Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
Like another story quite familiar to us, this one begins with a fall. But in this case, the fall is no metaphor.
Hurtling downward, Skywoman tumbled through space. Clutching nothing more than a handful of seeds that she grasped from the Celestial tree as she fell, she plummeted through the dark until surprisingly she felt the warm embrace of feathers. Geese resting on the primordial sea had seen her coming and flown up to catch her and break her fall. But they couldn’t hold her for very long. So, they called for a council of the animals.
The great turtle announced that he could hold her. So, they set her on his back and talked about what to do next. They agreed that Skywoman would need some land to live on. So, the swimming animals took turns diving to the bottom of the ocean to find some land. One by one the strong swimmers tried – otter, beaver sturgeon – but none succeeded. In the end, it was little muskrat, weakest of all, who dived and returned with a handful of mud.
Skywoman took the mud, spread it on the turtle’s shell and she began to sing and dance in gratitude and celebration. As her feet moved the land grew and grew, and on the land she planted the seeds from the Celestial tree that grew into grasses, flowers, and trees. And so the world began.
When we invite memory into our spiritual lives, we can never be exactly sure where it will take us. For memory is embodied in stories that live in and through us, and shape us in ways we can’t always anticipate. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to consider this Iroquois origin story as an alternative way of looking at our human relatedness to the Earth.
It is far different from the story centered in our culture, which tells of another woman banished from the garden, made to wander in the wilderness with her mate and instructed to subdue the Earth to survive. The story points to how our culture remembers the Earth, a threatening place to be brought under heel.
Kimmerer is a fascinating guide to this story life underlying our attitude toward the natural world. An enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she is also a distinguished botanist and professor of environmental biology. So, while she understands and teaches the narrative of science that measures and describes the natural world, she also carries from childhood a different sensibility, one that gave her, as she put it, a “natural inclination to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.” Others have had this insight. Two decades ago Thomas Berry argued that “If the Earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the Earth and its inhabitants, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat.” It was why he urged that we cultivate a sense of what he called re-enchantment with the Earth, a view that puts us in relation to the community of life.
Kimmerer, though, takes this a step further, introducing us to what she calls “a grammar of animacy,” and it takes us back to a way of thinking about the world centered in relationships.
It’s something that she said came to her as she was struggling to learn the language of her people. English, the language she was raised in, is centered in nouns. It’s concerned principally with things – dogs, trees, mountains, clouds – while Potawatomi is centered in verbs – actions, activities. In fact, 70% of Potawatomi words are verbs, compared with 30% of English words.
Apart from it making her a little crazy to think about learning the rules to use those verbs – tenses and forms – this understanding also opened something to her. Looking through a dictionary that someone created, she was astonished to find words that translated into English as something like “to be a Saturday,” “to be red,” “to be a bay.”
At first, she was puzzled. It sounded so cumbersome. But then it occurred to her that speaking of the world as a place of action gave it a new vitality. “When bay is a noun,” she wrote, “it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained. The verb to be a bay releases the water from bondage. To be a bay holds the wonder that for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and mergansers. Because it could do otherwise – become a stream or a waterfall and there are verbs for that, too.”
In a sense, this way of speaking animates the landscape. What we see when we look out is not a static vista but a world that is active and alive. That is why, Kimmerer says, many indigenous people use the same words to address the world as they use for family. Because, she says, as they see it, “they are family.” Plants and animals, yes, but also mountains, water, places. They are animate. They have their ways. And they are worthy of attention, of respect.
It’s a little disorienting to think about, yet how many of us have found ourselves chatting to chickadees at our birdfeeders or staring admiringly at the magnificent white oak we pass on the way to work? Our language classifies them as “its,” but there is something inside us that accords them something more: some animacy, some care and respect.
This is the spirit that inhabits Mary Oliver’s poem that we heard earlier about the surprising welcome that she discovered spending the night in the woods. And it’s telling that she frames what she experiences not as a discovery but as a reunion of sorts. “I thought the earth remembered me,” she writes.
Removed from all that sheltered her – “nothing between me and the white fire of the stars” – she found herself attuned to whole kingdoms of life who by their presence held the space, while, as she puts it, she was “grappling with a luminous doom” that by morning had left her, in her words, something better.
Many of us here can testify to that kind of healing, to finding on forest paths or mountain peaks a connection to a deeper rhythm that settles our souls, a rhythm that moves not so much in us as through us, that tells we are home, in enduring relationship that connects us with all life that has been and will be.
It is a comforting way to imagine our relation to the world. And still, in this Thanksgiving season, the fact remains that the links in that relationship are frayed. Fires in California and waves of hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast testify to all the ways that we humans are out of sync with those deep rhythms.
Here in Asheville, activists joined by clergy from the Creation Care Alliance have maintained a fast on Pack Square to bring attention to the threat of climate change. I joined them on Friday and offered words of blessing for their work. About a dozen or so were gathered. Here’s what I said:
Given the state of the world, I begin with words of confession and lamentation. We confess today that we humans have failed the Earth. Blessed with ingenious minds and clever hands capable of healing and hope, repair and renewal, we are instead doing terrible damage: extirpating species, poisoning the water and air, disrupting climate patterns.
We see the effects in forests ablaze, coastal cities inundated, and all the ways that the Web of life is being torn to tatters. Amid all this, we lament our hubris, our apathy, our willful blindness and denial.
This is reason to disrupt the quiet patterns of our lives to remind ourselves of the work before us, work that will require relinquishment and sacrifice of all us, as symbolized in our fast today, work to put ourselves in right relationship with all life, with the very Earth itself.
We see hope in that spark of compassion that resides in each of us, that we give many names, that of the spirit, of God, the holy. We see the dawning of a new possibility, a new way of being that defines itself not standing apart, but woven together in relationship, that finds kindred in all things.
Bless this work, this hope, this determination to repair what has been rent asunder, to reclaim our original blessing in harmony with all things, united as one people in care of the Earth.
Of course, even with all the damage we see, Earth’s systems surprise us with their resiliency. How else to respond than with gratitude? So, as we enter this Thanksgiving season let me introduce you to words that come from indigenous tradition, words that encompass this larger perspective and help us experience a worldview that embraces animacy in its fullest form and ties all together as one.
It is the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Six Nations who centuries ago joined to make a confederacy of peace. These words begin every gathering of those people. They establish the place where they begin and tell of the relationships embedded in our living, in the community of being in which we all participate.
We close with these words: