Joining Minds and Hearts

After almost running out of steam, the environmental movement is now getting a big boost from the region’s spiritual leaders.

Joining Minds and Hearts


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The best bet for protecting the Valley’s natural beauty may be a growing partnership between environmentalists and spiritual leaders


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by Ned Sullivan


Throughout history, the physical and spiritual worlds have been intertwined. Here in the Hudson Valley, American Indian tribes worshiped the goddess Minnewawa, asking her to protect them from storms and to help with hunting and harvesting. In the 1800s, the Hudson River School painters recognized a spiritual dimension in the awe-inspiring landscape around them, and filled their canvases with images that revealed the sacred power of nature.


But then, during the 19th and 20th centuries, many lost touch with the spiritual importance of the land. The Hudson River became a highway for commercial shipping, a sink for the dumping of industrial waste, and a source of cooling water for power plants that sucked billions of gallons from the river each day. Mining companies blasted away the escarpments of the Palisades and Highlands. The forested lands of river towns like Cold Spring were clear-cut to provide fuel and raw materials for foundries and other industries.

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Not until the 1960s did people begin to look around and realize there was trouble in paradise. The wake-up call came when Con Edison proposed building a power plant on Storm King Mountain, a cherished destination for hikers and an icon of the Hudson River School artists. A handful of citizens came together to fight the project. The lawsuit they brought launched a campaign to save the mountain that lasted 17 years.


In the second year of that battle, a federal ruling known as the Scenic Hudson Decision (for the group that brought the suit) gave these citizens standing in court, allowing them to bring to bear the force of science and law on behalf of the environment. That landmark ruling galvanized people throughout the country, sparking the modern environmental movement.


Now, that movement is ascending into a new orbit, boosted by an alliance with spiritual leaders. 


Because of its reliance on science and the law, the push to protect our resources has been “running out of steam,” according to Jonathan F. P. Rose. He believes that the next wave of activism must be rooted in “core values” and people’s simple love of nature. This belief led him and his wife, Diana, to form the Garrison Institute in 2002. Its heady mission is “to apply the transformative wisdom of the world’s contemplative traditions” to help solve the problems we face with our natural resources. (Perched on the banks of the Hudson in Putnam County, the institute’s headquarters sits on a 95-acre property that was itself saved from development after a local land-use battle.)


The Roses are part of a growing  “eco-spiritual” movement. Eco-spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion per se; it focuses on the belief that our access to the divine — the spirit — comes about through our relationship with the natural world. It stresses that we are part of nature, not masters of it, and that how we treat the environment directly affects all aspects of our lives.  


A real estate developer and planner (as well as a practicing Buddhist and Jew), Rose’s program at the Garrison Institute, “Caring for Creation,” brings spiritual leaders, environmentalists, and citizens together to help save the earth. He views the merging of these forces as a long-overdue reunion, “like two lovers yearning for each other, but not knowing the other was there.”


The Valley’s spiritual leaders have a tradition of working on behalf of the land and the river. One such leader is Sister Patricia Daly OP, a Roman Catholic nun who serves as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment. She works with the organizations pushing General Electric to clean up the toxic PCBs it dumped in the river over the past decades.


For the past 10 years, Sister Pat has put forward annual stockholder resolutions (supported by religious and institutional investors) aimed at forcing GE to disclose how much it has spent to avoid cleaning up three PCB-contaminated sites — the Hudson River, the Housatonic River in Massachusetts, and a facility in Rome, Georgia. Support for the resolution has grown steadily; 27 percent of all stockholders voted for it in 2005.

As a result, GE recently admitted that it had spent nearly $800 million on the PCB projects, including $122 million for public relations, lobbying, and legal costs.


While Sister Pat grudgingly gives GE credit for finally coming clean about the cost of its stalling tactics, “the reality is [that money] would have gone a long, long way to cleaning up the problem…. Additional stalling is simply not a viable option here; GE needs to commit now to get the job done to clean up this very serious environmental and health problem as expeditiously as possible.” Meanwhile, the company has agreed to move forward with the first phase of the cleanup.


