Does Nature Have Rights?

Photograph © 2019 Peggy Kornegger
Do birds have rights? What about bees, flowers, and trees? Or whales and giraffes? Rivers and lakes? These are profound questions that tap into the very nature of life on Earth. Currently, people around the world are focused on climate change: Does it exist, and if so, is it natural or unnatural? Yet, climate change is only one aspect of the larger issue of how human beings relate to the world in general. Do we see Nature as something to be used and then discarded, or do we see it as a living presence that we are part of, the heart and soul of life on Earth?

At the deepest level, it’s a spiritual, as much as a political, question: How do we live in relation to this planet, our “home” in the universe? Throughout the ages, Earth has been seen as a mother figure to the life forms she provides a home for. Mother Earth, or Gaia. Contemporary societies have forgotten this, or they disregard it as foolish fantasy. The corporate/political alliances that rule much of the modern world do not perceive our planet as alive and sentient. To them it is an object that brings them profit, to be used and used until there is nothing left. They don’t notice the invisible living connections that hold the living world together. To reduce everything to an argument about belief or disbelief in climate change is a distraction that keeps all of us from seeing something greater is at stake.

Ultimately, we need to enlarge the discussion to consider whether or not Earth and Nature have the same rights we claim for ourselves. Corporations are now seen as having the rights of a person because they have had the political clout to obtain that legal status. Mother Earth has never lobbied for her rights in the courtrooms and political arenas of this country. Her children, however, are now standing up for her as destruction of the natural world escalates everywhere. There are many grass-roots groups who have begun to work for the “Rights of Nature.”

In Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, the public water supply, sourced in Lake Erie, became so toxic (because of the lake’s high pollution from agricultural runoff and industrial waste) that residents were warned not to drink or even touch it. This crisis sparked a local movement to establish the rights of Lake Erie and the adjacent communities, which are being infringed upon by agribusiness and industries that pollute the lake. Voters passed an ordinance, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is now being challenged by the state government. Rights-of-Nature groups are popping up in many places, including Pittsburgh (to stop fracking) and Oregon (to stop aerial pesticide spraying). In Southwest Florida, where I live, residents are organizing to establish rights for the Caloosahatchee River, polluted by algae flowing from Lake Okeechobee and contributing to red tide in the Gulf.

There is an awakening occurring across the country, as well as elsewhere in the world, to the essential rights of the natural world and humanity to live a healthy, balanced, unpolluted life on this planet. It’s not only about climate change, which is important but just the tip of the iceberg. Ordinary citizens in rural areas as well as large cities are coming together to say no to the poisoning of their communities by businesses that value money over life itself.* Mother Nature is a living breathing being, which every one of us is part of, and without her, we cannot live ourselves. The “Rights of Nature” movement is an idea whose time has come.

* See the documentary We the People 2.0 and the dramatic film Dark Waters (based on real events) for the inspiring personal stories of those who are standing up to polluters and state (and federal) governments that back them.

Birdsong: Don’t Let the Music Die…

Photograph © 2019 Peggy Kornegger
In 1962, Rachel Carson called it the “silent spring,” the time when pesticides would destroy birds and other wildlife and leave humanity existing in a half-life of stunned silence. Her work was the impetus for the environmental movement and has influenced millions of people worldwide. Yet today, more than 50 years later, pesticides are still very much in use, and we are facing the slow, agonizing fulfillment of her prophecy. In September, the journal Science published the results of a comprehensive study of North American bird populations. The results: Since 1970, there are nearly 3 billion fewer birds singing their spring songs, a staggering 29% gone from the Earth. Bird experts and conservationists are calling it “a full-blown crisis” and “the loss of nature.”*

The day I read these figures, I wept. I could feel my heart breaking. The losses are so huge. Beloved warblers in all their colorful variety: 617 million gone. Two of my all-time favorite birds: Baltimore orioles, 2 in 5 gone; wood thrushes, 6 in 10 gone. It is hard to fathom. Almost unbelievable. The birds that I eagerly anticipated seeing and hearing each spring are vanishing and may one day be gone forever. What would spring be without birds? Without the robin’s cheery song and the redwing blackbird’s flashing colors and ringing call? Dead air, everywhere.

