March 26, 2017
"To last, love must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world - produce food, shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts and well-made things."
With our first breath, we sign an unwritten contract. With this signing, we accept certain preconditions for being alive, in this body, here and now, on this Earth. These preconditions govern Life, and these house rules, if you will, are literally woven into us, into our well-being, and into the Web of Life - we are inseparable from these basic tenets and these tenets are inseparable from Life itself.
Simple in nature, these tenets permeate the complexity of our entire lives. When we align ourselves with them, we are nourished with freedom, abundance, and belonging. Yet, when we violate these basic tenets of Life or try to cast them aside - whether motivated by greed, apathy or ignorance - we tear at the very fabric that supports our own well-being. The then tattered threads, torn from their seams, become tangled chains of fear, scarcity and domination.
Re-membering this contract - these tenets woven into the very fabric of being alive - is no small task. Yet it is our task, each of ours, and urgently so. If we are to repair this fabric and weave a thriving existence in collaboration with all Life, we must sink deeply into reverent receptivity and listen to what it is that Life asks us to embody.
Tossed and turned, filled with bliss, exhausted in sorrow, and dropped to my knees in awe, my body is slowly weaving the tattered threads back together - re-membering Life's web, and the tenets, integrated into each thread, that give it such strength. It has led me to see that the path towards thriving - love, freedom, regeneration, and abundance - has been hiding in plain sight all along. We just have to be willing to look to the roots.
Have you ever witnessed a field of millions of individual snowflakes shimmering like stars in the light of the full moon rising? Or seen the reflection of the world in a single rain drop suspended from the tip of a leaf? What about the last time you smelled a wildflower in Spring, were serenaded by birdsong or scratched a beloved furry friend behind the ears?
What did you feel? Was it fear? Or anxiety?
Perhaps. But far more likely, it was a feeling of joy or ease. Or, dare I say, love.
Our bodies are hard wired to be deeply, viscerally, uncontrollably in love with Nature. In the 1980s, Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia (bio - life; philia - attraction) to describe this seemingly innate human desire to seek connection with other forms of life and ultimately with all of Nature. Biophilia, which is now considered part of evolutionary psychology, points to the tendency for the very things that we rely on for survival to be innately pleasing to us. As the theory contends, this alignment of pleasure and survival conferred an evolutionary advantage on our ancestors.
Food tastes good. Water delights. Babies are cute. Fire mesmerizes. Sex feels pleasurable. Reciprocity is rewarding. Love for life is literally woven into our DNA. Indeed, an elegant result of many millions of years of evolution grinding away on the backs of those who did not experience such love.
However, in this waning age of fossil-fuels, there is less interest in surviving and far more interest in thriving. So, do the evolutionary hints towards the path to human happiness end here? Can we glean any insights from our own evolutionary biology about how to create a thriving culture amidst the many crises of our times?
I think so. But, the clues I have found are not in our biology. Rather, I have found them in the etymology of two words: Economy and Consent.
As a student of nature, I have learned to study the roots, and the linguistic roots of the word 'economy' are telling. Far from the anonymity and isolation characteristic of the modern global marketplace, the etymology of 'economy' tells the story of the human relationship with community and place. It hints at a place-based identity so powerful that how we cared for our land, our families and our own bodies were one and the same.
Tracing back the meaning of 'economy' leads us to two Greek words: oikos and nomos. The prefix eco stems from the word oikos, meaning home or household in ancient Greek. Interpreted narrowly, oikos can refer to a house or dwelling. Interpreted more broadly, oikos refers to the land - the entire Earth - that is simultaneously our only sustenance and our only home. Hidden in the often academic and disembodied language of 'ecosystem', 'ecology,' and 'economics' is a memory of a relationship with our environment that is so personal, so profound and so integral to our sense of identity and purpose that we know this web of relationships as home: the land is our home, and it is who we are.
Memories of a time when the cycles of Life were deeply ingrained in human culture are embedded in the rich etymological history of nomos as well. The earliest accounts of nomos refer to a field or pasture. While a field may seem rather insignificant to the modern reader, in a culture where food, clothing, medicines, building materials, fuel and transportation were all derived directly from fields, pastures and the hedges that defined them, these intricately connected networks of animals and plants literally embodied one's lifeblood.
