Everywhere I turn these days, I stumble across contemporary authors and religious writers seeking to mount a spiritual response to the current raft of environmental crises. For such writers, practical responses, as important as they are, will not go far enough in addressing the roots of our predicament. We need to go beyond a materialist picture of the universe and develop a concept of the earth itself as worthy of our highest regard—as sacred, as holy—as Gaia Herself. Only then, such teachers insist, will we care enough to resist and recraft the patterns of consumption that are depleting and destroying the earth’s natural resources. In the words of Vaughan-Lee, for example, editor of the star-studded collection Spiritual Ecology (2013):
“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong… [T]he deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature… [W]e are all part of one, living spiritual being” (i-ii)
While I want to cry “yes!,” I am stopped by a question that arises in response. What does it mean to remember the earth as sacred—or then again as a spiritual, living being?
Nine years ago, I moved with my family to a retired dairy farm in rural New York. I wanted to live in closer relationship to the natural world. I knew I needed it—my work needed it. I needed to live in a place where I could no longer ignore the rhythms of the natural world in order to think thoughts about dance, religion, and the earth that mattered to me.
Of the many constant surprises that this adventure has provided, one concerns this question about what is means to honor the earth as sacred. I have come to believe that the task goes beyond what is normally stated. Yes, it is good to acknowledge our utter dependence on the ongoing rhythms of creation for every breath we inhale, every sip we take, and every morsel we chew. Yes, it is good to appreciate human existence as one relational node in a complex living web whose mysteries extend far beyond our comprehending reach. Yes, it is good to admire and even love the irrepressible beauty of the natural world and all of its inhabitants. Yes, it is also important to bear witness to the violence and destructive capacity of natural processes themselves.
Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that the task of remembering the “sacred nature” of the earth involves something more. It entails coming face to face, heart to heart, with a horrifying and awe-full fact that appears to contradict our very urge to cherish and worship Her: we humans, in order to live, must, on a daily basis, kill what appears to us as beautiful.
Here on the farm we are drenched in beauty. Let’s begin with babies. Baby cows and baby chicks; baby cucumber and baby basil; baby spruces and baby oaks—not to mention baby humans—are all undeniably relentlessly adorable. Their round shapes and fuzzy textures pull on human heartstrings, calling for care. And care we do. Whether waking up every 6 hours in the morning to bottlefeed orphaned kittens, taking a midnight walk into the barn to check on a pregnant cow ready to pop, or running to the chicken coop at 4 AM to investigate an ear-splitting shriek, we care. Whether hauling water to new tomato sprouts or rescuing delicate carrot fronds from encroaching weeds, we care.
This caring, moreover, is contagious. When we care for the young and vulnerable, our own acts of feeding and stroking, watching and watering grow in tandem with those we tend into feelings of attachment and even love. We may grow to appreciate our adult animals for the eggs they provide, the milk they produce, the rides they give, or the sheer power they extend; we may feel gratitude for the fruits and roots and shoots that our garden plants send forth, but we love them for the pleasure that taking care of them yields. We love them for the pleasure they seem to experience as they thrive.
It is this kind of love that inspires us to keep caring—even when our cow Daisy breaks her foot and requires us to carry extra buckets of water. It is the kind of love that impels us to plunge outside in freezing temperatures and pelting rain to deliver hay or relieve a swollen udder. It is this love that persists as the enabling matrix within which the work of caring and tending gets done.
Moreover, it is the kind of love that many environmentalists and others believe will impel people who feel it to reject: the practices of resource extraction that destroy the landscape; the practices of fuel consumption that pollute the atmosphere, and the practices of factory farming that deplete our soils of the plant-enabling nutrients and deny animals a connection to the earth.
Indeed. But is this care for the earth all that is involved in remembering the earth as "sacred"? Is it enough?
To every idyllic image of humans, animals, and plants living in mutually enabling community with one another, there is a dark side—not a “bad” side, but a contrasting dimension that is as essential to the rhythms of life as images of peaceful coexistence.
Suffice to say, humans too must eat to live. Humans must nourish the ability to care for the animals and plants who give to us. To do so, we must kill. We must kill things that are not obviously bad or ugly or worthless. We must kill organisms whose sheer beauty enlivens us and inspires us to care for them. And we must do so regularly. No human is exempt from this need to kill and consume—not vegetarians, vegans or paleo practitioners.
More than any other time of year, I am reminded of this fact in the spring. In these brilliant, long-lit days, as the world around me erupts with joyous newness, my job is to plant and nurture and celebrate and… kill.
For example, I plant seeds. Those seeds send forth shoots—pure expressions of kinetic excitement. In response, it is my job to thin those green hopes to distances that will enable the remaining plants to grow healthy and strong. I choose. I pluck. I deny life to what otherwise appears to me as beautiful and true. I try to transplant as many seedlings as I can, but many cannot survive the move. I also pull out “weeds” by the reaching roots, beautiful too as vibrant expressions of living life. What right have I to pick one plant over another?
The sadness I feel tempers my joy, even as that joy grows deeper still. The garden will grow. The plants I leave will thrive. I am taking care of them, of myself, of my family, enriching the ability of the earth to keep giving to me. The sadness chastens me.
The farm produces and reproduces, and its ability to do so depends upon my conscious participation in a constant rhythm of selecting what to nourish, and consuming, killing, or giving away the rest. These acts of “selection” do not occur miles away, by someone else’s hand. I make them myself, in plain view, consciously and not. Living on our homestead, as we do, it is impossible to gloss over this dynamic and others like it. (I have described this situation with our dairy animals as well.)
What do I do with this knowledge? How do I digest it? How do I respond?
The response that makes the most sense to me is to fall on my knees (if I am not already there in the garden) in humilty and wonder and awe at the gifts of life--being given to me through my own participation in the work of creation. The response that makes sense is a downward thud of appreciation for the cost, the generosity, the beauty of the movements that sustain me. The response that makes sense is to honor earth--in its multiple folds and forms--as worthy of the highest praise. As divine.
This "divinity" is not a transcendent omnipotence that resides in some far off place. Nor is it an immanence that dwells within material forms. It is not a matter of matter itself, in its being and relating. Rather, this divinity is more a matter of the movement which the earth is—the movement by which the earth makes more of itself, for itself, coming to life in a human form who can affirm and mourn the loss of any moment of earth's ever-unfolding beauty.
Central to the deep and nourishing joy of receiving earth-bound bounty is a sadness at the loss of what is giving its life for me—a sadness that both acts as a natural check on patterns of behavior that would kill and consume more of the earth’s fertile beauty than I must, and propels me to do as much for its ongoing life as I can. It is my responsibility.
It is here, I suggest, that a sense of the sacred strong enough to propel us in creating new actions and attitudes can and must be rooted. Gratitude and love are essential, but they are not enough. Nor are feelings of debt or dependence. We also need to cultivate a clear and compelling awe for this paradox—this knot of living and dying—of which our every movement consists. What are we creating?