The quiet of the summer night is shattered by an eerie wail. It is a plaintive and distressed cry. It is distinctively different from the usual night sounds on our three acres in the country. Absent tonight is the hooting of the two owls in conversation with each other. In this dusk hour, we normally hear the rising orchestra of the coyotes—first one, then a few, then a chorus—out to bound across the fields as a pack, celebrating their hunt for field mice and voles.
Tonight, those familiar and comforting sounds are absent. There is only this enduring wail. I am pulled outdoors into the dark night, seeking to understand what creature might make such a sound and what distress raises this lament. The cry seems at once both close by and far away. It is a lasting lament.
I am perplexed and troubled by the sound. I push it aside. Perhaps I am imagining this. The acres around our home have long been in a conservation trust. This is a wildlife corridor and wetland habitat at the base of majestic Mount Spokane in Eastern Washington. Deep snows in the mountain sometimes bring deer and elk down from the mountain, following the watershed. They may be trailed by a mountain lion seeking its next meal or simply distancing itself from the lights of the ski resort at the top of the mountain. When our daughters were six, we watched in amazement as a young mountain lion basked in the sun on the rolling hill behind our farm home.
It is all different now. The retired 95-year old gentleman who owns the acres surrounding our home had long ago put them into conservation trust. “I am just a steward of this land; it is not mine,” he stated when we first met him. Today, his life circumstances have changed. He feels he can no longer afford to leave the acres set aside in a conservation trust. Botched medical care has left both he and his wife struggling to maintain the quality of their own lives. The stewardship of this land, once high on his list of life priorities, is now not his focus. The acres have been leased out for wheat farming. The grasslands that have been undisturbed for more than a decade are now tilled, planted, and sprayed with chemicals.
The evening news is full of accounts of refugees displaced from their ancestral homes by wars and regional conflicts. The creatures that are our neighbors are also refugees. Their habitat has been destroyed in just a few nights with giant machinery. Flood lights illuminate creatures scurrying for safety out of the pathway of this massive destruction of habitat as tillers roll across the once undisturbed grasslands. The speed with which this natural habitat is destroyed is astounding.
I become certain that this lament I hear is a plaintive collective cry of the refugee creatures and the shattered habitat. I share that sense with only my family. It is difficult to speak of such things. I am a guy with a PhD. I must be capable of some “rational” explanation for this sound. Am I just imagining this wail? Some nights later, my twin daughters and partner hear the same wail in the middle of the night.
We are also leaving this place we have called home for several decades. We moved here to create a quiet sanctuary for the sensory development of our very premature twins, born at less than two pounds each. They needed to grow up without the overwhelming stimulation of city life. Now, they are off to college and it is time for us to leave. It is evident that this little paradise—where coyotes bound across our yard at night and eagles covet our chickens from their roost high in the trees—will never be the same.
The moving van is in front of our home. We are actively grieving the loss of this special place that has nurtured our family. A car pulls up. An elderly neighbor lady, clearly troubled, stops and rolls down her window: “Have you heard something crying in our valley? I thought maybe it was a lost child. I have been very concerned.”
This is the lament of the earth. I hear your cry. Lamentations is such a biblical, Old Testament sounding word. It conveys a sense of people in captivity, collective grief, the loss of community. We don’t do lamentations well in our western culture. I grew up in East Africa. The village in Eritrea that was my childhood home knew how to lament together. I remember the collective grieving and public wailing on the day that President John F. Kennedy was killed. The mourning from far away, in this village that was touched in the 1960’s by Peace Corps volunteers from the United States, is real.
Does a sense of compassion, our spiritual values, or just our sense of being human, compel us to “weep with those who weep?” Dare we attune also to the weeping of the earth and join that lament? Might we weep together for the suffering of the earth and its creatures as well as for the suffering and hurt we cause each other?
Is there a sorrow carried deeply and privately within us individually that is calling to become a shared and public lament? Can we take the risk of speaking aloud: “I hear the sound of the earth crying?” If we “teach our children well” will we help them to attune to not only the spectacular beauty of this planet on which we journey, but also its grief and woundedness?
Like a cleansing rain on a dry and thirsty land, our lamentations might cleanse our hearts and renew our energy to be stewards and warriors guarding and protecting that which is most precious. To a planet that is hurting, might we say: “I hear your cry.”
About the author:
Samuel Mahaffy is a writer, public speaker, and organizational consultant who holds a focus on conflict transformation and peacemaking. He was born and raised in Eritrea, East Africa and earned his PhD from Tilburg University in the Netherlands through The Taos Institute. He is the author of Relational Presence: Decision Making beyond Consensus and a soon to be published book Relational Presence: Discovering the Sacred in Decision Making. He recently moved his ‘tribe’ from rural Eastern Washington to Olympia, Washington where he fellowships with the Olympia Friends Meeting. You can follow his writing at http://www.samuelmahaffy.com or on twitter @SamuelMahaffy.