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Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit
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Deepen your connection to the natural world with this inspiring meditation, "a path to the place where science and spirit meet" (Robin Wall Kimmerer).
In Rooted, cutting-edge science supports a truth that poets, artists, mystics, and earth-based cultures across the world have proclaimed over millennia: life on this planet is radically interconnected. Our bodies, thoughts, minds, and spirits are affected by the whole of nature, and they affect this whole in return. In this time of crisis, how can we best live upon our imperiled, beloved earth?
Award-winning writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s highly personal new book is a brilliant invitation to live with the earth in both simple and profound ways—from walking barefoot in the woods and reimagining our relationship with animals and trees, to examining the very language we use to describe and think about nature. She invokes rootedness as a way of being in concert with the wilderness—and wildness—that sustains humans and all of life.
In the tradition of Rachel Carson, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Mary Oliver, Haupt writes with urgency and grace, reminding us that at the crossroads of science, nature, and spirit we find true hope. Each chapter provides tools for bringing our unique gifts to the fore and transforming our sense of belonging within the magic and wonder of the natural world.
A Rooted Invocation
When I was in fourth grade, my mother put a copy of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s diary, The Story of a Soul, in my Easter basket, right alongside the marshmallow bunny. What was she thinking? I devoured the words of this fervent, neurotic, ecstatic young woman who saw the divine in the way a chicken cares for its young, and quickly took up the study of other nature mystics who innately apprehended the graced interconnection of life—Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi. They shed their shoes, followed bear tracks, declared the moon a sister, spoke with sparrows, ground forest nettles into healing salves, bowed before trees, baked bread in clay ovens, and called all of it holy. From them I learned that humans can be conversant with the earth and the sacred in strange, imaginative, wild ways. In any way we want.
This is not a book about religion, so if you are religious, or not religious, don’t worry. But my adult relationship to nature is rooted in my childhood experience. I know I’m in the minority when I say that I loved being raised Catholic. People talk about being “recovering Catholics,” and “Catholic guilt,” for good reason. But when young, I knew nothing of religious politics, or of a male-only priesthood (I thought our priest just happened to be a man), or of the yet-to-come sexual-abuse scandals, or reproductive freedom, or marriage equality. Guilt was not emphasized in my church or my home. I knew only that my developing mind responded to the religion’s playground of imagery both mystical and untamed.
Other childhood friends were not Catholic, and when we ventured to speak of family Sundays I would sit silently wondering. Where were their angels, their candles, their magical water from a giant font that they were allowed to take home in baby-food jars and sprinkle on their heads to keep them safe during sleep? Where were their saints running wild in the desert, in the wilderness, communing with wolves in hidden mountain caves? Where was their young Blessed Christina the Astonishing, who was believed to be dead but, at her own funeral, sat up in her coffin to complain of the priests’ stench and flew first to the rafters, then to a tree, where she lived among the birds, refusing to come down ever again? Where was their blood? Next to such feral glories all other churches (or no church at all) seemed impoverished.
I didn’t even mind the confessions we were required to make each month, though they struck fear in my friends and my little sister. It was certainly a bit overwhelming, entering a darkened room all alone, facing a priest behind a wood-carved grate, and being made to recite my supposed sins. No matter what the catechism taught, I’d never believed that a man was needed to intercede for me on behalf of God, whatever God might be. But I believed in the power of sacrament, in very much the way I do today—not as a Catholic but as a human open to the truth that something can be made sacred by the attention we grant it.
And so one day in fifth grade when it was my turn, I stepped into the narrow confessional and knelt. The room smelled faintly of urine, for it was rumored that Mikey Roberts had been so scared at his own confession the month previous, he’d peed his new corduroy pants. I ignored this and readied myself for my impending purity.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I whispered as I made the sign of the cross. I could see Father Sandergeld’s large nose from my side of the grate—red from his daily motorcycle rides before the advent of sunscreen, but also, we all assumed, from the drink that kept him company most nights. He leaned his head into his hand, pretending, as was the custom, not to see who was there through the insufficient screen.
“Yes, my child?”
