I write this in humble acknowledgment that I sit on the lands in Michigan once and still belonging to the Potowatomi, Ojibwe, and Saux nations. I pray to honor and participate in the regeneration of the consciousness from which these peoples lived in intimate devotion to these lands and waters.
By Christopher Fici (Krishna Kishore Dasa)
The first time I saw Lake Huron, when I was a wee lad about seven or so years old, I ran in gleeful abandon towards her, shouting ITS THE OCEAN!!!! at the top of my lungs. I knew then she had a presence, but now many years later I’m getting to know her in a very personal way. These days, as an aspiring Krishna bhakta (practitioner of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion), I always try to offer a simple prayer of love and respect before I enter her waters. A simple “Jai Mata”, as I bow and place her fresh water on my head. For she is my mother.
Then I blissfully enter her clear and warm presence, feeling as safe and secure as I did as a child, every dip and dive and float a natural prayer from my own soul, no fancy words needed. To swim in her waters is the very essence of theopoetics. As someone who fancies himself an ecotheologian, her waters are the very life of my work. Her waters are what I defend and cherish and celebrate in every ounce of my ecotheology. For she is my mother.
I write this on the last evening of my family’s annual vacation to our dear friends’ cottages we rent every year near Port Austin, Michigan, on the “tip of the thumb” as we say here in Michigan, where the waters of Saginaw Bay meet Lake Huron. Breathing in that smell of firewood from fellow shore-goers. That smell I want to retire to and by (if Krishna wills I will end up with a summer cottage on Lake Huron and well let’s say a winter cottage maybe near Georgia O’ Keeffe’s old haunt in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.)
For she is my mother. Literally I would not have survived the first decades of my life without her fresh water piped into my family’s home to quench my thirst and nourish my body, mind, and soul. We are surrounded here by the largest grouping of freshwater lakes on Earth (which makes it extra obscene for people in Flint which have been denied her waters at the expense of their community’s health-as the Flint resident LeeAnne Walters lamented about her lead-poisoned pipes: “How does this happen in the United States?…I mean, you hear about it in third world countries, but how does this happen, specifically in a state that is surrounded by the Great Lakes?”) (1)
For Michiganders, the Great Lakes are mysterious, visceral, an escape, a retreat, home. As a Krishna bhakta who is always learning about and more deeply experiencing the exquisite theologies of devotion for Mother Yamuna and Mother Ganga in India, I feel no less devotion for Mother Huron. Swimming in her waters is always a spiritual experience (as I shared in a recent conversation with my dear friend and colleague Mat McDermott). It’s hard to put into words how fresh she is. Lake Huron is so alive. She is an immensely active personality. She is very comfortable in her giganticness. And she can be, like her sister Lakes, very ferocious. As the journalist Anna Clark writes:
Lake Superior especially, the largest freshwater lake in the world, holds the wreckage of hundreds of ships, and those who sailed them, in its thousand-foot depths. Tales of ghost ships have been whispered, sailor to sailor, since at least 1679. The Ojibwa people—they lived not only on the shores of the Flint River but also far across the North Country—told stories about a spiny underwater monster called the mishipeshu. It conjured storms over the lakes, putting those who traveled on them in mortal danger. With its thrashing tail, it spun calm water into rapids and whirlpools; it broke the winter ice beneath your feet as if the cold, slick glass were as soft as butter. The monster might be appeased with a pinch of tobacco if you offered it at the start of your journey…Mishipeshu stands in profile with its head cocked, as if watching those who, in their innocence, push off the rock and into the waves. (2)
Giving one’s self to the waters of Lake Huron is to experience both her intimacy and her immensity. Her personality swims in the porous borderlines between intimacy and immensity from which divinity is always manifesting and emerging. I experience her fresh, nourishing embrace of me as her sun-kissed, water-child, while all the while at every moment my mind and heart and soul deliriously reels at the immense scope of her divinity. Michiganders like myself and my family are a most blessed people. The Lakes swim in our souls even when we are not swimming in them. They are our ancestors who are always calling us back home. They are now always also pointing us back to a recovery of the intimacy that the original ancestors of this land, the peoples of the Potawatomi, the Ojibwe, and the Saux nations, knew most knowingly.
This is an intimacy which is the guiding star for our hopes and fears and dreams in these most precarious times of the Anthropocene. My beach reading during this vacation has been The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future by the eminent teacher, guide, geologian and Earthy friend Thomas Berry (1914-2009). Berry prefers not to swim in the muddy ambiguities of such plots and schemes as “sustainable development.” Instead, the great work of our time and place and circumstances is to recover and remember and imbibe and absorb and experience again and anew the natural intimacy of our human-beingness entangled and entwined with our Earthy-beingness. If we do not and cannot become our Earthy selves at each and every moment, then nothing we dare and hope to try to do in response to our global climate crisis will bear any fruit or make any sense at a time when so much is so senseless.
