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WALKING IN THE EVERGLADES FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS: Practicing Environmental Mindfulness with the Micosukee and Seminole

04 Apr 2016 9:53 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

With gratitude to Andrew Rock for this rich sharing. For more information, including how to join the Buddhist Climate Action Network, please contact Andrew at rock1@tampabay.rr.com.


This past week I joined a group of about thirty indigenous people and environmentalists on an eighty mile walk through the Everglades, along US Highway 41. While I knew it would be worthwhile to participate in this event as part of my climate action work, I did not realize in advance that this walk would also be deeply meaningful as a focused practice of mindfulness and intentional living.


The specific purpose of the Walk for Future Generations, organized by members of the indigenous people living in the Everglades, was to protest and try to stop the pending construction of the ROGG (River of Grass Greenway), a paved bicycle path through the Everglades that would further block the free flow of water and wildlife, and also destructive seismic testing for oil and gas exploration scheduled to begin soon in the Big Cypress Preserve.  More broadly, the event was intended to raise awareness of the plight of living beings in an increasingly damaged ecosystem, and to inspire the participants and others to devote ourselves to efforts to preserve and protect our planet as a viable home for future generations.


The leaders of the walk were Betty Osceola of the Panther Clan of the Micosukee tribe, and Bobby C. Billie, a council member and spiritual leader of the Micosukee Simanolee nation (who had never signed a treaty with the US government). I had met Betty in January when we were both lobbying in Tallahassee against pending pro-fracking legislation, and Betty gave a very powerful speech about the preservation of mother earth and the protection of our precious gift of clean water upon which the life of her people and all creatures depends. Bobby had come to the Interfaith Climate Action Conference held near Orlando later in January, speaking in a panel discussion with other faith leaders about what had led them to environmental activism.  He spoke with great dignity and power about the decline, in his long lifetime, of the land and water, of the woods and wetlands, of his people’s ability to grow crops and hunt and support themselves. He spoke of our collective exploitation of mother earth just to make money, to the point where the circle of life was broken and the land he grew up in was hardly recognizable any more.


Last Wednesday afternoon I drove down to the base camp for the walk at Trail Lakes Campground, in Ochopee on Highway 41, south of Alligator Alley. The walkers had not yet returned from the fifteen mile stretch of road they were walking that day, but by the time my tent was pitched they arrived in two big vans and a couple of pick-ups, hot, tired and hungry. After washing up and resting, and eating a simple dinner prepared by volunteers who’d stayed in camp, everyone gathered around for a fire circle. The evening had turned damp and a bit chilly, mosquitoes were out in force, and we were happy to sit on logs and camp chairs in the warmth and light of the large fire the men had made.


I was expecting a relaxed evening of story-telling and chatting around the fire, perhaps with some drumming or songs.  But it quickly became clear that the Fire Circle was a very purposeful and important part of every day, as Bobby Billie and Betty Osceola led us through what in the Florida Community of Mindfulness we would call deep sharing/ deep listening practice. Bobby Billie, very much the spiritual leader of the indigenous people present and of all who had gathered to support them and the life of the Everglades, began with a short talk, and then asked each of us to speak of what we had seen that day, what had spoken to us, and what it meant to us. We went around the circle, as a full moon rose through the pine trees, each person taking the time to look deeply and speak seriously, the rest of us listening in silence, with no chatting or cross-talk. That day the walkers had gone through a recently burned area, the result of a planned fire by the Park Service, and people were deeply affected by the death and destruction they had seen and felt: dead birds and snakes by the roadside, scorched trees and grass, the hot and jagged earth under their feet. Those of us who hadn’t walked that day also shared, speaking of what we had seen and of why we had come. If people started to ramble as they spoke, Bobby or Betty Osceola would remind us of the instructions and tell us to keep focused on our purpose.


The next morning, before we began our walk, Bobby smudged each of us with smoke from a mixture of herbs he had made in a seashell, and then had us form a circle, holding hands as Bobby reminded us of our purpose. He told us that everything we did and everything we thought had meaning and should not be taken lightly. Then Betty Osceola had us line up in double file, behind our two flag bearers  - one holding a pole with the banner of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation of Aboriginal Peoples, the other holding a long staff bearing a dozen eagle feathers. She told us that we were a “we,” not a “me,” and that we needed to take care of one another. She told us to walk in silence, maintaining our order and dignity, alert to everything around us, and to remember that we were here to give support to the life and the nature all around us, supporting us.


