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Houses Built on Sand

Joyce Marcel

The other day I heard a story about a Zen master who visited Yosemite National Park, where he stood looking up at a great waterfall.

He noticed that the river came to the falls in one full stream. Then, falling, it separated into drops and rivulets. At the bottom these drops and rivulets again joined the rushing flow.

His insight was that humans are like the river. We are all part of the whole, but when we come into the world we separate out into individual drops or rivulets. We each, in our arrogance, believe that we are unique. But when we die, we join that great rushing river and become one again.

This story (from the documentary "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill") stayed with me as I was contemplating a lecture given last week at Marlboro College by the award-winning environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert. Her reporting for The New Yorker has been expanded into a book, "Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change."

Kolbert is a small, wiry, dark-haired woman with enough nervous energy to supply the wattage for several energy-saving light bulbs. She made being brilliant seem easy.

Here in Windham County, where we do so much to prevent global warming -- recycling, green building, riding bicycles, community gardens, anti-idling campaigns and the rest -- we tend to invoke the three "Ss" - self-righteousness, sanctimony and superiority. So it was nice to hear the science for a change.

There's no question about what is driving Kolbert. The last words in her book are: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

Cancer metaphors may be a cliché, but it's startling in this case how apt they are. Like any parasite that invades a host organism and lives there until it destroys it -- and destroys itself in the process -- humans are destroying the very earth we live on.

It's hard to understand why. In the first book of Genesis, it says that God made man and woman in His image and gave them "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Many early civilizations took the stewardship of the earth reverently, walking lightly on the landscape and conserving it gently even unto the seventh generation.

But by the time our culture reached the point of unbridled capitalism, things had changed. The word "dominion" turned into "domination." It's all ours, so let's make as much money as we can out of it.


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Strip-mining the planet became our right, as it is now China's right, and India's right, and Latin America's right. Why shouldn't they too have SUVs, televisions, and swimming pools?

We are celebrating Earth Day on April 22. In 1970, when we celebrated the first one, the damage being done to the planet was already obvious if you knew where to look.

In 1974, for example, I began a career of living in small, rural agricultural towns in Latin America. The cities were already becoming polluted, but most of the rural places were so physically lovely that they lifted your heart just by walking out of the door. Orchids grew wild in trees, colorful birds flew overhead, cattle grazed on savannas, rivers raced down mountains tipped with glaciers, everything was green, and the sky was wild and open.

Life in these towns was difficult, no question about it. People worked hard and did without many material things. Resources were scarce. One time, in the Amazon, I found a tin can on the side of the road and grabbed it as a treasure. I had at least five possible uses for it -- eventually it became a lantern.

Then, every so often, I would come back home to visit my parents and wonder why Americans needed 20 different kinds of shampoo. In these rural communities, everyone had their place and their work. Even little children ran errands and herded cattle. Everyone contributed. Even the mentally ill were cared for. In their isolation, these people's lives were far more connected than ours have become -- they were all part of the river, while we here in America had become individual rivulets or drops, deluding ourselves that we are independent from place and time and each other.

After her lecture, I asked Kolbert to define "catastrophe." She said, "There are about 6 billion of us on the planet, and 5 billion will die. If you don't mind earthquakes and hurricanes and droughts and starvation and human suffering on such an enormous scale, then maybe we shouldn't care."

"Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them," Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

Going back to the Bible, it's hard not to remember that at one point an angry God caused a flood and wiped out most of mankind.

"And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house and it fell; and great was the fall of it," Jesus said about the man who built his house upon the sand instead of the rock.

We have built our houses upon the sand. We have forgotten that we are all part of one flowing river of life. And in the end, the suffering of 5 billion people may be on our heads.

A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through And write her at

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