“I am often mad at my mother.” Father sighed. What sins does a fifth grader really have? He must have heard this a million times.
“Be patient with your mother. She loves you very much.”
“I am mean to my sister.”
“She is younger than you.” I knew he could see me—how else would he know I was the eldest Haupt sister? “It is up to you to set a good example. For your penance, say ten Hail Marys.”
Things were going my way. I loved the Hail Mary. To me, Mary was a mother-goddess who appeared to orphan children in poor countries, who in her guise as the Lady of Guadalupe, threw tropical roses upon the impoverished cloak of Juan Diego though it was winter, whose own cloak shimmered with stars. She protected all of nature. I longed for her to appear to me and often wept that she did not. Praying to her came naturally.
“I will say twenty!” I announced fervently, causing Father to sigh again.
“Ten will suffice.”
“There is one more thing.”
I loved having a secret, but I yearned to tell someone, and I knew of no one else who would not intrude once they heard. Still, I was a little frightened. Maybe this really was a sin. One Holy Catholic Church, the creed proclaimed, after all. Perhaps Father Sandergeld would be angry or tell my mother or demand that I stop altogether.
I summoned my courage.
“I have another church.” There was a long pause and I sensed this was new territory for the priest. He didn’t seem to know what to say. But finally he lifted his head.
“Lyanda,” he ventured, giving up the pretense of anonymity altogether, “what is this church?”
I told him everything in one long breath, then gasped, “Do I have to tell my mom? Or anyone?”
Father put his head back in his hand, from practice or exasperation I could not tell. “God knows all you do.” I’d already learned this in catechism class, and nodded in the darkness. “I suppose that is enough,” he mused. “But you’d better add an Our Father to your penance.”
I emerged joyous, radiant as an angel, the sacrament in full force. I did not give a backward glance to my suffering fifth-grade colleagues, who were dreading their turn in the confessional. When I got home I went straight to my other church.
Behind the house where I grew up there was a vacant lot covered in tall brown grasses, and beyond that there was a wooded canyon with narrow trails among Douglas firs, western redcedars, bigleaf maples, and all manner of ferns and mosses, leading down to a stream called, like many streams with a forgotten history in this country, Mill Creek. Overinfluenced by Anne of Green Gables, I did not call the creek by its map-name, but by what I believed in my romantic young heart to be its soul-name. And it was there, on the still edges of the Stream of Sparkling Stones, that I discovered Frog Church.
It was a small and secret church with few requirements for its single human attendee—none of them difficult for an introverted child who carried only an apple and a sketch pad that doubled as a diary. Rules: no shoes; quiet always; drawing and writing allowed if they did not cause disturbance, as wild animal visitations were the most sacred treasure.
The longer I stayed, and the quieter I was, the more creatures would wander through. Squirrels and robins and chickadees. Once a hummingbird landed on my head. Once a garter snake slid by and brushed my heel with soft skin. Once a striped skunk waddled through, followed by four perfect baby skunks. None of them even glanced at me.
But frogs were special. Looking back I suppose it is because they were the only animals other than insects that I could easily catch. But there was something, too, about their odd fluidity. Wandering between worlds. Egg, tadpole, froglet, frog. Fins to feet. Water to earth and back again, over and over.
The rules at the creek were entirely different when I was scrambling there with friends—mostly the neighborhood boys and my sister. At those times the goal was to first spy, and then to capture all the frogs we could. This was not Frog Church at all. We splashed and screamed and got so muddy it was impossible to tell us apart.
But I always looked forward to slipping away to visit the frogs on my own. I learned that if you approach quietly and do not cast a shadow upon them, frogs will not leave their stones or the quiet stream edge, where they rest with their eyes showing just above and their bodies just below the clear waterline. And I learned further that if you are quiet and slower than slow, you do not have to “catch” a frog at all—you can just slide your hand beneath one and lift it up without inciting any hint of fear or effort to escape. I learned that if you do these things, a frog will be calm and settle in your palm, and that, once settled, it will be happy to stay, and that the frog’s willingness in this regard filled me with serenity, and with joy, and with an unfolding sense of nature’s irrepressible interconnection.