Besides wielding clout as stockholders, religious orders are also significant landowners in the Valley. Religious Orders Along the River (or ROAR) is a group of 15 convents and seminaries. Collectively, they are one of the largest owners of property along or near the Hudson. ROAR’s mission is to protect the land, water, animals, and plants on these lands, and to promote open-space preservation.


“Sadly, we’ve lost our connection to the land,” says Sister Kathleen Donnelly, a leading member of ROAR whose convent has a commanding view of the river in Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. She makes a powerful case for stewardship of the earth:  “To treat the soil as a commodity is defilement of the sacred; to use the land only for the purpose of consumption is a sacrilege. Our spirits are shriveling beneath the mounds of stuff that keep us apart from nature. Our religious tradition holds the memory of earlier times, when earth was a part of our spiritual identity.”


The Brothers of the Holy Cross in Valatie, Columbia County, share Sister Kathleen’s sentiments. They are about to sign a deal with the state Department of Agriculture and the Columbia Land Conservancy for a conservation easement restricting development of 300 acres of land surrounding the St. Joseph Spiritual Life Center. With some of the best soil in the county for growing vegetables, the brothers hope that the land will be tilled to provide food for residents of St. Joseph’s, the local community, and several Manhattan-area schools operated by the brothers.


Jim Cashen worked for more than 30 years to persuade the order to take this step. An active Catholic whose family operates an organic farm in Columbia County, he brought the organizations together to begin talks about preserving the land. He sees the transaction as part of a larger national movement. “The sisters and brothers in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere reside on lands that, in many cases, were given to their religious orders by wealthy families to assist them in their ministries. Now these religious leaders are realizing that their role as stewards of the land is part of an important, but often overlooked, biblical tradition — honoring God’s role as creator of all things.”


That tradition draws on the teachings of 20th-century theologians, including at least one with ties to the Hudson Valley. Last year, religious and environmental leaders from all over the world converged on various Valley venues — from the United Nations to Marist and Bard colleges — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit who wrote about the link between science, nature, and spirituality (and who is buried in Hyde Park).


Mary Evelyn Tucker, one of the most eloquent voices of the eco-spiritual movement, spoke at the U.N. about the daunting challenges: environmental degradation, poverty, social inequities, and unrestrained militarism. But she sees in de Chardin’s teachings that “the spirit of the earth is calling us into the next stage of evolutionary history, moving us forward from viewing ourselves as isolated individuals and competing nation states, to realizing our collective presence as a species on the planet.”


That universal bond has begun to emerge at the Garrison Institute. Since last September, they have hosted monthly “conversations” on topics  drawn from an “Action Agenda” published by the state’s Hudson River Estuary program. Conference organizers translate science-based goals for conserving wildlife and cleaning up pollution into more ethereal terms  — “The River and the Web of Life,” “The River and the Beauty of Creation” — aimed at drawing the religious community into the effort.


Speaking at the first meeting, Fran Dunwell, coordinator of the Estuary program, voiced the hope that the conversations will lead to more efforts to protect the river. “Congregations can plant trees, design nonpolluting parking lots, use energy-efficient lighting, and conserve the lands they own.


“More difficult, but perhaps more important,” she continued, “is helping people reconnect with nature for its spiritual importance and transform our relationship to the river. Experiences like swimming, fishing, hiking and sunset watching create the opportunity for people to feel a refreshing spiritual connection.”


Rabbi Lawrence Troster, the Jewish chaplain at Bard College, also works with synagogues in New Jersey to reduce energy and waste in their facilities. He fears that people in this country are not really aware of the environmental crisis. “It is not obvious, like a war or a hurricane or a tsunami…. But the fact is we are reaching a pivotal moment in human history where we need to take action. Because otherwise, everything we hold dear as human beings could be threatened by what the future will bring.”


Ned Sullivan is president of Scenic Hudson and former commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

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