preserve some sections. In 1910 Major Israel McCreight, a friend of the Lakota people in his youth, visited the forest. He was led by John Cook’s grandson, A.W. Cook, into an area called the “Forest Cathedral,” a place that sometimes moved visitors to tears. Deeply affected by the grandeur of the forest, McCreight began to lobby the State of Pennsylvania to protect it.  Local folks were afraid of losing logging jobs; while others correctly argued that the resulting tourism would compensate for that loss. It required sixteen years of lobbying and fund-raising before Cook Forest was established as a national landmark and state park. Many hundreds of acres remain that have never been cut. Other areas, now untouched for more than a century, are slowly regaining some of the distinctive characteristics of old-growth forest.

The cabin where we stayed while we were in Cook Forest was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). At that time, the great chestnut trees that had flourished in the eastern states were dying of blight, so chestnut logs were used to construct the cabins.

Like an earlier visit I had made to an old-growth forest of towering Redwoods in California, walking in Cook State Forest was an awe-inspiring experience. During the short time we were there, we just began to slow down enough to truly savor the experience of a primeval forest. It was enough time, however, to see more clearly how human beings in Western culture are dangerously cut off from the natural world which is our home. We live almost entirely in man-made environments. Even our rural fields are lands shorn by men, and our local parks are highly managed. The disconnect affects us on all levels, far more than we know: physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually. For generations we have largely separated ourselves from wild places and the real requirements of sustainable living on planet Earth. Our misuse of resources has created catastrophic changes to our ecology and climate, whose effects we are seeing in rising temperatures, melting ice caps, more destructive wildfires, stronger hurricanes, and many other disasters.

What could cause people to understand and care enough to change our consumption patterns and stop our misuse of resources? What will motivate us to halt the rate of climate change and preserve a future for our species?  How will we discover our true place in the natural world? In one of her books, Joan Maloof quotes an ecologist who advised her, “Spend as much time as you can in the wildest places you can find.” We all need ways to reconnect with the natural world.

However, as important as it is to connect with wild places outdoors, doing so will not be sufficient to mitigate or reverse climate change if we do not also reconnect with the untamed wholeness of our being and the deepest spiritual level from which life springs.

Over the years, during moments of great stillness in morning meeting for worship at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, I have sometimes had an inner impression of being in a primeval forest. To the core of my being, I felt surrounded, supported and sustained, inwardly connected to the source of life itself. Deep interior silence was accompanied by a feeling of holy power and great fertility, of unlimited possibilities. Long ago the ground on which Pendle Hill stands was unspoiled forest, inhabited by Lenni Lenape tribes who recognized the sacredness of the land. But what I sensed in those meetings for worship existed prior to human beings, and even prior to the physical world. My experience contained more than a message about reconnecting with the natural world. The impression of a holy, original forest was a metaphor for the Ground of Being, the fertile matrix of all life that we call God. I was being opened to a pure state of consciousness, undisturbed by fear, greed, alienation, or attachment.

Recalling that experience helps me connect to a sacred state of oneness, with God and with all things, a state that contains unlimited potential. I believe that spending time both in nature and in deep worship helps us reconnect with the Ground of Being. Great, fertile healing power is available to us if we learn to be gathered together in that state of awareness. Only a conscious, collective connection with the reality we call God can help us face our future with a hope founded in reality.

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the spiritual journey, as experienced by the first Quakers in the seventeenth century and by Friends in our time, a journey that leads deeply inward to a direct connection with God and then outward to lives of faithfulness.

Resources to Get Involved in Helping to Preserve Wild Places and Protect the Earth

Old-Growth Forest Network

Earth Quaker Action Team

Sierra Club

Resources to connect with the Ground of Being

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

Resources for the practice of Centering Prayer: Contemplative Outreach

Shalem Institute

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Contemplative spirituality, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Overstory: a Novel

I‘ve read many of the best novels ever written. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, may be the most eye-opening of all.

In the first section of the book, in eight short stories, Powers creates diverse, interesting characters who are all impacted by encounters with trees. A banyan tree saves a soldier who falls out of a burning helicopter; a woman wraps her car around a linden while reading a love letter; a boy who loves computers falls from an oak tree and cracks his spine. When a beautiful but self-destructive young woman returns to life in the midst of dying, she is changed into someone with a mission, a Joan of Arc whom others are eager to follow. It turns out that the trees have been mysteriously drawing these people into startling actions and commitments. By the middle of the book, three of them are camped on a ledge built high in a huge, ancient redwood tree slated to be cut down for timber. The quirky, wonderful characters and the intricate plot draw us in, but the art is all in service to a much larger Story.

The book continuously serves interesting, cutting-edge facts about trees and the ecology of the earth. It paints a picture of a natural world which is startlingly alive. Though a gradual weaving of story and scientific information, we learn that if human beings want to have a future on this planet, we need to keep our remaining old growth forests alive. Large old trees sequester huge amounts of carbon in their bodies. When they are cut down, they not only stop absorbing greenhouse gases, they release what they have stored. The more large trees are cut, the faster climate change accelerates. In addition, after a forest is decimated, planting new trees does not restore the intricate ecology upon which so many different species and life-giving processes depend. It is suicidal for the human race to choose short term timber profits over the crucial benefits of keeping our old trees alive and our forests intact. This knowledge motivates some of the characters to engage in radical protest against cutting down old forests. When their nonviolent actions are met with futility and police brutality, some engage in protests that involve significant property damage. The consequences alter their lives forever. Other characters choose different paths—studying trees and saving seeds, letting their yards grow wild, creating virtual realities.

Richard Powers may be the best novelist I’ve never heard of before. One of his novels won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Literary critics note that he is skillful in all the elements that make for good novels: plot, characters, and use of language. He includes scientific information in a poetic way, gently opening the reader to a new understanding of the awesome nature of trees.  But The Overstory is more than a compelling, informative novel. Like gorgeous spring blossoms, the characters‘ stories entice us, but their ultimate purpose is not entertainment, or even information, but a transformation of awareness. They draw our attention to a view of our earthly reality that we desperately need to see: the self-destructive nature of our consumer way of life. For the sake of temporary conveniences and sterile comforts, we are rapidly, recklessly destroying vital necessities upon which human existence depends. By the end of the novel, we can see how saving our remaining forests is an urgent pro-life issue for our whole species, and many other species, as well.

Several wonderful love stories tug at readers’ hearts. Although the characters do not engage in organized religion, the book is also deeply spiritual, showing what can happen when people awaken to their place in a profoundly sacred world. We watch the gradual transformation that occurs when self-centeredness is replaced by purpose, and how the vitality that springs up when people begin living for the sake of something larger and more whole than themselves alone. The book provokes the reader to consider the nature of life, death, healing, and enlightenment.

The Overstory offers only a slender hope that humanity will survive our destructive progress. Yet at the same time, it leads us toward the kind of awareness necessary to make the life-giving choices that are still possible and reveals powerful truths about the intelligent fertility in which we are immersed. In the way it celebrates life and the power of love, it’s a heart-breakingly hopeful book

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

In the same week that a report recently released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that governments around the world must undertake “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming, some members of Congress are actively working to cut down more ancient trees in our largest remaining old growth forest. Senator Lisa Murkowski and others are trying to reverse earlier legislation in order to permit new roads and more old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the USA. For more information, see a brief summary on the Alaska Wilderness League’s blog or read a Guardian article subtitled: “Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, with trees more than 1,000 years old. But a pro-logging effort could uproot them.” It details the climate change dangers of increasing the amount of old growth logging in contrast to the very short-term benefits that would be gained from cutting trees hundreds of years old, all for the sake of preserving jobs at a lumber mill whose saws are only sized for huge trunks.

The Sierra Club writes that the trees in Tongass Forest hold more than 10% of the carbon stored by all national forests combined. It is home to, “an astonishing breadth of wildlife: brown bears, bald eagles, humpback whales and sea lions.If this new legislation is passed into law, the Sierra Club promises to contest it in court and asks for donations to help increase their “legal and legislative teams and [organize] allies in other states where similar deals would imperil forests and wildlife.

Twenty-one young people have sued the U.S. government and the current administration to advocate for their constitutional right to a safe future. Their case, Juliana v U.S., alleges that the U.S. government has knowingly contributed to climate change for fifty years. The trial will begin on October 29th in Oregon, and rallies all over the country are being organized for October 28 and 29th. It’s being called the Trial of the Century.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

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Red Alert for the Earth

Divine light shines in us all and sustains Creation, as well. But we have lost connection with this fundamental reality, and western civilization has dominated our environment in a way that is catastrophically altering our climate and threatening the survival of our species (and many other species, as well).

About a decade ago I learned that climate change would be slow until the oceans and forests absorbed as much atmospheric carbon as they could.  After full saturation, the rate of climate change would accelerate alarmingly. As the temperatures rise, forests burn and glaciers melt, releasing carbon that was previously kept out of the atmosphere, causing even hotter temperatures. The melting of glaciers and polar caps causes the ocean levels to rise, threatening to drown island nations and coastal cities. Weather patterns are changing, bringing drought to some areas and excess water to others, causing more and more people to become refugees.

