“We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his kin, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on...He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert...There is no quiet place in the white city. What is there to life if a person cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?...The air is precious to the Red, for all things share the same breath… The White does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench...What is humanity without beasts? If all the beasts were gone, we would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to us. All things are connected...You may think now that you own God as you wish to own our land; but you cannot...The earth is precious to God, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.” ~Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish in the Washington territory, marking the transferal of ancestral Indian lands to the federal government in 1854 from Natural Religion by Neal Ferris
Chief Seattle, uttering these words in 1854, might just as well have been speaking to our country today, considering how we, of non-native descent, have persisted in our short-sighted and unspiritual exploitation of the earth we inhabit. Indigenous nations have been sounding this lament for centuries, and now only the most intransigent can deny the mounting visible, tangible evidence of the destruction we have wrought across creation. Chief Seattle was right. So much hinges on what we see when we look outwards at nature and what we see when we consider ourselves. Have we seen the natural world predominantly as something to be used, conquered, and extorted? Have we conducted ourselves like little gods manipulating and bending the earth and its creatures for our own comfort, pleasure, sport, and status? Or have we honored and revered, cultivated and cherished creation as stewards and as people who truly perceive the awe, beauty, goodness, and wonder of the earth and all its inhabitants?
"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.” ~William Blake, in a letter to Reverend John Trusler (1799), in The Portable William Blake
Is the tree to us, merely a green thing blocking our path towards that which we call efficiency or progress? Or, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning expresses (and as I have quoted before because it is a personal favorite), do we recognize the essence of God in the earth around us: reverberating, speaking to us if only we will both see and listen?
"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Aurora Leigh”
Barrett Browning beckons us to recall the inherent sacredness of creation that extends far beyond using creation for our own physical nourishment. Creation offers us spiritual sustenance and communion with God if only we will “take off our shoes” and realize that here is holy ground. Barrett Browning gorgeously evokes Exodus 3:5 when Moses, in front the flaming bush, burning with God’s presence is admonished by God to take off his shoes, for the ground on which he stood was holy. Moses had the good sense to reverently remove his shoes. Do I? Do we? Do we focus upon the utilitarian and the day-to-day minutiae of our busy lives so much that we miss the spiritual import calling out to us from every bush, tree, and creature?
As Chief Seattle asks, “What is there to life if a person cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?...” Some have lost the capacity to truly hear these things, even if they call and croon right outside their windows. And what we do not hear, we cannot register or honor. “The air is precious to the Red, for all things share the same breath…The White does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench…” The aptness of this figurative language here is stunning. As we observe the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, the extinction of species, and the frequency of deadly extreme weather systems, it is possible to feel the earth begin to reverberate with the groan of death pangs. It is like a man dying, but because we live on the earth, minute and myopic, with little ability to see the big picture of the earth, our host, (so like parasites can we be), we are largely unable to detect the stench of decay all around us. We have been failing in our stewardship.
As I write these words, I write them to exhort myself and not merely others. In the scheme of all that I could do to be a part of the environmental solution, I find I do very little. I tend to dwell in the world of thought for far too long before that thought transmutes into action. Do you find that your awareness is raised regarding the condition of the earth, but your actions are not commensurate with your sorrow and concern? I know this is true of myself. What is one new action you can take this month that has the potential to make a difference in the natural world? I would like to start by consistently cutting down on the amount of hot water my family uses. Let’s challenge each other to make a change, however small, this month. And then next month, we can make another.