[This is the third in a three-part sequence about, loosely, faith and practice. The first is here; the second is here; another, by Janaya Kizzie, is here.]
The indigenous concept of Mother Earth [has been] Disneyfied and trivialized, but it’s an important idea: the earth as a mother that feeds us, that gives us what we need. We need a change of consciousness that honors these ideas, these relationships. When I talk about this with my students, I can tell that they yearn for it, but they graduate and they’re in debt, they have to make compromises, and I cry for them.
When the teaching semester started again, A rented a biodiesel van and drove his students out to the Fisherville Pond Dam on the Blackstone River. Together, they watched and listened with skepticism turning to awe as the biologists, ecologists, chemists and engineers–some their own age–explained how the canal restorers work. One of A’s students squatted down and touched the tip of one deep-brown finger to the skin of the water. She looked a question at their guide, who nodded reassuringly; she dipped her finger, put it in her mouth, and started to cry.
The point, A said to his students on the way back to town, is not that you guys all need to drop what you’re doing and learn how to make these specific things. The point is that this is a form of living intimately and reverently, the way we were talking about in class. The people who are making these things are giving back to the earth that made them…
… And they’re getting paid, said A’s surliest student.
And they’re getting paid. Which means–we talked about what that means–
That society recognizes the value of what they’re doing, said A’s most eager student.
A smiled at her. We are society, he said. What nourishes the earth nourishes us, because we get all our nourishment from the earth. When your boss says he’s standing on his own two feet, he’s ignoring the fact that he’s standing on the earth, breathing in what the trees breathe out, and that his feet are made out of things the earth gave him.
But how can we act that out? demanded a student who was usually quiet. I mean it sounds really good, but.
How do you all think? A asked. Let’s write, and then we’ll pool our ideas and write a little more.
My mom always say she should get paid for raising us. Everybody say welfare is bad but isn’t that what that is? Except it should be more.
I want to be a nutritionist because helping more people be healthy is a public service.
You should get money if you DONT pollute not if you do.
My grandmothers gave me a bath in the river when I was born, in Liberia, wrote the student who’d sipped clean water off her fingertip. I want to give my grandchildren a bath in the river when they are born, here. I want them to be born.
A and his students shaped these writings into letters and sent them where they thought they’d be most relevant: to Blue Cross Blue Shield, to the Social Security office, to National Grid, to the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture, to Hasbro …
Think of an animal or a plant as a moment of great and temporary good luck, something that allows other things to help it build itself and allows other things to help it destroy itself. First we grow; we burgeon. And then, unless someone interrupts our arc with violent contempt, we begin to dismantle ourselves and to be dismantled. Why don’t we recognize that one is as beautiful as the other? Why shouldn’t a business do it as well as a body, when it reaches the turn of its natural life? Nothing else even tries to grow forever.
During the seven years that followed, the people and plants and animals whose lives were touched by these companies, and who had helped these companies grow, helped to take them apart–not violently, but as part of their arc. They used their assets to tide people over–the healers, the growers, the restorers–as they worked out ways to give and take in balance and to move away from money, toward honor and sustenance, as rewards for the business of living.
The dismantlers knew in their own ways of knowing things that they too were being disassembled and disarmed piece by piece, as well as nourished, by other living creatures they needed but could not see, by the cells of their own bodies, by time, in order to become a field for more and different people and plants and animals and ideas and possibilities to grow.