Denise is an environmental engineer, an organic grower and a regenerative ecological designer (certified permaculturist) in Lake County California. In 2004 she founded Dancing TreePeople Organic Orchard and Garden in Upper Lake, CA where she practices ecological gardening and sustainable agriculture. Denise is an engineering graduate of Stanford University where she studied alternative energy and environmental science. She also holds a Master’s in Culture and Spirituality (2003) from Holy Names University/Sophia Center in Oakland. Denise has led a variety of environmental and energy efficiency technology businesses. Currently she is serving as the re-elected county supervisor for California’s rural District 3 Lake County. Visit Denise’s blog at www.bloggingforsanity.net or her two websites at www.deniserushing.org or www.dancingtreepeople.com.
Denise, tell us a little about your younger years. What attracted you into the areas of environmental studies and permaculture? Do you have any childhood memories that pointed you to “saving Earth?”
I was born the oldest of four girls. As a young child, I was curious and sensitive, so it was difficult for me when my family moved every year or two to a new school. At a young age I developed a love of Nature and reverence for the natural world, coupled with insatiable scientific curiosity. I turned to science as a way to bring order to my world. At the same time, I was filled with sensitivity, humor, creativity and great capacity for wonder and awe. However, due to my many childhood difficulties, I hesitated to create through play, unable to trust a messy, creative force. Perhaps I was an adult at age eight! As I look back on my early life, I realize that I was profoundly affected by abuse, both in human and cultural form, and I rejected the feminine as weak and embarrassing. Identifying with the powerful role of “hero,” my energies were focused on achievement. Yet I found it difficult to recognize my own worth and even more difficult to separate my worth from my accomplishments. Nevertheless, I felt a deep spiritual yearning, a desire to deepen. And I longed to play.
You were in the business world for 25 years. Why did you leave it?
After a grueling stint from 1996 through 2002 establishing two energy-based high tech start-up companies in Silicon Valley (CellNet Data Systems and Sage Systems), I found myself asking profound questions about the nature of creation and my role in it. My old ways of being were not working. A year earlier, after experiencing increasing panic attacks and chest pains, I realized that I could no longer force myself to function as I had been. I was fully depleted. In a desperate move, I quit my executive job and began looking for a place to rest and heal. During the months that followed, the physical symptoms resulting from this career crisis had mitigated but I still hadn’t found a structure or outlet for my new energies. Then, a person in spiritual crisis, I entered the Sophia Master’s program in August of 2002, hoping to discover a new way of being.
How did you first hear about the Sophia Center?
The Sophia Program and the Universe Story were unknown to me until uncovered in a web search in mid-August 2002. I can’t tell you exactly what I entered into Google — it was something like masters and mysticism. Up came the Sophia Center. After looking over the website, I called the telephone number and left a message requesting information. Sophia Director Jim Conlon called me back within an hour and convinced me to give it a go.
Was this quick decision unusual for you?
Yes. Although in this case, I felt that it was absolutely the right thing to do. Something within longed for the discussion and exploration of a deeper, more meaningful spirituality — one that could help me make sense of the state of the world and my place in it. And the idea of “play” for adults appealed to me. Once I reviewed the topics of the classes offered at Sophia, I found many things that particularly drew my curiosity and excitement. With great hope and uncharacteristic spontaneity, I applied the following week, packed my bags and entered the nine-month resident program by the end of the month. The idea of the sabbatical program and being away from everyday responsibilities while I explored this part of myself appealed to me. I definitely needed a deep rest. And at some deeper level, I knew that I needed to “come home” to myself.
How did you enjoy your studies at Sophia?
My early days at Sophia were a bit disorienting. My first reaction to the program was What have I gotten myself into! Do I really belong here? Will I be able to relate to my fellow students as well as the faculty? Later I learned that this is a pretty common first reaction to the Sophia experience. The spiritual journey is a process and the Sophia Center was becoming an important part in my awakening to the new cosmology. However, I warn you that if you do this, you will change and it may be uncomfortable.
Sophia opened my eyes to The Universe Story, Thomas Berry and a totally global, intra-species way of thinking. While in the program, I joined millions of others around the globe on February 16, 2003 in my first global peace march. I also began making pottery — from the clay of Earth and from fire a new stone creation emerges. It seemed to me that Earth herself was entering a new awareness through a growing human consciousness and connection — and this awareness was awakening in me.