Everyone who knows me knows I am an ardent lover of birds. I grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by countless birds nesting in our yard and visiting our feeders. Birdsong was an integral part of life, like the rising and setting of the sun. As an adult, I became a more focused birdwatcher. For more than 35 years, I was blessed to live near Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the spring bird migrations are well-known, even beyond New England. Birders there are often blessed with more than 100 species passing through. I visited Mt. Auburn at all times of the year and knew it as intimately as I knew the 5 acres where I grew up. Almost every tree and bush held a memory of a bird sighting or song. The brilliant red of scarlet tanagers and the startling orange and black of orioles. The husky song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and the ethereal trill of the wood thrush.

The wood thrush—a bird that touches my heart in the deepest possible way. Each spring I waited to hear it, not just see it. Standing quietly in the early morning silence in the Dell at Mt. Auburn, listening—and suddenly I would hear it, a piping flute-like call that gently echoed among the trees. Tears always fill my eyes at the sound of the wood thrush, a miracle of sweet music offered to the world, for free. Virtuoso performances daily by all the spring migrants. Each bird’s song unique and irreplaceable. Each one a miracle upon the Earth. A friend of mine refers to the “unreasoning cheerfulness” she feels when she sees or hears birds.

And this beauty is what humans are destroying so carelessly. Correction: big business and agribusiness are destroying it, with ruthless intentionality. Mega-corporations like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) have spent decades laying to waste wildlife and human life throughout the world, making their products ever more lethal, from Agent Orange to Roundup. Not only birds, but butterflies, bees, and other insects essential to our ecosystems are dying in huge numbers because of herbicides and pesticides sold by these companies. Thousands of lawsuits have been brought against Monsanto by individuals who have gotten cancer from using Roundup, and at last the courts are beginning to decide in their favor.

The question is: Will it stop Monsanto and the other businesses? And if it does, will it be in time? The birds cannot bring lawsuits. They can only continue to do what they have done so beautifully since the beginning of life on Earth: sing. The planetary songlines they have created vibrate the world into being. We are the blessed recipients of their musical gifts. The very least we can do is reciprocate with gratitude and love by speaking out and taking action to save their lives: by not using poisons on our lawns and gardens, by always buying organic, and by donating to and joining advocacy groups for birds and other wildlife:; My greatest hope is that the number of birds rebounds and that we are able to hear their songs for years and years to come.
*Other factors, such as habitat loss, air and water pollution, collisions with power lines and glass skyscrapers, also contribute to the overall losses. On a more hopeful note, a growing number of cities have passed ordinances to use bird-safe glass and lighting practices and designs. And activist groups like CELDF ( are working at community and state levels across the U.S. to protect the “rights of nature.”

Dancing Butterflies, Ghost Orchids, Wild Skies: The Florida Dimension

Photograph © 2019 Peggy Kornegger
“To live here is to know God, to live here is to understand the power of Nature, to live here is to celebrate life.”—Panache Desai

Like a quartz crystal sparkling in the sun, Florida has many facets. Last year, in late June 2018, my partner Anne and I moved here from Boston. As we drove south along the eastern seaboard, we felt ourselves dropping past identities and memories along the way. By the time we reached Florida, we were living lighter, not anticipating or looking back, but just being, living fully in the present moment. It was a heightened state of awareness, and it carried us seamlessly to the edge of new beginnings and unexpected experiences in an entirely different place.

Driving across the state line, we had the strong feeling we were crossing into another dimension. A sense of elevated energy that manifested visually: a radiant translucence lit up the sky and the huge white cumulus clouds. The trees, bushes, and flowers were especially vivid in color. The very air vibrated with life force energy. These perceptions continued and actually expanded as Anne and I explored our new home, where everything seemed so unfamiliar.

Corkscrew Swamp, an Audubon sanctuary, is a natural entry point to an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Surrounded by slash pines, lettuce lakes (named for the plants on the water’s surface), and towering bald cypress trees hundreds of years old, I often feel as if I’m walking in a mystical timeless dimension. Alligators, whose ancestors survived the dinosaur era, rest like logs not far from the boardwalk, their eyes barely visible above the water. Ethereal, extremely rare ghost orchids hang suspended from a cypress trunk 60 feet above my head. A white ibis with its long curved bill lands nearby, and I am reminded of ancient Egypt and the god Thoth. When a large yellow-crowned night heron flies past me, I stand motionless, silent, transported. They are like living prayers, these unusual water birds, who by their very presence evoke spiritual connection.

