I met Deena Metzger in 2014 when she visited Canada to teach a weekend workshop on story and healing. As a teacher and writer myself, deeply interested in how writers can address ecological and social crisis, the workshop theme intrigued me. Deena’s biography described her as “a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, teacher, healer and medicine woman” who has been devoted to “investigating Story as a form of knowing and healing.” Excitingly, her notion of ‘healing’ seemed radically extended to include “life-threatening diseases, spiritual and emotional crises, as well as community, political and environmental disintegration.” Still, I knew nothing of the extraordinary individual awaiting me, with whom I’ve been fortunate to continue learning and seeking since.
“Who do we have to become to find the forms and sacred language with which to meet these times?” Deena’s life is certainly one possible answer to her own question. Spanning many decades, her work interweaves activism, art and community building with a rare courage to cross frontiers such as the reality of animal intelligence and agency, and the reality of spirit. Her book The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them was published in one volume in 1977 with Tree, one of the first books written about breast cancer. The book coincided with the printing of the exuberant post-mastectomy photograph of Deena, called “Tree” or “Warrior”, which has been shared worldwide. It took the third publisher, North Atlantic Press, to have the courage when reissuing Tree to print the poster image on the cover. Since writing Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing (2002), which came out of a decade’s work with animals and Indigenous medicine, Deena has held ReVisioning Medicine gatherings for those trained in Western medicine who long to be healers too and also Daré, a monthly gathering for the community at her home in Topanga, California, and a practice that has spread to other North American cities.
Drawing on myth, Indigenous and other wisdom traditions that have been lifetime pre-occupations, Deena has articulated a vision of why and how we must create a culture that does no harm, called the 19 Ways to the Fifth World. She’s recently been touring her new novel, A Rain of Night Birds (2017), which addresses ecological crisis and the necessity of bridging the disparity between Indigenous and Western mind. I caught up with her on Skype in August, 2017.
Sharon English: Let’s start with the invitation which Dark Mountain made with Issue 12, which led us to this conversation: an invitation to reflect on our experience of the sacred in a time of unravelling and how that experience might call our contemporary assumptions into question.
Deena Metzger: I think the essential questions are: How is the sacred implicit in whatever possibilities exist for this time? How can our own experiences of the sacred inform our activism? I think you know that, for me, the only hope that I really see for a future for the planet and all life is following the direction and the guidance of the sacred, being aware of its presence.
SE: Yes, yet the sacred and spirit have had a very bad rap. On the one hand, because religion has been put into the service of the dominator culture, many people associate the spiritual with something oppressive or at least conforming. On the other hand, New Age spirituality seems too bound up in the individual – ‘what’s sacred to you’ – to be relevant in a time of unravelling.
DM: I would prefer not to go there. Because if we go there, we’re focusing on the human, when what we’re called to do is to listen and respond to the sacred. How you and I have experienced the sacred, without reference to how it has not been experienced, feels very important to me. What feels essential is speaking about the sacred, and the awareness that this is what Indigenous people have always known and what has sustained them. My interest is in returning to the old wisdom and bringing it back so that the planet can be saved.
Terrence Green, one of the protagonists in A Rain of Night Birds, is clear about this as he, a climatologist, faces the reality of the planet’s unravelling. A mixed blood man, he became Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies, but his grief awakens the Native teachings transmitted to him by his grandfather. This is 2007. It’s the time of the International Panel on Climate Change. In this stunning report, he finds two small references to TEK: traditional ecological knowledge. Within thousands of pages of scientific data and analysis, he finds two small references, four or five sentences. This both moves and grieves him. His response is to go to the Mountain where his grandfather took him as a child to teach him about the old ways. As he prays to the Mountain and apologises for having left the red path – even though he left it for reasons that were theoretically on behalf of his people, learning what Westerners were doing so that he could help Native people adjust to the way we are living – he realises exactly how much he betrayed his soul for entering into Western living:
He was speaking aloud, but he didn’t know to whom he was speaking, or whether he was speaking, or in a dream of speaking, or in a spirit realm to which he had been transported by what appeared to be injury, but was also something else. [The injury is the Earth’s injury and his own injury.] There was a thousand different ways he’d accepted that spirits are real although Western mind was a miasma of denial that entered through the cracks and fissures of his being, like water seeping through rock, undermining the original structure of all things. (174)
I think that’s all that needs to be said: Western mind IS a miasma of denial that undermines the true nature of the world. So then, how can we make our way back? How do we accept Spirit as reality, not illusion? And what is Spirit saying to us?
