Earth Day is essentially about addressing our relationship with the Earth so it could also be called – and perhaps more accurately – Human-Earth Day. There are two basic aspects of this relationship: one is functional and has to do with our dependence on the Earth for survival; the other is existential and has to do with the meaning of Earth-life, and specifically our human form of this life. From the perspective of our human needs, often associated with Abraham Maslow, the first aspect is perhaps simply about surviving:physiological needs and safety needs. The second might be described in terms of thriving in a uniquely human way: love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.
I’d like to explore this human-earth relationship which feels even more important in these times when the relationship is being challenged in all kinds of ways, some of them unprecedented. Perhaps we can discoverhow to respond better to the challenges, both old and new. But let’s begin by connecting with this fundamental reality of Earth as our context but also as something more essential – our reality and our identity.
- Position yourself comfortably, relaxed, but alert – back straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or ‘softened’ – to help you go within to a deeper place and a truer self.
- Take three deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then breathe normally.
- Follow your breath as it moves in and out. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, simply notice them and let them go. Think of them as clouds passing in a clear blue sky. Let’s do this for a few moments. Give yourself permission to be HERE, NOW…
- In your mind, softly say the theme of this reflection that we might call ‘HUMAN-EARTH DAY.’
- Now, as you breathe, see this process as one of complete and utter dependence: We literally breathe in life.
- Be aware of your complete dependence on life – on Earth – for everything: the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, the shelter that protects you.
- With each inhale, breathe in a part of the earth that constitutes our being – air, water, food, shelter
- With each exhale breathe out thanks…
- Do this for a few moments
- Now, focus on the fact that life – the Earth – is actually living you:
- Your breath is life breathing itself
- Your body is Earth living itself
- Your feelings are Earth’s feelings
- Your thoughts are Earth’s thoughts.
- What happens when you make this shift of focus:
- What do you feel? Awe? Gratitude?
- What are the sensations in your body? Dependence? Power? Vulnerability?
- What are your thoughts? How should I be living: personally, collectively?
- Stay with these two aspects of your relationship with Earth and Life for a few moments: perhaps with the first – your dependence – as you breathe in – then with the second – your fundamental reality and identity – as you breathe out.
- Do this for a few moments. Notice what this stirs in you: Dependence? Identity?
- Now gently return to where you are, to your body, to your surroundings; and when you are ready open your eyes.
Let’s take a look at these two aspects of the human-earth relationship. First of all, it is very clear that we need the Earth simply to be – and remain – alive. Our ancestors were more sensitive to this basic fact, perhaps because of their less refined technologies and their inability to impact and control the way our modern world can and does. However, even though this realization of essential dependence did not impinge on our modern world until relatively recently, it has always been there. Some of the earliest human stories contain lessons about the importance of restraining our power, and our obligation to care for the so-called natural world.
Plato, in his Dialogue on Critias, for example, lamented the human impact of Ancient Greece on the earth: He wrote “All the richer and softer parts have fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land remains.” Advancing agriculture boosted human populations but also caused soil erosion and attracted insect infestations that led to severe famines between the years 200 and 1200. The 18th century witnessed the dawn of modern environmental rights. After a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin petitioned to manage waste and to remove tanneries for clean air as a public “right”. In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club in the US to protect the country’s wilderness. Rachel Carson brought the environmental movement into focus with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, describing the impact of chemical pesticides on biodiversity. Then in 1970 a US Senator, Gaylord Nelson, proclaimed the first Earth Day – April 22 – which led to new laws including the Clean Air Act, and the Water Quality Improvement Act. This aspect of the environmental effort went global with the first UN Earth Summit in 1992. Today its focus is Climate Change that manifests in multiple ways, from shifting weather patterns to the transmission of viruses to humans when their usual hosts have lost their habitat.
As I noted earlier, this aspect of the human-earth relationship reflects our basic needs – physiological and safety needs – for survival. I have suggested that our other needs – our love and belonging needs, our esteem needs, and our need for self-actualization – that reflect our uniquely human world are also realized through this human-earth relationship. The American poet, Ee cummings says it so well:
Thomas Berry – whom I often refer to – would say that not only does the earth fulfil our basic survival needs, but it also inspires our mind and heart with deeper movements: with our sense of the divine, in fact. If we lived on the moon, he would add, our sense of God would reflect the desolation of a lunar landscape. The poet, Mary Oliver, offers us a simple method for addressing these essential human needs. In a wonderful poem she calls Morning Poem she describes how ‘every morning the world is created’. ‘If it is your nature to be happy’, she says, you will be filled with wonder and joy. But, she goes on, as if upon further reflection, even if it is your nature to be sad – ‘if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging’ – you know deep down that you are part of something awesome – a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I love the way she puts it, how ‘there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted.’ Then she offers her insight – her basic Mary Oliver message:
So, while it – the earth and the blazing lilies – doesn’t need us to be itself, we can be part of this amazing dance of life. All we have to do is dare to be happy, dare to pray, suggesting that the two are related. She shows this relationship in another place where she says:
And there you have it, I believe: all we have to do to be happy in this world – to fulfil our distinctly human needs – is to ‘pay attention.’ This is the human form of Earth-Life: paying attention. Of course, the great teachers of all the ages have always said something similar when they spoke of real presence or awakening or mindfulness or resurrection. Paying attention is realizing who we are. The Nicaraguan priest-poet, Ernesto Cardenal put it like this:
Of course, my old friend Rilke always has something to say about this relationship, for he describes us as expressions of God who have been give the mandate, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. He understands that everything does this in its own way, but says that our unique contribution is to be the voice: the one who names things the way Adam did in old creation story. As he puts it in his famous 9th Duino Elegy:
Here, then is where he takes the human-earth relationship to its logical – for him – conclusion:
There is also of course the challenge of the less gentle aspects of the unfolding earth – the pain, the loss, the decline, the death… Though here too, perhaps here especially, earth unfolds through the cracks that let the light in, through the pain that brings wisdom – as the Greek poet Aeschylus describes it – by the awful grace of God. It feels to me that this is where we are today on our learning curve. For the infinite spaces – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – can also terrify. Is this what we have to learn today: to live with the realities that our innocent science has revealed. Certainly, we have opened Pandora’s Box before, though never with the capacity to impact that we have today. Is this what this past year of pandemic with all its effects is about?
We are indeed like children. We have so much to learn. We have only begun – certainly this new stage of the human-earth journey. Denise Levertov, the wonderful humanist-poet describes where we are:
This then is our post-pandemic Earth Day: a new Human-Earth Day which proclaims an expanded human-earth relationship that respects our dependence on earth for our survival but also calls us to our place in the unfolding mystery of Earth-Life: to a redefining of the human role in all its forms. For we are the Earth. We are part of the great Cosmic dance.
This is our new Human-Earth Day. Here is where we can begin to survive but also thrive: where we can dare to be happy.
Blessings of the Earth on us all: Beannachtaí an domhain orainn go léir