Over time, the meaning of nomos evolved from the pasture itself to describing the people who tended to the pastures and the customs that provided for its wellbeing. This linguistic evolution reinforces land not as an isolated entity, but rather as a relationship between the land-tender, their stewardship practices and the land itself: who we are and how we act are as much a part of the land as the geology or climate. So central was the pasture to ancient Greek society that nomos was more broadly used to simultaneously denote steward/manager and custom/rules/laws.
With great irony, we can come to understand the root meaning of 'economy' as stewarding our home - whether that home is our body, our household, or the Earth itself. Our economy is tending to the intricate web of relationships, processes and practices that provide for our lifeblood and allow for the flourishing of the natural cycles that support all Life so abundantly. When we embody this deeply interdependent way of living, when we internalize the fate of the land as the fate of our bodies, then 'economy' can simply be understood as the rules we live by - the house rules.
There is a profound power inherent in the relationships with people and place that allow us to provide for our own basic needs and those of our beloveds. As flocks of liberal arts college students and back-to-the-landers alike will attest, provisioning food, water, energy, shelter - the natural economy of stewarding our home - is innately satisfying work. In The Prophet, poet philosopher Gahil Gibran offers a hint as to why: "You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite."
We work so as to keep pace with the soul of the Earth? Gibran's poetic words are reminiscent of the wonder inherent in food tasting good and sex being pleasurable. They speak to a deep knowing in the cells of our bodies that when we are in an intimate relationship with the very places, processes and people that physically sustain us, we are engaging in the very same patterns that have helped us survive since time immemorial. The intrinsic pleasure, beauty and fulfilment in these relationships is unparalleled: biting into the juicy flesh of homegrown fruit, placing another log, split by hand, on the fire, caring for a newborn lamb. Biophilia, our inherent love for Life, helps us understand why: our intimate participation in Life's processes is a biological imperative masked as love. As Gibran continues, "To love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret."
Invoking this visceral knowledge of land-tenders around the world, Wendell Berry wrote "if you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe." For, freedom and security are born not from monetary savings nor political ideology, but rather from engaging in the natural economy of stewarding body, home and land.
When we intimately participate in meeting our most basic needs - energy, food, water, shelter, clothing - through a relationship with the land and with local networks of others doing the same, we not only come to know the inner most workings of the Earth, we also create abundance and choice. With this comes the true freedom of self determination. When we love life through provisioning the food we eat, the warmth of our home, the energy that lights up our night, and the clothing on our backs, then freedom and fulfilment are no longer something we seek. They become something we embody.
For freedom, like food, water, or shelter, is a biological imperative. And fulfilment is our hard-won - and hard wired - evolutionary reward for satisfying this imperative. Authority over our own bodies, time and energy is not a political right, granted or revoked, by the powers of government (or corporations, for that matter). Nor is it a lofty ideal schemed up by lovers of wisdom. Personal choice and freedom of action (and consequences) is inherent to Life's capacity to march in proud submission towards the infinite.
The sovereignty intrinsic to the human condition is what Thomas Jefferson, drawing on a long line of philosophers before him, referenced when he declared "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as our inalienable rights, endowed, not by government, but by Nature. Our sovereignty is woven into the very fabric of our being alive. Not only does personal freedom grow out of our participation in the natural economy of stewarding our earthly home, it is our very sovereignty that enables us to steward our home to begin with.
If it is thriving that we truly seek, then reclaiming this natural heritage, and with it our true economy, is a good place to start. For when we align with what the soft animal of our body understands on a visceral level as surviving, evolution has hard wired us to find it full of pleasure, immense joy and deep satisfaction. Freedom, belonging and abundance are both foundational to the nature of our being alive and our reward for aligning ourselves with Nature.
Google "consent" and a series of websites appear offering advice on how to give and receive consent in sexual interactions. But knowing about consent is not the same thing as actually being able to practice it.
Consent literally means to feel, or sense, together (co - together, sentir - to feel or sense). Ironically, or perhaps tragically, consent is currently understood as only personal. Yet, this is only half of the equation. As feeling together implies, consent is also innately interdependent. Perhaps, similar to the economy, consent is so poorly practiced - in so many areas of our lives - because it is so poorly understood.
