I am at a spiritual retreat in the woods of Squamish, British Columbia. We stand in a circle in a meadow at sunset among towering cedar and Douglas fir trees. One person asks out loud if the land will be our teacher, if we can learn what it knows about what it needs, what it dreams of, how we can feed it and be fed by a relationship to it. Immediately after the question is asked, a giant grey owl swoops overhead and we ooh and ahh as its silhouette is highlighted against the darkening sky.
It is no accident that we try to recreate landscape scenes on the screen savers on our computers and hang photographs of beautiful natural settings in our homes in an attempt to capture the serenity that comes from seeing them. Our divorce from any kind of practical reciprocity with land causes a kind of cognitive dissonance that we don’t even know that we have. A healthy relationship to land base and a clear understanding of where resources come from has been an important component in many spiritual traditions. One might argue that this is paramount for the continued survival of a people and may certainly be a vital key to finding happiness.
If establishing a relationship with our bodies helps to answer the very important question of who we are, then establishing a connection to the land on which we live gives us a sense of where we are. We are human animals living within an ecosystem that supports us completely. What makes us believe that we are separate from our land base, that our actions don’t have an effect?
Joanna Macy, environmental activist and author, cites many reasons why people seem not to care. She believes we are afraid to feel the pain that might come with being connected to a planet that is in trouble. She goes on to say that we fear causing distress to others when we explain unpleasant truths about treatment of land by corporations, government, factory farmers. We may worry about experiencing guilt about not doing enough and not standing up for the places where we live so we stay quiet. Macy suggests that the way past these fears is to open even more deeply, in community, to the truths we are facing as a species.
Colonialists depicted native people as ignorant in order to feel superior and justify the occupation of their land. The negative image of the dirty, uneducated, darker skinned, godless, dangerous savage held the projection of what settlers wanted to avoid at any cost. Another ideal was created, an archetype of civilization that allowed colonialists to believe themselves to be clean, educated, white, religious, and nonviolent. For this ideal to thrive the earth had to become “dirty” and living close to the land was equated with the worship of “devils.” This is reminiscent of the tactics used against the indigenous European healers to discredit them. Nearly every country in the world has been affected by European colonialism. Do we still live this way? Do we still want to live this way?
Spiritual customs of multiple native cultures involve the idea of conversation with their land base. Indigenous people constructed rituals for personal life events as well as to mark the change of seasons, ask for help and honor the beings with whom they share their home. Historians have told the story that this was proof of their ignorance, that to create rituals to celebrate the cyclical faces of nature was somehow antiquated once science came along to “prove” there was no goddess of the moon, no songlines under the ground, no dance that could call the rain.
Faith does not make logical sense. It is not a cerebral predicament. Just as prose exists without the attempt to replace poetry, so too can science live alongside of ritual and art. Connection to land may ask us to speak all of these languages in order to truly understand our relationship to the earth.
There is something that happens when we have encounters with wild nature that makes us feel more fundamentally human. There are parks, nature centers, and protected lands all over the globe designed to preserve and protect wild earth. We seem to enjoy “vacationing” there to restore our mental health; the ocean, the mountains, the rivers and lakes, the desert, the forest have become destinations for us. We are beginning to understand that these places are connected to our physical health and to make connections between deforestation and flooding or between factory waste and our watersheds.
We may understand that we can’t live without these refuges but can we expand to include them in our idea of where we do live? We need to believe that we have a place on this planet, that our idea of home is bigger than a house or apartment number on an urban street. Many have argued that a large-scale reanimation of this belief would change the way we interact with our planet’s resources.
If many more of the earth’s modern human inhabitants began to find some aspect of our spirituality rooted in the land, we might stop spraying poison on or genetically modifying our food, permitting chemicals to permeate our water, hunting species to extinction. We might find the courage to stand up even more firmly to the entities that continue to support these behaviors. If we began to have conversations with the earth again, perhaps the earth would gain a voice in our governments’ decisions and would be considered as we develop madly toward covering every inch of the planet with more roads, structures, and concrete. What will have to change in the minds of policymakers in the Western world to believe that listening to and considering the land in decision making is not only sane but desperately needed for our health?
What connection do you have to the land on which you live? Where do you feel related to the planet? Are there beautiful or special places that you visit regularly? How can you make this more a part of your health care? What actions can you take for the health care of the land where you live?
As an acupuncturist, I have prescribed food from the closest farmer’s market for many of my patients, sometimes asking them to purchase local honey or leafy greens, sometimes giving them recipes to try a cleanse or an anti-inflammatory diet for thirty days. I have asked people with knee injuries to stop running on concrete and given them trail maps for many of the gorgeous hiking trails around Portland. For many people, gardening is part of a remedy for depression or grief. It can truly be this simple sometimes to return to our health, our home, ourselves.
I dare you to go to the places that are so beautiful that you could cry. I dare you to allow yourself to care about them as much as you do your family and friends and share them with the people you love. I dare you to clean them up, to protect them, to ask them and get to know what they need. I dare you to ask other people about their sacred places and what makes those places precious. If these places do not spring quickly to your mind, perhaps it is time to go in search of them.