A Litany for Agnostics

In the beginning…

We start as a DNA blueprint, a set of instructions for how to construct the magic of consciousness from nothing more than the molecules that surround us.

The environment is not just a soup that we swim in. It’s what we are made of. We are built entirely from materials that we eat, drink, and breathe. There is no world Out There, and In Here, because we are entirely permeable. The environment flows through us, day after day, for as long as we live.


Once upon a time, there were not so many people. There were… oh… tens of millions of us. And when our communities were small and local, we could get away with things. If we overfished in a particular place, we could move somewhere else. The rivers carried our wastes away, and we never had to worry about it again. If the soil became depleted we could till new soil; hard work, but feasible. And our impact was limited by the hours in the day, the years in a lifetime, and the muscles on our backs. Life may have been nasty, brutish, and short (although there is still some debate about that), but we lived in the world as a part of it. And when we didn’t, or when the world around us was no longer able to support us for reasons of its own, there was resilience, migration, and hard work. Or extirpation.

Eventually, we grew, and we grew, and we covered most of the surface of the earth. And there were, for a long time, hundreds of millions of us. And our communities were still small (ish) and local (ish), and we could still get away with things, but not as much. If we overfished, or depleted our soil, or rendered our drinking water unsafe, there weren’t so many options. To move somewhere else, we had to displace or conquer somebody who was there already. And it didn’t always work. And sometimes civilizations collapsed under the weight of their own effluent, and sometimes they simply lost out to a change in the weather that didn’t leave them an escape path, and sometimes they expanded and expanded and expanded until they took over vast swathes of the world that had already been in use by other civilizations. And the process was horrific, and innumerable lives were lost in the pursuit of this goal, and stories were erased, and libraries were burned, and species vanished before they were even described.

And still we grew. And as we grew, we became clever in the ways of making life more comfortable. We learned to burn things, and mine things, and build things, and more things, and cheaper things, and things that didn’t need hands to touch them at all. We didn’t want to go back to nasty, brutish, and short, and we didn’t want our civilization to be overrun by another, and we (who had expanded and expanded and expanded) built technologies to ensure that we would never again have to contract, and we considered contraction a mark of failure, and we have been breathing in and growing and growing for generations…

And now, there is nowhere to go. There is no downriver to send things, because there is somebody upriver, and there are somebodies downriver, and there is an ocean and even the ocean cannot absorb the river of toxins we have learned to loose upon the world. And still we grow. And even though the message has been floating around as an undercurrent in the culture for generations, now… we don’t know how to stop.


In the Norse legends, there is a wolf named Fenrir. The Fenris wolf of prophesy is destined to consume the world. Because of this, and for the safety of all, the wolf was bound, through trickery and sacrifice of the gods.

In my nightmares, I fear that this prophesy, as all prophecies in all stories through time, cannot be escaped… that this myth, like all others, contains seeds of truth, wisdom cloaked in metaphor and mystery, but lost in translation. I fear (in my dark times) that he has slipped his bounds, unnoticed, and wanders the world whispering of want, of hopelessness, of personal misery. That his great accomplishment is to keep us separate from the world around us, to maintain the illusion that we can keep ourselves safe while destroying the very fabric of life itself.

And then I think, “Poor wolf, in a cattle culture, to be forced to bear our fears of appetite and hunger.”


We, who are caught up in the dominant narrative, need to tell a different story. We need to learn new ways of being in the world, ways that allow us to be a part of, not separate from. Each of us individually has our part to play, but it is the story itself that needs retelling. Some things need to become inconceivable, unfathomable, products of a bygone age when we were able to think of ourselves as purely mechanical, as baffling as raw sewage in the streets of London. Some other things need to become second nature, relearned after generations of forgetting, reintegrated into our practices: Keep an eye on the weather, and the light, and the seasons. Don’t poison the water source. Save the best seed for planting. Clean up after yourself. Don’t take more than your share. Be kind to your neighbours, even the green ones, even the ones with scales, and even the creepy-crawlies. They are part of the great making.

But this, most of all, we need to remember: We are made of the earth, and the air, and the water. We are the stuff of stars, and will someday rejoin them. Oh, pattern of consciousness, preserve this gift for the future. It is billions of years in the making, and not ours to throw away in fear.

7 responses to “A Litany for Agnostics”

  1. This is such a smart and beautiful piece, and a balm for what is happening in the world right now. Bertrand R. would be pleased. I hope you don’t mind if I repost on FB!

    • I would be pleased as punch for you to repost. Thank you so much, esp. for the comparison to Bertrand R.

  2. But this, most of all, we need to remember: We are made of the earth, and the air, and the water.

    One thing that I wondered during the too-long administration of our previous president was whether he and others like him:
    (a.) In their great arrogance, believe that they are separate from the environment, or
    (b.) In their great privilege and arrogance, believe that they will always be able to buy their way out of whatever horrors may result from their activities, or
    (c.) Some combination of the two.

    Though actually I don’t think it takes much arrogance to believe that one is separate from the environment. The idea that we are separate “looks” like common sense.

    • I agree with you that c) is probably the correct answer. But I also think that we have believed that we are above all of that (animal, natural living) for so long that we have forgotten that things were ever different. It is the story that we have told for so long that it has *become * the common sense.

  3. If there is a wolf, there is also a coyote who will twist, turn and flip the images until we can see them clearly once more.

    • Oooh! I like that image. I really do live afraid that the wolf is going to overcome… but there is something afterward. There is always something after.