In recent years important lawsuits in Ecuador, Bolivia, India, New Zealand, and a few U.S. states have acknowledged that certain places are so valuable to their ecosystem that they have an inherent right to exist and to persist without threat of harm. In its ruling on behalf of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, a court in India determined that these rivers have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.” A New Zealand law recognizes that rivers and mountains exude not only physical qualities, but spiritual ones as well.
If a river—or mountain or marsh or forest—exists, do we have a responsibility when it begins to die?
When Rick Warshauer, a conservation biologist working with the U.S. Geological Survey in Hawaii, he scans the land around him, he sees a dying world. Many species of plants, birds, and animals thriving in Hawaii are migrants from other places, while native species are becoming extinct. When Warshauer describes his job as “hospice ecology,” he’s talking about a burden he doesn’t want.
Yet some people become hospice workers intentionally, for they believe that supporting dying people and their loved ones as they embark on the last phase of life gives the transition meaning.
Many of us residents of Earth are now being called upon to serve as hospice workers to an ailing planet. Taking on such a responsibility means choosing to live with the knowledge that we can offer appreciation and care to nature even as our heart breaks to see it disappear. It means creating a new way of being in relationship. Practices we develop might include sitting vigil with a forest about to be cut, doing ceremony for a neighborhood reduced to ash by wildfire, or creating spontaneous gifts of beauty for a place under duress as we do during the Global Earth Exchange.
Certainly it is painful to witness the demise of what you love. But it’s also liberating to peer into the maw of a thing and know, even as your heart tears in anguish, that from this point there is only one way out and that is through the wild, bold, extravagant acts of finding and giving beauty whenever and however it is possible to do so.
- Yamuna 042216 River Dpg 04 22846308: David Gilkey/NPR