Which guiding principles have you taken from the Sophia program?
In the program, I examined my own evolution thus far in the context of Earth’s evolution within the Universe Story. I soon drew upon the “Fourfold Wisdoms,” interweaving, applying them to my life:
Feminine Wisdom— in particular the feminine contained within my own story as a woman, mother, sojourner as well as of those others whose stories have touched my own. My story revealed the ever-present search for vocation and calling—and my struggle to come home to who I really am. So much of my awakening has been steeped in this self-discovery of the strong, positive feminine energy.
The Wisdom of the Universe—in particular the science of the early Universe, its fundamental forces and unfolding evolution. Within the Universe Story I saw how the dynamics and moments of creation offered key insights into my own journey.
The Wisdom of Dreams and Archetype (Indigenous Wisdom) – acknowledging the role of synchronicity, archetypal and personal energies, subtlety, sexuality, spirituality, mysticism led to my own awakening, to more fully claim my life and inner authority.
The Wisdom of Classical Religious Traditions – while studying other traditions, I explored the depth of my own religious tradition, namely sacramental life and the paschal mystery, as a way to make sense of suffering and hold true to the promise of new life. I longed to remain faithful to the call of this mystery in prayer and spiritual practice and to integrate the best of my tradition, connecting me to the wisdom of those who have walked the path before me
Who were your favorite teachers? Tell us a little about each of them, what they taught and how they impacted your life.
Mary Schmitt, neurophysiologist, directed her passion to the study of consciousness in all of Nature, especially the human role in its evolution. At the end of one of her classes she asked us to write on whether we believe in Leprechauns. I remember this assignment with a chuckle now but at the time I wondered if this Sophia experience was going to work out. Her question had actually shaken me because it quickly began to challenge my worldview and self-concept. I had thought of myself as so “open.” As it turned out, Mary asked the questions that pushed me to the edges.
Dody Donnelly, theologian and historian, who taught “Mystics of the Middle Ages,” was a mentor to me. Dody introduced me to a dynamic model called “see-level” that described self-concept and its influence on behavior. Self-attitude is created from what Dody describes as see-level (or CEEEE level): the culture, education, environment, experience and expectations held by the person. To understand the evolution of the person, one must understand their see-level and how these elements can change a person over time.
Both were inspirational women, now recently deceased, who moved me into a creative and valuable self-learning process. In addition their classroom experiences created a special bonding with my classmates that gave me a deep sense of place.
I particularly enjoyed my classes with Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist, whose primary focus is the nature of the evolutionary dynamics of the Universe. Brian provided engaging and meaningful interpretation of the human as an emergent being within the Universe and Earth. For the first time ever I was challenged to integrate the scientific and mystical parts of myself. Evolutionary science stimulated, excited and boldly challenged me while inviting me into the awe, Mystery and spirituality of the Universe Story at the same time.
How did the Sophia education dovetail with your Genesis Farm experience?
I see my Sophia experience in terms of a gardening metaphor. Any gardener knows that you have to start with the soil. You have to cultivate health into it. Sophia provided me with critical nutrients, i.e., knowledge and self-examination with enough creativity and play to allow my inner voice to guide me. Combining Sophia with a two-week stay at Genesis Farm in New Jersey brought me more fully into the consciousness of the new cosmology. I needed that direct connection with Nature and the farm to help it all sink in. I was open to the Genesis Farm experience because Sophia had prepared the soil, encouraging me to trust my intuition. The hands-on experience of gardening and Nature at Genesis Farm brought the academic and self-exploration work at the Sophia Center into context.
These two experiences led me in 2005 to the next step — participation in a regenerative ecological design (permaculture) course with an amazing group of people. Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and principles that can be used to establish, design, manage and improve all efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. I can honestly say that this process of ecological design is one of the most hopeful things I have encountered and is really beyond sustainability. This is about our human capacity and responsibility to renew depleted and ravaged places. It’s about bringing fertility to depleted soils and creating better human communities in the process.
In the years following I have been integrating permaculture design into the Dancing TreePeople Orchard and Garden and into my role of community leadership in Lake County. With so much destruction afoot in our world, it feels quite empowering to obtain new skills in self-sufficiency and community building. If you would like to learn more about this course, please visit the E.A.T. website.
Thomas Berry said “the dream drives the action.” What is your dream?
