Essays and photos copyright by Madronna Holden
Not so very long ago in earth time, all places were sanctuaries in which individual lives and their kin tried out their relationships with one another–creating the wondrous diversity of natural life on earth.
Today we have protected wilderness areas from ourselves to provide such safe–and all too rare– places for life to play itself out.
In parallel with our own wilderness areas, the ancient peoples of many lands understood that certain places should belong to themselves rather than to humans–and thus they refrained from trespassing on particular powerful places. In such places the land remembers itself without human presence.
These are places where the land is able to think for itself.
By contrast, most places on the land keep a memory of human presence. The early Euroamerican explorers who wrote about the abundance of the salmon here, for instance, were in fact describing the several thousand year old land-memory of the salmon-human partnership.
Those who praised prairies overflowing with the blue-flowered camas were describing the land’s memory of the careful hands of the indigenous women who dug those bulbs to feed their people– and spread them at the same time.
Sadly if an explorer from another world ventured into industrial society today, there would not be so many lovely memories of humans for the land to tell.
Like many of my friends and my students, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer insanity of those whose actions clearly undercut the survival of so many lives on earth. Those bent on profit for its own sake are like the man in ancient tales who saws off the limb he is sitting on. If we allow them to continue on in this way, creating toxins and using up limited natural resources we need for survival, we will hit the wall when all there is left of us is the land’s memory– and what it has to overcome to re-establish itself as a sanctuary of life once more.
But the human story is more complicated than that as the land’s memory of us attests.
In Eugene, we have managed to preserve invaluable wetlands and stream corridors in private-public partnerships.
My own neighborhood organization fought long and hard– over two decades– to make a park of the headwaters of the Amazon creek that flows through Eugene. Within the city limits, we may walk in second growth forest, where the lungs of the earth are by turn breathing out and taking in the carbon that has disrupted the tender blanket of atmosphere nurturing human life in the last 10,000 years.
Here the land’s memory exists in the native species in the forest– and the human part of that both in that we have made this place safe for such natural life and in the old growth stumps telling how we cut all the old trees. Now in the future, the land will be able to remember we gave it the freedom to express life as it can be here.
On these blooming spring days, the trails here are full of people of all ages. Yesterday I was part of a bottleneck of five people trying to pass one another on that trail. A young woman laughed at our bumbling crowd, and the insinuation that there might be too many of us, saying “We are all just loving this trail.”
This is one small place that can now hold for us the ancient library of natural knowledge we have barely begun to access in our own short time on earth as humans. Further down the trail, I met two young men stopped to listen to a particular bird call. One spoke authoritatively to his friend about the places on the trail he had previously heard that call.
These are such simple things: Things I dream of in a future in which young men and women can feel the joy and attend to the knowledge of places where life is safe to be itself. And they can join in this feeling of safety rather than a world scarred by climate change and toxins and extinctions.
This is not nature we have “saved”, this is the refuge we all need.
On this Earth Day 2015, we might well honor this need in ourselves for such sanctuaries of life. The ethical standard of “going on the side of life” becomes our own when we work to make any place safe for nature’s lives.
Imagine a bumblebee happily coming upon an evergreen huckleberry with its hundreds of blooms- or going dizzily, along with the butterflies and other bees, among the eclectic meadow flowers in your yard.
In making a place for native species, we are honoring the land’s ancient memories and wisdom of the way natural life has come together over time.
In the wake of the 50,000 bumblebees dead from a pesticide application in a Wilsonville, Oregon parking lot, imagine being able to whisper to the bees who visit our yards, “You are safe. There are no poisons here.”
Imagine such corridors of safety everywhere, along which more than human lives might migrate– and human children walk into their own future. In which, as one of my neighbors phrased it, the plants grow in abundance, “happy to be here” along with other natural lives, including ourselves,
In which we have the patience and humility to let nature design our fields and our yards, our gardens and our farms. If we did that in California as a group of local women did in Bangladesh, we would not be hitting the wall with industrial farming’s overuse of water in the face of the current drought. In Bangladesh, ecological farming methods recharged the water tables rather than drawing them down with the need to support plant varieties reliant on vast amounts of water and chemical fertilizers.
It is nature that designs all the places where life is happy to be– which is turn makes us happy to be here too. I am thinking of the story of an African-American woman who made a garden from a garbage-strewn vacant lot in New York City–and welcomed the young men of her community to share with her and to help her, thus planting seeds of heart as well as plants in their lives.
No matter what our personal spaces, we all have a natural place we can make into an essential place of refuge for life: our own bodies. Nature has designed those as well.
This Earth Day, we can listen to the wisdom that our bodies carry for us– no matter what our age or shape or personal history of accident or disease. And work to make our bodies and those of others safe.
We have uncounted challenges ahead as a species. But this is where our hope lies: as we make a safe place for life, life nourishes us in turn.
And thus we can each go on the side of life in our own way– accepting the wonder we are meant for.