Recent Ecology, Spirituality and Religion grad on queering the outdoors
Reflections on Ecology, Spirituality and Religion at 10
A personal reflection from Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion graduate, Charlie Forbes, in honor of the program's 10-year anniversary
The fall of 2023 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program at CIIS. As a graduate, and now coordinator, of the program I wanted to take the opportunity to share a personal reflection that celebrates the objectives, ideals, and promise of the program.
I recently took a trip down to Pin Point Heritage Museum just on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. The museum complex is housed in an old oyster and crab factory that has been transformed into an educational center designed to preserve and celebrate Gullah-Geechee culture. The story of the community that settled on the banks of the Moon River and called Pin Point home for nearly 100 years is one of true grit – after the Sea Islands hurricane of 1893 drove a community of African Americans from Ossabaw Island, where they had been forcibly located as slaves, several black families purchased a few small parcels of land closer to the mainland, on the backside of a plantation, to work, settle, and build a life on the water. During my time there, after watching Take Me to the Water: The Story of Pin Point, I wandered down to the edge of the dock which jutted out into the marsh to reflect for a moment. It was a particularly emotional film documenting the life and times of the residents of Pin Point. It wove together the story of a community, their faith, their culture, and the practices and traditions distinct to the unique bioregion of the Georgia coast. It exemplified everything I had learned as a student in the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program and catapulted me into a deep meditation on the implications of my degree.
I graduated with a Master of Arts in Philosophy and Religion with a concentration in Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion (ESR) in 2019. After stepping away from the program and community for a couple of years, I now find myself back working as a program coordinator for ESR. My own adventure with the program began at the end of 2016 when I moved to San Francisco to begin my degree. I have such beautiful memories of my time in the Bay and at CIIS. It’s hard to capture with words all the elements of my education – the courses, the community, the professors, all the smiles, the café conversations, the countless stairway chats I had moving between the 3rd and 4th-floor classrooms of the Mission Street campus building, and the pure joy and passion everyone in my program had for learning. I have such fond recollections of day retreats in the redwood forests, community bonfires on the beach in Pacifica, and walks at the Lands End labyrinth to process all our learning in “Ecology in a Time of Planetary Crisis.”
I also remember the political environment of the Bay, the social response to the Trump administration, the ongoing protests, and the very real dialogue that was escalating around environmental disasters. That latter point became even more real during the Camp Fire of 2018 when a thick cloud of smoke settled over the peninsula. I remember reflecting on the theological tension between universalism and particularism as it related to the Jewish observance of mitzvot (the 613 laws prescribed in the Torah), wondering: What am I responsible for? Who am I responsible for? And why? For the first time in my life, I was wrestling with how to situate myself between the real and the ideal, between the universal and the particular, as it related to the moral obligation human beings have toward the Earth. In that moment, I really understood the direct link between our worldviews and our treatment of the natural world, and that our actions – even our religious decisions – can have real, ecological consequences.
If there’s anything that I’ve felt since that time it’s that there is something deep in the American psyche that has been churning itself to the surface – an idea about the notion of progress, in America, as it relates to faith, people, and place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of my own history and my obligations to the lifeways surrounding me.
I live in a small town (a holler, actually) at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. I was born near here and spent my early childhood here. And even though I moved away for a while, I’ve returned and begun thinking deeply about the meaning of place and my commitment to it.
As part of this exploration, I read M.S. Marangione’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, which tells the story of a young woman navigating life at the beginning of the 20th century, set against the backdrop of the formation of Shenandoah National Park. The book is set within the context of a conflict of lifeways – the townspeople are at odds with the mountain people upcountry, the world is becoming electrified and industrialized, and the circumstances that allow people to exist in either place (in town or upcountry) are becoming irreconcilable. Most importantly, though, is the political situation involving the formation of Shenandoah National Park and the removal and displacement of hundreds of families for what would eventually become federal land.