One of the great German poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote "when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling." Many consider love to be just as Rilke describes, a groundless experience of continual falling, a losing of oneself deeply in another. But this is not love. Love has captured, intrigued, confused, and inspired our hearts since the days of discovering fire, for it is perhaps the grandest paradox of the human experience.
Love is a dance that pulls at the very fibers of our being. Those courageous souls who are willing to withstand the dynamic tension find that the interplay between sovereignty and interdependence creates a pleasure so profound that it is almost unbearable. For, as Rilke offers, love "can only unite two wide, deep individual worlds." The greater the strength of our sovereignty, the more capable of interdependence we become. For it is only in knowing the bounds of our bodies, in owning ourselves, in embodying complete authority of our own time, energy, body, labor and love that we can truly feel the distinctness, hear the desires, and see the beauty of another. When we open ourselves up to feel the vastness of another being, we catch a glimpse, if ever so briefly, of the ecstasy in the union that ties us together. It is this same union that ties us each to the entire web of Life - and we become grounded in the understanding that our interdependence is total.
Consent, like love, requires an embodied experience of complete sovereignty and total interdependence. It is in the dynamic equilibrium of this paradox that we experience the very rapture of being alive. The more common meaning of consent masks this core truth, but it remains nonetheless. Agreements and permission rest on the shared understanding that we each have complete authority over our time, energy, body and love, and that we have a sacred responsibility to each other, and to ourselves, to honor this personal authority.
While sovereignty is inherent, it is often unclaimed. And while interdependence is total, it is often ignored. To embody our sovereignty is to take radical responsibility for ourselves and our lives. Our authority over our lives is complete, unless we give it away. Outsourcing the provisioning of our most basic needs to others, faceless and faraway, renders our sovereignty incomplete, and our freedom and fulfilment incomplete along with it. Mistaking an addiction to fossil fuels for personal independence does not make our obligation to Life any less real, or the satisfaction that comes in fulfilling this obligation ourselves any closer at hand. Stewarding the economy of our beloved home not only reweaves the web of sovereign interdependence, it creates the options and abundance that empower us to offer enthusiastic consent for the food we eat, the sex we share, and the agreements we choose to be governed by.
People often tell me I am reliable. But, I know it is the land who has shaped me that is reliable, and that I am an expression of that reliability. As a child, I would spend hours alone in Nature, engaged in reflective conversation with the world in and around me. The lapping of rivers lulled me to sleep, mosses and mountain top vistas cracked my heart and mind open.
For nearly the last decade though, I have called a forest in southcentral Washington State home. Almost everything that I believe to be worth knowing, I have learned from living in relationship with this land and those who share this home with me. This land has penetrated the depths of my being, and now I feel more alone and more connected than I ever have.
As the years pass, and my relationship with this land deepens, I feel a growing internal distress whenever I am away from my forest home. Sure, travel brings with it the anxiety of speeding cars, loud noises and florescent lights. But, the distress I speak of comes from being separated from the very place that my animal body has come to identify with my survival, and along with it, my happiness.
The oaks and pines are my warmth in winter and my shade in summer. The smell of spring is the promise of food for the coming year. The gentle give of the ground underfoot is my solace. On a primal level, my body knows that here I am free, here I am safe, and here I belong. My very identity is tied to this land, this home. I, in turn, am bound to the land. Being the source of my sustenance, this land requires of me reliability, authenticity, and commitment to truth as a daily practice.
Whispered in the weight of a dying newborn goat and in the scent of an apricot blossom in May, I am re-membering those preconditions for being human, in this body, here and now, on this Earth. My body has come to understand two imperatives:
The more I immerse myself in this vast interdependent web of life, the more capable I am of providing for my own needs, and the more sovereign I become. Knowledge becomes experience, skills become intuition, things become relationships, dreams become simply the way things are. As the certainty of my sovereignty, and the sovereignty of all Life, grow within me, I am better able to feel together with the Earth and fellow humans. I am able to open myself up to truly listen to - and to be changed by feedback that's often spoken in a language older than words. With this on-going dialog with Life, I am woven deeper and deeper into the web of interdependence. And it feels so good.