Meditations on Loving the Land

Macleod River valley, Greater Yellowstone. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

My cat, Jack, loves Earthing.  When he gets to go out, Jack mainly wants to get on his back and squirm around in the dirt. In his own simple way, Jack clearly loves the Earth.

Watch a newborn bison calf lie in the grass on a warm spring day. It’s pure bliss. She has every reason to love that warm green ground.We call it ground, earth, soil, dirt, mud, rock, land, terra firma. It’s no coincidence that English speakers call both the planet and the soil Earth.

To the Lakota people, Earth is Uncí Maká – Mother Earth. North America is Turtle Island, symbolized by an animal that lives very close to the earth. Earth is represented by Kéya, turtle- patient, peaceful, long lived.

Earth holds us up and supports all our material wealth. Everything we do, unless it involves flying or space travel, takes places on (or in) the Earth, or on her seas and lakes and rivers. Even flying requires using materials taken from the Earth, and coming back to Earth.

This is our home, the world that made us. Terra firma – solid earth. We return to the Earth when we die and, as we decompose, become part of Earth once again.

We call the land valleys, hills, mountains, canyons, cliffs, prairies, meadows, wetlands, rivers, lakes, beach, shore. We turn it into farms, lawns, gardens, golf courses, parks, subdivisions, cities, towns.

We walk on it, drive on it, sit and lie on it, make love on it, play with our children on it, walk our dogs on it. Our food grows in it. Our homes stand on it. Our lakes and rivers run across it, forests grow from it; from this rich, sustaining, essential Earth.

Where I live is a special place. The land here has a strong and vibrant spirit, born of the surrounding mountains; rushing rivers; deep glacial soils; wild animals; diverse, lush vegetation; and thousands of years of people living and thriving here.

Wildflowers of many kinds, and surpassing beauty – pasqueflower, lupine, balsamroot, yarrow, shootingstar, larkspur, bluebell, columbine, cinquefoil, aster, arnica – emerge from the soil every spring and summer like magic in this high cold valley, as they have since the glaciers gave way.

Through thirty five years of living in the Valley of the Flowers, I have come to know its many corners, canyons, hills, creeks, meadows and ponds. I feel the echoes of the great glaciers reshaping the land, walk on the buried bones of megafauna, strain to hear the echoes of an ancient world being subsumed by mechanized civilization.

Getting to really know and love a piece of land is a sensual experience and can be a hard one. In a place being overwhelmed by progress, it is dangerous but essential to love the land. As I roam across this great valley, every day brings new pain as places I have known for decades as open space, trees I have watched grown tall, even old homes and barns I appreciate, are torn away to become raw material for builders and banks and realtors to sell to people fleeing urban life and bringing it with them. Blood-rich soil is ripped open and exposed, a living gift of the wind and rivers and glaciers that sustains us and grows plants that offer us life and nutrition, taste and smell and beauty. River cobbles, stones, and pebbles, all washed and sorted by the endless parade of water and ice, are unearthed and trucked away as “gravel” to be buried under asphalt and driven on.

We cover this rich land over with pavement, reshape it to our whims with heavy machinery. We turn thousands of exotic animals loose to strip its grass and forage and turn it into meat.

Unless you work with the soil, you may tend to think of it as inert, as “dirt.” But it is very much alive. One gram of rich garden soil can host up to one billion bacteria, several thousand protozoa and scores of nematodes. It is laced with yards of fungal filaments. It is a living, complex system that sustains every bite of food we eat, every seed we plant.

We ARE the land, made up of all manner of minerals – our bodies contain calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, iodine, chromium, copper, fluoride, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium. Without these essential minerals we cannot live.

And water, of course, that incredible fluid that runs through our veins, makes up sixty per cent of our living bodies, and flows through all the veins of the Earth. Another one to three per cent of our bodies consists of microorganisms, which we exchange constantly with the soil and the outside environment and with each other.

The cells of our bodies, these bodies we put so much effort into maintaining, are replaced every seven to ten years. They are replenished with the stuff of Earth. As a 62 year old my body has been totally replaced at least six times. So in a very real sense the Earth is our body – it is what makes us and what we are constantly rebuilt from.

