Web of Life retreat walks the Earth in Darién

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Horacio González, center, explains to the Web of Life group the reason for heavy sedimentation of Río Sabana: construction and agriculture companies upstream have stripped large sections of land, causing severe erosion. During the dry season, the water is clear, and the center pumps it uphill to the buildings for cleaning and other purposes. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Darién, Panama — "Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now is the time for us to take good care of her. We bring our peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. ... Every step makes a flower bloom under our feet. We can do it only if we do not think of the future or the past, if we know that life can only be found in the present moment."
Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh

The invitation, shared in this reading by Maryknoll Sr. Peg Dillon, was to walk in silence, but the group of sojourners from the Web of Life retreat were so excited with the exuberance of the tropical jungle that it was a tough direction to follow. Past the coconut palm and the greenhouse and the tree nursery, alongside the garden of medicinal plants like ginger and turmeric and aloe vera, following a busy procession of leaf-cutter ants, the happy chatter rang through the trees as they walked.

Coffee and pineapple, quince and avocado, guanabana and strange fruits from prickly palm trees, all of it there for the harvesting. Every step brought a new surprise.

The 100 acres preserved as a vestige of the region's native forest by the Maryknoll Sisters gave the group a glimpse into what the region is losing, with thousands of hectares of forest and wetlands being destroyed every year to make way for industrial agribusiness and cattle ranching.

In the days ahead, the group will learn more about the connections between those forests and wetlands, their importance to the health of the planet and the particulars of what is happening here. For today, however, the invitation was to simply take in the essence of what is here.

Fr. José Maria Vigil of Spain, Nicaragua and Panama and David Molineaux of Chile prepare for their walking meditation in the forest. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Maryknoll Sr. Melinda Roper gathered the group under the shelter of the sisters' pastoral center in Santa Fe as the night fell and shared a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, that she once discovered in the chapel at the U.N.: "Within each person is a space of quietude surrounded by silence."

Echoing Dillon's invitation to use silence to create a space for contemplation, Roper invited all to answer one of three prompts to share what they had experienced this day. Readers are invited to do the same:

  1. Describe something that dazzled you today, something that awakened awe or wonder in you.
  2. What did you learn today that deepens your understanding/comprehension of the integrity of creation?
  3. How have you experienced communion today?

Irene de Vangoechea was awed by the realization that biodiversity lies in small things, like the intricate ferns that laced the ground beneath our feet, the bright-orange, cup-shaped mushrooms, and the busy army of carpenter ants, each one carrying a slice of leaf much larger than itself.

Maryknoll Sr. Melinda Roper leads the way down a well-worn trail from Río Sabana (Tracy L. Barnett)
Coffee beans (Tracy L. Barnett)

Itzel Menendez was moved to a feeling of communion by the kindness of fellow hikers who reached out a hand when she tripped or struggled up a muddy hill. And Nina Valmont was awed by the power of a brief rainstorm pounding on the roof and the heat lightning flickering in the distance.

"You realize how small we are as humans; nature is really so much more powerful than us, and yet we're called to take care of this thing that seems so much more powerful that we are — and yet we have such an ability as humans to abuse it." she said. "The rain is going to come, whether or not I want it to, and the lightning is going to come, whether or not I'm afraid of the lightning. It does its own thing. It just reminds me that we're called to be watchful and take care of it."

Maryknoll Sr. Melinda Roper, left, orients the group of Web of Life participants in the pastoral center's courtyard around Conchita's Tree. (Tracy L. Barnett)

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[Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer, editor and photographer specializing in environmental issues, indigenous rights and sustainable travel.]

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