My name is Jason Brown. I grew up in Yorba Linda, California. My neighborhood growing up is located in the traditional territory of the Tongva and Gabrielino indigenous peoples and there was a village located not far from my house (now a major freeway overpass).
With the arrival of Europeans and flood irrigation, my neighborhood was transformed into an agricultural paradise, and many of the streets are still lined with eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks and boundary markers for the avocado and orange groves that arrived in the early 1900s. As a child, I loved catching lizards and snakes in the arroyos behind my house. As a teenager I loved music, photography, painting and wanted to be a great writer.
I was raised in the Mormon tradition but had some tumultuous teenage years. At 21, though I was uncertain about my own faith, I decided to join thousands of other Mormon young people as a missionary. I was sent to the Santiago Mission in the northern half of the Dominican Republic for two years. It was in the Dominican Republic that my love of ecology blossomed. The tropical green and lush biodiversity set my mind on fire for the earth, and my spirituality became deeply connected to Creation.
When I returned from my missionary experience, I attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I eventually decided to major in anthropology with a minor in international development so that I could continue to explore the relationship between people and the environment. During my fourth year, I was lucky enough to be part of a summer field school in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. My research looked at the power dynamics between traditional Mayan and government-sponsored forestry practices. However, what really fascinated me was forests as both complex ecosystems and powerful spiritual ecologies.
So, I continued to explore these ideas by earning joint master’s degrees in forestry and theology from Yale (after one rejection, I was accepted the second time). The work of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, scholars of religion and ecology, was instrumental to my development as a scholar and spiritual ecologist. My writing at the time explored both Mormon eco-theology and the LDS sacred grove as a Sacred Natural Site. I also worked with the US Inter-tribal Timber Council, which promotes economic and ecological sustainability among timber producing Native American tribes.
After my graduate work, I moved back to Utah and taught ethics and religion courses at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College. I also managed to get a job as a forester for the US Forest Service during the summer months. It was such an amazing balance between my passions! It was at the beginning of this phase that I decided to officially walk away from my practice as a Mormon after many years of wrestling, discernment and prayer. I immersed myself in the mountain forests of Utah and began a meditation practice.
While I was in Salt Lake, I had a very powerful spiritual experience at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. I also began reading Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk who wrote about the power of silence and contemplation in a Christian context. I never knew that Christianity had a contemplative tradition, and I began to pour over the mystical and contemplative classics. Merton’s love for his monastery landscape in Kentucky and his practice of photography deeply resonated with my own experiences, and I eventually began attending Catholic Mass and practicing centering prayer (meditation).
Despite loving my work as a professor and forester, there was not a lot of job security or paid benefits in either post. So, I decided to apply for a PhD program in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2013, I packed up my truck and moved to Vancouver and began my program with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at the University of British Columbia. My supervisor was an interdisciplinary anthropologist, and she allowed me a lot of room to develop my ideas and interest in spiritual ecology and the environmental humanities. I graduated in 2017, and my dissertation research focuses on the spiritual ecology of monastic landscapes in the American West. My additional research and writing interests include ethics, eco-theology, religion/spirituality and ecology, phenomenology of landscapes and sacred sites, forest studies, and contemporary debates surrounding nature and wilderness.
It was during my time in Vancouver that I began The Holyscapes Project which is simply an exploration of the inner and outer landscapes we inhabit, explore and call home. In my day to day life and in my travels, I look for the convergence of place, ecology and spirituality. I am currently teaching environmental humanities courses Simon Fraser University and occasionally other universities in the Salish Sea Bioregion.
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Beautiful page. Shared this to some friends ~<3 and Lights~
I am wondering if you are also considering the critical role that DEATH plays in the nature of the Universe, and in what it means to be ‘whole’ — and further, the wholeness (and hag-iology in the broadest sense of ‘living w/holy’) of re-honouring death, incorporating it back into the cycle/spiral of our existence — and partially doing so by facing the deaths in our lives directly and dealing with them ‘hands on’. Please check out CINDEA (Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives) at http://www.cindea.ca if you are interested in considering conversation about this aspect of ‘w/holiness’ with me.
Some other terms I’ve come across in my reading are ‘deep ecology’ and ‘eco-cide.’ The last refers to the loss of species as a result of human activity. I have some blogs about these themes! Good luck with your work; we need science + empathy/compassion to save habitats and for spiritual health!
Hi Jason –
Lovely to re-read your story hear, and of your commitment to the “great work” of our age. Susan Brumitt was part of fr. Charles Brandt meditation group who (as you are aware) died on Oct 25th. I know you had contacted him about possibly visiting him at his hermitage. I am sorry that that was not to be, as I am sure he would have been pleased to meet you and learn about your studies, your ledership and your own spiritual and eco-logical journey. I hope to write to you further via email which I have asked Susan to send me. I’m glad you appreciated the article about Charles and some of my personal connection with him in the on-line journal ‘decafnation”. There are a few other good articles about fr. Charles there too… especially, The Long and Windy Road…. Also on my blog if you search fr. charles Brandt, about dozen articles will appear, many featuring his photography along with his lfe-work.
I look forward to possible further communication Jason. Even though Charles himself is now gone from the earth, it would be good if the “hermitage society” could work with you in some capacity, over time…. I think our work and our vision is similar.
Bruce, absolutely! I really look forward to hearing from you.
Enjoyed looking through your website. Found it through the Yale Forum newsletter. I have been working on a project that you may have some interest in, since 1997. It integrates forest, sculpture and human in an aesthetic reflection on impermanence. You can check it out on my website, stevenfinke.com. Under “work” scroll down to the “Cessation of Breath” gallery.
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I am excited to read your blog work. It was a pleasure “meeting” you via phone when you were visiting with our mutual friend, Chris Foster. I was wondering, too, if your research has taken you into the Celtic Christian tradition and the concept of “thin places”?
Indeed! Thin places does indeed come up.