Rethinking the nature of Nature

I write frequently about a symbolic, iconic figure — Mother Nature — ultimately mother to us all. At this time of year, we bid farewell to the year past in the person of Father Time, symbolized by another iconic bearded figure in robes bearing a scroll.

We also bid farewell to unpleasant events that occurred in the previous year. For me, personally, the past year is one that I am not sad to see go. One tradition is to sit in a group around the fire, write them down on a piece of paper, and then consign them into the flames. Then, we turn our attention to changes we would like to make in the New Year.

While these changes often center on personal goals, some thoughtful writings by Native American Indian author Robin Wall Kimmerer suggest a different sort of New Year’s resolution, in terms of how we interact with and refer to Nature.

In English, a living being is either a person or an “it.” For Nature, “it” encompasses the planet Earth and the nearly nine million other species of life that inhabit “it.”

But in Native American languages, it’s impossible to speak of any living being as “it.” (The same is true in Romance languages where every object of Nature is assigned feminine or masculine, she or he, which makes learning these languages an amusing challenge for English speakers.)

Kimmerer, a native Anishinaabe Indian, is trying to reclaim some of what was lost from their language and their land. As she says, we would never refer to a mother or a grandmother as “it.” Nor should we do so with Nature.

Imagine the difference…

Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like part of a family that includes beavers, birches and butterflies? (And that’s just some Bs in the alphabet.)

We would feel a lot less lonely, for one thing.

Feeling “one with Nature” combats loneliness

I described the serious health effects of loneliness in a recent Dispatch, by referencing the seminal public sociology book The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman, published in 1950. Riesman described how there was nothing lonelier than the crowded, modern, urban environment of the mid-20th century. How much more true for the 21st century as well.

My book Consciousness & Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind-Body Medicine with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (St Louis: Elsevier, 2005), and Deepak Chopra, Larry Dossey, Stanley Krippner, Michael Lerner, Edgar Mitchell, Dean Ornish, Rachel Remen, and others, has this quote:

“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. All things are connected.”

–Chief Seattle, 1854

Nature is not only good company, but a great teacher. Nature is the ultimate sustainable engineer. It converts light into energy, food and oxygen through photosynthesis. It also provides safe and effective medicines from plants and useful architectural forms from social insect life.

Nature can teach us some humility

Between 1994 and 1995, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with indigenous healers from throughout North America (in Ottowa, Canada), South America (in Caracas, Venezuela), Africa (Kampala, Uganda), and Asia (Hanoi, Vietnam) at convocations we held through the GIFTS (Global Initiatives for Traditional Systems) of Health funded by the United Nations Environmental Program.

Healers from all these different places around the world shared two perspectives:

First, traditional healers hold no responsibility to heal the global society that has tried to exterminate them and their cultures.

Second, the reason they have held onto traditional teachings is because one day, the whole world will need them.

I think both sentiments ring true.

So — as we ring in the New Year — let’s think of Nature not as an “it.”

In Anishinaabe language, the pronoun for living beings of the Earth is “Ki.” This word is also coincidentally used to describe vital energy in traditional medicines of Asia. It also suggests our “kin.”

I submit that the use of this particular pronoun is not just politically correct, or “new age,” but in fact “age old,” and very timely for the future.

Happy New Year.