Then there are the butterflies! Like flying rainbows, they never seem to land or rest here in Florida. They are always dancing with the light, dancing with the flowers, dancing with each other. The zebra longwing is a flying perceptual illusion. Its black-and-white stripes flash so quickly that the eye can’t keep up with the flickering patterns, and the mind begins to shift interdimensionally. The orange-and-black wings of the gulf fritillary and queen butterflies flutter continuously, and they seem to magically appear and then disappear into thin air. Bright yellow sulfur butterflies twirl and spin around each other like free-spirited improv artists. Florida’s beautiful butterflies make us believe that we too can dance and express our unique selves just as joyfully and spontaneously in our lives.

If I look up at the sky at any given moment during the day, I audibly gasp at the magnificence of the cloud formations and the play of light. It is a continuously changing, thoroughly engaging drama, based on daily weather patterns. During the summer months, the clouds build in size in the morning, and gradually, darker clouds move in from the Everglades. Eventually, torrential rain, thunder, and lightning take center stage in the afternoon. It is often impossible to do anything but stand and watch the show (in a safe dry place) because of the power of the storms. The lightning is incredible—it fills the sky with constant flashing and jagged electric bolts, both vertical and horizontal. In hurricane season, the weather and skies can become even more wild and unpredictable. Powerful energy vortexes swirl and swell, beyond all human control. This too can seem other-dimensional, like life on another planet.

There is untamed potential in the air here in Florida, something indescribable and other-worldly, in spite of aspects that seem old paradigm. Maybe it’s some residue of ancient Atlantean energy, just beneath the surface, which has been waiting for this time of collective awakening in order to reemerge. Atlantis, with its crystal pyramids and Law of One, is believed by some (including Edgar Cayce) to have existed in this part of the world, and there are times when I can feel its presence and see the pyramids sparkling in my mind’s eye. Is the “other dimension” I am experiencing here really the rise of Atlantis once more? It remains a mystery.

Whether or not it is connected to a specific name out of prehistory, a powerful energy of light and oneness does exist now on the planet. I feel it strongly in Florida but have felt it elsewhere too. It transcends place and time. In remembering it, in opening our psyches and our hearts to loving possibilities, we can embody that presence more profoundly than ever before, wherever we live. If we look closely, a true dimensional shift at the deepest level is taking place. We are becoming dancing spirit rainbows, each and every one of us, freely expressing and celebrating life on this Earth.

Returning Home

Photgraph © 2019 Peggy Kornegger
What does “home” mean to you? A place? A group of people? A memory? Or is it a feeling deep inside that touches your heart and soul? All of these perhaps. Our own life experiences define what home means to each of us. I grew up in Illinois, later lived in California, and then settled in Massachusetts for more than 30 years. Massachusetts is where I met my life partner, Anne, and where we were married. I’ve always loved both coasts, but I didn’t realize how much the Northeast had become home for me until I moved away and then returned for a visit.

A year ago, in June, Anne and I moved to Florida, leaving behind many years of memories and starting anew in a different part of the country. This June, one year later, I traveled north for a five-day retreat at Omega in Rhinebeck, New York. I was totally unprepared for the emotions that welled up in me as I flew into JFK and then took a series of trains to Rhinebeck in rural New York.

The Amtrak train route follows the Hudson River. On one side is the wide expanse of the river, and on the other, rolling hills and open fields. It was the latter than grabbed my heart: the GREEN! Avalanches of vibrant early summer green everywhere I looked—green trees, bushes, grasses. Mother Earth bursting with renewed life. Green filled my eyes and my heart. Tears streamed down my face. It was all so profoundly beautiful and so familiar. It was “home” to me at a very deep level. Florida has its own stunning tropical beauty, but here was a beauty that had been part of my life since childhood: the change of seasons and the return of green after a long winter. And for me it was the return of summer green after being away from it for a year.

