Seated in a classroom, surrounded by environmentally devoted students in a graduate writing class, “What if the earth loves you back?” was a question posed by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology, member of the Potawatomi Nation, and my personal favorite wise-woman writer. She describes the scene in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
“What if the earth loves you back?” she said. But it was not really a question. It is not really a question to me, either. I only have to walk among the thick-set trees in Hitchcock Woods, or along the sandy edges of Edisto Island, or run my hands across the velvet side of a magnolia leaf in my own backyard to know the answer. We are all reminded of it in the morning songs of birds and with the warmth of the afternoon sun; evidence of it can be found on the pollen-laden backsides of bees and in the brilliant faces of dandelions.
But it seems to me that the earth does us one better. It seems to me that the earth loves us unconditionally. In spite of ourselves. When we forget to love it first. It can even love us back to health sometimes, regardless of our taking it for granted. The earth and its creatures seem to be there to love us just for the asking.
I found myself experiencing this supposition firsthand and with unmistaken grace several weeks ago – with the residuals of elections and politics still raging, along with the seemingly endless uncertainty of our global health and safety, among daily heartbreaking reminders of our capacity for treating each other without any decency or consideration or kindness or compassion, all in the midst of ceasless, dark uncaring weather. I found myself tossing about, physically grieving, mourning from the inside out. Until finally, a break in the clouds with uncommon warmth crept in, bringing hints of spring along with it. And I took myself into the woods.
I walked among its leaves and solitude, its dirt paths and pinecones. And I stopped to hug trees along the way. One great tall pine with rough multi-layered skin hugged me back first. And then an oak, mottled with age and moss. And there were others whose names I didn’t know, but who welcomed me just the same.
A wonderful thing about hugging trees is that they will never let go first; they’ll allow the embrace to continue as long as you want, as long as you need it. And, I have found, if you listen very carefully, you might hear their hearts beating along with your own pulse – until theirs comes into sync with yours, and slows your heart rhythm down to match their own. And you feel their peace deep inside you – in your wrists and temples and chest.
On that day, I also sat for quite a long while on a waiting tree stump. And I thought out loud into the blue of the sky. Several birds scurried up to keep me company as they foraged for snacks. There were breezes, too, to remind me of how to breathe. And the earth itself felt solid and sure supporting me.
By the time I left the woods, my body and soul were reunited, at one with each other, and I felt safe again. All because the earth loved me back.
Perhaps one day we will remember what I suspect we all knew once a very long time ago – a truth that we seem to have almost “civilized” into oblivion – the truth that we and the earth are in a pretty amazing relationship. It’s a relationship of respect. A relationship of trust. And, in the end, it’s really a relationship of love.
So, go … hug trees, plant gardens, feed birds, remove trash. See how the earth loves you back.