When I arrived at Sophia, I wondered why it was that I did not have a dream like so many others. Through the process, I came to realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a dream. Rather it was that my dream was SO huge that I did not dare speak it out loud. So I wrote it down and it has been guiding my life ever since. Here it is.
My Dream for Earth
I dream that our children and our children’s children will enjoy fresh raging rivers, crystal clear air, and oceans, forests and wetlands teaming with life;
I dream that species of all kind and all manner, regardless of their value to humankind, have the habitat to thrive and indeed do thrive together with our human species;
I dream that humankind lives in right and balanced relationship with all of Creation, giving back what we take, honoring future generations;
I dream that we see all Creation as sacred, that our children know their place in the sacred world and are one with it, that they know what it means to be home;
I dream that we love enough to let ourselves be held by this Creation and we know who we are in it;
I dream that humans live in just relationship with each other and with all Creation,
that our communities and our families are connected by a bond of love for and with Creation, that Creation inspires us and feeds us and that is enough for us;
I dream that our work sustains us, that we understand what we mean to the Universe, our community and our family, striving to unfold into our best selves out of love and with love.
Your resume is vast with many ingredients for a greener world. How does this reflect today in your everyday life?
Really everything I’m engaged in I see as part of the work of the New Story. I’m drawn to these new aspects of the Great Work, as Thomas Berry calls it. If you are not being drawn to the work, then it’s forced. You have to develop a level of trust and that has to come naturally. I am drawn to the principles of permaculture, the practice of sustainable agriculture, care of Earth, care of people and returning to Earth the surpluses of my work. And I am drawn to The Universe Story that offers an integrated spirituality—namely that of interconnectedness and common shared origin. These are the central tenets of my philosophy— what guides my work, hobbies and life.
After my graduation from Sophia, everything changed…and I continue to experience changes unfolding, still not sure where they are leading me. However, today I live my life with a deeper relationship between myself and Earth. My life is very full with two adult children, an ongoing relationship, running the daily operations of my organic farm, my elected position as a county supervisor representing the Third District of Lake County, California. In addition I continue to provide consultation in my technical vocations, that of energy efficiency technology as well as operating an organic walnut orchard. From time to time I lead permaculture workshops. I also remain active on the board of directors of The Rockhaven Ecozoic Center in House Springs, MO, an interfaith retreat center that I helped found in 2003 with my Sophia colleagues, Jan Stocking and Diza Velasco. Rockhaven, located just outside St. Louis, focuses on providing a place for spiritual renewal as well as modeling a way of living that embodies our connection with Earth. I see it as an oasis for those seeking connection to an Earth-centered spirituality (www.rockhaven.org).
It sounds like you are living your dream! There are so many challenges in bringing the all-inclusiveness of the new cosmology to the mainstream. What kind of pathway do you envision?
If one wants to live in harmony with the planet, to accept one’s position as a part of the natural system rather than a consumer (taker) of Earth’s gifts, then an internal shift is required, a change in the way of BEING. Much of what we have been taught about ourselves — how to be happy, how to survive, how to relate — must change. Despite what we have been taught by popular culture since infancy, we do not need more things to make us happy. In fact, paradoxically, the more we have, the more elusive happiness becomes. Yet, despite the fact that heroes are rewarded and individualism is worshiped in our culture, the most important gifts in the next few decades may well be our relationships with neighbors and the cultivation of local community.
Why do I say this? Because no one person can possibly have all the skills or resources or tools or creativity or time to be fully sustainable on her own. Even if you could afford it, you would not have the time or strength working alone. And, more importantly, the vision of such a life is unappealing. One needs a life-giving and sustaining vision, a spiritual sustenance, in order to let go of the false promises ingrained so deeply within us. As it turns out, our ability to forge relationships and our own creativity are probably our most important individual gifts.
I offer a personal example of how I have forged a global perspective within my community. My platform in running for Lake County supervisor was taken directly from the Earth Charter (www.earthcharterinaction.org). In fact, I wrote a local version to guide my campaign and subsequent decision-making. I believe that we need to translate the Universe Story into a language that is understandable by all segments of the human community. I want to help others understand that they have a role in a hopeful future. For a great example of how this all is really happening here in Lake County, visit: clarks island sustainability initiative on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clarks-Island-Sustainability-Initiative/131571996892818
As I harvest the first of our organic vegetables and contemplate the season ahead, I drink in the beauty of the landscape around me here in Lake County. I am grateful for all I have been given. From the land and trees, to the community of life and the community of people here. We have all that we need for the times ahead. My dream is that we accept all that is entrusted to us and make it better for our community for the generations to come.
What hope do you see in this movement?
I look to the future and our relationship with the next generation. Constantly hammering on what is wrong with Earth is counter-productive — our young people already know! The answer to the global crisis lies within Earth herself. It lies in living and finding harmony and cooperation with her systems, not in competition with them. Let Earth and the ways of the natural world help us move forward. It is our role to help our children deal with the despair that they feel over what they have inherited. Our youth want and need hope.
What words do you want to leave our children?
In the permaculture courses I have taken, I have been one of the oldest people in the course—most of the folks were under 30–many from all over the world, mostly the western United States. I have come to believe that the permaculture skills and philosophies will be critical for survival (both physically and spiritually) in the years ahead. For the young, corporate jobs will become scarcer—and far less satisfying. In these courses we learned skills, NOT just for sustainability, but also for regenerating our soils and depleted Earth. To quote Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture, “We must turn all our resources to repairing the natural world, and train all our young people to help. They want to. We need to give them this last chance to create forests, soils, clean waters, clean energies, secure communities, stable regions, and to know how to do it from hands-on experience”
We are an insane people. These illnesses that we biopsy and irradiate and remove (and sadly often to which we succumb) are but a symptom of a greater problem–many are awakening to the insanity with a chilling realization that we have taken for granted the most basic of gifts: clean water, wholesome food and a world that accepts and transforms the waste we create. The current path we are on leads to ruin; we will consume ourselves — soon enough, I suppose, unless we choose not to.
The heart of our problem may well be a lack of gratitude. I believe fervently that we need to give thanks for the miracle of our own lives, of the amazing life around us, and the precious gifts that allow us to be. For friendship and love and for all those who bear the painful burden of our excess, and for the simple gifts that mean so much and were given to so many of us for free like health and sunshine and love — and of course life — all of which is so very very fragile. Perhaps our love and gratitude will help us create a new way forward.
Please share a hopeful example of one way to live in harmony with Earth.
In the last 24 hours, I chose meals that were locally grown—all grown almost entirely from my own farm and garden. Yesterday, I ate “farm-grown fast food” for dinner: 2 giant freestone peaches off my peach tree, a handful of cherry tomatoes off my tomato vines, a bunch of grapes off my grape vines and a sparkling glass of mint-ice water using the mint from my herb garden. This morning for breakfast: a scramble—a sliced zucchini from the garden sautéed in locally-produced olive oil with two farm fresh eggs (produced by my chickens), seasoned with chives and basil. For lunch: some more grapes and a fresh tomato salad with walnuts and an herb vinaigrette. And for dessert: some of Sky Hoyt’s local strawberry sorbet.
In our country, food travels, on average, 1500 miles from producer to table, requiring huge amounts of fossil fuels both to grow it and deliver it. Most of this food at my table traveled less than 100 feet. And I guarantee it tastes a lot better. Everything is flavorful and colorful and nutritious. August is so bountiful here… it can’t get much better than this. I can’t think of a better way to heal my own spirit and heal Earth at the same time.
We can grow our own foods and we already know how important it is to shop locally. By buying local food, we support our farmers and economy right where we live! This is living in harmony and community with Earth and all her beings.
Thomas Berry said that Earth is a one-time endowment. He goes on to say that Earth is primary, that all else, including the human, is derivative. What if we acted as if we believed this? What if the first and primary relationship with the Divine is reflected in how we enter into the mystery of our relationship with Creation? What if we were all to suddenly see Earth—each hill, rock, stream and creature–as sacred? I try to imagine what it would be like if all this human creativity and talent were suddenly awakened to the cause of reforming or returning human interrelationship with each other and our planet home. Seems to me that the issues of justice, which are fundamentally relational, are directly related to getting this first planetary relationship right.
I dream of a day when humankind lives in right and balanced relationship with creation and with each other… when we collectively awaken to fully engage together in the work of renewal, restoration and justice for human communities and the web of life.
I imagine a day when thousands of candles light the night, when we collectively awaken from our insane binge to fully engage our most talented in the work of renewal and resurrection and reconstruction and justice for human and non-human life. This is the work that matters in these times.
Interview by Kitty Nagler