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  • Writer's pictureMichelle

Lovers of the Land: Living with Ecological Grief Part 2

This series of posts is an expansion on an article I wrote for Hagstone Publishing’s Stone, Root, and Bone. Some portions of the posts are unchanged from the origional article, but I’ve added thoughts and ideas, making it far too long to be a single post! I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that what I share here is helpful to anyone who feels deep ecological grief the way I do.


In my last post in this series, I wrote about the necessity of feeling, and honoring, our grief. In this post I would like to look at the way we think about our relationship with the land, and how reconsidering this relationship might be helpful. There are several common attitudes toward the world around us that can be very detrimental to the earth, but also to us humans.


Four geese silhouetted against a pale gray and gold sky, high above a line of trees, with the word "Lovers of the Land: Living with Ecological Grief Part 2

The Land Isn’t Our Shopping Mall


The world, we are told, was made especially for man - a presumption not supported by all the facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God's universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves.


John Muir


An all too common attitude toward the land is one of owner, or consumer. Sometimes I’ve heard it described as “stewardship” by people who want to approach the land more ethically. This seems to be the most common view in our culture at large, shaped by xtianity and capitalism. In this view, nature is inert, a collection of items to be consumed. There’s no consideration of the beings around us as conscious, and there’s certainly no consideration of their agency. 


My guess is, if you’re reading this series of posts, you already see the problem with such an attitude toward the land. Most pagans and polytheists I know wish to be allies to the land, and embrace at least a theoretical animism that drives them to be more ecologically minded.


But even within the sphere of paganism and polytheism, there’s sometimes a tendency to think that we have a claim on the treasures of the natural world. That if we approach these treasures with “reverence” and a spiritual mindset, then the land will offer us endless gifts. And it’s true the land is generous and grants us many treasures. But often we enter outdoor spaces assuming that we can go on a sort of free shopping spree, and this attitude sometimes causes us to do damage without realizing it. And sometimes we even think we are “giving back” or  making offerings by leaving treasures of our own, but if those treasures aren’t useful to the plants, animals, or soil, then they’re litter or pollution.


In order to have a healthy relationship with the land, we need to devote some time and energy to understanding their needs better, and to behaving accordingly. Does that mean we can never pick up a leaf or a stone, never leave an offering? Of course not. But it does mean it’s important to consider the needs of the land, and to understand that all the spirits of the world, all the beings of the world, have their own kind of consciousness and their own desires. Which means not just taking whatever we want, whenever we want, even if it’s for magical or spiritual purposes. Respecting the agency of the land is as essential as revering the magic of the land. Maybe moreso.


We Aren’t Saviors


In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.


Robin Wall Kimmerer - Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants


There’s a tendency among people who care about the Earth to feel burdened by an overwhelming sense of responsibility AND a feeling of crushing hopelessness. We talk, often, of saving the planet, or saving some individual species. There’s good intention behind this language and emotion: we want to protect and help those we love. But our savior mentality is damaging to us and to the planet. It’s linked to an old-school, Biblical view of humanity as the ultimate creation with the right - even the responsibility - to shape nature as we see fit. While a desire to save the earth is a more positive version of this attitude, it is nonetheless problematic.


“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”

― Andy Goldsworthy


For one thing, the savior mindset places us in a position as other than nature, as somehow set apart from the land. And we are not other than. We are nature. Understanding this could help us resume our proper position as members of the community of nature. Letting go of our savior complex, we can learn to work with the land, and, at times, to get the hell out of the way and let the spirits do their work unhindered. 


For another, there’s an arrogance embedded in the savior perspective. The beings of nature are not our children, our property, or our resources. They are people with their own ideas, desires, and agendas. They deserve to be approached with respect and humility, rather than condescension. Condescension isn’t conducive to true love, and nothing less than true love will do now. And when I say "true love”, I don’t mean some romantic idealization of nature in which we traipse through the woods wearing fairy wings and spouting poetry. I mean the kind of love that treats the beloved as a partner, an ally, and that makes choices based on mutual benefit.


We Aren’t in Charge


One otherwise unremarkable morning I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who had selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was “none.”


I was stunned. How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day— brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl—truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? If we can’t imagine the generosity of geese?


Robin Wall Kimmerer - Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants



And yet another thing: we as individuals aren’t responsible for the majority of the harm being done to the planet. It’s industry, and government. It’s capitalism and the drive for profit over all else. And yes, we can do what we can. We can write letters, we can try to purchase responsibly, we can do activism, we can take as many steps as possible in our personal lives to be better members of the community of life. But in the end the really monumental changes just aren’t within the grasp of the average individual. So seeing ourselves as potential saviors, or even as stewards, is unrealistic. We are victims of the systems that are destroying the planet. We are fellow sufferers WITH the land. To place ourselves in the position of power over the land, or of a savior, is unrealistic and sets us up to always, every day, feel like we are ineffective at best, a plague on the land at worst. 


Becoming Lovers


What if, instead of seeing ourselves as saviors, we saw ourselves as lovers of the land?


As lovers, we can view our responsibility more realistically. We can make decisions that are the best possible decisions for the good of our beloved, but also know that not everything will be within the scope of our influence. Which means we can more realistically evaluate what our realm of influence actually is, and what choices and actions we can make in our every day lives to be of benefit to the land. We can be less focused on harm reduction and more focused on being good loved ones, and consider how we might benefit the one we love.


Seeing ourselves as lovers of the land removes the notion of control and domination: the good lover respects the strength and agency of the beloved even while walking with the beloved through difficulties and challenges hand in hand. The good lover doesn’t coddle the beloved, but works with the beloved to create a life that benefits each individual. Of course, the good lover also doesn’t pump the beloved full of poisons, steal their valuables, or exploit them for financial gain. The good lover protects the beloved, knowing the favor will be returned. The good lover stands by the beloved in sickness and devastation and finds a way to support the beloved as they heal and overcome obstacles. But ultimately, the good lover also knows they have no right to control or condescend to the beloved.


Seeing ourselves as lovers instead of saviors also provides us a degree of relief from the weight that crushes us when we consider the enormity of environmental devastation. All of nature does not rely on humanity to save it. Yes, she needs us to stop poisoning and disfiguring her. But the earth, like the human body, is capable of healing herself, with the proper resources and support. As lovers of the earth we can find ways to offer those things while respecting her strength and resilience. And we can do it without torturing ourselves with an unrealistic sense of responsibility.


And finally, as lovers, we can celebrate our beloved without ignoring their suffering. The good lover finds joy in the presence of the beloved, even when the beloved is ill or struggling. I’ve personally experienced the comfort and even healing power of being loved and appreciated by my wife even in my worst moments. The land is still here: we can love them and take joy in spending time with them right now, exactly as they are. I think it will do them good.


Photo of flying geese by Jonas Stolle, courtesy of Unsplash.


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Image by Annie Spratt

Michelle Simkins

polytheist . writer . maker . witch

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