Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax and author William deBuys on climate crises as wildfires burn at their doors

‘Climate has changed. We’re entering into a new time, a new world, a new set of conditions’

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Sunday 22 May 2022 22:44
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New Mexico environmental history at 'inflection point', say local experts

It was a poignant day in Santa Fe to discuss the climate crisis.

Amid the backdrop of several large wildfires burning across New Mexico, including the largest in state history, author and conservationist William deBuys and Roshi Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher, social activist and author, explored ideas on moving forward in a time of myriad global crises at the Santa Fe Literary Festival.

Making the discussion of climate action even more pointed, the guests of Saturday’s panel shared that their own properties were now in a fire evacuation zone.

“Both of those properties are in a zone that is now officially in ready status in terms of evacuation, and are somewhat threatened, but I think it’s going to be okay,” deBuys told the packed audience on the second day of the city’s inaugural literary festival.

But the writer pointed out it was “an inflection point in the environmental history of New Mexico”. He referenced the huge Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which has burned through 308,000 acres of forest made up of mixed conifer, ponderosa pine, and at higher altitude, spruce fir.

“Those forests are not going to come back as forests because the conditions have changed. Climate has changed. We’re entering into a new time, a new world, a new set of conditions,” deBuys added.

'Holy smokes': Environmentalist William deBuys says New Mexico wildfires were 'beautiful'

The longtime friends and Santa Fe locals, ribbed each other as they settled in for the discussion. “Age before beauty,” Roshi Joan quipped to deBuys as they tried to answer a question at the same time.

The light-hearted moments were interwoven with the deeply personal and profound stories they shared from decades of work in environmentalism, and social activism.

The latest work from deBuys, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of ten books, is The Trail to Kanjiroba - Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss - part travelogue and part sweeping meditation on the climate crisis.

In 2016 and 2018, he joined Roshi Joan’s Nomads Clinic for a six-week trek on foot and horseback into Upper Dolpo, the ethnically Tibetan region of northwestern Nepal, and home to some of the most remote villages on Earth.

The mission, involving a team of doctors, nurses, alternative medicine practitioners and traditional healers, focused on “care over cure”, providing basic treatments for local people in a place of scarcity and extreme geographical limits.

The mantra comes from Roshi Joan’s extensive work with the dying and advocates that when a cure is no longer possible, focus on making the best of the days that remain.

Roshi Joan, who is also a Zen priest and anthropologist, founded the Nomads Clinic, bringing medical missions to the Himalayas for the past 40 years.

"I saw that there was a need in these very remote, high-altitude villages for access to Western medical care,” she said. “There is also indigenous medical care that's really important and effective in that domain.

“So I began to bring clinicians but what I realized was that when you think you're there to serve someone, you're actually being served yourself. This is why it became a pilgrimage for me. I did it every year, for 40 years, and it was a transformational experience.

“Putting ourselves in this very raw landscape that had people who lived in it for centuries. And they were robust and also had kind of wild humor. I saw this heavy seriousness and self-centeredness in our western world, and I thought, actually, I don't want to be like that. I want to be like this. It's like an unlearning, that would happen year after year.”

Even at its disconnect from the rest of the world, Upper Dolpo has not escaped climate change. The glaciers of the Himalaya are shrinking faster than those in other parts of the world. Roshi Joan spoke of the changes she has witnessed over the decades.

"I also saw over 40 years of walking the Himalayas, the snow come off the mountains, the glaciers melt, villages being washed away by glacial waters coming down and just destroying everything. Villages having to move because they have no access to water. You realize you're part of moving from the Holocene - this kind of ideal climate range - which has happened in the course of our lifetime, to the Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene is a term used by an increasing number of scientists who believe that the sheer power of human-driven climate change has shifted the planet into a new geological epoch.

Roshi Joan also asked whether it was possible to view the Anthropocene as collaborative instead of destructive.

“It's not a matter for me of denial or escaping the planet, like looking for a beach on Mars. I really look at the beaches here, and it's our work here. Part of this work in the [Nomads] clinic... has to do with the sense of incredible meaning that one derives by becoming so vulnerable in a wild landscape. Which is the landscape we are in right now.”