The day was overcast but still hot and humid as we walked along the verge of US 41, a two lane road running east-west through the Glades. In the early morning the birdlife was active and the roadside vegetation rustled in the breeze, with occasional gaps in the bushes and low trees that revealed small lakes and waterways. At times we could hear the pervasive sound of airboat motors revving up nearby and occasionally see them moving deeper into the Glades. For me it was a brand new experience in an unfamiliar ecosystem, walking with people I didn’t know; yet it also seemed very familiar, a new kind of outdoor walking meditation. We walked silently and alertly, attentive to the movement of our feet on the earth, to our breathing and our bodies, to the plants and sky and wind and water. We walked as one organism, our steps and our intention in harmony with one another and with all that was around us. Our minds were in the present. Even though we were walking to sustain the life and health of future generations, that intention required our focus right now. And if we lost focus, our leaders brought us back in no uncertain terms. After a few miles Betty Osceola stopped us and addressed the group: “Y’all aren’t paying attention,” she said. “The plants and animals are trying to help us. They’ve been sending you energy to help you walk, but you aren’t paying attention to them, you aren’t getting it. Focus on where you are, on what’s happening.  Give some energy back to everything that’s around you. We’re here to help them. Remember your purpose!”


In the late morning we came to the Big Cypress Preserve Headquarters for the U.S. National Park Service, where we held a press conference and delivered petitions with thousands of signatures urging the halting of plans for the ROGG and for oil and gas operations. We rested on the grass in front of the building, airing our feet, sipping water and eating granola bars while listening to speeches by leaders of the Florida Sierra Club, by the co-founder of the Stone Crab Alliance from Naples, by a biologist and author from Stuart on the East Coast, and by the indigenous people: Bobby Billie, Betty Osceola, and walkers from the Seminole tribe (though not from the official tribal leadership, the “businesspeople”). I was particularly struck by the speech by Karen Dwyer of the Stone Crab Alliance, as she described in detail the destructive and disruptive effect seismic testing for oil & gas would have on the area, with an extensive spider-web of roads cleared for big trucks and heavy equipment, and powerful explosions and vibrations that would significantly impact all wildlife throughout a wide area.


After lunch nearby at the Big Cypress Visitor Center we reformed our column, and went back into mindful silence – Betty told us to take out our imaginary keys and lock our mouths: “Take your key, lock it, and throw the key away” she’d tell us every time we re-started after a rest stop - and the walk continued. Our banners, the brightly colored shirts of the Indians, and our column of walkers all drew the curious attention of passing motorists, many of whom would honk or wave in support. We might hold up a hand in reply, but we didn’t engage them, maintaining our silence and our focus.

Most of the afternoon we walked through grassy wetlands, seeing wading birds and the occasional airboat, but no gators or any other animals. Once Bobby stopped us to point out an island of trees where he used to play as a kid, no longer accessible on foot due to blockage of water by roads and canals. Another time he had us pick fresh young leaves from a bay tree by the side of the road, telling us that we should keep the leaves with us and smell them for energy when we felt tired.


It rained off and on through the afternoon, which cooled things down a little. After a rest stop at an intersection, we turned south, headed for the town of Everglades City, where Betty planned to deliver another signed petition to the City Council, asking them to rescind their support for the ROGG. As we neared the town she reminded us to walk in silence, with purpose and power. The rain began to come down really hard as we marched down the main street through Everglades City, in tight double file, banners in front, heads down in the pouring rain, eyes on the feet of the walker in front of us. We were soaked and tired but we wanted to end the day strong and make a good impression. The townspeople came to their porches and doorways to watch us go by, and when we finally got to the municipal park by the gulf, several supporters were there to greet us. The rain stopped, and we rested, drank water and munched on snacks in the covered pavilion while some of us gave short speeches about what the Everglades means to them and why they were doing this.


That night, back in camp around the Fire Circle, Bobby Billie spoke of how his people had been in the Everglades for many generations, of how in his lifetime Mother Earth  had been attacked and weakened, how the woods were mostly gone and the water no longer fit to drink, the deer and fish no longer abundant, and the crops weakened and not as nourishing. If our grandchildren and great grandchildren and unborn generations a thousand years from now are to survive, we will have to do a much better job of protecting and preserving our Mother Earth.


Bobby asked us to reflect on our personal commitments, on how each of us intended to help leave a world in which future generations could survive. As we went slowly around the circle, each person spoke with great sincerity and conviction. For some of the younger ones, it was about what they would do with their lives, about right livelihood. For some it was tactical: how to get better media coverage, how to grow this movement, how to influence or replace political leaders, how to break the stranglehold of money and big corporations, how to promote renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. For some it was about inner work as well: living simply, healing our own habits of greed, anger and lack of awareness. There were about thirty of us, and when we had gone around the entire circle Bobby spoke again, telling us he heard much more unity and clarity tonight than the night before, more purpose. Then he had us take out the bay leaves from our pockets, and to remind ourselves, silently, of the specific commitments we were making, as one by one we threw our bay leaves into the fire.