Is it any wonder I love the Earth? We should love the Earth, for it is us. We cannot separate our living selves from the ground we walk on.

You may believe that our spirit lingers on and goes somewhere else, heaven or Nirvana or what have you. Perhaps. But I need no other Nirvana than the wild rolling meadows of Yellowstone, the crashing blue ocean on the rocky Atlantic shore, the riot of color of the Appalachian fall, the great icy volcanoes of Kamchatka, the crimson spires and arches of the Colorado Plateau, the magical fjords of Alaska or Norway, the vast Serengeti savannah.

For all that the Earth gives us, we don’t give a lot back. But we sure do take. We strip mine it for minerals, drill it for water and for oil, suck out the good stuff.  We cover this rich black humus with impermeable pavement, dig in and line it with concrete, eliminate the living breathing soil we depend on.

We shave off the ancient living forests and turn them into lumber and pulp, often failing to replant the trees. We take the precious minerals and stones; the diamonds, copper, zinc, cobalt, platinum, gold, the starstuff that originated in the forges of a million suns. We leave gaping holes oozing toxic waste. We unearth the toxic uranium and expose it, leaving it to leak its poison forever. We slice off the tops of mountains and gouge out the carbon stores from millions of years of ancient swamps and forests.

Our greed is never ending as we pillage and burn what the eons have stored, leaving little or nothing for the future, saturating the atmosphere with carbon sequestered by the ages.

We build machines that can transport immense quantities of rock and earth in one load; giant shovels that tear apart the planet. Where are the massive machines to put it all back together?

We impose political lines and private boundaries on what is ultimately all one green blue ball. These lines that we fight and kill to maintain are artificial and will not last. Countries, counties, kingdoms, nations, states, estates, subdivisions, cities, towns, districts, sections, townships…all are the Earth, all are part of the same fragile sphere spinning its way through the yawning empty depths of the Universe.

We race through the Cosmos on this spinning rock, whirling at 1,000 miles per hour, orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, with our solar system speeding through the galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. Meanwhile the Milky Way Galaxy tracks through the immensity at 1.3 million miles per hour.  Earth buffers all that dizzying motion for us so it looks like a still, warm summer day outside my window.

The land is the one and only home to terrestrial wildlife. Our fellow creatures, our relatives, evolved along with us upon this Earth and have as much right to the land as we think we do. Yet animals relate to and use the land in ways we have forgotten, instinctively or intentionally preserving and enhancing the land. For instance, hippos in Africa have created and maintain, through their movement, the channels that water flows through across the Okavango Delta. Beavers build vast networks of wetland, slowing the waters, easing flood impacts, raising the water table and building habitat for countless species from moose to muskrats. Elephants literally create forests and wetlands through their browsing and trampling and migrating actions. Bison created and maintained the immense prairies of North America.

This valley I love, once part of that same great buffalo commons, is surrounded by much wilder and more challenging terrain. It is harder to know. I gaze at the snow covered peaks and feel pulled toward them, but I know from long experience it takes a lot of effort to get there.

Wilderness and wild mountains are tougher but more reliable lovers. Give them a chance, earn their trust, work for your entry into this wild landscape and it will embrace you and welcome you back. The changes you witness there – forest fire, flood, storm –  may be abrupt but they make more sense and are not as painful as the willy-nilly development transforming the valley.

The mountains will challenge you every time to show your loyalty and will test you with weather, with dangerous wild animals, with mud, wet snow, battering wind, pummeling rain, terrifying lightning, raging creeks. You will need to strain your muscles and expand your lungs and work your whole body to reach a summit or a ridge or a remote lake and get a fleeting glimpse of the beating heart, the naked soul of the land. It may not always be a satisfying experience but if you keep coming back the land will offer you affection and wisdom. Your connection to the land will deepen and strengthen.

Back in the Valley of the Flowers, where my home rests on this beautiful green and welcoming land, I feel at home. I know the land is alive and it is crying out. It wants to be loved, it wants to be taken care of to provide for us and for its wild children. The land can sustain us for a long long time if we love it back. Slow down, look around, and take time to walk softly on the Earth.

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.