Several years ago I visited an Illinois Indian mound museum with my family. We entered on the ground floor and worked our way up to the third, ending on a deck that overlooks the mounds themselves, now part of a subdivision.
On the deck rail was a bronze map to help identify what we were seeing. It also offered these words: Imagine you are a person totally dependent on the natural world for your survival.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached that rail through a curtain of chilly spring rain. But I got white hot as I read those words. I knew they meant for us to take ourselves back in time, undo all our progress and convenience, and think primitive. Leaving aside the ignorance of that word applied to the rich culture of Native Americans, behind the bronze words stood a lethal lie: unlike those who came before us, we are not dependent on the natural world for our survival. We have air conditioning, computers, microwaves, and supermarkets. We are free of all that.
Until the power goes out.
Until the ice storm, the super storm, the earthquake. Until we can’t flush the toilet.
It is the belief implied by that sentence—who wrote it? how much were they paid?—that allows us to blow up mountains to get coal, spew oil into the oceans, raise animals for slaughter in cruelty and filth. If we aren’t dependent, if we are free from all that, what does it matter? Shouldn’t we get as much as we can, as fast as we can, for as long as we can? What does it have to do with us?
What does water have to do with fish?
We are a small part of the natural world, not lords outside it. Even as our impact on creation has grown out of all proportion, that fact has not changed. It can’t. With rare exceptions, we can survive less than a week without water, about two weeks without food. We still require shelter. We will still die of infection if we can’t keep our skin, food, and water clean. We are finite. As individuals, we live or die in relation to the health of our food, air, and water. As a species, we live or die with the planet.
I believe in going to nature’s school. When we walk through the woods, float on a lake, or wade in the surf, we have a chance to come into conscious relationship with the web of which we are a part. We can step out of our walls of abstraction into our bodies, vulnerable as any creature.
To feel small among leaves and rocks, birds and bugs, to feel infinitesimal on the edge of waves that have been breaking forever: these experiences invite us to remember our relationship with the earth which bore and sustains us. To come home.