Many of us hadn’t kept our bay leaves with us – they’d been crumpled up & thrown away during the walk, or left in wet clothes when we changed, or mislaid. Bobby Billie asked if we remembered what he’d said when he told us to pick the leaves. Someone said: “You told us to keep the leaves with us.” “Yes,” Bobby said, “and that didn’t mean keep them for a while,” or keep them until you change your clothes. It means keep them with you.” Bobby wasn’t angry or impatient, but he was very firm and clear. He told us that when the indigenous people spoke, it was with a purpose, not just to hear themselves talk. And when his people listened, they listened carefully, also with purpose, so that they could learn something about their world and about their way of life, something that would help them know how to live, how to care for another, and how to teach future generations to live. Again, I was struck by the power and clarity of Bobby’s teaching. (I had been one of those who crumpled up their bay leaf and tossed it aside along the way.) I was reminded of one of the core goals of our Buddhist practice: learning to be fully awake and to make our actions of body, speech and mind purposeful, so that they may serve our goals of understanding and compassion.  Here was a spiritual leader of Florida’s indigenous people, teaching much the same values and practices: listen, watch, speak and act with alertness and purpose. Take life seriously, respect yourself and one another, care for your community, be grateful for the world around you and let your energy nourish Mother Earth as she nourishes us.


The next morning after breakfast we loaded into the vans and drove to our starting point for the day, the sixth and last day of the Walk for Future Generations. Once again, Bobby bathed each of us in smoke from his shell, and then we formed a circle as we focused on our intention for the day.  Then Betty Osceola formed us up in double file behind the flag bearers, told each pair of walkers to look after one another and those around us, and to “take your key, lock it and throw the key away,” and we headed west on Highway 41. I enjoyed the relative cool of the morning, the many different kinds of birds flying or wading or sitting on the electric lines, the breeze blowing off the Everglades, the open vistas along this section of the road as we walked through grassland interwoven with lakes, rivulets and swampland. 


Betty stopped us to point out a red flag about 150 feet out from the road, marking the DOT’s right of way for the ROGG. She helped us to see all the trees and grasses and habitat that would be destroyed in the construction process, and told us how every roadbed across the Everglades is a dam, keeping the water from its natural flow from north to south. She also told us that many thought the ROGG was the first step in a plan to widen US 41 into a four lane highway, like Alligator Alley (US Highway 75), causing huge destruction and disruption, and opening up the southern Everglades and coastal areas of the Ten Thousand Islands to large scale residential development. That was why the right of way was 150 feet from the existing road, and was one reason why her people were adamant that the ROGG must be stopped.


We walked on, as the heat became intense and we began to sweat through our clothes. Mostly we walked looking down at the feet of the person in front of us and the ground ahead, stepping carefully to avoid the rocks and broken glass and trash strewn all along the roadside. Betty and the leaders at the front would hold up one finger in the air to indicate we should form single file when we crossed a narrow bridge and the verge narrowed, and then hold up two fingers when we could reform our double line. We sped up for the many bridge crossings, but mostly we walked slowly, at the pace of the slowest of the group. The walk leaders were always very patient: if anyone stopped to re-tie a shoelace, adjust a pack, or for no apparent reason at all, we would all stop. No one was left behind, even for a few seconds, and I began to see that this, too, was a value the indigenous people were teaching us: we stay together and we care for one another, especially the oldest, youngest or the infirm. “We” not “me.”


A young couple with a baby were with us today, walking a few rows in front of me. The little fellow was maybe a year old, with happy bright eyes, almost always smiling, carried on his young father’s shoulder, playing with his dad or engaged by the walker behind him, interested in everything. Our group of perhaps 25 walkers included a wide range of ages. On this last day more of the Micosukee had turned out, including a family with a big muscular father who walked next to Betty as a walk leader, his teenage boys and young daughter, and some young women in beautiful traditional dress. My walking partner Diane was from Miami, and we had other folks from the east coast, as well as from Naples to the west, and several who lived in the Everglades. There were folks visiting Florida, a young white rasta dude with a Latin accent and boundless energy, teenage girls and middle aged men and graybeards like me. Many had sore feet and blisters, and some were visibly limping. Some, like Betty Osceola, walked in double pairs of thick socks and no shoes, with a walking stick to lean on, and a few walked barefoot to spare their blisters, hobbling quickly over the rocky areas and careful not to step on glass or in ants nests.


As the day wore on it became a bit overcast, and even breezy, which was a real blessing – Mother Earth helping us to help her – but still very hot. We were encouraged not to guzzle our water, and to think about our purpose and to be aware of the life and beauty around us rather than our aches and pains and tiredness. Betty said that you get what you think about, so don’t think about being hot and tired - another similarity to our training as Buddhist practitioners: your thinking makes your world. After one of our brief stops, she told us to keep our formation tight and avoid gaps; breaks in the line make room for “the bad creator” to get in and cause harm.


