Remove your sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
~ Exodus 3:5 ~
“In the beginning was the Word” is the famous opening line of the Gospel of John. The English “word” may be a limited translation of the Greek word “logos,” which in the first century implied a more pervasive divine force operating throughout the cosmos. But it’s a very appropriate sentiment for “the people of the book,” the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faithful who drew their foundations from varied traditions recorded within the Bible. These were texts of revelation, the word of the divine, showing a path toward justice and compassion. Since the first stories began to be written down circa 1200 BCE, billions of people have drawn solace, knowledge, guidance, and meaning from these words.
Cultural historian Thomas Berry urged us to expand our vision beyond these treasured texts to include Earth herself as our primary source of revelation. “We need to go to the earth, as the source from whence we came, and ask for its guidance, for the earth carries the psychic structure as well as the physical form of every living being upon the planet.” Beyond that, he urges us to turn to the universe to contemplate “the basic issues of reality and value, for, even more than the earth, the universe carries the deep mysteries of our existence within itself.”
Berry was inspired by the discovery of the Big Bang and the timeline of the emerging universe to see the cosmos itself as a constantly unfolding creative force. Everything that exists grew from that 13.7 billion-year progression. The stars, the galaxies, the planets, our planet. The life force we manifest was birthed in the early seas of our rocky Earth. Its soil was slowly derived from those rocks. The green flowering of photosynthesizing plants grew from that soil. Single-celled beings multiplied themselves together to form the animal life we live among, the animal life we live as conscious beings.
It’s to this ever-flowering creativity that Berry urges us to turn. There we will find revelation to fuel the energies we have turned to sacred texts to find. Feelings of connection and wholeness. A sense that life has meaning. That we have a place, a purpose. Reasons to love. The desire to choose the right path for ourselves as individuals as well as cultures. The way into transcendence. “The excitement of life and the sustaining of psychic vigor are evoked by our participation in this magnificent process.”
Berry felt that our Biblical traditions, with their repeated promises of a better world beyond this one, alienated us from the vivid life we found on Earth, from the “full measure of its entrancing qualities.” Rather than being rooted in the unfolding wonders around us, ”we somehow did not belong to the community of earth. We were not an integral component of the natural world. Our destiny was nowhere.”
Our bones are made of the minerals in bedrock. The ancient salt seas flow in our veins. Archaic bacteria power our bodies. We exist because we eat sunlight after it passes through the magical work of leaves. Our destiny is clearly here on Earth, with the energies that birthed us and enfold us with deep wisdom every moment. We are a life force of a planet that knows. We participate in that knowing, having evolved to ponder our own existence and the splendors of the workings of the universe. But, though we have developed language to speak of our knowledge and express our form of consciousness, we are far from the only being that knows. Here, for example, is a short list of the knowledge unleashed in a single acorn:
Having lain on the ground all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, it knows how to measure the right mix of light, water, temperature, and oxygen to break dormancy. It knows to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. It senses whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi it needs are available. If not, it will wait — sometimes years — for the right moment.
It knows to send out two first leaves, cotyledons, to begin the miraculous brilliance of turning sunlight into carbohydrates, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. In its first year as a seedling, it concentrates on developing an extensive root system so it can be carried through many decades. To insure a long and healthy life, it partners with vast fungal webs in the soil, negotiating exchanges of nutrients for minerals, water, and information. It communicates with surrounding plants through those channels, especially with its parents and siblings. Interlocking its roots with nearby trees keeps it stable.
As it grows — cell upon cell, water and minerals flowing upward, sugars flowing down, bark thickening, strengthening wood forming, leaf litter decomposing at its feet — its life becomes intertwined with an astonishing number of other lives. Billions of microbes and fungi, thousands of insects. Hundreds of birds eating those insects. Soil being formed at its feet. It becomes a literal life force, teaching us one of Earth’s greatest revelations: everything thrives by cooperation.
There is competition. Not all acorns become mature oaks. Plenty are eaten by animals, a crucial bond between oaks and wildlife. Saplings lose ground to more robust young trees. A mature forest is composed of trees that have prevailed because they made the best use of the resource exchange among sun, leaves, soil, fungi, microbes, wildlife. The forest itself holds the knowledge of how this happens. Trees pull their crowns back to allow space for sunlight to reach the forest floor where seedlings are starting the process all over again.
We are then offered another revelation: sustainability. Living systems with a built-in ability to recover and regenerate. Life ensured by the continual recycling of life. Crucial because some interconnections can destroy communities: volcanos erupt, hurricanes gather force, tectonic plates shift, spawning earthquakes and tsunamis. Earth’s blessed ability to heal kicks in, sometimes dramatically, often slowly. Lightning starts a wildfire. In the charred remnants of that part of the forest, there is an immediate burst of wildflowers whose dormant seeds suddenly have the light, air, and nutrients from the ash they have been waiting for. The flowers and their pollinators enjoy a heyday for many years until the young trees get tall enough to shade them. The forest has the collaborative, adaptive resources to manifest a variety of ecosystems as it grows into maturity, a process that can take decades.
