Pilgrimage to the Tar Sands

June 15, 2015

By Sister Mary Pendergast

“We know that from the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.” -Romans 8:22

This boreal plains region of Alberta is characterized by an abundance of black spruce. Photo by Cleve Wershler / The Canadian Encyclopedia

This boreal plains region of Alberta is characterized by an abundance of black spruce. Photo by Cleve Wershler / The Canadian Encyclopedia

Pilgrimage is a meaningful journey to a sacred place, a place of transformation. To go on a pilgrimage is to be open to inner change and inspiration, perhaps to focus on the journey of life and what really matters. It may result in a greater sense of one’s purpose, or appreciation for the gift of life or even healing. I have been preparing, in a sense, to surrender.

Cultural philosophers, eco-theologians and the great geologian, Thomas Berry, have warned that the magnitude of the current crisis has not yet been grasped by human consciousness. Berry writes:

“The devastation of the planet that we are bringing about is negating some hundreds of millions, even billions, of years of past development on Earth … What is happening now is the most profound change that has taken place during the past five thousand years.”

The losses are so vast—entire species, cultures and ecosystems—that to cope we either disbelieve the ultimate consequences of our actions or choose to be distracted and numb, so as not to feel. Ecologist Joanna Macy says we are actually expending tremendous energy to push down the despair of such vast losses, thus diverting the energy needed for a new and creative vision or strategy. But in our hearts we know a new world, a new way to be human on this planet, is possible.

I listened to a Hindu story about a prisoner who had knocked his head against the wall sufficiently until he understood that he could not pass through the gates in his present form.  Realizing nothing could be done, he surrendered. Then he saw that if he would crawl through a filthy gutter, where the stench and filth would fill his nostrils and mouth, it would be the route to freedom—if he would surrender.

The red outline shows approximately where the oil deposit is located in the boreal forest in Canada. Photo from Business Insider.

The red outline shows approximately where the oil deposit is located in the boreal forest in Canada. Photo from Business Insider.

Two years ago, I was asked to do a presentation at St. Joseph College in Maine on tar sands, which are natural deposits containing small amounts of crude bitumen that can be refined into oil.  My preparation brought me to an article and slide presentation by Robert Johnson in Business Insider. It is a “fly over” of the boreal forest in Canada with pictures that make abundantly clear what we are doing in the name of progress.  I urge you to take the time to be with these pictures as a meditation, let them touch you and allow your pain to arise.

The boreal forest is the largest unspoiled forest in North America.  It is made up of forest, lakes, rivers, bogs, grasslands and tundra. It is the world’s largest biome. This region is home to a wide variety of animals. It contains wetlands, pristine lakes and thousands of free flowing rivers.  As the largest forest ecosystem on Earth, it stores more than 400 trillion pounds of carbon.

The region contains some two trillion barrels of oil, but to get to it we are destroying an ecosystem and a way of life for the indigenous people there. Extracting oil from the tar sands, according to the National Resources Defense Council, “uses vast amounts of energy and water, and causes significant air and water pollution, and three times the global warming pollution of conventional crude production. The rush to strip-mine and drill tar sands in the boreal will destroy and fragment millions of acres of this wild forest for low-grade petroleum fuel.”

This July, I will be going on a pilgrimage to the boreal forest. I will see the Athabasca River where the pure glacial water cascades into the falls of Jasper National Park, the same water that is used in the tar sands industry farther north. I will stay in Fort McMurray, the heart of one of Alberta’s hubs of oil production, located near the Athabasca Oil Sands. Besides the oil sands, the economy also relies on natural gas and oil pipelines and forestry. I will visit with the indigenous people who have lived and worked on the Athabasca River for generations in Fort McKay, to hear about what has been happening to their traditional lands—the river, the wildlife and the health of all—because of the tar sands industry over the decades.

Oil companies first clear trees from the land before the oil sands can be scooped up. Photo from Business Insider.

Oil companies first clear trees from the land before the oil sands can be scooped up. Photo from Business Insider.

Compassion is a sense of “suffering with,” but now it is clear that not only humans need that compassion. Now is the grieving process extended to kin we have never known or of whom we may have never even been aware. We are in planetary hospice. Sister Terri MacKenzie, SHJC, wrote these words as part of her Extinction Grieving Prayer:

“We grieve the more than one-in-four flowering plants, the one-in-five mammals, the nearly one-in-three amphibians, and the one-in-eight birds that are vulnerable to being wiped out completely.”

The International Energy Agency tells us we have to leave 80 percent of the recoverable fossil fuels in the ground if we hope to keep global warming at the 2 degree Celsius goal.  That is, over two-thirds of today’s proven reserves of fossil fuels need to still be in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change.

So, tired of banging my head against the wall, I have come to realize we cannot prevent this in our present forms.  I surrender.  With surrender, I am hoping a gutter will open, or the creative force in this universe will pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, or that the pain of a broken world will break through to a new dimension.  This surrender is a cry to the Spirit for all we need in order to face and release the energy to live and love on Earth, our beautiful and only home.

Watch this powerful video of the tar sands and the terrible environmental impact of the oil extraction process. 


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  1. Chris Kavanagh, RSM

    Mary, the slide show and the short video are both very powerful and very informative. They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” and that is certainly true about the tar sands! Thank you for sharing this with us. I will hold you in prayer as you take this pilgrimage on behalf of all of us!

  2. Jackie Moreau

    Your article brings back the memory of the pictures I have seen of the Al….berta devastation and the personal stories of the native people there..the bad smell, the sickness experienced by the children at school near the site, the lack of information on what is happening from the oil corporation and the government. My heart is breaking……….

  3. Fran Repka

    My prayers go with you on this very important pilgrimage. Thank you for taking Mercy to the boreal forests in Canada. I have been following the tar/oil sands development for some time. It is both sad and angering…and will take a community to change this devastating movement. Let us all live in HOPE that transformation is not far away. Blessings, Fran, rsm

  4. Charley in MA

    I honor your surrender, your commitment to helping expose this to the light, and your heart-deepening carefully-chosen words as you face this journey. Today as the encyclical reaches the ears of millions, you know you are not alone in your commitment. In solidarity.

  5. Ann McKenna, RSM

    Mary, thank you for the article and the video. I have a better understanding of the devastation. I will remember you in my prayer.

    Ann McKenna, RSM

  6. Catherine Regan

    Dear Mary,
    This touches my heart deeply. Thank you for your passionate love for our Earth and your unfailing commitment to our waking up. You are an inspiration.

  7. Pingback: What is the Price of Progress? – Reflection from the Tar Sands | Connect With Mercy: The Official Blog of the Sisters of Mercy