Soil to Soul: CJA students experience eco-spirituality on Salt Spring Island

Calgary Jewish Academy students spent an amazing week on Salt Spring Island learning about eco-spirituality and environmental stewardship. Photo supplied.

By Lesley Machon

(AJNews) – Calgary Jewish Academy students spent a week on Salt Spring Island, soaking up the wisdom of Indigenous artists and elders, local guides, and the land itself. We arrived eager and open, and left humbled, salt-brined, and deeply connected despite minimal cell service.

Our adventure was led by the most knowledgeable guides – Jack Rosen and Jasper Snow Rosen – from Coastal Current Adventures, a hub for eco-tourism and environmental education on the island. We hiked and kayaked, held starfish and sea cucumbers, and learned the nuances of intertidal work. We sang sea shanties, built tarps, and studied the leaves of edible and medicinal plants. We worked with a Cowichan artist on a totem pole, receiving instruction on the creative process and sacred practice. We made bannock and cedar ropes, and roasted vegetables in a cook pit. We visited the ocean at night to witness the bioluminescent glow.

Slowly, an eco-spiritual consciousness seeped into our group through the seams of our windbreakers. One by one and all together, we became present to the spiritual connection between human beings and the environment. We watched our exhales mingle with the mist as we paddled, and felt the intuitive and embodied awareness of so many different life forms.

We kayaked past a salmon farm, and learned how aquaculture harms the environment and how infected the fish become. “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish,” our guide nodded, reflecting a common epithet in these parts.

Through our guided hikes and paddles, our leaders taught us about the many ways Land allies with humans in healing, and offered us land-based healing practices to address our mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Within an Indigenous pedagogy, Land is understood as an active partner to the person or people engaged in the healing process (Redvers, 2020). The notion requires us to see land through a relational lens, to recognize we are in relationship with Land.

Experiencing deep connection with, and non-separation between, human beings and the natural world has been demonstrated to increase health and social outcomes related to self-esteem, physical fitness, interpersonal relationships, educational goals, feelings of wellbeing, positive behavioural changes, clarity of identity, and interest in environmental stewardship (Dobson, C., & Brazzoni, 2016; Wildcat et al., 2014).

Spending time in nature, experiencing ourselves as part of nature, is crucial to our wellbeing as human beings. One of our leaders shared about his decade of work with youth criminals, and revealed the ways nature can offer true healing, even to those battling addictions and complex trauma.

Land-based healing is connected to the field of epigenetics, which studies the way our genes can be turned on, or off, by our environment. On the island we felt this truth in our bones, the way humans are interconnected with the world at large.

We visited an 800-year-old tree, standing in awe at its base as our guides told stories of activists who chained themselves to trees to protect the old growth forests. We learned about mycelium and how trees truly communicate with one another, and the importance of humans taking protective action on behalf of our home.

Slowly, the shape of our group shifted, to reflect the cohesion and interconnectedness we observed in nature. We worked together: cleaning gear, and lifting waterlogged kayaks. We cooked meals to share: digging the cook pit, foraging leaves and rocks, and dropping handfuls of potatoes inside.

There we were, engaged in a relational perspective: person to planet, inner to outer, soul to soil. Cultivating, tending, dwelling. In reverence, and present to sentience. Intermingling Jewish environmental ethics, with Indigenous eco-spirituality.

These are the kinds of experiences CJA is invested in cultivating for our students: educational experiences that reflect our values of healthy relationships, spiritual living, and environmental responsibility. Our adventure was cross-cultural, interfaith, inclusive, and deeply powerful. Offline and plugged in, each of us tapped into an awareness of anima mundi, the soul of the world.

 Lesley Machon is a humanities teacher at Calgary Jewish Academy.

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