Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sanctuary by Michael Tobias & Jane Morrison

Sanctuary book cover

Global Oases of Innocence
by Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison
a Dancing Star Foundation Book
Council Oak Books
Hardcover, 360 pages, Available June 24, 2008

Reviewed by Michael Pastore

Ralph Waldo Emerson drew his personal and literary power from a deep contact with the natural world. In a journal entry written in April in the year 1840, Emerson wrote:

"As I sat on the back of the Drop or God's pond ... I said to my companion I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists."

This sense of awe and wonder at Earth's incredible beauty -- the beauty of persons, trees, birds, insects, amphibians, flowers, landscapes, and animals -- is the first thing that struck me as I browsed the pages of Sanctuary. Next, I was reminded of that stunning passage from the film "My Dinner With Andre". Andre notes that a wave of pessimism has captured our era, and that many people believe that we are reverting to a savage, lawless, terrifying time ahead. At the same time, a new and different note is sounding, "pockets of light" will emerge all over the planet:

"... there have to be centers, now, where people can come and reconstruct a new future for the world. And when I was talking to Gustav Björnstrand, he was saying that actually, these centers are growing up everywhere now, and that what they're trying to do, which is what Findhorn was trying to do, and in a way what I was trying to do...I mean, these things can't be given names, but in a way, these are all attempts at creating a new kind of school, or a new kind of monastery. And Björnstrand talks about the concept of reserves, islands of safety, where history can be remembered, and human beings can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a Dark Age.

"In other words we're talking about an underground, which did exist in a different way during the Dark Ages among the mystical orders of the Church. And the purpose of this underground is to find out how to preserve the light, life, the culture. How to keep things living. You see, I keep thinking that what we need is a new language, a language of the heart, a language as in the Polish forest where language wasn't needed -- some kind of language between people that is a new kind of poetry, that's the poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is. And I think that in order to create that language, you're going to have to learn how you can go through a looking-glass into another kind of perception, where you have that sense of being united to all things. And suddenly, you understand everything."

In the film, the waiter understood nothing, because he interrupts these sage reflections to ask Wally and Andre what they would like for dessert.

As for the centers of renewal for human beings, those Utopias I have not yet found. (We are seeing, however, a revival in Utopian literature, in new novels such as those by Tobias and O. Thoreau, which is a significant first step.)

Bougoereau L'Innocene
For human beings, utopias reside in our best imaginations and in our inevitable sustainable future. Yet, thanks to a wonderful combination of vision, compassion, ecological knowledge, courage and cash, there are numerous sanctuaries for non-human living species. The new book by Tobias and Morrison documents many of these sanctuaries -- twenty four of them worldwide -- with vivid (and oftentimes, sublime) photographs, and with a prose style so radiant and so powerful that the words capture the whole spirit of this noble endeavor.

Sanctuary begins with a lovely Foreword by the Queen of Bhutan. (Bhutan -- a nation of about 700,000 persons in the Himalayan mountains, bordered by India, Tibet, China, and Nepal -- is arguably the most environmentally-conscious nation in the world.) Here we learn the encouraging fact that there are now 114,000 protected areas in the world. Bhutan is exemplary for many reasons, including their commitment to land protection: 60% of that nation is "inviolable primeval forest" where no development is allowed.

The book's 24 chapters feature photos and descriptions of the sanctuaries, located in 21 different nations. These sanctuaries span the earth, some located in icy places, others in warm ones, and wherever they are they are devoted to protecting all creatures great and small. In their essay about the Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, the authors remind us that all creatures are sacred and indispensable to the ecosystem: the survival of the small ant matters just as much as the great elephant. In Canada, America (including Central Park, New York City), Europe and Asia -- the best of the human spirit manifests itself in these oases of loving kindness.

Browsing the book's pages, continuing the vicarious journey through these heartwarming sanctuaries, you realize that each of these is made possible by the dedication of a few inspired persons, thoroughly committed to saving their piece of the planet. Sanctuary is mainly about the preserving of the natural world, and at the same time it gives us a glimpse at the lives of persons who act compassionately. Between these covers are so many inspiring lives and stories, and surprises, too. The media recently has well covered the notorious Brigitte Bardot, but here we find a chapter about the glorious woman whose foundation (FBB: Foundation Brigitte Bardot) works worldwide for the cause of animal rights.

Now I must return to the moving introduction to this book, where the authors reveal the heart of the project and its larger context:
"Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence is a modest record of some two dozen places on Earth where humans have recognized ecological importance and devoted huge energy to ensure their survival and integrity. The combination of science, legislation, community and individual activism, non-violence, animal rights, conservation biology and spiritual ecology is a convergence of forces that the authors have sought to observe and enshrine. The emergent paradigm we call the sanctuary movement." There follows a concise overview of the movement, filled with humane responses, but not blindly optimistic, for the authors gently advise: "There's much work to be done, and little time left."

When I came to the end of this stunning book, I realized that I had been mistaken. Utopias -- and the utopian imagination -- are not extinct. These sanctuaries for living creatures, are, as well, sanctuaries for human spiritual renewal. What is good for our planet is good for the persons on our planet. For as the Buddha once said: "When we have learned to love not our separate life, but all living things, then at last we shall find peace."

The environmental tide is turning. We are moving toward the sustainable society that is necessary for our survival, happiness, and optimal fulfillment. Sanctuary is an essential book for this new world -- a book of vision, heart and hope -- that deserves a place in every library, school, and home.

SANCTUARY — Global Oases of Innocence is being officially unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution 2008 Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., beginning late June, 2008. For more information, visit the Smithsonian website at: