The Earth Holders Project

by Curt Pawlisch

From left to right: City of Middleton Forester Mark Wegner, SnowFlower members Wendy Alettha, Belinda Muckow, unknown, Leah Samson Samuel with daughter, Corrine, and Sharon Barbour.

In her book, Oceans of Insight, Heather Mann describes how SnowFlower’s Earth Holders Project began in early 2013 in response to heedless and rapacious mining, both real and threatened. Taking time off from her sailing adventures during the Caribbean’s hurricane season, Heather learned that frac-sand mining’s exponential growth was already scarring our state’s landscape in order to feed the monsters of fracking and fossil fuel use. And another different and vast mine threatened to change northern Wisconsin forever. She writes:

A handful of us sat around a large table in the community room of an eco-friendly cohousing complex in Madison. The group included representatives from Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, and my own meditation community, SnowFlower Sangha.

“Is that it then?” I ask. Five faces look at one another.

I had to do something about frac-sand mining in my home state, but what? As soon as I started investigating the issue, another local mining disaster materialized. The proposed gogebic taconite mine in Wisconsin’s pristine Penokee Hills threatened to obliterate Chippewa treaty rights, inundate sacred wild rice beds, and pollute the expansive wetland water source supporting Lake Superior) with incalculable amounts of sulfuric acid. It was another idea harmful to people today and in future generations.  Even so, the majority in state government flocked behind the mine because of the demand for rural jobs at all costs. Many environmental organizations were knee-deep in the mining science behind both frac-sand and taconite. Others were pacing the halls of the state capitol trying to slow a political system hell-bent on extraction. But no one—as far as I could tell—had articulated the state’s ultimate ethical responsibility to care for citizens, our nonhuman neighbors, and those who will follow us.

The environmental justice organization I led for years was up to the gills in other projects. So, a group of us in my local Buddhist practice center started talking, and soon the Earth Holders Project of SnowFlower Sangha formed. The Earth Holder name had meaning. It came from an ancient Mahayana Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra, which mentioned a historical figure (the Bodhisattva Dharaanimdhara) who held, protected, and preserved Earth. (Thay wrote about this person in his book, The World We Have, and encouraged all his students to become “Earth Holders.”) As an expression of mindfulness practice, the Earth Holders Project met regularly to explore the link between our inner and outer sustainability and to offer ourselves and others opportunities to take skillful, Earth-healing actions. Eventually, in what was an election year, we joined with partners from other faith traditions and wrote an online petition urging the Wisconsin candidates for governor to end both frac-sand and taconite mining. Sensing the potential of a united voice to make a difference, nearly 1,000 people had signed on.[1]

Heather writes, thanks to the work of countless activists and volunteers, the owners abandoned the Gogebtheic Mine, and a glut of global iron led to the collapse of taconite mining.  A similar collapse of oil prices would likewise  shutter or put on hold many, if not most, Wisconsin frac-sand mining businesses.[2]

Before the members of the Earth Holders Project found other ways of practicing Engaged Buddhism, they left us with a reading list to help us engage in environmental advocacy, including works by Thich Nhat Hanh, and they planted trees in a public natural resource area:

The Earth Holder’s Reading List includes fiction, nonfiction and magazines that shed light on the planetary crisis as well as give hope and serve to develop Easkillful means to address the challenges ahead. (In Oceans of Insight, Heather offers an expanded resource list.)

Tree planting in Middleton
In 2013 Earth Holders planted 200 oak seedlings in the John C. Bock Community Forest, a 19-acre conservancy next to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Guided by City Forester Mark Wegner, the planting served to help implement the City’s plan to restore the land’s native forest, savanna and prairie.

Earth Holders is no longer a SnowFlower Project as there is now a new Plum Village international Earth Holders affinity group.