I was in absolute awe at how stunning and vibrant the colors were, both on the train route and then at Omega itself. The sun highlighted all the varying shades of green, and the play of color and light was breathtaking. I wrote to Anne: “How did we live here and not fall on our knees in gratitude every day at the miracle of these incredible greens each spring and summer?!” It’s not that we didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape then, but something about returning after months of absence made it all explode with radiance within my perception.

And the birds! I love birds, and the spring migration in Massachusetts was a highlight of the year for me. This past May I missed it tremendously. My bird friends were passing through on their northern route without me! The warblers and thrushes, the orioles and tanagers. Of all the birds, though, I think I missed the robins most. Their cheerful lilting songs fill the spring and summer air in the Northeast and Midwest. Although there are amazing and unique birds in Florida, particularly water birds, I missed the robins that I saw every day at my backyard birdbath in Massachusetts. So, when I arrived at Omega and heard robins singing everywhere, I was brought to tears once more.

These are the irreplaceable details that make up a feeling of home—at least for me. My heart opened wide in joy and gratitude. I felt like “myself” again in some indescribable way: cells of memory that live in the heart and never disappear. You can have many homes in a lifetime, but one or two may hold particular emotional meaning. For me, the green Earth is always home because it touches the deepest part of my being.

I had no idea I would react so strongly when I returned to the Northeast. It was a gift of unbroken connection with all of life. As I stood looking out at the hilly green Omega landscape, I was reminded of the e.e. cummings lines I used to repeat to myself each morning when I walked out the door to my garden:
“I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes”

God Is a Blue Heron

Photograph © 2018 Peggy Kornegger
Every day I walk two miles on a nature trail near where I live. I have come to call it my “walk with God” because in nature I often feel that deep connection with all I see. One recent afternoon, before leaving on my walk, I stepped out onto the lanai just in time to see a great blue heron standing stationary at the water’s edge right in front of me. Its body was stretched tall, its legs long, its eyes alertly focused on something nearby. Its presence was so striking that to me it felt like an extraordinary being dropped in from some other celestial realm. As it walked majestically by, that impression only intensified. “God is a blue heron,” I thought.

This perception began to take other forms in my mind as I began my walk. What if I used it as a mantra, a practice in conscious awareness, as I walked? I started with the first thing I saw: “God is…a hibiscus.” Then, “God is…the sidewalk.” Next, “God is…a tree.” And “God is…the sky.” The moon rising. A mockingbird’s call. A fern. A fountain. The sound of traffic in the distance. A fiery sun setting in the west. A squirrel. A street sign. An old broken bicycle. Neighbors walking toward me. Newly tiled roofs. Every sound and every color.

Everything I looked at became God, and as I continued, my eyes focusing on one small part of the universe after another, my sense of the interconnectedness of ALL of it grew. Suddenly, there was no separation between me and what I saw and heard—anywhere, either before me or in my mind’s eye. Everything was pure divine energy and light. The feeling was like coming home—to something greater than me as well as to my self, my soul self, which doesn’t see separation, only oneness. I realized too what a grace-filled gift this particular practice was, lifting me out of a background sadness and disconnection that had been with me for weeks.

Moving from one part of the country to another had turned my world upside down, first in extraordinarily expansive ways and then in ways that felt like loss and separation. Now, as I repeated again and again all the ways that God/dess was part of my every perception, I understood that everything was unfolding perfectly in order to bring me to a deeper awareness of connection in my life. Connection to spirit was everywhere I looked; I had only to open my eyes wider to once again see it clearly.

We may think we know what we’re looking at and where we’re going in our lives. If, like me, you have been on a spiritual path for years, you may believe you see the larger picture as well as the details. Ah, but even though you and I can see more and more expansively as our lives evolve, we sometimes forget how flawlessly everything fits together in the universal plan and what appears as loss and sorrow can later become the doorway to greater awareness.

When we realize at the deepest level that everything and everyone is here for a reason, part of God’s intricate tapestry of creation, then complaining or criticizing seems like a distraction and diversion. This is our life journey. A journey back to recognizing that the blue heron as well as the broken bicycle are both God, inseparable from each other as well as from ourselves. For we too are God.