I learned that it was hard to hold more than one frog calmly in my hands but if I would lie on my back close to the stream and move the frogs from my hands to my bare tummy they would stay—soft cold feet and strange round breathing. In this way I could reach the stream with one arm and gather more frogs for my congregation. When a sufficient number was assembled (three or four frogs and me), we would all (I chose to believe) hum and pray together, belly to belly, accompanied by birdsong and the whispers of trees overhead, and thoughts—sweet, simple, and blessedly few.
Eventually I would hear my mother. “Lyaaaaaandaaaaa!” It was dinnertime, and she was calling me home. My camp at the base of the canyon was far from our house’s back door—it was plausible that I couldn’t hear my mom, and I made use of this likelihood when it suited me. But now I suddenly realized how hungry I was. “Go in peace,” I whispered to the frogs, poking one on the behind to wake her up. The movement stirred the others and suddenly all of them were in the stream, and gone. Frog Church for the day was over.
For thousands of years we have struggled with the human condition under the assumption that this condition, whatever its faults, would continue. Now and forever, the creed of my childhood faith reads, now and forever. But now, for the first time in human history, we are living at a juncture where the twin realities of climate crisis and habitat destruction are so far-reaching that the basic web of biological connections required to support life on earth are swiftly breaking down. People are rightfully experiencing unprecedented anxiety and despair as we contemplate our place on this planet, and what is asked of us.
As perilous and complex as these times are, we are armed with a rare trio of tools that offers a rooted way forward: the joining of nature, spirit, and a uniquely modern science. The innate connection between humans and the natural world is coming to the fore in a new way, as academic research rises in support of truths that poets, writers, mystics, artists, naturalists, earth-based religions, and Indigenous cultures have always proclaimed. Multiple studies appear in the most respected journals, including Science, Nature, and The Journal of the National Academy of Sciences, detailing evidence that: trees are able to communicate with one another, both through the motions of their branches, spreading chemical messages aboveground, and through a web of intertwined roots and fungal mycelia belowground; all animals have distinct and complex consciousnesses and intelligences and languages beyond what we have ever scientifically acknowledged; humans are more creative, physically hale, and less depressed after walking in a forest; wandering barefoot upon the earth improves podiatric health and increases the physical intelligence of our whole being. Our bodies, minds, and spirits stand in ancient communion with the soil.
In the genre of philosophical nature writing, academic science is sometimes suspect. Philosopher and wilderness guide Jack Turner writes that “science disembeds individual context, people, flora, fauna.” The late theologian, eco-cultural historian, and self-described “geologian” Thomas Berry echoes this sentiment:
While we have more scientific knowledge of the universe than any people ever had, it is not the type of knowledge that leads to an intimate presence within a meaningful universe.… The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than as a communion of subjects.
Many friends report that they don’t need the mechanistic language or quantifiable evidence of a scientific paper to tell them that animals are intelligent or that they feel better in body and spirit after a woodland ramble. And it’s true. When we walk mindfully in the natural world—attuned to the voices of the birds, the alternate unfurling and dormancy of plant life through the seasons, the tracks of the coyotes who wander from the green space to our urban backyard—a great deal of truth about the interrelationship between humans, plants, animals, and the land is directly revealed to us. This attunement is our most authentic, most innate way of learning and knowing.
Yet just as many friends tell me that the recent science has made them more comfortable talking—or even thinking—about such things. In countless ways, modern culture and urban habits contrive to separate us from our indwelling earthen intelligence. Journalist Florence Williams reports in her book The Nature Fix that North Americans spend over 93 percent of their waking hours indoors or in cars (and the other 7 percent is spent walking between buildings and cars). And while there is an extraordinary exuberance and diversity of wild plant and animal life dwelling in our midst, still the urban environment is inhospitable to the majority of species on our shared planet. Regular—or any—experience of deep wilderness is missing from most of our modern lives. Without such contact, our radiant mental and physical intelligences are being diminished. Williams writes:
Thanks to a confluence of demographics and technology, we’ve pivoted further away from nature than any generation before us. At the same time, we’re increasingly burdened by chronic ailments made worse by time spent indoors, from myopia and vitamin D deficiency to obesity, depression, loneliness and anxiety.
