Nature as Nurture: Ancient Lessons in Sacred Sustenance

“Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.”

–  Wendell Berry

We are a well-fed species.  In general.  I won’t gloss over the fact that there are too many of us who are undernourished, even starving, but overall we feed ourselves—particularly in the industrialized countries–quite lavishly.  So much so that a worldwide increase in excess weight and obesity are creating epidemics of associated disease, straining healthcare systems and shortening life spans for the first time in many generations.

There are numerous factors fueling this increase in our consumption, our size.  We know that many of the industries involved in food production have cynically and deliberately lied to and manipulated us in order to boost profits, to avoid the natural consequence of marketing poison, and to turn investigative spotlights in other directions.  Processed foods have become a seeming necessity for many, as the demands of everyday life cut into time that might have been spent purchasing and cooking from scratch.  Then there is the ubiquitous array of technological devices which have nudged many of us into more sedentary lifestyles. Adults tend to work less on their feet, and children are seen playing more often bent over with cramped fingers than they are with joyous and out-flung bodies.  The mindboggling variety and ready availability of food in 1st world countries, coupled with massive marketing campaigns, lead many to seek to meet all sorts of needs through food:  pleasure, comfort, company, entertainment, sedation, fortitude or happiness.  Food was never intended to make us happy nor to fill our hearts.  In vain we eat to find something we lost long ago.

I raise this issue neither to criticize nor condemn, but rather to acknowledge the emptiness and longing it speaks to with such urgency. We feel a deep and persistent hunger, many of us, but the food we lack is needed for our hearts and souls, not our bodies.

It has become fairly common in certain circles to look to the advent of agriculture, the Neolithic Revolution, as the point where homo sapiens sapiens lost our way, the moment in history when we took the road which inevitably led to this current moment, to runaway global warming, overpopulation and the likely imminent demise of our species. There is considerable merit in this postulate, and I want to examine the shift from foraging to agriculture through the lens of our apparently ever-expanding hunger.

Humans gained a great deal when we settled in communities organized around cultivating the food needed for survival. Important benefits accrued, like the security provided by crop surpluses against times of famine, and the development of creature comforts only achievable when stationed in a fixed location for extended periods.  There were, as there always are, unintended consequences of this seismic change in how we lived, not all of them welcome.  In addition to the glories of civilization–art, music, philosophy, written language, creative governance– which were cultivated alongside early grains, we found ourselves dealing as well with new diseases, tooth decay, the potential for unheard-of wealth creation and concomitant societal stratification, labor specialization and more highly defined gender roles, narrowing of nutritional variety, deadly famines in times of crop failure, and wars over resources unlike any that had occurred prior to the Neolithic.   Just the tip of the agricultural iceberg, but it hints at how powerful a move this one was. In other words, this is not a simple subject, and I will forego any attempt to canvas comprehensively the ways in which the Neolithic Revolution altered the trajectory of all life on this planet.

What specifically prompts me to look so far back in time is the catastrophic situation we face today.  The Great Acceleration is underway and we see it everywhere: the Northern Sea Route was navigated without an icebreaker for the first time last month, the human population passed the 7.5 billion mark this year, extreme weather events are devastating lives around the globe, juvenile posturing in deadly nuclear playgrounds is holding hostage any residual hope for any kind of future.

There is a ‘new normal’ in relation to these realities which I have noticed of late. References to the end of the world, or the extinction of homo sapiens, have become threaded more frequently into the cloth of general discourse. What was heretically unsayable a few short years ago finds its way into the MSM, casual conversations with friends, and serious considerations of life choices.  For some there is an urgency to do something to halt or ameliorate this exponentially growing threat, but I often hear a kind of theoretical acceptance and resignation from many with whom I speak.

While it might be true that there is nothing we can do to change the course of events we have been so instrumental in setting in motion, it is never the case that we are helpless.    The choice about how we live, as unique and potentially extraordinary beings, for as long and under whatever conditions may be granted us remains, regardless.  Who do you want to be, how do you wish to use your life force, your intelligence, your innate ability to love?  It is likely that as the next few years unfold, our concrete and quotidian options will diminish.  Look to the residents of Mumbai or Houston for a preview.

All the more reason, I say, to learn now, while there is still some time, how to be fully human.  It is, after all, the only shot we may have at it, so why not do our best to get it right as individuals, even if the final conclusion may be that we got it wrong as a species?

Which brings me back to our far-distant ancestors, those who lived before humans moved into domination of nature, those who were forced to live in balance with all of life in order to survive.  What did they understand that might help us to live with greater fulfillment, even at this far reach?

Probably a lot, but I want to focus on the relationship they had with their sources of sustenance.  I want to recollect what pre-Neolithic people knew about that relationship to see if there is wisdom for us, inspiration or guidance to serve us in these times.  Indigenous peoples all over the planet maintain some of their traditional foodways from that long ago time, and certainly nurture carefully the truths underlying them, so we can start there.

Foremost amongst those truths is the fact that all of life is connected.  This is said so often that is sounds trite, but how, really, do we actualize it?  Mostly, we don’t. We live as masters on this planet: raping, pillaging, taking what we want without permission, destroying that which doesn’t immediately appear to benefit us, tossing that which we have used up into the oceans where dwell some of the most singular and beautiful creatures we will ever know.  How could we possibly allow DAPL to be built or Gaza to be bombed back to the Middle Ages or plastic water bottles to be sold in national parks if we were living with even a superficial understanding of our interconnectedness?

Chances are, neither you nor I are going to stop ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo–or the interests that control them both, though there may be some space for altering the outcomes of particular projects.  We can, however, choose—in each moment and every day–how we live as individuals, how we actualize what we know to be true about life and our place in it.

Hunter-gatherers lived (and in a few isolated cases, continue to live) as part of a magnificent web.  A web requires parity and balance in order to maintain its integrity and strength. The food our ancestors needed to survive was obtained as part of an exchange. It was not something taken without reciprocation. On a very physical level, humans were prey as well as predator. The old, the young, the ill fell and fed other beings, giving their lives to prolong and empower others’.  Human bodies returned to the earth to make it rich and fertile.

But more importantly, pre-agricultural humans understood that they were truly not alone, isolated, or separate from the rest of earth’s dwellers. They saw the vibrant and unique spirits possessed by plants. They knew that animals who gave their lives that they might eat deserved deepest gratitude. Respect for the multifaceted manifestations of consciousness kept humans in sacred balance with the rest of earth’s beings, giving just as they received, and reaping the profoundly satisfying rewards of interdependence.

Today, as a gnawing and insatiable hunger drives so many of us to eat more than our bodies need, we might find a means to greater fulfillment in nature.  In what still remains of it, awesome even in its most modest expressions, there is sustenance and satisfaction to be found in great measure.

Most of us know that a walk in the forest is renewing, that time spent near waves can alter a mood, and that interacting with pets improves physical well-being. All good, but we can choose to be more intentional; it is what this very singular time invites us to do.

Birch trees, goldenrod, redwing blackbirds, lizards, skunks, coyotes, ants and luna moths: they are no different to us in that they thrive when their contributions are seen and respected.  They do not exist merely as embellishments or challenges to our lives, but rather as beings having their own passage through this world.  There are tenets of exchange which govern that passage, ones we have forgotten to our great cost: call and response, give and receive, take and then reciprocate. If it is to hold, the web must be tended.

As I try to find ways to live right–dharmically–I am drawn to a more generous and mutual relationship with non-human forms of consciousness.  The fact that my existence is hopelessly urban may appear to be an obstacle to actually moving in that direction, but it is not insurmountable.  We know that everything is changing, and yet for most of us, business continues pretty much as usual.  So, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to buy peaches and heirloom tomatoes from the farmers who grow them.

But I will also take the time to cultivate connections with the trees, the birds, the waters, the stones.  Not because I ought, but because those relationships, which answered a deep appetite in earlier humans, literally fill me with joy and wonder and a sense of belonging that no amount or kind of food ever will.  If we look to the wisdom passed down to indigenous people today, ancient hunter-gatherers fed not solely on berries and roots and fish and fowl, but also upon the energetic of the exchange that ignites whenever mutuality and interdependence are experienced.

We are clearly not managing to eat ourselves to happiness, security or even satiety.  Always more and more, bigger and faster and better.  And still, the hunger persists, sending us off to seek something, anything to stop it, to fill the void.  Perhaps it is time to shift our focus from what we want and need, to what it is that we can offer in exchange for all that we receive.  To how we might try to affect that sacred balance which so sustained our forebears.

There are many ways to do this and perhaps you already have your own means.  If not, you can make small steps in this direction: feed the birds or water a tree, but take care to do it with full consciousness of your connection and your debt.  Offer some sustenance, not from the magnanimity of human dominance, but from the humility of shared destiny.   Or if you want to go a bit further, commune with a plant or a body of water or another form of consciousness. Just sit (or stand, or walk) and spend a few moments feeling all the way into the essence of another, non-human, being.  Allow yourself to be fully present with that other, experience the mutual thrill of connectedness that is always there, but which we so often overlook in our hubris and haste.

And then notice how your offering of time, energy and attention leaves you feeling.  Without fail, I feel more human when I do this: whole, relaxed, joyful and empowered. In some small way, I earn my place in the greater scheme of things by giving back, by making the effort to truly see and honor my companions on this journey of life.  All sense of separation dissolves, and the happiness that flows from knowing I am one with all else here on this amazing earth—even for short moments– totally sates any lingering cravings.  And unexpectedly, feeling more human, more full, allows me to continue to hold awareness of and respect for the non-human life that pulses everywhere around me.  I live as part of the web, and it is good.

As our world continues to turn, there will inevitably be increasing grief and loss, but I see that as all the more reason to hold ourselves upright, and in delight when possible, so long as we are here.  Few of us can (or would) voluntarily choose the nomadic life of a hunter-gatherer, but if we look back, before ‘the fall’ represented by the Neolithic Revolution, we may rediscover lost wisdom and ways to flourish, remember how to hold love in adversity and maintain balance in the face of an utterly upending era.


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Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net or via her website.  

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