In the Kettle Moraine region of central Wisconsin there is a hiking
trail that is my favorite place on earth. It's only about eight miles
all around, but it covers an amazing variety of landscapes: grassland
with huge ant mounds; little streams trickling under bridges; marshes
chirping with happy frogs; dark pine woods, hogback trails with vistas
for miles, and cathedral-like woods spreading over hills and hollows.
As with any true love, I find this spot both comfortably familiar and
delightfully novel every time I visit.
between the quiet of an Arbor Vitae grove and the errant cries of crows,
I sense a great calm presence: the spirits of the land, ancient yet
alive, caring nothing for the petty losses and gains of the city. I
feel them the way you can feel that someone is in a room even when you're
not looking. I imagine that they recognize me-I've been greeting them
for over twenty years, after all-and in token of my love and respect,
I follow the old pagan custom of making a libation offering: a splash
of whatever I've brought, poured on the ground, as if I were pouring
a drink for a favorite relative. Then I sit, listening to the quiet.
I seem to feel their energy greeting me, refreshing my body and mind.
I feel like singing one of our old favorite songs. Once, just as I had
performed this little ritual, a huge water bird flew silently right
friend Mark has been coming with me to this trail for more than fifteen
years. He's a successful consultant with a comfortable house on a wooded
lot in the suburbs. He likes to watch football and play golf. We enjoy
each other's company for the funny contrast between my philosophical
mysticism and his Scottish/American practicality. On our last trip,
he commented that he had always found my little libation offerings annoying
(we are the best of friends so he can say things like that). Why do
I waste perfectly good wine or beer by pouring it out on the ground?
He offered to make an offering of his own: an empty bottle, lobbed into
one time in human history making offerings to the local spirits was
as much a part of everyday life as calling people on the phone is to
us. How much our relation to the Earth has changed over the last couple
of hundred years! People talk about "Mother Nature" and "Mother
Earth"; environmentalists might urge us to "respect our mother";
biologists talk about the planet as a single living organism and call
her "Gaia" after the ancient Greek mother earth goddess. But
I'm not sure that it's either accurate or wise to talk this way anymore.
metaphor of Earth as mother might be unintentionally helping to provoke
ecocide. Many people have quite conflicted feelings about their mothers.
Our love for our mothers is often mixed, and sometimes totally obscured
by resentment. Mothers are down in the trenches: they provide their
children's every need, they scold, spank, and sometimes lose their cool.
As young humans mature-- especially young men--they feel the need to
separate from their mothers. And women may feel their connection to
their mothers as stifling and inescapable. Some have extended this resentment
toward nature: we see SUV commercials taking delight in kicking Mother
Nature's ass, not to mention the mentality behind the everyday environmental
plundering of huge mining and oil companies. Do modern people subconsciously
feel the need to declare their independence from nature? If so, "Mother
Earth" plays right into this feeling.
relation with the natural world is utterly different from our ancestors',
who lived with the seasons and the elements-- digging earth, raising
and hunting animals, making their own fires-- in ways that most of us
now do only as recreation, if at all. We live one step removed from
Earth: our food is wrapped in plastic, we void our waste in clean little
rooms, we keep the weather and critters out with drywall and thermopane.
Technology provides us with everything in our environment and we are
completely dependent upon it.
We are no longer children of Earth; like it or not, we are children
might be better to start talking about "Grandmother Earth."
After 2000 years of civilization and 300 years of industry, she is starting
to show her age. She's more like the kind, frail lady we visit on vacations
and holidays than the nurturing, omnipresent mom that we feel we have
to move away from someday. Let's have some all-too-rare words in praise
of grandmothers! They're not movie stars, they rarely hold political
office or head corporations, but they are so basic to human life. Without
century after century of grandmothers' kindness and patience-- caring
for children when mothers are busy, singing songs, teaching love by
example-- our species would probably have gone up in flames centuries
ago. Grandmother love, I'm convinced, is the invisible weft that keeps
the fabric of civilization from coming apart. We feel much more unconditional
love for our grandmothers, and we also recognize that we need to take
care of them. If she is going to be around, healthy and strong, for
many years to come, she needs our love and attention as much as we need
civilization's neglect of the Earth is paralleled in our neglect of
our grandmothers, who all too often languish away in nursing homes,
isolated from the teem of life where their love could do so much. Pursuit
of the freedom of the nuclear family has shattered the tribal wholeness
of extended families, which were the only way of life for nigh on all
of history, save the last few centuries of industrialization. I know
a ninety-five year old named Mary, frail as a winter tree and sweet
as an apple, who would love some company right now, but the only people
who see her warm smile are the women who are paid so little to care
for her, and are often too busy for her. She sits alone most of the
time, humbly waiting for her time to go.
complexities of planetary ecology are remote abstractions; the plight
of a lonely old lady strikes our hearts and moves us to compassion.
If we talk about Grandmother Earth, if people understand how much we
need each other, and the joy that comes from her love, it might help
to raise the level of awareness of all the richness that our culture
lets waste, not through wickedness, but through speed, business, and
institutional convenience. People need reminders that things like taking
care of the Earth and taking care of the old are part of what makes
life worth living. Slowing down and being present become as important
as hectic achievement.
when my friend started to throw his empty bottle into the woods as his
offering to nature, I stopped him by asking: "You wouldn't throw
an empty at your grandmother, would you?" As Children of Man, we
are not evil; our bodies are still of the same flesh as Grandmother
Earth; we partake of the soul of Gaia with our every breath and heartbeat.
We still wake up to her love whenever we see a blue sky, or watch a
flock of birds wheeling over the trees, or feel a fresh breeze against
our faces. But we are still babies, making big messes with our technological
toys. We really need our grandmother.
by Jeff Grygny