You’ve recently had a remarkable dream that is teaching you/us a lost etiquette. I’ve also had such dreams. They come from Spirit. This novel was given to me by Spirit. These gifts are our “evidence”. They offer guidance. They teach us what is important to bring forth. When I heard your dream, I knew that you were being guided and were dreaming in the old ways, which means not for you personally or psychologically, but as a teaching for all of us.
SE: I’ll retell it now for readers. The dream came early this summer:
I’m attending a council of Indigenous people held inside an orca. First, I’m shown that the orca has two spaces: a small opening in its body that has something to do with healing, like a healing chamber, and also a larger opening like two skin flaps that part and lead into a sizable circular chamber, like a tent, with a floor and walls of black and white orca skin. I enter.
Inside, a group of Indigenous people are sitting in a circle around a simple altar of animal skin with objects placed on it. An elder sits on the far side. I sit down in the circle, directly across from the elder. I’m the only non-Indigenous person. It occurs to me that I’m not sitting in the right place, that maybe I shouldn’t be facing the elder so directly, so I change places in the circle so I’m more to the side. I feel like I’m being invited here for the first time and am learning the protocol.
One of the biggest teachings for me, in opening to the sacred and spirit, has been coming to understand dreams as language or communication that aren’t only about the isolated individual. That dreams can hold meaning for the community, and come through us, not only from our own psyches.
The great danger at the core of Western thinking is our belief that we are the world, the centre of things. So when we respond to the crises in our world we assume it’s up to us to figure them all out – the very kind of self-involved thinking that got us here. We have no sense of living in a field of relationships with other creatures who possess their own traditions, wisdom, consciousness and agency. That when it comes to our world crises, everybody, human and nonhuman, needs to be at the table. At this point it’s we who need to be guided by whales and spirit, or Spirit-as-Whales.
DM: The dream is about more than being guided by Whales. In the dream, you enter into the Whale, and the council is taking place inside the Whale. In other words, in the dream, Whale consciousness is the sacred world we enter. That’s the territory in which this Indigenous council is taking place. As the Whales or other beings live in our consciousness, we are now living within the Whales’ consciousness.
Furthermore, you are aware that you don’t know how to deport yourself in this setting. As more of us experience the presence of the sacred, we have to figure out the protocol, the etiquette for approaching this realm and those within it. We have to re-learn what our Indigenous ancestors knew and also discover how to proceed at this time in history. Here the sacred is within the body-mind of the great ones, in this case, Whale. We have to go into the internal place where the field exists, the consciousness we need. In a sense like the story of Jonah – except we hope to keep living there, not leave.
When a dream like this comes as a teaching for the community, it’s not going to be an easy dream to understand. We’re going to have to sit with what it means. You and I may not know all its dimensions as we’re speaking to each other, so we carry it for as long as necessary, bringing it to others who might help to reveal its profound mystery. We do this because we understand that such dreams can be the source of wisdom. In the old, old days, no matter which Indigenous culture one was part of, if there was something going on that was really difficult or terrible, one would ask for a dream. The community of elders would gather and hope that a dream would come, or someone would come and say they’d had a dream, and people would gather to listen to it. This happened with your dream: you responded to it in the old, old ways by bringing it to me. We talked about what it might mean, and then I suggested that you take this dream to the community. And you did. Those you’ve shared it with have pondered it with you. We are not asking the personal meaning of the dream, ‘What is this dream for your life?’ Rather we’re considering, ‘What is this dream telling us?’