We took a long break mid-morning at a roadside park, and an even longer lunch break a few miles further west, cooling our faces with the ice water from the coolers in the vans, letting our feet breathe, and chatting while we rested. It was well after one o’clock when we started up again, and we still had many miles to go. After a while I was hot, sweaty, and sore footed, but it wasn’t hard to settle into the rhythm of the walk: following the bare feet of the young Englishman in front of me, watching the ground for obstacles, looking up occasionally at the Glades, the water, a bird in flight, at the feather stick and the Council flag flapping in the wind, then eyes down again, just walking. Forming single file to cross a bridge or pass by some road work, then double file again; occasionally stopping to wait for someone who’d fallen out for a minute, then starting up again. If I noticed my mind was wandering I’d silently chant one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s gathas for walking meditation: “Solid” on the left foot, “stable” on the right. “Solid, stable, solid, stable” until I felt that stability in mind and body. Or: “I have arrived,” and then: “I am home. In the here …and in the now …I am solid … I am free …In the ultimate …I dwell …In the ultimate …I dwell.” I had scarcely ever been in the Everglades, but I felt at home and solid, walking with these people in this place, just walking, noticing, breathing, with the intention to be present and steady and open and helpful. Just walking together, hot, tired, and happy.

By the time we took our late afternoon break at Port of the Islands we were all visibly beat, and I thought I might be a bit dehydrated. The only place we could find to rest was a big dirt parking lot adjoining a new hotel, but I was glad to plunk down on the dirt, take a long drink and rest my feet and legs. However, my monkey-mind was starting to stir: “It’s almost 5 o’clock now. At this rate we won’t make another five miles by dark. Why did we take such a long lunch break? I’ve about had it. It’ll be really late by the time I get back to camp and then I still have to drive back to Tampa! I wish I hadn’t taken down my tent this morning.” And so on –I was aware of the “me” taking over from the “we.”


Betty must have sensed the mood, because as we formed up again, she said: “Among our people, we don’t ask when we’ll get there. We arrive when we arrive – that’s the way we travel. On this walk you are with the indigenous people, and so we ask that you do this the way we do it. For the Indians, there’ll be fry bread waiting when we get there; fry bread! Let’s form our line, keep our silence, and walk. Is everyone here? Are we ready? Let’s go!”


Our weariness didn’t exactly go away, but the walking took over, familiar by now, the focus on the next step, and the next, and the next, and on the purpose and on the people and on the place around us. It was still hot and humid, but after an hour or so it started to cool down just a little, the birds became more active, and we knew that if the end was not in sight, it couldn’t be too far. I began to really appreciate the walking, knowing that I could make it, and knowing what a unique and wonderful experience we were sharing.


The plan was to end our walk at the Miccosukee Village across from the main entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park, where dinner was waiting for us. We finally arrived as the color was fading from the sky and dark setting in. We were hot and tired, eager to get off our feet. A handful of Miccosukee women and children were there to greet us, and they had a nice dinner waiting for us under a big chickee. But Bobby Billie had us make another big circle in the open space by the village gate, while he invited into the circle not only the walkers, but those who had ridden in the vans and pick-ups, the drivers, even a tourist couple who had attached themselves to us at our rest stop at Port of the Islands. The mosquitoes had come out in force, and we held hands until we couldn’t stand them any more and we stood swatting away mosquitoes, as Bobby took his time taking the Council flag off its flagpole, folding it carefully, and then furling the eagle feather stick in its protective case.


Finally the circle was complete, and all was arranged to Bobby’s satisfaction, but he was not done with us yet. He asked us to reflect one more time on our intention: what we would do, when we resumed our “normal” lives, to work for the benefit and protection of future generations. He asked us to boil our intention down to a few brief words, and we went around the circle, starting with

Betty Osceola at Bobby’s right hand, sharing what we intended to do, making a public commitment to ourselves and one another, choosing our words with care. Finally, Bobby had us walk around the inside of our circle, in order, shaking hands or sharing a hug with every person in the circle, offering our thanks for one another’s support and presence. Bobby was teaching us patience, and appreciation, and making sure that none of the energy and intention generated by the walk would go to waste. At last, Bobby smiled and threw his arms up in the air. Our circle dispersed for dinner, and the 2016 Walk Across the Everglades for Future Generations was officially complete.

Comments

  • 04 Apr 2016 11:55 AM | Anonymous
    Thank you Andrew for your commitment to this walk, this joining, this intention, and then again for taking the time to share this message, this journey. A deep bow of appreciation.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 10 Apr 2016 7:54 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    Thank you. A wonderful and inspiring...Mr. Andrew Rock "Thoreau"
    Link  •  Reply
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