Metamorphosis author profile: Gary Paul Nabhan

This is the final installment in our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

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Gary Nabhan, Metamorphosis author of “Monarch Butterflies, North American Foodsheds, and That Which Feeds Our Spirits.” Photo credit: Dennis Moroney

Gary Paul Nabhan, prolific author, activist, conservation biologist, farmer, professor, and Ecumenical Franciscan brother, contributed “Monarch Butterflies, North American Foodsheds, and That Which Feeds Our Spirits” to Whole Terrain’s Metamorphosis volume. While teaching and conducting research at the University of Arizona as the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food & Water Security, he runs an orchard during the summer, and has played an instrumental role in helping create international collaborative policies aimed at restoring monarch butterfly habitat through Make Way for Monarchs.

In his piece for Metamorphosis, Nabhan utilizes the admittedly common metaphor we all think of when we hear the word “metamorphosis”: that of the butterfly. He skillfully gives this metaphor a new spin by connecting it to the issue of climate change and the metaphysical transformation that must take place in humanity in order for us to successfully navigate this next stage in our shared history. He connects the butterfly’s metamorphosis to the stories of spiritual transformation that we tell in all the world’s religions, tying our history with the present and our imagined and hoped-for future. Using a bit of science, a dash of philosophy, a dose of religion, and a healthy sprinkling of environmental activism, Nabhan reminds us of our culture’s similarity to the bloated state of a caterpillar before it cocoons itself. Is the human race ready and willing to take the next step of metamorphosis toward which all of our spiritual traditions invite us?

mwfm_poster_english_v2.1For Nabhan, however, the butterfly is not just a metaphor. In the last several years, he has been working with Make Way for Monarchs to restore habitat for monarch butterflies throughout Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Following a year of massive decline in the numbers of monarchs overwintering in Mexico, Homero Aridjis, poet laureate of Mexico, drafted a letter to the heads of state of the three countries. Nabhan and Make Way for the Monarchs helped gather signatures of monarch experts and other interested parties, to be delivered during a summit between the three countries in February 2014. Their website received 1.7 million hits that month, showing the import of this topic in the mind of the public. Nabhan was invited to the White House for their summit on pollinators, and he then helped the Keystone Policy Center bring together stakeholders from environmental groups, agriculture, seed, and pesticide companies, government agencies, hunters, and scientists to attempt to come to solutions that would be beneficial for all, including the monarchs.

Nabhan sees this collaborative approach as the way forward for the environmental movement. Rather than working solely through litigation, as has been a common strategy, Nabhan suggests environmentalists “treat someone in an honorable way and dialogue with them face-to-face, rather than villainize one another from a distance.” His background in conflict resolution informs his monarch butterfly advocacy. Instead of the two-sided controversy we see in so many confrontations in our country, Nabhan and others involved in the field of conflict resolution talk about a “Third Force.” Nabhan explains, “A dominant force, or an oppositional or anti-establishment force, ends up in a stalemate. The bar moves to the right or the left a little bit, but it’s still an intractable conflict.” He recommends that collaborative conservation workers apply this “Third Force” at a different angle, providing a leverage point that shifts the balance of the conversation, or breaking into the dichotomy of “us” vs. “them” with a unifying approach. He credits this philosophy with acquiring 4.9 million acres of conservation land easements in the last 15 years due to ranchers and environmentalists working together toward mutually-beneficial goals.

This perspective flows out of what Nabhan calls “contemplative ecology.” Rather than self-righteously assuming one holds the moral high ground based on one’s stance as an environmentalist, Nabhan’s approach is inwardly reflective, and also requires active listening to those with whom one is in conflict. Those engaged in contemplative ecology look for areas of common ground, and areas where one’s own personal goals or ego are getting in the way of resolving conflict. Allowing all parties to feel they can gain something from a collaborative solution is key: for example, brokering solutions that create green jobs and encourage biodiversity.

To cultivate the reflective environmental practice of contemplative ecology, says Nabhan, we take a page from religious mystics and contemplatives, such as those in his Franciscan Catholic tradition (though what he wants is for people to find their “connection to the natural world in any language that speaks to their heart,” rather than ascribing to a particular set of doctrinal beliefs). Nabhan suggests developing a “contemplative sense that we need to go inward to see our own internal motivations and our own blindness, seeing that they are essentially the same weaknesses and blindnesses that cause other people to miss the mark. And rather than judging other people, we do that deep inner work to understand how we can get our own mind clear so that we can make better decisions.

Caution butterfly zoneNabhan’s piece in Whole Terrain’s Metamorphosis volume, Monarch Butterflies, “North American Foodsheds, and That Which Feeds Our Spirits,” was written during a time when he was working hard on the Make Way for Monarchs campaign as well as recovering from a serious concussion. He temporarily lost some eye-to-brain cognition, sight in one eye, and the capacity to focus on writing. During this time, Nabhan says, “I turned inward. It’s sort of that thing that many spiritual writers talk about, such as my teacher, Richard Rohr: descending rather than ascending, going inward, falling upward, rather than improving the outer world.” Nabhan was experiencing metamorphosis himself: “Because I was so broken and wounded, I felt like I was going through metanoia [Greek for transformation], being dissolved and reintegrated.” As he thought about his work with the butterflies, he saw their transformation as an obvious metaphor for what he was experiencing. “It’s not like I’m the only person to figure that out,” he stated, but the metaphor became deeply personal for him. He also recognized this painfully transformative experience in the tales of the great religions and cultures, as he shares about in his piece.

Of this experience, Nabhan mused, “It’s always good when you have no options, and you have to confront your own vulnerabilities and go from that stance rather than a more privileged or righteous stance. I don’t feel disabled; I feel enabled in a weird way.” Though he sees his writing shifting toward poetry and commentaries following his injury, this metamorphosis in himself is allowing him to view his work in new ways. His outward focus is turning inward, and this in turn is providing internal space that lends his outward conflict resolution work depth and groundedness. His perspective is inspiring, inviting us each to consider our own inward journey as we pursue cultural change toward pro-environmental behavior. Nabhan reflects, “Contemplative ecology is what I’m trying to live into and lean into, rather than thinking that other people need to change. I really need to find my own way to change.

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Bio: Gary Paul Nabhan holds the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, where he works as an ethnobotanist and agricultural ecologist. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently, Cumin Camels, & Caravans: A Spice Odyssey (2014); Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty (2013, with Bill McKibben); Food, Genes, and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins (2013); and the second edition of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture (2013, with Ross Conrad). During the summer he works his orchard near the Arizona-Mexico border, and throughout each year he collaborates with local organizations to help create a local foodshed in that area. His interests include permaculture, the use of native foods to prevent diseases such as diabetes (see Native Seeds/SEARCH), seed preservation, and habitat restoration in the American Southwest. He serves as an Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, and is actively involved with the Franciscan Action Network, helping shape an ethical response to environmental concerns. Nabhan’s take on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and the pope’s emphasis on climate change is summed up in this blog post.

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