I had an experience this weekend that feels related: I went Whales watching in the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. There were so many Whales, such a profusion of wildlife, that the guides on the boat were astonished. Again and again they marvelled that they had never seen anything like it. I’ve been speaking with friends who live along the coast who’ve also been seeing a remarkable profusion of Whales this summer. Stan Rushworth, a Native novelist, author of the remarkable book Going to Water, speaks of the surprising occurrences of Whales coming in close to the shore and breaching over and over when he is walking on the beach. Cynthia Travis, who founded and directs the grassroots peace-building NGO in Liberia, everyday gandhis, and who lives overlooking the sea in Ft. Bragg, CA, has also been startled by the profusion of Whales.
Cynthia was on the Whales watching boat with me as was Cheryl Potts, with whom I share my land in Topanga. Cynthia and I have travelled to Africa to meet with the Elephants many times. At the moment when we found ourselves among several different kinds of Whales, and kinds of Dolphins and Sea Lions, Cynthia wondered if the Whales were coming to us deliberately in the way that the Elephants came to us. So maybe your dream isn’t accidental, but part of a consciousness being held by Whales that’s alerting us humans to what’s happening on the planet – and to the fact that there’s a protocol required. That’s the sacred knowledge being transmitted: first, that we’re within Whales’ consciousness, and second, that there’s an etiquette we have to learn.
SE: In Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he notes how various thinkers have begun to use the word uncanny in relation to macro ecological events because, he says, they’re recognising what we’ve long turned away from: “the presence and proximity of the nonhuman interlocutors” (30). Having to learn the etiquette for approaching the nonhuman and the sacred – that’s such a different teaching than this idea that ecological events are uncanny, a concept that suggests the world of the nonhuman is unsettling, inexplicable, and even creepy. There’s a great humility required to accept that we’re being called to learn, not to figure things out, but to learn or recover the ways of relationship to the sacred.
DM: It’s important what you said, “not to figure it out”. We don’t have the capacity to figure it out, and that’s humbling. We learn some from the old, old ways: we learn things about making offerings, about meeting the nonhuman and the sacred with profound respect and honour, and then, we listen deeply to the teachings that come. So your dream was the thing-in-itself and also about it: you went into the sacred and were taught how to approach the sacred.
SE: Yes. In approaching the sacred, council seems integral, as was pointed out in the dream. And your process, whether in Daré or ReVisioning Medicine or writing workshops, is to teach by holding council. Can we talk about what council is and why it’s part of our relationship to the sacred?
DM: It goes back to what you said, ‘It’s not about us figuring things out.’ When I was visiting a nganga, a medicine person in Zimbabwe, Mandaza Kandemwa, alongside whom I worked as a healer on many occasions over ten years, he said something that’s guided me since: “When human beings sit in council, the spirits sit in council as well.” His sense is that the sacred is a council: it’s the interconnection of all the different points of light. It’s the net of Indra. A field of knowing constituted of all the different parts in interrelationship – that is what the sacred is.
When you sat in council within the Whale, you were with those elders who’d been informed for generations and generations about the way to meet the sacred. They had their own individual and collective experiences, and so we understand that you have to meet the sacred wholly, and then the holy is there. Part of the relationship with Spirit involves stepping away from the horrifically narcissistic dangers of individualism. Everywhere we locate the sacred, we also find interconnection, as in the natural world.
SE: When you bring up the problem of individuism, I think about how challenging it is to get people to think broadly and collectively in terms of what’s good for all humanity, let alone all beings on the planet. There’s this fear reaction of collective action and purpose or identity, really a kind of twisted up notion of collectivity as entirely negative, group think, et cetera. Sorry, I know you don’t want to focus on our problems.
DM: Because we keep refocusing on ourselves, it’s important to keep coming back to ‘Let’s not talk about our problems’ precisely because it’s so hard to stay away from focusing on ourselves, whether as individuals or as humans. So this is a practice of looking at what’s been invisible to us, which is the presence of Spirit. A practice of going back to what was shown, rather than what we didn’t see or don’t want to see.
Was there an initiatory event that opened you to recognizing your materialistic way of thinking? How did Spirit reveal itself to you?
