"We are surrounded by a world that talks, but we don't listen. We are part of a community engaged in a vast conversation, but we deny our role in it."
In the face of climate change, species loss, and vast environmental destruction, the ability to stand in the flow of the great conversation of all creatures and the earth can feel utterly lost to the human race. But Belden C. Lane suggests that it can and must be recovered, not only for the sake of endangered species and the well-being of at-risk communities, but for the survival of the world itself.
The Great Conversation is Lane's multi-faceted treatise on a spiritually centered environmentalism. At the core is a belief in the power of the natural world to act as teacher. In a series of personal anecdotes, Lane pairs his own experiences in the wild with the writings of saints and sages from a wide range of religious traditions. A night in a Missourian cave brings to mind the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola; the canyons of southern Utah elicit a response from the Chinese philosopher Laozi; 500,000 migrating sandhill cranes rest in Nebraska and evoke the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. With each chapter, the humility of spiritual masters through the ages melds with the author's encounters with natural teachers to offer guidance for entering once more into a conversation with the world.
Lane (Backpacking with the Saints), a former professor of theology at St. Louis University, makes a strong argument for connection between the natural and spiritual realms in this multidisciplinary travelogue-cum-memoir. As in his previous work, Belden features backpacking heavily, fierce natural landscapes (such as the Western Australian desert), and luminaries from world religions, including St. Francis, Laozi, and Baal Shem Tov. Lane opens on an unconventional note: he talks to trees and is in love with one, an elderly cottonwood near his home. That confession is the premise for a comprehensive argument based in both science and emotion: nature can and does communicate and teach, Lane writes, but humans have forgotten the language. Lane provides extensive footnotes that explore recent research on ecological systems that calls into question the definition of individual life and consciousness, citing Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Lives of Trees and David Quammen's The Tangled Tree, among others. By combining memoir with the lives of saints and other spiritual figures, Lane provides a stimulating testament to the spiritual value of the natural world.