Roshi Joan’s latest book, Standing At The Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, explores what she has identified, through work with neuroscientists, clinicians and psychologists, as Edge States: altruism, empathy, integrity, respect and engagement.

“I have come to see that mental states are also ecosystems,” she writes.

“I believe it is important to study our inner ecology so that we can recognize when we are on the edge, in danger of slipping from health into pathology.”

DeBuys explores the balancing act of Edge States in both his own journey in Upper Dolpo, and that of others on the mission.

“I felt that it was almost like being in an athletic event, where you're trying to be on your game, and focused so that you can perform well,” he said. “The clinics were very demanding. It would be more tiring than a day when we walked over a 17,000 foot pass, because you wanted to be so present, and appropriate.

“I think it was excellent training for the kind of situation we're in now. I'm a firm believer in the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ kind of approach to challenges. And we're surrounded by challenges in New Mexico in terms of the fires, water issues and climate change. I think of each community as a team, and we're in training for an event that is the next crisis.”

Watching medics at work in Upper Dolpo, left deBuys thinking about how to apply the ethics of hospice, and Roshi Joan’s manta of “care over cure” into tackling environmental challenges. “The proposition is this: what if we focus less on ‘saving’ Earth and more on caring for it? What would change in the work of Earthcare, and more particularly, what would change for the caregivers?” he writes.

William deBuys with a friend in Tinje while trekking in Upper Dolpo with the medical mission

Alongside his writing, deBuys has spent decades helping to acquire lands for parks and national preserves including the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. Roshi Joan has been involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements since she was a student in the Sixties, “stirring up as much trouble as I could,” she noted. In recent years, she has joined climate protests in Washington DC.

They both offered advice from their years on the frontlines of environmental action to younger generations, and how anger at the apathy of governments and private interests towards tackling the climate emergency, could be channeled through “sacred rage”.

”My main advice to young people is feel that rage feel all the way through, feel it deep, but put it to work,” deBuys said. “Turn it into something constructive. But don't shy away from it.”

Roshi Joan added: “I think that sacred rage is a very powerful path. And I even heard recently, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, talking about how moral outrage isn't just about self righteousness. It is really a cry from the soul and saying, 'Hey, this is off, this is not aligned. This is unhealthy, this is harmful'.

She continued: “There's another thing about anger that is helpful to recognize - that it's often emergence because of helplessness. When you have that insight, when anger is arising within you, then you can put the steam to work, so to speak, instead of move toward actions that are really harmful.

“There's another thing about anger, and it's a Buddhist perspective that I think is so cool. Anger’s jewel is clarity - anger has this capacity, when you take the story out, to see things really clearly. Part of what we are really called to do is to see things really clearly. And anger provides a platform for that.”

Maintaining joy was also integral, they said. Roshi Joan spoke movingly of a trip she had made to Auschwitz with her late mentor, the Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman, and friend, the late author and environmentalist Peter Matthiessen, to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

“It was so intense and so dark,” she recalled. “And at the very end, 150 of us are in this big dining hall. The Rabbi all of a sudden started singing, and the whole hall erupted into song and dance. And Peter turned to me and he said, ‘How can this be?’ I think how could it be is, because we let ourselves so deep into the dark, that we actually found the opposite - the light there.”

She added: “Until we allow the reality of whatever is unfolding in terms of structural violence, the fires, Ukraine, the incredible racism in our culture, until we embrace it fully and understand this is our reality, there's no joy possible."

DeBuys closed the discussion by reminding the audience that “even in the most dire circumstances, the earth just keeps revealing its beauty”.

“I encourage you to think about natural beauty, the beauty of the world out there, not as a pleasure, or add-on, or a pretty feature. But as nutrition,” he said.

“Even when those plumes were there most terrifying, erupting over the Sangre de Cristo... they were beautiful things, revealing the immense power, the August energy of this planet. So absorb that beauty, every chance you get.”

The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, is providing coverage across each day of the festival with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website

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