Visionary Literature and the Fifth Sacred Thing
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Visionary Literature and The Fifth Sacred Thing Trilogy

Visionary Literature and The Fifth Sacred Thing Trilogy

by Hank Edson

Starhawk, the ecofeminist, permaculturist, and contemporary voice of goddess spirituality, is a formidable intellect.  She is also a fantastic novelist and the author of the best visionary literature I have encountered.  Visionary literature is a term I would like to coin as the moniker for a genre.  Utopian literature is a phrase that has become associated with too many negative connotations: impractical, naïve, ungrounded.  Visionary literature is a phrase that focuses on the need to design more advanced structures of human well-being and to provide the leadership that begins with the imaginative reflex in response to the suffering that arises from dysfunction.

Starhawk’s trilogy of novels offers the leadership of imagination our society so badly needs in this time. The trilogy begins with The Fifth Sacred Thing, then moves backward to tell the story of the early lives of some of the first novel's central characters in Walking to Mercury, and then concludes with City of Refuge, which picks up where the first novel left off.  These are novels that in some future, wiser society will be re-discovered and raised among the classics of literature, which people read as a way of witnessing the foundation stones of their most fundamental beliefs.   We are headed toward a far more sophisticated worldview than the murky, manipulated one that currently dominates our culture; it is a worldview I refer to as ecological egalitarianism.  The Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy of novels offers the most vivid picture in literature of what an ecological egalitarian culture looks like, and it is this achievement that I think will earn it a lasting place of honor in wiser future cultures.

My wife, Ingrid, comments to me today how shocking it is that we have two huge communities in the United States in extreme crisis because they cannot get safe drinking water: Flint, Michigan due to the lead poisoning caused by the infrastructure there and Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria.  She was listening to someone from Flint on NPR saying that there are many people who are trying to help the community put solutions in place to make safe drinking water available but that the government is actually preventing such relief from going forward.  Ingrid’s distress led me to observe that we actually have available in our society deep understanding of the incredibly powerful workings of ecology and a highly sophisticated technological capacity, which together are sufficient to provide everyone in our country not just with safe, pure drinking water, but also healthy, nutritious food, clean, affordable energy, and advanced education and health care.  The reason we fail to make these universally available to all people is that we are trapped within dysfunctional power dynamics that we inherited and that have continued to reinforce themselves within the evolving design of our society.  This made me reflect that the extraordinary, if not sacred, thing about our nation is that it was created in practically the only moment in all human history where people freed themselves from their inherited power dynamics with the intention to employ an unencumbered leadership of imagination in advancing the design of society by bringing it into closer alignment with the laws of nature.  Our nation’s founders were free to become visionaries and The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States might well be argued to be the first real works of visionary literature.  These were not utopian explorations; they were practical imaginings of the tools and structures society would need to advance itself beyond the authoritarian dysfunction the people rejected.

The Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy is very much a practical imagining of the tools and structures society will need to advance itself beyond the dysfunction of our current moment.  It is no coincidence that it’s author has also written a book entitled, The Empowerment Manuel, which is a text book for helping communities succeed by consensus and group process.  The Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy offers a richly imagined experience of the power dynamics, challenges, logistics, ecological forces, psychology, and spiritual development likely to be active in the evolution of a societal embrace of ecological egalitarianism.  As with our nation, it begins with a Declaration:

Declaration of the Four Sacred Things

     The earth is a living, conscious being.  In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.
     Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.
     To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged.  No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others.  Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.
     All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred.  No one of us stands higher or lower than any other.  Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom.  Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.
     To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive.  To honor the sacred is to make love possible.
     To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices.  To this we dedicate our lives.

At a total length of over 1,600 pages, the review the Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy deserves is beyond the scope of what I can provide in this post, but I would like to list a few of the aspects of these novels that I particularly loved.

  1. The presence and presentation of permaculture as a character in the novel.  Permaculture is the practice of intentional harmony with the ecological dynamics of nature in the way one lives and works in the place where one lives and works.  It is a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s drawing on deep ecological knowledge from many sources going back throughout human history.  It has since spread around the world and the movement grows greater and more consequential every day as the positive achievements it can produce are demonstrated in increasingly grander scale.
  2. The exploration of the ways in which non-violent resistance is important and employable in society’s evolution toward ecological egalitarianism and its juxtaposition with the psychology of domination, violence, and torture.  This exploration is not a black and white binary; it is to me a marvel evoking my deep admiration.
  3. The depiction of a spiritual reality with which many characters are in communication.  Many will refer to this aspect of the trilogy as fantasy or magical realism, but I would assert that this depiction is an imagined representation of a deeper connection to a universal wisdom flowing from the source of existence that is likely to be discovered and experienced by many as society moves toward ecological egalitarianism and, at the same time, likely to be required in order for society to move toward ecological egalitarianism.  Thus, this depiction is not a fantasy plot device to allow characters to get to the end of the story; rather it is a representation of a function that is true to and must be fulfilled in the organic growth of society as it moves toward its true capacity for humanity.
  4. The plotting of each novel.  A lesser novelist would have sunk these three amazing novels of ideas ten thousand different ways and they would have been abandoned by readers like rats from a sinking ship.  But these books are page turners with brave, surprising, thought provoking plots.  There is never a moment in these books where the plot coasts.  With each page, Starhawk challenges her books to become more and to become more through their plotting.
  5. The cast of characters.  And as well as Starhawk handles the plotting, she also populates these books with a full orchestra of full dimensional characters who are challenged by their histories, their present moment, and their unknown futures.  These characters create an extremely bio-diverse ecosystem in which to live and contemplate the meaning of our humanity.  So much is worth saying about the experience of each character, but it is far better just to read the books and share these experiences yourself.

But the most important point that causes me to write about these books, as I have already indicated, is that they are an act of cultural leadership.  We live in a time obsessed with politics that are played out in the completely disingenuous and distorted stage of cable tv and the internet that monopolize our culture.  In this climate, we can hardly be blamed for buying into the deception that such politics are the only avenue for confronting the dysfunction in our government and society, but even so, this obsession is misguided and incredibly limiting.  The people do not have to wait until the corporate media gives them a voice on the evening news for their voice to have a vital, far reaching, transformative impact.  We have an entire cultural ecosystem to operate and be creative within and this ecosystem is not static, but can be cultivated in an unlimited number of ways.  In The Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy, Starhawk, the permaculturist, ecofeminist, and practitioner of goddess spirituality, is cultivating a societal vision of and will toward ecological egalitarianism that has real revolutionary force.  These books make a lasting contribution to the transformation of our society toward a state that will not only survive, but also emerge victorious, and remain thereafter sustainable, abundant, meaningful, beautiful, healthy, vital and sacred.  We need visionary literature like this.  These books offer a model, a strategy of cultural leadership we should learn from and actively advance.  We are not powerless.  We are all visionary if we choose to be.  Let us be so.  Thank you, Starhawk! 

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By the Author of The Three Act Masterpiece, Cry, the Beloved Country