Grandmother Earth

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.

There, 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 overhead!

My 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 the woods.

At 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.

The 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.

Our 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 of Man.

It 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 hers.

Our 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.

The 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.

So 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.

©2005 by Jeff Grygny