Hildegard of Bingen was a Rhenish mystic, musician, composer, prophet, herbalist, pharmacist, and healer (at certain times she would have been called a witch, in spite of her Benedictine monastic garb, and these days she is heralded as such in certain circles as this word is reclaimed). Hildegard would not have been surprised by the effects of our separation from nature: in the 1100s she referred to people deprived of contact with the “lush greenness” of the landscape as “shriveled and wilted.”
Doubters about the great aliveness of the wild earth—people who question their inner knowing, or those who simply have not experienced a personal connection with the more-than-human-world—may be brought, through the certainty of scientific inquiry, to a new way of seeing. So many people have felt somewhere in their core a spiritual connection to nature but have not had the language to ponder it deeply in our evidence-heavy overculture; the new science gives them this language, and the essential courage, to trust the intuition they have always possessed. And for those who would deny that the earth is alive, life-sustaining, and at a perilous anthropogenic tipping point? Well, science is giving them no place to hide.
The modern science of nature is significant for many other reasons, beyond the obvious setting of conservation priorities and actions. Foremost in my mind being the fact that it is beautiful. Its wondrous mathematical synchronicities, the specifics of its chemical analyses, the complexity of its physics are beyond both the practical and intuitive knowledge of most lay naturalists (or mystics), no matter how seasoned. When mingled with the wildness of the natural world and the creativity of the human mind, good science reveals its center, its story, its deeper teaching. The science has its own poetic force.
Yet no matter how significant the research, I believe that spirit—the response of our hearts and imaginations to the whole of life, so often beyond traditional rationality—is required to fully animate the new science. The quantified results of scientific work, and the stringent lexiconic language in which they are reported, awaken and sing through the brightness of our ensouled stories, unfolding in concert with nature. The poetry of earthen life cannot reach its fullness on a computer screen, or even in the synapses of our magnificent intellect. Our hearts are formed of a wilder clay.
In high school I was recruited by Young Life, an organization that attempted to teach me that my concern for the earth was “unheavenward,” my love of Mary was idolatry, and the entire religion of my childhood would send me straight to hell. The couple that led the group was as cute as pie and played the guitar. I sang the songs at their meetings, and went home in a muddle of confusion, sometimes in tears. I left the group. Boyfriends and cheerleading and saving my allowance for the right denim became more important than spiritual or biological questing. I still loved to walk in the woods, and passionately took up backpacking in wilder places, though by this time my town had “improved” the trail along the Stream of Shining Stones—it was buried now under an asphalt path and hosted a paved trail’s attendant joggers. I couldn’t find a frog near my house if I tried. My saints, too, seemed to fall silent.
But as a philosophy major in college, alongside the ancient Greeks and the modern existentialists, I studied world religions and wisdom, especially Buddhist thought. One night, while poring over a book of Japanese art, I became enraptured by a worn camphorwood statue of a quiet-eyed deity, resting their head on their fingertips, looking more peaceful than anything I had ever seen constructed by human hands. I was shocked to see the slender, androgynous entity referred to as “she” in the description. Nearly all of the deities I was familiar with in the ranging Japanese canon were male.1 This was Kuan Yin, or Kannon in Japanese—the bodhisattva of compassion. I fell in love with the statue, and literally ran across the grassy quad to my Japanese professor’s office, book in hand. It was dark and nearly midnight, but as expected, Takemoto-sensei sat quietly in his office, sipping hot green tea. He poured some for me and just smiled and nodded as I pointed at the caption. Almost immediately, he started to help me make arrangements for a year of independent study in Japan.