SE: For me, following the writer’s path has meant that I’m always making meaning my focus, my purpose, and attuned to listening to and observing the world, trying to see and feel the patterns. So although I come from no spiritual tradition – on the contrary, an anti-spiritual tradition via my upbringing, education and culture – I think being an artist primed me to be receptive to the sacred.
Now I can look back and see how Spirit has guided my life, if I view it that way. There wasn’t a key initiatory event, but what did open me up most consciously to the sacred was spending more time in nature. I did a great deal of that after writing my second book, in part because I’d become injured and needed to stay off the computer, in part because I felt evermore compelled to immerse myself in nature. I found myself growing desperately alarmed at the ecocidal path that our culture is on, and it seemed to me that we were never going to come to our senses without recognising our own limits and narcissism. I came to see and feel, deeply, that the human is not the centre of reality but part of the whole, and that the whole is animate, conscious, intentional – everything we are and more. As well, I’ve always paid attention to dreams, and about a decade ago I experienced a couple that were powerfully, undeniably spiritual in tone and images. These helped push me into humbly recognising the arrogance and limits of my materialist mindset – and also the tremendous loss of spiritual and life wisdom from our ancestors that’s happened as a result of our obsession with mechanical, materialistic thinking.
DM: We’re at a critical moment, and it’s a moment of consciousness. Stepping into a world where Spirit exists – stepping into, finally, the real world, being able to remember it as Indigenous people have known it forever – is for us Westerners as great a mental shift as it’s possible to make. Like the consequences for Copernicus and Galileo when they understood that the Earth went around the sun.
SE: An apt analogy!
DM: Yes, the sun. It’s not that Spirit is the sun; it’s that Spirit is the entire universe, and we circle a light that it shines to us and that keeps us in relationship to others who are circling this light, and are warmed by it, and have life because of it. Because we’re at a certain distance from it, but not too far, the structure of the solar system as we know it isn’t a bad analogy, though not the whole.
But here’s the important moment: we either talk about what we didn’t know, or we talk about what we see. Once you know the reality of ecocide, once you say that word, nothing else has to be said except what follows from that knowledge, what you now see/understand differently: what you see in the natural world that’s different, what your experiences from Spirit have been – that’s the mind shift. I can’t emphasise how important this is. If we continue to look at and articulate and be obsessed with what’s wrong then we find ways to meet it that are familiar in terms of how we solve problems, and they’re not working. I’m not saying leaving them altogether, for some people have to focus on familiar problem solving, but for those of us who have felt and experienced and seen the irrefutable presence of Spirit, the next step is learning how to listen and take direction. We really don’t know what to do to restore the natural world and sanity without Spirit’s teachings; everything we have ‘done’ until now has brought us to this place of devastation. So your dream comes: Learn the protocol; enter into the mind-body-being-universe of Whales. Then …? Then we’ll see what becomes possible and how.
In 2010, I had a dream: I won a contest, and the prize was that I would go to New York and be part of a program, after which I would be or think like and move in the world like an Indigenous elder. When I woke up, I understood, after sitting with the dream for some time, that it was instruction. Not about going to New York, but learning how to be an Indigenous elder. I enrolled myself, so to speak, in my own program, and as I think back upon it now – I didn’t realise it until this moment – I changed to a great extent what I was reading. I started reading far more Indigenous literature and thinking than I had before; I started listening even more deeply to my Indigenous friends and colleagues; and I asked myself at every moment when I had to make a decision, How might an uncolonised, Indigenous elder respond to this situation? In part I’m doing that with you now, coming back again and again saying, What do we see, what are our experiences? That dream, and my understanding that it was instruction, changed me, and we would not be having this conversation if I’d not responded to my dream in that way.
Before writing A Rain of Night Birds, when I was in the desert and hoping for the next novel, I heard a voice saying, ‘You know. Her name is Sandra Birdswell and she is a meteorologist.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know!’ Yet even as I responded, I knew that I was being given something by Spirit and had a mandate to write whatever came, which required enormous research, thinking, listening, yielding and daring. Daring to say the book was given in that way. Daring to write things that I knew would be challenged if not ridiculed. But it was what was given, and the next six years verified that it was given because of all the other events and revelations that came and made a whole of the book.
