Earth Jurisprudence and the Great Work of our time


EarthLore team in Towerland wilderness exploring Earth Jurisprudence

By Sheila Berry

Magical Towerland lies an hour’s drive away from George, on the South Eastern coast of South Africa. Alan and Sue have nurtured the land for many years and taken great care to construct quaint Hobbit-like buildings using local rocks and materials that blend with the landscape. Large windows provide stunning views of fynbos mountains that invite you to explore what lies beyond.

The EarthLore team spent five unforgettable days with fellow seekers from Kenya, Uganda, Benin, Ethiopia, France and the UK. The process was led and held by Colin Campbell, one of EarthLore’s trustees, and his brother, Niall, who are Sangomas, traditional healers, trained  in the Tswana tradition.

The purpose of our gathering was to explore traditional African ways of living and seeing the world. We learnt about customary laws and governance systems which recognise that human law should be derived from the laws that govern life, and to which we are subject, whether we recognise this or not.  Traditional people believe the multiple crises we  face on our planet today – ecological, climatic, human – are because the ‘modern’ industrial world consistently breaks these laws.  We now face the consequences in ways no generation before us has had to grapple with.

Every morning and evening we would phatla together, a traditional way of acknowledging that we are  part of a bigger universe – in the presence of  our personal ancestors,  the original people who inhabited the land, all the creatures great and small who are  living on the land we are visiting, the majestic mountains, rivers and streams, and the elements – Earth,  air , fire and water – as well as the limitless cosmos, the source of all the atoms and particles that comprise creation, including ourselves. This practice  created a lived experience of being conscious of the fact that we are formed from star dust, reminding us of our embeddedness in the web of life that sustains each of us.  This traditional practice engenders a sense of perspective and a deep sense of gratitude and humility. It helped to remind and connect us to the bigger picture, to assist us to be aware of our ancestors who came before us and our miraculous heritage, our life support system – the Earth.

We were inspired by the similarities between African traditions and others across the world – which gave a sense of the universal commonalities that underpin the diverse expressions of cultures across our planet. A stark contrast to the tragedy that the last century has wrought on life with its dominant extractive relationship to the planet and people.

The daily reflections, teachings and discussions deepened our understanding that Earth Jurisprudence is a conscious practice and a journey that recognises the order and lawfulness of the Earth. It involves both a return to learning from the wisdom of knowledgeable elders and living consciously in the moment, so we move forward into the future with a growing understanding and re-connection to Nature, to our Mother Earth, to the living Gaia, to Mupo, who supports all life on this planet that we are so blessed to know as our home, our Great Mother.

Becoming conscious permeates all aspects of life, from what we grow and eat, to how we live respectfully with the wider community of life on Earth – traditionally recognised through totem animals and plants, sacred areas which communities protected, seasonal ceremonies and more. For thousands of years wild places have been recognised as places of potency, places that are sacred. All major religions recognise this – Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness; Mohammed meditated in wilderness where he was visited by a spiritual being commanding him to recite a few sentences that led to the Qur’an; Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, a large and very old sacred fig tree in an isolated Grove.

Being an experiential learning process, we were given the opportunity to explore the power of the Towerland wilderness, by spending one night in vigil in the mountains. Traditionally such vigils took place as  rites of passage ceremonies acknowledging the transition through different phases in life.  Those of us who chose to vigil, were exhilarated by  the magnitude and magnificence of Nature.  To observe the changing night sky filled with shooting stars, the luminescent half-moon that lit up the landscape as if morning had come, and finally to see the pink fingers of dawn heralding a new day, was a powerful experience for those who felt called to embrace the night wilderness.

An important realisation we all came away with is that we are living at a time when the crises facing our planet are potentially fatal for the diversity life, as we know it. If we continue to disregard and disobey these Laws, which our ancestors understood, we are heading towards a catastrophic future – the legacy we leave our children to deal with. The same thinking that created these crises and the monoculture of the “modern” mind, will not solve them. We need to think and to do things differently. In order to play a constructive part in resolving the growing disharmony, destruction and chaos we see in the world. We need a cosmology, a world view, that restores human understanding and relationship that recognises we are subject to the Laws of Nature. As Einstein pointed out, resolution requires another mindset to the one that is creating the problem.  Thomas Berry called for a shift to an Earth-centered perspective – recognising we are an inextricable part of the web of life, instead of the current destructive human centred or anthropocentric view, where we believe humans are superior to the rest of creation, which is there to serve and enrich us. As traditional people remind us – what we do to the web of life we do to ourselves.

The Earth Jurisprudence understanding that is emerging across our planet, comes from a profound experience of being Nature rather than the current approach that is embedded in our human legal system that dispenses “rights” to people over nature. It requires us to live consciously in the awareness that every action leads to consequences. The consequences we are seeking are those that contribute to rather than destroy life.  The big question we were left to explore in each of our lives is how can we contribute to shifting  the momentum of the dominant system which extracts from and commodifies nature and people.  This, we agreed, is the Great Work of our time.

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