I traveled to Japan, lived in Kyoto, walked everywhere, haunted the temples, practiced tea ceremony obsessively, sat zazen, fell in love with a monk who vowed to marry me (even my romantic young self could see that would never work, but we had some fun), and helped translate Japanese texts into English at the local university in exchange for instruction in Buddhist philosophy and literature. Whenever I could, I took the train to Nara to sit at the feet of the beautiful image of Kuan Yin, tearful over her beauty (and slightly afraid to leave her temple with all of Nara’s famous and aggressive tourist-fed deer waiting outside to nibble my elbows). Here was the compassionate Mary of my youth in a different form. I’d missed her. And here, far from home, the voices of the mystics returned with the force of grace and the love of family. I saw more clearly than ever that I didn’t need a particular organized religion to live in a manner that embraced their wild teachings.
Meanwhile, the forest wandering of my childhood had grown into a zealous love of biological science, natural history, and birdwatching. I felt gratefully rooted in the old tradition where science, nature, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion were not different academic trajectories but all of a piece—“natural philosophy” in Victorian parlance. Under this generous intellectual umbrella, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Hildegard of Bingen, and Georgia O’Keeffe were among my many mentors.
Later, studying environmental ethics in a graduate school philosophy department where my vision of natural philosophy was accepted as normal felt like heaven. I studied trees and neotropical migrant birds and wolves and live-birthing frogs (then on the edge of extinction, now vanished from earth forever) and their relationship to—well, to everything. To radical environmentalism and Japanese poetry and transpersonal ecology and the earth-based mysticism that had never ever left me. I spent all my extra time wandering the natural area near my school in Colorado with binoculars around my neck and a silly grin on my face.
I returned home to the Pacific Northwest to write my master’s thesis on radical environmental activism, the first draft scribbled by pencil in notebooks on long solo backpack trips among the mountains and rivers of the moody green Olympics. I took the train back to Colorado to defend my thesis. And though I loved ecological philosophy, I ran away from academia the second I finished my degree, wanting to engage the subject in a more direct way—which is turning out to be a lifelong project.2
It has been decades since my family moved from my childhood home near the frog-creek, and now I have my own home and family in Seattle. When the fraught name God comes up in conversation or reading, I always remind myself that whatever the source or language used, we are at root on common ground—invoking the graced, unnamable source of life, the sacredness that cradles and infuses all of creation, on earth and beyond. I know that prayer is the lifting of our hearts, our thoughts, and even our bodies in conversation, or contemplation, or remembrance, or supplication, or gratitude within this whole, requiring no dogma, only openness. Hildegard counseled, “To be alive is to give praise.” The works of the Western mystics and Buddhist philosophers and Emily Dickinson sit on my bedside table and ride in my rucksack, along with well-worn field guides to birds and medicinal plants. And my feet are so dirty from wandering barefoot in the woods that I fear they will never be clean.
In this time of planetary crisis, overwhelm is common. What to do? There is so much. Too much. No single human can work to save the orcas and protect the Amazon and organize anti-fracking protests and write poetry that inspires others to act and pray in a hermit’s dwelling for transformation and get dinner on the table. How easy it is to feel paralyzed by obligations. How easy it is to feel lost and insignificant and unable to know what is best, to feel adrift while yearning for purpose.
Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness—and wildness—that sustains humans and all of life. The rooted pathways offered here are not meant as a definitive list but as waymarkers and fortification for all of us seeking our unique, bewildering, awkward way through the essential question of how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth. It is the question Thoreau asked. The one that Mary Oliver, who passed just before I wrote these words, has perhaps framed most beautifully: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
We all come to know our own lessons as they spring from the study of our households, our woodlands, our watching, our footprints, the trails of kindred wild ones that cross our paths. Our intelligent feet, our making hands, our listening ears.
The word rooted’s own root is the Latin radix, the center from which all things germinate and arise. The radix is the radical—the intrinsic, organic, fervent heart of being and action. Rooted lives are radically intertwined with the vitality of the planet. In a time that evokes fear and paralysis, rooted ways of being-within-nature assure us that we are grounded in the natural world. Our bodies, our thoughts, our minds, our spirits are affected by the whole of the earthen community, and affect this whole in return. This is both a mystical sensibility and a scientific fact. It is an awareness that makes us tingle with its responsibility, its beauty, its poetry. It makes our lives our most foundational form of activism. It means everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.
Amphibious, we wander at the singular, radical intersection of science, nature, and spirit. Here resides a multifaceted understanding of the interdependence of earthly life and the engaged activism that such an understanding inspires and requires. Here are the interwoven pathways of inward, wild stillness and outward, feral action. At this crossroads there is intelligence, and sacredness, and wildness, and grace. There is clear-sighted hope in a time of despair. Rooted ways embolden us to remember that with our complex minds we can feel—and live—more than one thing simultaneously. Anxiety, difficulty, fear, despair. Yes. Beauty, connectedness, possibility, love. Yes.
1 Later, while studying in Japan, I learned that there were more female deities than I had realized.
- "A personal series of short meditations, very intimate. I put this book in the kind of tradition or sharing the spirit of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s great book Braiding Sweetgrass."—Richard Powers, New York Times
- "With her deep intuition and expansive attention as our guides, Lyanda Haupt’s gorgeous words create a path to the place where science and spirit meet. It’s a barefoot path that wanders through solitudes and into community with frogs, moose, orca, and our own wildness."—Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass
"Radiant with reverence, sparkling with surprises, and brimming with insight, Rooted is a lyrical and intimate handbook on how to live a mindful, joyful, fruitful life in harmony with our sweet green earth."
—Sy Montgomery, author of How to Be a Good Creature
- "Bold, lucid, lyrical, wise. In Rooted, Lyanda Lynn Haupt re-imagines and rediscovers connectedness, exploring our relationships to nature through the rhythms of daily life. A timely, and though-provoking read."—Thor Hanson, author of Buzz and The Triumph of Seeds
- "Exquisite, deceptively simple, lustrous with enigma and pulsing with ache, practical, humble, and honest: Rooted nourishes the wild earth struggling to breathe within us and all around us."—David Abram, author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
- “Rooted is luminous and living proof of its own central premise: that all things are connected, and that activism and creativity can be a powerful combination. Part philosophical and personal exploration, part environmental manifesto, written with a gloriously poetic sensibility, Rooted feels like a literary love child of Rachel Carson and Mary Oliver. Find yourself a quiet place, preferably under a tree, and let Lyanda Lynn Haupt teach you how to embrace the “tangled empathy” of living not as a dominant species, but as one of many.”—Erica Bauermeister, New York Times bestselling author of The Scent Keeper and House Lessons
- “An extraordinary guide to wonder and belonging. Shattering dualities—science/spirit, dark/light, human/nature—Haupt leads us into the delicious presence of the living Earth. In a time of isolation and fragmentation, her many insights are beautiful and much-needed invitations to wholeness and connection.”—David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees
- “A masterful melding of the mystical and the material. A great read.”—Bernd Heinrich, author of White Feathers and Racing the Clock
“Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a nature mystic, which is to say a now rare but entirely normal human who never lost touch with her innate rootedness in the greater web of life. An enchanting and lyrical writer, she celebrates in graceful prose her viscerally experienced kinship with frogs and forests, whales and wind, snakes and starlings. In Rooted, she swings open the gateway hidden in plain sight, the wild portal that beckons us onto the braided barefoot pathway where we might learn again ‘how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth’ — if we dare to wander into that magic. There’s nothing more urgent and there’s no one more gifted at conjuring and illuminating the trail.”
—Bill Plotkin, PhD, author of Soulcraft, Wild Mind, and The Journey of Soul Initiation
- “From barefooted forest walks to the curiosities of what becomes of us when we die, Rooted challenges readers to reconsider their relationships to the natural world. Part-manifesto, part-love note, this exploration of wild connections inspires and delights.”—Caroline Van Hemert, author of The Sun is a Compass
“An elegant tapestry of poetry and science, of personal narrative and communal prophesy, this beautifully written book is drenched in wonder. It is a celebration of interconnectedness and belonging, a wild sacrament, a love song to life.”
—Mirabai Starr, author of Caravan of No Despair and Wild Mercy
- On Sale
- May 4, 2021
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little Brown Spark