Thursday, May 1, 2008

The "Sacred Memory" of Styrofoam Peanuts

--Feature: "Sustainable Soul w/Rebecca Hecking"--

They were chasing me! At least, it felt that way. I was in the parking lot of the supermarket when I found myself pursued by Styrofoam peanuts, those little bits of obnoxious fluff used for packing breakables. Apparently someone at the far end of the lot had dropped a box full of them, and they had been caught up by the wind. Thousands were skittering across the asphalt, spreading out as they moved but flowing in the same general direction, a flock of plastic birds fleeing some unknown predator.

I was annoyed. How careless! Doubtless, most of these would end up being scattered for miles, lodging in trees or floating downstream from a storm drain and eventually ending up in that great tragic island of floating garbage in the ocean. I stooped down and picked up as many as I could, stuffing them in my pockets and grabbing more. I couldn’t possibly get them all. My writer’s mind immediately jumped to metaphors about environmental damage, or the stress of being hounded by too many demands. Both comparisons are valid. Humanity is caught up in a situation not unlike mine in that parking lot. We find ourselves beset by a thousand problems. We may manage to solve some, but many are simply beyond our reach and out of our control. Snapping myself back into the present, I emptied my pockets into a trash can, and bought my groceries.

A few days later, I reached into my jacket pocket and found a stray peanut, a leftover from the parking lot. As I held it in my hand ready to toss it out…

My inner scientist (a product of my college years) started playing mental free-association games. Styrofoam…plastic…polymers…petroleum…fossil fuels…fossil fern fronds… It hit me that this little white blob was really a tiny piece of an ancient legacy, transformed by humans into its present form. What was it before, I wondered. It used to be a living thing, a being that existed on the earth just as I do today. I was struck by a profound sense of kinship across the expanse of Deep Time. We really are all one. Perhaps humanity’s fundamental problem is that we have forgotten that truth.

I find it surprisingly comforting to meditate on what geologists have termed Deep Time, to situate myself as an atom in the grain of sand that is humanity on the vast beach that is life on earth. Perspective like that quickly puts an end to inflated egos and petty problems. On a small shelf next to my computer sits a flat rock with a few fossil shells embedded in it. One of my children found it near our home. It serves as a reminder of all those beings that lived and died eons before anything remotely resembling a human stepped down from the trees of Africa. But the Styrofoam peanut? It’s trash. A problem. An environmental nightmare. Well, yes… it is all of those things. But it’s something else as well.

It is a carrier of the hidden Sacred, a reminder of our connection to our Deep Time ancestors. If we open our eyes, it can serve as a catalyst to our collective memory. Can we find other connections? Can we see the Sacred, hiding in plain sight? Can we use our “thousand problems” to help us remember what we human animals have forgotten? Cultivating a sustainable soul, able to face whatever humanity’s future holds with inner strength and wisdom, requires us to see through our “thousand problems” and find the Sacred in the ordinary stuff of our lives. We must learn to remember.

Rebecca Hecking began her professional life fresh from college as an industrial chemist (complete with white lab coat and flasks of toxic goo). Since then Rebecca has earned her MA in cultural studies and equity studies as has developed a career as a noted writer on the environment, and her philosophy of "deep green" spirituality. Her science background remains a constant presence as the foundation of her writing and world view. Today, she rides wild tangents of thought and searches out deep connections in obscure places, including styrofoam peanuts.

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