While we are making plans, the Earth is making us


All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard
~ Krishna Das, from Heart as Wide as the World

We seem to be fond of comparing ourselves to animals, or, as native people tend to call them, the four-leggeds. Our post-Enlightenment minds play this game by finding ourselves to be superior to those “Others.” One story we like is that we are the only conscious beings on the planet, which is rapidly being debunked even by modern science. I did recently think of this difference, though: we make plans. We take on long-term projects that last beyond seasons, that may take five or ten years to complete. And sometimes our projects fail.

Plants and animals are seasonal, and their physical aims much simpler: survival and reproduction. They don’t seem to have the ambition to change their surroundings or invent things or look at distant galaxies, let alone travel to them. They don’t make musical instruments or write symphonies or Shakespearean plays. And yet they are part of a vast dance, a swirling ongoing Creation that is impossible to comprehend in its entirety. While we make plans, the Earth makes us.

“We know nothing for certain, but we seem to see that the world turns upon growing, grows towards growing, and growing green and clean.” ~ Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first got involved with sustainability, it blew my mind to learn that humans actually create nothing, not in the material sense. We are net consumers and that’s all we’ll ever be. This perspective led me to great wonder and humility, yet also kept me stuck in the Story of Separation. It’s certainly true that we cannot do what green plants do; we can’t eat sunlight and excrete food. We can make use of those raw materials to build and create things, but those raw materials do not originate with us.

We are sunlight in the material sense because we eat the foods that ate the sunlight. Beyond that, though, we are sunlight by design. The wisdom traditions observe that the sun’s fire radiates from within, and we, too, burn with an inner fire. They called this various names, spirit being one of them. They observed this inner fire in all living things. We, being clever, figured out how to liberate the material inner fire, using friction and flame, to generate heat and light. We called it “energy” and designed our world around it. Sadly, we lost track of the basic truths about energy, about its source and our part in that story.

“Today we are faced with a crisis that calls for a shift in our thinking…We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own-indeed to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.” ~ Wangari Maathai, speech while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize

In the lovely book, Teaching the Trees, I was brought up short by a passage the two purposes of plants, survival and reproduction. From a biological perspective, this is why flowers and fruits are so garish, elaborate, irresistible, and varied: to attract the pollinators, the seed-carriers, birds, bees, beetles, butterflies. To spread their fertility and create progeny. Yet to focus only on the biology is to miss the bigger picture.

“As humans we are born of the Earth, healed by the Earth. The natural world tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you. Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human. For I offer you a communion with the divine, I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other, I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other. In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.” Thomas Berry, from Evening Thoughts

Thomas Berry speculates that one reason we came along last, after evolution had created so much beauty and diversity, is that we need it all as our solace for being not only conscious, but self-aware. We have this feeling, built into our very developmental stages, of being Separate from it all, and from each other. This kind of awareness leaves us lonely and grieving, and so we turn to Nature to heal our broken hearts and soothe our souls.

His interpretation is a beautiful way to weave us into the Creation story, so we are not only consumers and takers. Yes, we are utterly dependent on nature’s bounty, but think about it. Thomas Berry is suggesting that the Earth dreamed us into being so that she can admire herself, to see herself through our eyes, hear her streams and waterfalls and breezes through our ears, taste those outlandish fruits with our mouths and tongues.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~ Mary Oliver, from Sometimes

And then to write poetry and music, paint pictures and dance, tell stories to others of what we have seen, smelled, tasted and felt. We are the storytellers. We belong. If for no other reason, we belong to see the earth’s magnificence and tell about it. And that is enough. It is more than enough. It is an honor.

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