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In 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, focusing on pesticide use, signaled a yellow alert about environmental problems caused by humans and identified the denial of those problems by vested business interests. She warned of the dangers of not halting the destruction of our natural ecology. In 1988 NASA climate scientist James Hansen issued a more serious warningan orange alertwhen he testified before Congress that climate change was indeed happening and that it was the result of human behavior. He predicted three scenarios of possible changes, depending upon the level of emissions. In June 2018 he reported that we are close to his predictions for scenario “B,” with a global rise in temperatures of 1.8 degrees in the past thirty years. During that time, annual emissions have risen from 20bn tons of carbon dioxide in 1988 to 32bn tons in 2017.

Collectively, our culture has not heeded the early warnings. Because climate change has been very slow for decades, we have been able to ignore and deny it for a long time. Now that the change is accelerating, some are paying more attention, but those with vested business interests are still denying that the change has human causes and are even rolling back regulations intended to limit our emissions.

In the meantime, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have been since 2001. This summer’s out-of control wildfires have been more intense than usual and have even been burning around the Arctic Circle.  In July the temperature in Ouargla, Algeria rose to 124.3 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Africa.

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Our situation now is the equivalent of a Red Alert: extreme danger.

It is absolutely urgent that we curb the way we burn fossil fuels for our transportation, business, food production, and energy use. Every person, every company, every town and every nation has a part to play in changing the way we live.  This is a right-to-life issue of incredible magnitude.  If we don’t reverse climate change, then the lives of future generations of human beings are in terrible peril.

Recently I participated in a Quaker climate encampment on an organic farm in New Hampshire. A group of Friends in New England, deeply concerned by the dangers of climate change, have been listening together for how God may be leading them to take prophetic action. Last summer they participated in a climate march in New Hampshire from Schiller Station (a biomass and coal plant) to Merrimack Station (the only coal-fired power plant left in New England without a shut-down date). This July, they mourned at the gates of the Salem Methane Power Plant in Massachusetts. At the encampment in August, the group considered how to address the spiritual and cultural forces that perpetuate practices that are leading toward extinction for the human race. We spent a few hours every morning working in the fields, and many slept in tents at night, reflecting our intention to be closer to the Earth as we listened for divine guidance about how to help turn around the self-destructive progress that has been leading to global warming.

We asked ourselves whether we were ready, collectively, to commit to giving up practices that perpetuate global warming. What were we ready to commit to? Would we stop flying in airplanes, driving cars, eating meat? Would we live collectively, take public transportation, and use only renewable energy to heat and power our homes? Some individuals and couples in the group had already made some of these commitments, while others were slowly changing these practices. Yet others were agonizing over the difficulty of change and the culpability of maintaining the status quo. There was no sense of the meeting about a collective commitment. This caused great sadness and disappointment among some of the participants.

Later that night, after we recognized our inability, in the moment, to collectively commit to a significant change, I had a brief vision. As I lay down in my tent to go to sleep, I saw a black crepe armband tied around somebody’s arm, a traditional symbol of mourning. I remembered that the tasks of the prophets are two-fold. On the one hand, the prophet must mourn and critique the destructive nature of the status quo, and on the other hand must remind people of God’s steadfast love and desire to guide humanity toward a hopeful future. As I lay in my tent, I saw the color red.  I wondered why.

After I shared this vision with the group in the morning, some of us felt a leading to wear armbands, as symbols and reminders of the dangers we face, and of the hope that exists.

During my bus ride home, I began to visualize a red armband with a gold ribbon around it, topped by an image of our beautiful Earth.

Red to symbolize a Red Alert (a warning of the highest level of emergency, extreme danger).

Red to symbolize the intense heat of global warming.

Red for the forest fires that are raging.

Red for STOP! Stop extracting and burning fossil fuels; STOP the culture of materialism that is oppressing the earth and all of her inhabitants.

A Gold ribbon to symbolize the Presence of God in the midst of all of this, ready to teach and guide us directly.

A Gold ribbon for the Inward Light shining in everyone and in all of God’s Creation.

Gold for the possibility of a hopeful future if we change our ways.

I have sewed a prototype of the armband I envisioned and have begun to wear it. I wear it first of all as an ever-present reminder to myself. Next, as an opening to conversation with others. The other night when guests came over, it was easy to explain what the armband was about for me. Now I have begun to wear it outside the house and because of it have engaged in talking with people about climate change and about the availability of God’s guidance.  Though it might not be easy, I feel that it’s a leading of the Spirit for me to do so. To wear this ever-present reminder, and to tell others what it stands for. To tell you, who are reading this blog post.

Red Alert for the Earth: What helps you keep in mind both the dangers we face and God’s readiness to show us a better way?

© 2018 Marcelle Martin

September 8, 2018 is a global Day of Action demanding real climate leadership. Rise for Climate is planning thousands of rallies in cities and towns around the world to demand that local leaders everywhere put life, people and justice ahead of profits for the fossil fuel industry. Click HERE to find a Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice rally near you. Reversing climate change is the biggest right-to-life issue on the planet.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Facing Life with Faith, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Beckoned by Trees

The first tree that beckoned me, long ago, was a sapling on the far side of my grandmother’s lawn. Sensing that it was silently calling me, I went to investigate and discovered that it was being strangled by an orange plastic band encircling its trunk. The sapling had probably been purchased at a local nursery, with a label and price tag attached to the band. My grandmother had neglected to remove it. The trunk of the tree, now grown, was being choked by the now tight plastic ring. When I cut it off, I may have merely imagined the tree’s relief. I felt certain, however, that the tree had been sending out a signal of distress, which I had somehow sensed.

About a year ago, another tree called to me. It was much older and the call was different kind of call. I was nearly home from my morning walk. One block ahead of me, on the edge of the local park, a large, beautiful tree I had never noticed before drew me toward it. During my walk I’d been praying about a conversation that was scheduled soon. With others, I was planning a new program and had been encouraged to let myself “think outside the box.” I wanted to be faithful and really hear what God’s plan might be.

The tree invited me to come near. I left the heat of that late August morning and entered into its welcoming shade. The trunk split into many tall, gracefully curved branches, their shiny green leaves high over my head and all around me.

I leaned back against the trunk and imagined roots deep in the ground.  I resumed my prayer for guidance and divine inspiration. As I rested against the tree, a new idea came, something “outside the box,” along with a surge of energy and excitement. I brought this new possibility into the conversation I had soon after, and it grew into something wonderful. It felt like a gift–not from the tree, exactly, but received because I had connected with the tree that way.

In the months that followed, I felt invited to become well acquainted with the tree, its graceful spreading canopy, its dark oval leaves edged with tiny serrations, the bark grey-brown and ridged.

Friends more knowledgeable than I have identified it as an American Elm. I noticed that the roots had thrown up a couple of old paving stones; it had outgrown once tidy borders. It had likely been planted nearly a hundred years ago, at the edge of a park established on what had been a Quaker farm, not far from where William Penn landed in 1682, in what had then been a mostly Swedish settlement. The land on which the tree was growing, near Ridley Creek, had long been inhabited by the Ockehocking Tribe.

Again and again, at many different times of day, and during different seasons, I’ve returned to that beautiful tree; it lives less than two blocks from me.

Gradually I realized that unconsciously I have been thinking of myself as somehow bigger, more important than the tree. It has taken a while to notice my human prejudices. The issue of size is indisputable. Physically, the tree is immensely larger than I. When I lean against the trunk and look up into its branches, they rise perhaps sixty or seventy feet over my head, with a span more than half that wide. 

Slowly, I have recognized my prejudice that I, a human being, am worth more than a tree. I now question this view.

I discovered another blind spot when I invited my husband to come meet “my” tree. My beautiful Elm stands beside another tree that is taller. The neighbor is farther into the park and gets more sun.

“It has a friend!” my husband exclaimed, when he saw the two trees side by side.

Suddenly I recognized that I had been viewing the other tree as a rival for the sun. His comment enabled me to see that, in fact, the two are companions. They help shelter each other from the wind, and, no doubt, their roots are intertwined. Soon after, I looked around and realized that the pair are part of a whole community of trees, a community that knows no borders and includes not only trees in the park but also the ones on the nearby streets, including a towering Sycamore a block away.

I know I have a lot more to learn from these living trees. They are more than beautiful. They purify the air and provide oxygen that my neighbors and I breathe. Surely they also give many more gifts.

I wonder, will I also discover that this large, beautiful tree not only invited me to learn from it, but also, like the little sapling on my grandmother’s lawn, called to me because it is in distress? This community of trees is no doubt disturbed–and in the long term endangered–by urban sprawl, toxins, and climate change.

I look forward to what else I will learn from being in relationship with living trees.

Beckoned by Trees  © 2018 Marcelle Martin

September 8, 2018 is a global Day of Action demanding real climate leadership.  Rise for Climate is planning thousands of rallies in cities and towns around the world to demand that local leaders everywhere put life, people and justice ahead of profits for the fossil fuel industry.  Click HERE to find a Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice rally near you.   Reversing climate change is the biggest right-to-life issue on the planet.

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.

Posted in All of Life is Sacred, Stories that Heal | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments