The Montana mountains standing above Thacker Pass in the north taught me that faith does not move mountains, but gravity, volcanoes, erosion, and moving tectonic plates do.
A few days ago, while I was struggling with a lack of faith, two ravens circled above by head for several revolutions before I realized they were calling me towards the largest and westernmost canyon formed by the Montana mountains in Thacker Pass.
Many of my friends and people I admire – people who possess a strong spiritual connection with the land – often reassure me that the Goddess, Mother Earth, the land, or whatever the speaker calls the creative life force that exists in the universe has a plan or some supernatural control over what’s happening despite the horrific reality of intensifying ecological destruction. Others offer a repetition of a version of this statement I found attributed to Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “Don’t worry, earth will survive climate change – we won’t.”
My friends – Goddess, bless them – wish, sincerely, to shield me from the anxieties inherent in falling love with a place slated for annihilation. I do not mean to offend them or criticize their faith. They have experienced what they have experienced. But, I have experienced what I have experienced, as well. Perhaps, we need a diversity in faith as we need a diversity in most things.
I’ve often tried to soothe myself with these ideas and, no matter how hard I try, there’s a part of me – the part of me inseparably conjoined to the living world, my spiritual navel through which all my experiences must pass, where the world flows through unmediated by reason or, even, awareness – that simply cannot be soothed. The destruction we are immersed in overwhelms my capacity to find solace. My soul’s reaction is as involuntary as it is impervious to condolence.
The near-constant spiritual soreness I experience has long made me wonder what’s wrong with me. While I was engaged in this cruel ritual once more, the ravens found me ruminating on this like the cows whose hoof prints encircled me. Following this pair of chatty ravens, I stepped through a cattle gate and followed the ravens’ flight above a cow path running parallel to a barbed wire fence. They brought me to the mouth of a canyon. The ravens took their place on some stones unreachable by those lacking wings. Then, they stopped talking and looked at me expectantly.
Taking their cue, I asked the mountains if my lack of faith in the Goddess’ plan, in Mother Earth’s immortality, in the land’s ability to endure perpetual assaults was wrong. I asked the mountains if things were as bad as I felt them to be.
My stomach soured, my shoulders tightened, and my head hurt as I asked the question aloud. One of the ravens squawked. It sounded like the sarcastic snicker from a human who believes the answer to a question is so obvious it doesn’t need to be asked aloud. My attention was immediately drawn to the shadows growing over the stones on the canyon walls. A darkness grew over the canyon and the air turned chill.
The imagery seemed clear enough. But, I wanted to make sure: “Is the darkness simply growing as it always does in the afternoon? Or is this something more sinister?”
The raven squawked again. Startled, and with my head craned towards the mountain faces, I almost lost my balance. That’s when I noticed dozens of piles of cowshit crowding the sage brush. Invasive cheatgrass, with heads sagging characteristically downward, were dejected by their distance from home. The broken bodies of shot chukars had been tossed next to a fence post. A few of their feathers reached towards the breeze as if they expected the wings they belonged to to grip the wind again.
The mountains had spoken. They said, “We’ve seen everything. But, we’ve never seen anything like this.”
I stood for a long time wondering what should be done. The shadows reached through the dust, between the piles of cowshit, and struck a broken orb of black at my feet. A light snow began to fall. An icy wind scratched at my face. The ravens lifted upwards and fell again from the sky. The lesson was complete:
Faith does not move mountains, but gravity, volcanoes, erosion, and moving tectonic plates do. These are all forms of power, of physical energy, that exist in the natural world. They are enchanting, yes, but there is nothing supernatural about them. Spirits are real, of course, and they influence the world. But, they do what they do, and nothing more. The Earth is powerful, definitely, and can seem vast to tiny humans. But, her power, though vast, is not unlimited. I believe in magic, no doubt, but I believe that magic comes in the form of concrete actions we take with our bodies to change physical reality. This is the only faith we need.