If there had just been a voice one time and I never heard anything again, that would be meaningless. But when we listen and enter into a field, a council if you will, of events and synchronicities and revelations and experiences that we ourselves could never have created on our own, then we know we’re in the domain of the sacred.
SE: In this sense holding council, even with just one person, seems crucial to yielding to the sacred. We need support for daring to listen to, take seriously, and follow our experiences of the sacred in these times. Even you, with all your years of following the sacred, still had that feeling of, Wow, I really have to say things that might seem totally out there to people! Yet you did, and it seems to me that having a council and/or a spiritually focused community made that possible.
DM: It’s essential. When you sit in a circle with people and the conversation is about Spirit, and how Spirit has come or how Spirit is directing, the fact that Spirit exists is the ground. So, everything you say is enhanced by or grounded in Spirit’s existence, and our relationship to it, and the possibility that that kind of alliance might in fact save the planet. You have the assumption that you want it saved and that you’d give everything to do that – that forms a different kind of conversation. Our conversation right now is grounded in the councils we’ve been in and those assumptions. We don’t step out of that when we step out of those councils.
SE: It’s beautiful and supportive what you just said, that once we sit in council, those councils go with us. You’ve spoken of the field as a kind of container as well.
DM: The field is composed of all of us and we emerge out of it, as if born out of it but never leaving it. It is of us and we are of it.
In January 2017, when I met with the Elephant people in Thula Thula, South Africa, I understood that our interactions could only occur because we were in a field of consciousness together: we were brought to a meeting place and had an interaction that was articulate and specific.
SE: And that field existed because you responded to the call of Elephant?
DM: Right. And again and again over 18 years. In retrospect, I understand that I had to show up all those other times, and every time I did, there was an interaction, the field was being built. It wasn’t only that I showed up, but that the Elephant people showed up as well.
When I went to Thula Thula in 2017 and could say, without awkwardness, ‘I’m going to meet the Elephant people,’ capital E, I understood that I could no longer write ‘Elephant’ with a small ‘e’ any more than I would write Canadian with a small ‘c.’ But then, I could no longer write ‘Cow’ with a small ‘c’ either because the experience with the Elephant people taught me that they are as humans are: conscious beings who exercise spiritual intent.
As I write these days and capitalize the different species or peoples, my consciousness changes. Because then, I’m always in a kind of council with them, a council that extends because we sit in council with the humans as well as the nonhumans, and our human minds change.
SE: How powerful it is to make that seemingly small change on the page: from small ‘e’ to capital ‘E.’ I’ve been disturbed for a long time now by our human-centric narratives in literature, how these reinforce a poisonous and frankly wrong-headed worldview. Amitav Ghosh observes that although the nonhuman had and has agency in many narrative traditions, in modern Western literature nonhuman agency has been relegated to “the outhouses of science fiction and fantasy” (66). Making that shift in capitalisation loosens our grip on the narrative, so we start to perceive and tell different kinds of stories. It’s a radical change, and also a return to the old ways and understandings.
DM: Suppose an Inuit man or woman said, ‘I had this dream and Bear came and talked to me about how to walk out on the ice and fish.’ She wouldn’t say ‘a bear came’ but Bear came, capital B implicit. When you read that, you’re getting an entirely different understanding just by that capital: Bear came, a profound spiritual being, and it really happened. To incorporate that into our literature or writing or speaking is to change our minds, to create a literature or conversation through which the earth and our consciousness can be restored.
Imagine if we began to think of our writing and speaking as having to do with connection and relationship rather than indulging a language that’s so combative and therefore constantly honours combat. There are many things we can do to undermine war, but one of them is to stop thinking in terms of war and to stop referencing war constantly.
SE: Part of what’s so unbearable about listening to mainstream news, political discussions, economics, and so on is the incessant repetition of military metaphors, a combative way of looking at each other and the world. What you’ve called the Literature of Restoration offers a way changing our stories, our language.