Cooperation implies, creates, and is created by more revelation: interconnectedness. The entire Earth is one ecosystem after another. They can be as small as our single oak or as large as the great northern boreal forests. They can be natural or human-made. A community, no matter its size, is an ecosystem of intertwined and interdependent relationships. In cultures that value competition, only some features of a community will thrive, a state the Earth itself eschews. Every living thing on Earth is here because cell after cell learned to cooperatively share information as they responded to changing circumstances.
This capacity of communities and members of communities to adapt is characteristic of another revelation: the patient process of evolution. The ability to move beyond one way of being into another mode. We live at a time when the human species is being asked to do just this. So we are acutely aware of both the promise of change and of its challenges, physical and emotional. Yet, by consciously choosing to step into evolution we align ourselves with one of its most important traits: it aims for success. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or orderly. We are living through the inevitable disruptions, trusting in evolution’s promise of creativity out of chaos.
Evolution has insured a further revelation: interrelatedness. When Indigenous people speak of the inhabitants of Earth as “all our relations,” they are speaking literally. Each living thing on Earth is a descendant of the earliest single-celled life that appeared 3.7 billion years ago. We share genes with every breathing form that we live among. Up to 60% with plants, 98% with animals, 60% with insects. Our acorn is a cousin. In the forest, we walk among family. Evolution is thrifty. There’s no need to reinvent each new life force from scratch. Life flows from life.
And what genius it holds! Capable of variation beyond measure, all woven from the information held in a few delicate strands of DNA. If there is anything Earth teaches us it is that diversity is a strength. The continual mingling of talents and traits drives evolution. One of its great accomplishments — the development of sexual reproduction — brought us the literal flowering of life on Earth. Cooperative interconnections among varieties of pollinators and plants blossomed into hundreds of thousands of species.
The wild abandon with which Earth has created her vast variety of beings leads us to one of the most mysterious and delicious of revelations: beauty. We live on a gorgeous planet. All those silky petals, beautiful colors, sun-dappled forests, rushing rivers, quiet streams between fern-laden banks. All those snowy mountain tops, turquoise waters. The exquisite pattern of butterfly wings, the flash of vivid birds, the glory of sunsets. Barring our intrusions, there is nowhere on Earth that beauty cannot be found.
It is generally accepted that the beauty of form and color in flowers and birds evolved to facilitate finding pollinators and mates for reproductive success. Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey theorizes that beauty does something similar for us. The awe beauty inspires attaches us to Earth and to an often challenging life, fostering both an innate spirituality and the will to live and keep our species going.
As humans, we have evolved the senses and consciousness to respond to all this loveliness, but it’s not here for us. The beauty we so appreciate predated us by hundreds of millions of years. If we ponder the connections among flowering plants, their pollinators, and the nutritious fruits they produce, we could say that beauty evolved us. Still, we could have evolved to appreciate a much less vivid scene; an all-green world, for example. Pollinators could have evolved to prefer only yellow flowers, birds to perform calmer mating rituals. The existence of beauty is not simply a practical matter.
“The revelation of the natural world,” Berry says, “directly and immediately awakens a sense of awe and mystery.” This is especially true of beauty. Its effect is immediate. We are instantly transformed, expanded, filled with longing for love, connection, peace. This joy-filled lifting of spirit is transcendence, a gift of Earth herself. She pulls us toward a state beyond the jangling of the world we have created, filling us with the urge to cherish all life.
To do that cherishing people are increasingly looking to the beauties of Earth’s engineering prowess. She creates her wonders without toxic chemicals, at ambient temperatures, building only what is needed out of the materials at hand. How do we emulate this genius? How do grasslands store carbon? What can forests teach us about building sustainable cities? How do wetlands function as flood controllers? How can we recreate the stronger-than-steel strength of spiders’ silk? These are important questions and the answers will help us address the challenges we have created. We may well end up being saved by kelp forests and lichen. By understanding the filtering prowess of mussels and termite mounds.
But perhaps asking such questions will lead to an even more important result: we will need to look deeply into Earth’s endless miracles. Attention, the poet Mary Oliver told us, is the beginning of devotion. It’s the gateway to passion, zeal, sanctity. The open door to wisdom. To a spirituality, as Thomas Berry says, “of the divine as revealed in the visible world about us.” It’s through deep intimacy with Earth that we “renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe.” He reminds us of something our ancient ancestors knew and that Indigenous people have never forgotten. Every rock, hill, valley, stream, tree, insect, animal, plant vibrates with life, depth, wisdom, full of revelations.
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The first year, seeing the leaves sprinkled through the redwood forest, I suspected the plant would one day show me a flower. But it took a few years of looking before the delight of my first one. And then, as so often happens with quests, the end was only the beginning of the gifts.
“I am a star that has grown out of the earth, created from the gifts of my celestial sisters and the rich ground at my roots.”
In the beautiful ritual called The Council of All Beings, we invite another being to speak through us. For me, in the midst of the glorious California iris season, it’s no surprise that a wild iris came to claim me.
We live a life of supreme interdependence with seeds. Our presence on the planet depends on them; our wisdom has evolved with them. They are mighty packages of fierce and beautiful energy, full of deep wisdom that knows when, where, and how to spring fully to life, fueling most of the plant world, and all of the animal world.