Here’s a lovely submission from reader Aparna, who shares how her give and take with Nature informs and enhances her spiritual tradition at Sri Vidya Temple in New York. I especially appreciate her ideas about invasive species. This piece first appeared in Sri Chakra, which you can find here. If you scroll to page 8, you can see photos of the land and Her people. Thanks to Aparna for sharing this post on yet another spiritual tradition’s focus on healing the Sacred Land — and it’s all sacred!
Mother Nature’s Cosmic Web
By Aparna Hasling
Blazing the Vanadevata Trail at the Sri Vidya Temple continues to teach me lessons about nature, society and existence. I have learned to see traits of individual plants akin to human beings and ecosystems as complex spiritual communities. The spiritual experience we call LIFE is a dance of Shiva/Shakti (akin to flora/fauna) reciprocally influenced by the subtle energies of stored samskaras (akin to soil), and it continuously repeats in infinite variations throughout the cycles of time.
As maya refracts infinite consciousness, individuals are blinded to most of the electromagnetic spectrum and ignorant of the microcosmic ecosystem beneath their feet. Yet embracing the power of anima-siddha, it is possible to hold a single teaspoon of healthy soil and commune with half a billion tiny life forms. Soil is a dynamic community of microorganisms with diverse populations of predators and prey. They have complex survival strategies, and winners of these underground battles determine the level of nutrients available to plant roots. Among the most sacred are the mycorrhizal fungi, a cooperative network of organisms which carpet forest floors.
The temple woods and wetlands, a place I call Shakambhari’s Sanctuary, has nurtured my unique spiritual perspective. After Aiya announced that Devi would show me Herself in the trees, in 2005 I began exploring this uncharted land. Alone and oblivious to my own vulnerability, I walked through thicket, marsh, and meadow without map, compass or GPS. Getting lost was part of the experience, as I slowly awakened to the consciousness of nature. For me, it was a place to worship without murthis and heal without words. A mystical link developed such that when I lay on the ground, I could feel Devi’s embrace. And as I learned to make friends with the trees, my devotion to guru magnified.
In 2014, I offered the trail and trail guide to Aiya. It was the culmination of an intense sadhana, and I hoped it would evolve into an actual environmental center linking spirituality and science ecology. Unfortunately, comments from devotees were discouraging and I feared some would unknowingly desecrate land. I had to explain to visitors that every turn of the trail was designed to bring attention to a particular tree, or divert attention away from a sensitive habitat. I felt protective of the land and prayed that others would respect the trail as sacred ground, rather than an opportunity to further subjugate nature or construct according to their desires. Yet my attention shifted when I saw a more immediate threat on the horizon.
In early spring and late fall honeysuckle bush dominates the understory. Before I understood the plant was invasive, I admired its capacity to defy winter by leafing out early and holding leaves through late fall. Yet just as wealth is no longer beautiful upon learning a corrupt source of funds, so honeysuckle monopolizes the soil’s and sun’s energy, offering nothing in return to local insects or wildlife. Caterpillars cannot munch the leaves, birds cannot eat the caterpillars and fox cannot eat the birds. This plant should be given a different name because the only things it attracts are ticks and mosquitos.
For years I knew that temple land suffered from invasive plant species: buckthorn, honeysuckle, garlic mustard (and many more). At first, the wild grape vines seemed most destructive, since I could see them use trees as giant trellises and eventually kill our trees by blocking light from above. Then I learned that invasive buckthorn trees lead their attack underground by emitting a toxic compound called emodin through its roots, overpowering adjacent root structures. In partnership, garlic mustard groundcover emits a phytotoxin, thus killing the sacred mychorrhizal fungi. My studies were overwhelming as I learned that buckthorn also interferes in the embryonic development of frogs and garlic mustard also suppresses butterflies eggs. The overall impact of these non-native plants have cascading effects on the biodiversity of nature’s web, yet only those devoted to Mother Nature conceive the consequences.
The spread of invasive species kicks nature’s balance off kilter; it causes some creatures to perish which stimulates others to overpopulate. For example, the extermination wolves led to a 10-fold proliferation in white-tail deer. Simultaneously, human populations increased, shrinking forest habitat. As a result, deer have become a destructive force in the forest; they overgraze native plants and allow unsavory invasive plants to spread further. Today, deer are blamed for the disappearance of regenerating trees as well as vertebrate and invertebrate fauna. Land managers respond by caging/protecting young trees. Yet their bias toward particular plants continues to disrupt nature’s web; even though poison ivy is a native species relished by deer, it is routinely removed from public lands.
For millions of years the animal kingdom (Shakti) lived in harmony with the plant kingdom (Shiva). Each was part of a chain, and the bounty of food was enough for all. Now, just as our spiritual culture is being depleted by worldly influences, so the environment is experiencing collapse. The reciprocal influence between plants, animal and soil is no longer sustainable and the intricate food-chains are broken. Modern society disavowed the sacred circle by converting forests into farmland, fertilizing soil with toxic chemicals, hunting animals to extinction, and cultivating exotic tastes. Attempting to become civilized, the human race has become an invasive species, destroying without cause and amassing resources without providing for the community.
Chaos is expected in the Kali Yuga, yet some devotees are compelled (by duty, remembrance or compassion) to strive for an ancient balance. The Vedas deify Mother Earth, and therefore service to Her is divine seva. For me, the work of land restoration is equal to the task of re-identifying the tiny self with infinite consciousness. Removing invasive plants, I imagine my own negative tendencies. Chipping the dead plants to bits, I invoke Kali’s energy of transformation. And nurturing new native plants to thrive, I awaken my consciousness to God. While the manual labor is intense, it is a contemplative path and slowly the echo of Shiva’s drumbeat calls me home. Sri Gurubhyo Namah!