DM: Changing our stories, changing our paragraphs, changing our sentences, changing our words. The Literature of Restoration is not something developed yet; it’s something I’ve been thinking about and gave a name to, an opportunity for all of us to discover what it might be. I can’t do it alone and shouldn’t attempt it. Perhaps, there’s nothing any of us should do alone except to be in solitude with Spirit at times when we need it.
I was in a circle with a woman who was trying to think about how she might speak differently. She was speaking of a woman she’d been with in Nicaragua, and said, ‘Listening to her, I was held captive.’ And then she said, ‘Wait a moment. Held captive? No, that’s not what happened.’ She had to find language that did not speak of violence in order to honour.
The Native American writer Robin W. Kimmerer, who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks of how the English language is so full of ‘I’ instead of we, and how it makes Spirit an object. She notes that the Anishinaabe language does not divide the world between he, she and it, but between animate and inanimate. This distinction asserts an entirely different world. Here’s what she says:
Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.’ We might snicker at such a mistake, at the same time that we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as ‘it.’ Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. ‘It’ robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing. And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way, as ‘it.’ The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth […] In our language there is no ‘it’ for birds or berries […] The grammar of animacy is applied to all that lives: sturgeon, mayflies, blueberries, boulders and rivers. We refer to other members of the living world with the same language that we use for our family. Because they are our family.
SE: So in learning the protocol for approaching the sacred, we have receiving certain dreams as spiritual communication and guidance for the community; approaching the sacred wholly by sitting in council together; entering into a conscious field with our nonhuman family; and finally, changing our language to shift our minds.
One more thing feels important to speak about: beauty. In your book Entering the Ghost River, you tell a story about coming to understand Spirit through beauty. Beauty is central to your work and what you’ve articulated in the “19 Ways to the Fifth World”. Beauty seems to me one way – maybe the way – that everyone feels the sacred, though they might not call it that. Does part of the protocol we’re learning involve honouring beauty?
DM: Beauty is experienced in many different ways. But the visual is also at its heart, and the ability to see beauty is a great gift. I’m using the word ‘see’ very deliberately because seeing is so important to English speakers. Visually, from my point of view, there is not a single millimetre on the Earth – the part that hasn’t been touched by human hands – that isn’t beautiful. Beauty is a force, and it’s also how Spirit reveals itself. In terms of a path, seeing beauty and then honouring it is a way of recognising the presence of Spirit.
The story I tell in Entering the Ghost River happened in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. My ex-husband brought me there for the first time, knowing it was going to be an incredible experience. As we were driving, we hit incredible storms and went through one of those initiation stories: the rains come, the mud is thick, everything is dangerous, you can’t get there, the car doesn’t go, you run out of food, you meet a stranger, you stop at a little hut and ask for directions and the directions they give you are impossible to follow, so you keep going and trying, and you pick up this old man … [Laughs.] I’m so scared at this point, the roads are so slippery and we’re on a cliff, that I get out and walk while Michael is driving the car and this elder, this Native American Diné man is sitting in the back of it eating the nuts that we gave him – it was all we had to offer – and he’s laughing!
We dropped him off about 1,000 yards from the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, and when we got to the very entrance, the road was completely dry.
Michael then did this amazing thing. He blindfolded me and took me to this outlook, and I looked out at this extraordinary canyon and the mountains around it. It was sunset, and the lightning and the colours of the sunset and clouds were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. We’d arrived at a moment that could not have been choreographed, that would not have happened if we hadn’t arrived exactly at sunset because we had gotten stuck in the mud – one of those. I looked at the cliffs, which are rust colour and blue from the copper, extraordinarily beautiful, painted, and I knew: This Beauty comes from a great Heart. Love – heart – are at the very core of creation. Beauty and Heart are the same, just different ways of seeing, different manifestations.
That was so powerful an impression – and I mean it pressed itself into my consciousness – that I’ve been marked by it. It’s a living mark: I’m always aware of Beauty, the beauty that’s the essence of the natural world, and that’s changed my life as much as anything, and confirmed the reality of the Divine. Our collective task, as I see it and expressed it in that book, is to re-establish the sacred universe and render the signature of the Divine visible – beauty.