Berry writes of our immediate intimacy to Earth and the universe:
In that wide ambience the Muses dwelled, whence came the inspiration of poetry and art and music. The drum, heartbeat of the universe itself, established the rhythm of dance, whereby humans entered into the entrancing movement of the natural world. The numinous dimensions of the universe impressed itself upon the mind through the vastness of the heavens and the power revealed in the thunder and lightning, as well as through the springtime renewal of life after the desolation of winter. Then too the general helplessness of the human being before all the threats of survival revealed the intimate dependence of the human on the integral functioning of things. That the human had such intimate rapport with the surrounding universe was possible only because the universe itself had a prior intimate rapport with the human as the maternal source from whence humans come into being and are sustained by existence (3)
Our Earthiness is our entwined intimate experience with Earth in which we also experience her with raw awe, as an immense respect for her own immensity, for her own giganticness, even her own ferocities, as a full Goddess with a complex personality. All too often, even in the practice of bhakti (the yoga of devotion), the complexity of this matrix of intimacy, immensity, and ferocity leads us to deny our Earthiness, to place our spirituality as a dualistic hammer over and above the very material reality that we are always embodied Earthly beings. Many of us are over-conditioned by centuries of philosophies which convince us that Earth is at best a resource to be used and exploited and at worse an illusory trap overtaking our precious pure souls.
To denigrate Earth is not at all part of the practice of authentic bhakti. To practice bhakti is to overcome the diabolical dualities which separate our Earthiness from our spirituality. As our Sacred Ecology Forum asserts in our definition of eco-bhakti: “To practice bhakti is to practice eco-bhakti. Eco-bhakti draws us especially into the movements of environmental and climate justice, where the fierce love of bhakti inspires us to serve the flourishing needs and desires of all planetary communities. Eco-bhakti also inspires us to understand our inherent interconnectedness with all living creatures. We always to strive to see all living creatures with, as Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad-Gita, sama-darsinah (equal and equitable) vision, devoted and committed to each and every person and each and every creature’s Earthly, spiritual flourishing.”
Krishna is very clear about this in the Bhagavad-Gita. Where we experience the most intense intimacy and raw awe with Earth is where we experience his presence directly. In the 10th Chapter, he tells us that of lights I am the radiant sun (10:21), of bodies of water I am the ocean (10:24), of immovable things I am the Himālayas (10:25), of all trees I am the banyan tree (10:26), among beasts I am the lion (10:30), of puriﬁers I am the wind, of ﬁshes I am the shark, and of ﬂowing rivers I am the Ganges (10:31), and of seasons I am ﬂower-bearing spring (10:35). Most intimately he tells us in the Gita that I am the taste of water (7:8).
In A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s commentary to this teaching, he writes:
The taste of water is the active principle of water. No one likes to drink sea water, because the pure taste of water is mixed with salt. Attraction for water depends on the purity of the taste, and this pure taste is one of the energies of the Lord. The impersonalist perceives the presence of the Lord in water by its taste, and the personalist also gloriﬁes the Lord for His kindly supplying tasty water to quench man’s thirst. That is the way of perceiving the Supreme. Practically speaking, there is no conﬂict between personalism and impersonalism. One who knows God knows that the impersonal conception and personal conception are simultaneously present in everything and that there is no contradiction. Therefore Lord Caitanya established His sublime doctrine: acintya bheda- and abheda-tattva – simultaneous oneness and difference.
Everytime I enter into the waters of Lake Huron my soul, even if I am not always consciously aware of it, is experiencing the taste of Krishna in these fresh waters. This is why I always feel immediately refreshed, rejuvenated, and regenerated after swimming in her waters. This is why I become more and more committed to the regeneration of Earth and her most vulnerable peoples and creatures after the prayer of my swimming in her waters.
I leave my dear mata Lake Huron tonight not with any clinging. I will be back always, and she always lives within my body and soul. She is always teaching me about the intimacy of devotion which now swells into my heart more intensely than ever. She has been teaching me this since I was a child, and the blessings of my bhakti teachers have helped me to understand more deeply what it means that the divinity of Krishna lives most directly in the intimacy of my Earthiness. I close my eyes and I see her waves crashing over me. I stand still and I feel the dance of her waters around me and moving me. I am not a lost soul in the material world, but a blessed little devotee beginning to understand more and more intimately that Krishna is as close as the taste of Lake Huron’s waters.