Though our ancestors once survived and even flourished by living off the land, it seems we now feel comfortable only with controlled intrusion of animal, insect, temperature, air, water, or even pollen or dirt. Indeed, a recent study shows our disconnection from nature has been growing for more than half a century due to technological advances and indoor entertainment. Or did it actually start much earlier, when humanity first decided we should exert dominion over nature?
My personal relationship with our natural world has followed a similar trend. Like most children, I had an innate love and fascination with nature, spending hours playing in trees and among flowers, lying in the grass staring at the clouds, or traveling the neighborhood without a carbon footprint. My separation from nature deepened the more I felt I needed air-conditioning, long distance travel, spreadsheets, and protection from the elements.
This pattern of separation is also reminiscent of my relationship with my parents, my mother specifically. Sometime during adolescence, I transitioned from a sense of oneness to that of eye-rolling, hormone-driven independence. I sequestered myself among my friends, disagreed with her, took her for granted, and sometimes felt angry for what seemed like unreasonable expectations, criticism, and demands. I felt resentful that she wasn’t more supportive, a better listener, more accepting, and proud of who I was.
I was in my 30’s when I came to peace with this relationship. I learned from the book by Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be, that imperfections are not a moral failing. Rather, imperfection distinguishes humans from God. Only our creator can attain perfection, and we therefore must be imperfect, i.e., perfectly human.
At the time an unremitting perfectionist, I felt simultaneously liberated and shamed by this realization. Liberated, because it meant that it was pointless to continue to try to be perfect. Shamed, because it wasn’t Mom who was creating havoc in the relationship, it was me. I was expecting her to be sort of a Chinese June Cleaver. In her authenticity, she was anything but demure, especially when she had an opinion. She was a tiger mom, a fierce fighter. She clawed through every obstacle, giving her children the life that seemed beyond her own reach. Instead of witnessing the silent, nurturing gazes of her affection, her unremitting determination to provide for her family, or the copious and varied displays of gastronomic abundance she offered, I focused on her fearful roar and sharp swipes. My focus on her imperfections and shortcomings instead of the beauty of her offerings meant that I was causing our estrangement by failing to fully see and appreciate her, not the reverse.
My mother welcomed me back when I approached her with a more humble and grateful attitude. She loved me. She was my mother.
It’s been more than two decades since I’ve established a more comfortable and healthy perspective and relationship with my family. Though she passed away rather quickly in 2014, I now care for my father in a way that reflects a more mature bond, where I maintain more appropriate expectations within a loving father-daughter relationship. I’m my own person, but I also want to be involved, in a healthy way, in his life and the lives of my adult children. When they are well, I aim to be an affectionate and attentive companion, monitoring their wellbeing while respecting healthy boundaries and expectations, yet ready to lend a helping hand if needed. When they are ailing, I’m a loving Sherpa, here to serve those who have or will care for me in the future.
I notice parallels between my psychological separation from my parents and our estrangement from Mother Earth. Humanity once ate and drank directly from Earth and lived with no daylight between us and her animals, vegetables and minerals. So did I. At some point, in the name of growing up and becoming “worldly”, but less “Earthly,” I blindly and unconsciously adopted the cultural assumption that we should dominate and control Earth and our natural world. I also never questioned the idea that we sequester ourselves above the rest of the ecosystem which supports us instead being connected and on par with all things. I contributed to the mindset that our natural world is scary and fierce, with sharp claws and stinging bites, and that we should isolate and shelter ourselves from her elements because she’s demanding, unpredictable, and unforgiving. I thought she should be studied with detachment from afar so that she can be used for our benefit, rather than heard, cherished, protected, and loved at close quarters. The more we complain, contain, criticize, and take from her, the more we damage our relationship with the one who still nourishes and houses us, despite our lack of gratitude.
I previously wrote about the process of rediscovering my relationship to Earth while caring for my ill husband. Despite decades of indifference, even at times rising to antipathy, Earth embraced my return and listened while I cried on her shoulder, for she is my mother too.
I can’t tell you with precision how I know this to be true. I know that when I sit with the trees or the running water with a heart full of appreciation and thanks, I feel the welcoming that was always present, even while I was inattentive. When I express my remorse, I feel a sense of acceptance, forgiveness, and love, offered with open arms and without resentment. Her gentle winds express her affection for me, just as my mother’s loving glances would graze me, even when I was indifferent or surly. As a mother of my own two adult sons, I know without a doubt that I would do the same for them.
What I can’t tell you with certainty is what will be needed for me to fully heal the rift I created and to make amends with Earth. Returning to my family simply required humility and gratitude; I feel humility and gratitude are not enough now given I’ve forsaken her while she is in crisis. So, just as I Sherpa’d for my ailing husband, it’s time to Sherpa for Earth. It’s time for humble service, using the platinum rule: treat her as she wishes to be treated. She deserves no less from me, from us, in her time of need. Perhaps this is an adequate start to create a new beginning.
Given the current climate crisis, I believe we must all return to Earth in this way to help her heal and that she deserves no less from us. Viewing the climate crisis from the perspective of our failure to support Earth while she’s ailing means that we should participate in her care now. We each need to decide: do we allow Earth to collapse without trying to mend our relationship with her, or do we provide the emotional and spiritual care that she needs so desperately now? How long should we wait before we decide? What do we have to lose by withholding this love and affection?
I know what we have to gain. We can heal with Earth, especially our feelings of anxiety (including ecoanxiety), helplessness, and hopelessness. We can feel less stressed in general and we can feel inspiration and love.
I started years ago by just deciding to be more present in the usual course of my day. Every time I stepped outside, I made a point of be present, notice and appreciate the trees. This practice grew over time, eventually practicing presence, appreciation, and gratitude while driving. This practice takes no extra time, it just requires I change the quality of time while outdoors.
So instead of asking what do we have to lose, I ask you what do you have to gain by returning to Earth this way and cherishing her in her hour of need? I assert: Everything.