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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    August 2008





   A Spiritual Home in Nature

Silver City author Sharman Apt Russell writes a new book about her life as a pantheist.

By Richard Mahler

Are you a pantheist? You may be without knowing it. The term is obscure, confused in the public mind with other nature-related belief systems. Half a lifetime can go by without making the connection.

Author Sharman Apt Russell: "I find I have a subtle but real physical response when I see something very beautiful."

"I didn't discover pantheism until I was 42," Sharman Apt Russell admitted in a recent interview. The writer and teacher, who divides her time between Silver City and the Gila River Valley, turned 54 this year. "It's still hard for me to talk about."

So she wrote a book.

In her just-published Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, (Basic Books, $25) Russell describes with characteristic eloquence and honesty the circuitous route that led to her embrace of what my dictionary calls "a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe." The term combines Greek words for "all inclusive" and "belief in god." The wise Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said it was the notion that "everything is connected, and the web is holy."

For a childhood Methodist and spiritual seeker who once was kicked out of an Indian ashram, this was a worldview that brought science, religion and values into longed-for alignment. "When I first learned about pantheism," Russell recalled, "I said to myself, 'Oh, yes, that's what defines me. I find my spiritual home in nature.'" This god was not a personal one, but the entire universe instead. This religion offered no promise of a personal afterlife, but rather a life full of luminosity and wonder right here, right now. "What I call myself now is a scientific pantheist."

The author has the slender physique and sun-burnished look of someone often afoot outdoors. She wears her long, gray hair pulled back to frame inquisitive eyes, aquiline nose and smile-dimpled cheeks. On this day, her earrings flashed turquoise. Seated in a Silver City coffee shop, Russell and I meandered through a conversation that touched on her eight-year stint on the local school board ("a great experience") and current service with the town's advisory committee on climate change ("you can hardly work as a nature writer without understanding the threats to the natural world"). The long-time activist is also on the board of the Upper Gila Watershed Association.

She told me that much of her teaching is done online now ("so I can mostly work at home") and her writing is always exploratory ("it's about figuring out what I think and believe"). Her voice was strong and confident, cutting through the static of a shouting barista, crying toddler and laughing latt drinker. After our interview, she met a friend for a hike, enjoying a landscape transformed by drenching monsoon rains.

"Some of the other people working in this field call themselves 'religious naturalists,'" Russell explained, conceding that "pantheism" has an old-fashioned ring to it and is "easily confused with animism, polytheism, paganism and Taoism." Russell knew she would have to sort this out in her writing.

Animists, Russell told me, are distinguished by their belief that natural features such as trees have souls or consciousness. Pagans in the current era often combine ancient folk beliefs of Europe with Wicca traditions, while polytheists believe in multiple gods together with associated mythologies and rituals. Taoism originated in ancient China and stresses the relationship between people and nature, but now often incorporates ancestor worship, a code of ethics and certain ritualistic activities.

"For me," said Russell, "the universe isn't composed of two substances: matter and spirit. Pantheism chooses to say everything we are surrounded by right now is worthy of mystical awe. The properties and laws of the universe are miraculous, luminous and worthy of my reverence. The dance of matter, energy, the big bang, evolution — that's my story."

An outsider reviewing Russell's life might find her comfortable adoption of this philosophy unsurprising. A Southwest aficionado who grew up in the Phoenix suburbs before today's interstate-threaded sprawl, the author arrived in New Mexico with her husband, Peter, in 1981. "We came up from Deming past the smokestacks of Hurley," she chuckled. "It wasn't the most majestic entrance, but. . . this is a real-life place. It's not paradise."

The couple were part of a "back-to-the-land" movement that Russell still admires, though she sees the locus of self-sufficiency shifting to dwellers of cities and small towns: "Peter and I did it all. We bought land in the Mimbres, built an adobe house, grew a big garden, irrigated with an acequia, and had home births. But we could not really survive and drifted into a middle-class lifestyle."

She now teaches creative writing in Western New Mexico University's Humanities Department and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and Peter Russell is the city planner for Silver City. They've lived the past 10 years in town.

On weekends the pair, whose children are grown, often escape to a second home near Gila. "It's not ecologically correct to live in the country," allowed Russell, "but it's something I seem to need as an individual. My heart really is there."

The author's face lit up in describing "the eerie, prehistoric sounds" of sandhill cranes that migrate to the river each year. "The birds are part of the wildlife that's all around us there: the javelina, the deer, the beetles, and so forth. The book is about my re-entrance into this natural world."

It is also a memoir. The cover of Standing in the Light is dappled with silhouettes of cranes, while the text ruminates on the death of Russell's father, her feelings about aging, climate change, the sad loneliness encountered after her two children leave home, the relentlessness of human suffering. It recounts how Russell joined a Quaker group soon after her arrival in the Mimbres Valley, welcomed by members willing to accommodate a wide variety of beliefs and committed to social justice.

The book's title is a phrase that refers to a type of spiritual experience integral to Quakerism. "You do have to have some sense of the Light," Russell explained, "but there are many ways to experience it." Her "letter of membership" reflected a passionate resonance with pantheism. "For me," she added, "the Light also connotes the New Mexican sky."

Watching a Southwest cloudscape or the dance of cranes can "make your chest feel hollow or your heart leap," said Russell. "I find I have a subtle but real physical response when I see something very beautiful. Many of us do. That's something I want and choose to have more of."

Russell's faith is described by Publisher's Weekly as "all-embracing but unsentimental." Another review described the writer's style as "languid and luxurious," an approach that "calls the reader over as she would a tentative cat." Through exposition and without proselytizing, the new book reveals by example how a pantheistic life can be lived. There are reflections here on the fragile treasures of the Gila watershed and the rare luxury of living among 3.3 million acres of public land. Russell has a gift for describing the small miracles of rural living that we may encounter daily yet take for granted.

She is quick to point out, however, that pantheism thrives in human-made environments as well. "I've actually had some of my strongest feelings of connection in non-natural settings," said Russell. "It's true, making that leap in a place like Wal-Mart can feel very different. But we, too, are part of it all. A mediated domain filled with human artifacts is also still full of atoms and molecules and wonder in its own way."

These ideas seem straightforward and clear, as ordered as the realms of specialized inquiry the author inhabits. Russell — who has written book-length treatises on her obsessions with butterflies and the pollination of flowers — has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California-Berkeley in conservation and natural resources. "My heart has always been in environmental concerns," she told me. "My universe is what science tells me it is."

Hers is a religious yet pragmatic worldview familiar to many of the "deep ecologists" and field biologists of our era. It is a hybrid brand of Western spiritualism drawn from rich veins mined by such philosopher-poets as Spinoza, Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson. More recently Albert Einstein, Robinson Jeffers and Annie Dillard have added insight to the mix, delighting in the arabesque of known and unknown, observed and implied.

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