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Center for Action and Contemplation
The Soul of Nature
The Soul of Nature

A Pattern of Reciprocity

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi botanist, writes of our place in nature:

In the indigenous view, humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders. Plants were here first and have had a long time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground and hold the earth in place. Plants know how to make food from light and water. Not only do they feed themselves, but they make enough to sustain the lives of all the rest of us. Plants are providers for the rest of the community and exemplify the virtue of generosity, always offering food….

Many indigenous peoples share the understanding that we are each endowed with a particular gift, a unique ability…. It is understood that these gifts have a dual nature, though: a gift is also a responsibility. If the bird’s gift is song, then it has a responsibility to greet the day with music. It is the duty of birds to sing and the rest of us receive the song as a gift.

Asking what is our responsibility is perhaps also to ask, What is our gift? And how shall we use it? [1]

Author Debra Rienstra considers the destructive role humanity has often played in relation to the earth:

If humans didn’t exist at all, life would continue on earth. Let’s not flatter ourselves: biologically speaking, the earth does not need us to tend and care for it. Life on earth existed for eons before we arrived. Have we made the earth better by our arrival? Theologians have long interpreted Genesis 1:26–28 [“be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”] as God’s instruction to humans to unfold the potential of creation. Very well, but in our unfolding of potentials, we can also destroy, especially now that we have become so very fruitful and multiplied to so many billions. “Stewarding” and “caring” are only necessary because humans take things from the earth to survive.

Rienstra responds to Christians who do not take responsibility to care for the earth, believing “God will do something” to rescue us:

God allows people a great deal of freedom to do evil and ruinous things. Giving humans moral responsibility entails allowing us to act immorally and to suffer the consequences of our actions—or in the case of climate change, to let other people to suffer the consequences, at least at first. Do we really want to find out just how far God will let this go before God “does something”? Or could we instead perceive that God is indeed doing something, through the knowledge and work of people and through the self-healing powers built into the planet? The question for each of us is whether to resist or cooperate….

What can we give back through a pattern of reciprocity to a planet that gives us so much? What will make the more-than-human creation glad that we are here? [2]

[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 346, 347.

[2] Debra Rienstra, Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022), 106, 107.

Image credit: Benjamin Yazza, Untitled Porcupine (detail), New Mexico, 2023, photograph, used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.

“I relate tradition to habit, one of my habits brings me to my nature walks, where I see the same scenery, the same foliage, the same animals. Yet none of these are the same, they have their own unique progression.” —Benjamin Yazza, photographer

Story from Our Community:  

As a child, I was startled by the abundance of miracles in nature. 70 years of observing the living, dying, and decaying is a cherished education. Even the moth I just discovered in the dark morning impresses me with the sincerity found in all life. It comes with pain, frustration, awe, silence, love, and anger. Thank you God for this blessing; please show me how to use it. —Kathi S.

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