Across the Blue Ridge Mountains tells the story of conservation in this country. But it also reveals the darker narrative of how our society manages the people who are deemed ‘undesirable’ in the collective pursuit of progress. As hard as it is, I use this term deliberately as it pertains to the brutal discrimination involved with Virginia’s settler history. The ideology of eugenics, as developed and promoted by Walter Plecker, became a tool to remove people from land in pursuit of progress to create Shenandoah National Park. He implemented legislation that had far-reaching effects on indigenous identity, racism, immigration policy, and – yes – even land management practices. Because of these policies, the Monacan Indian Nation [and other Virginia tribal nations] were forced to fight for federal recognition until 2018.
This may seem like a roundabout way to reflect upon my time as an Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion student. And it may be an unconventional way of celebrating the 10th Anniversary of ESR. But what I’m trying to demonstrate is the integrative way of thinking that I learned during my time at CIIS and have utilized beyond the classroom. When I open the news, I don’t see a narrative surrounding climate change characterized by dire predictions, alarming statistics, and ominous warnings. Instead, when I look at the world, I see communities of people who are working tirelessly to infuse their environmental action with higher meaning and purpose. I see positive news and good stories on the WaterBear Network, films being made that bring to light important and urgent stories from across the globe (like Nat Geo’s The Territory), and I see the Pope working on a new Laudato Si’ 2.0 encyclical.
I also see ESR’s very own Religion and Ecology Summit bringing together scholars and activists to discuss new and innovative ways to dialogue about the intersection of ecology, spirituality, and religion. I see my chair, Dr. Elizabeth Allison, researching and writing about “Collective responsibility and environmental caretaking” in Bhutan, ESR students running transformational organizations like Wild Women and Outlandish!, and back-to-the-land movements popping up everywhere within my own spiritual tradition of Judaism – like the Mahaz Fellowship just down the road from my house. It is this interdisciplinary type of thinking that I learned in my degree with ESR and endeavored to carry forward in my own work with the Deep Water Initiative.
I am so very grateful for my education in the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program because I learned how to think by weaving together disciplines. Perhaps I wouldn’t have understood that disruptions in the environment often precipitate the migration of people – famine and drought are what forced Jacob and his family down into Egypt, just as a hurricane drove a community of African Americans away from Ossabaw Island to where the Pin Point community was founded. Environmental justice and social justice are linked. And just as the Israelites were led by a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud in the desert, somehow the Camp Fire was a sign for me. The literal and the metaphorical are on the same continuum as we map our own meaning.
Despite everything, after their relocation, when the people of Pin Point finally settled, they renamed their church “Sweetfields-of-Eden.” This was to become the epicenter of their cultural and religious life. ESR has been a type of construct like that for me. It has been a very real place where I’ve learned, taken courses, studied, built community, and grown personally. But, in a way, it’s been a figurative tapestry upon which I’ve learned to navigate the complexity of life. Latent in this latter point is the transformational power that has the ability to change the world. And this is the legacy I choose to celebrate and share on the 10th Anniversary of ESR. Here’s to 10 more!
About the Author
Charlie Forbes is a cultural ecologist who employs a mixed-media approach to the study of ecology, spirituality, and religion. He is a trained writer, researcher, and educator focused on advancing environmental teachings and practices that reinforce sustainable visions of change. His educational non-profit (501c3), the Deep Water Initiative, uses film, photography, and other forms of media to foster a dialogue about ecology, climate change, ethics, and a broad range of social issues. His research interests take a comparative cultural and religious approach, devoting particular attention to the role of water in ritual for place-based theologies. He currently serves as the program coordinator for the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Marangione, M.S. Across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Moonshine Cove Publishing, 2022.
Sutter, Paul S., and Paul M. Pressly, eds. Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast. University of Georgia Press, 2018. See especially Barbara Fertig’s sidebar, “Pin Point: A Traditional African American Community.”