But If the Land Is Alive . . . ?

This page addresses the concerns that people of Western culture most often raise when they first come face to face with the real possibility that the Land is alive. C and R stand for “concern” and “response” here — as opposed to Q and A for questions and answers — because when people have raised these issues with me in person, they’ve been real concerns rather than casual questions. Also, I am simply responding to the concerns, not providing definitive “answers.” I speak only for myself as an Indigenous woman, not for “Indigenous people” as a whole.

C: If the Land is alive, doesn’t that mean people have to worship it?

R: No. It means we need to be in relationship with it. Your mother or father, your child, your coworkers and your favorite grocery store checker are alive, right? But you don’t worship them. You have relationships with them. Some relationships are much closer than others. Some relationships are loving while others are abusive. We all have different kinds of relationships. But relationship is not worship.

C: If the Land is alive, doesn’t that mean we’re let off the hook of being responsible? Wouldn’t a loving earth take good care of us no matter what, meaning we don’t have to change the way we live?

R: You’re in a loving relationship with your spouse or child, and you are presumably in at least a positive relationship with your boss. Does this mean you can steal the money from any of these people’s bank account, wreck their car, or hit them in the head with a two-by-four and still expect they will be happy to see you and continue to permit you access to their checking account, car keys, or house? Relationship does not equal permission to abuse.

C: This idea is against the teachings of my religion. This sacred text [insert citation and passage] clearly shows that the earth is inert rather than alive, and was provided to human beings so we can use it for our own benefit. We were given the right to control it.

R: Rather than discuss theology, I would instead like to point out that there was a time not too long ago when people said the same things about slavery. Religious leaders of many different traditions cited passages of their sacred texts to show they “very clearly” taught that people of this or that other race were not truly human beings but were put on the earth to serve those who were. It’s true that theologians and philosophers will have to rethink some things if people in Western culture begin to realize the Land is alive, but they’ll probably enjoy having a big new topic they can wrangle one another about.

C: I still feel like you’re somehow disrespecting my culture.

R: I’m certainly sensitive to this, given the history between our cultures that runs largely in the opposite direction. But realizing that the Land is alive doesn’t take anything away from the magnificent things Western culture has accomplished. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Picasso’s Guernica, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and Salk’s polio vaccine still exist. Every culture has strengths and weaknesses, just like people do. You already know the thing we Indigenous people are good at is relating to the Land. That’s why you asked us to help you. (Remember?)

C: OK, so what do you mean by “the Land”? Dirt? Rocks?

R: The land itself, the ground under our feet, is the root source of all the other living things with which we interact, both the seen and the unseen. It is plants, animals, microorganisms, waters, and winds, and even the fabric from which our own own bodies are woven and to which they return when we die. So if we can remember our connection to the Land, which is one of the things that happens in ceremony, we can remember we exist in relationship to all the other things that are part of it, like trees and rivers, Knowledge and Law. Remembering our relations is very important. This is one of the things you asked us to share with you, is how you can re-establish your relationship with the natural world.

C: Why don’t you just call it “Nature” instead of the Land? It sounds like that’s what you mean.

R: Although I have used the term “nature” in several places in this exercise, I don’t like it. Many Indigenous people don’t, because that term taps into the whole “Mother Nature” idea in Western culture. There are a couple of problems with that. Mother Nature is pictured as a human woman, so the whole thing immediately becomes anthropocentric. Anthropocentrism is one of the biggest conceptual limitations Western culture is struggling to escape. (It even named the new geologic age during which it plans to turn over a new, more sustainable, and less human-centric leaf the “Anthropocene” — irony whose magnitude shows the depth of the problem.) Another problem with the “Mother Nature” idea is that people in Western culture generally have a hard time not mixing up “alive” and “human” as parts of a single thing. That is, there’s a tendency for people of Western culture to see things that are alive as being the same as we humans are, or else to see things that are different from humans as not alive in any way at all. We must remember that life takes many different forms. It’s not bimodal and it’s also not hierarchical. Even things that people in Western culture tend to think of as “only a little bit alive” (pine trees, frogs, bacteria) have their own ways as well as their own agency. They are quite capable ot teaching wisdom to a human being and also of healing in powerful ways. The beings of other nations don’t have to do or be the way humans are, just as we do not have to do or be the way they are. We all have our own ways. Life is very diverse.

C: Isn’t this just the Gaia Hypothesis then?

R: No. Once you open enough to feel the Land for yourself, and you’ve had a chance to engage with it the way Indigenous people do — and that’s going to take a while — you’ll be able to compare that to the Gaia Hypothesis. Gaia is a fine idea and I’m not disparaging Lovelock or Margulis or anyone who appreciates the idea of Gaia. But it’s not the same thing. But this is also not something we can talk about meaningfully until you’ve had some experiences of the living Land yourself.

C: What about evolution? Doesn’t that idea say we’re all related? Can’t we simply use our understanding of evolution, and maybe of ecology too, to build healthy relationship with the natural world?

R: It seems it should work that way, doesn’t it? But it hasn’t. If it had, we would not be having this discussion right now. You wouldn’t be asking Indigenous people to help you figure out how people can develop a better relationship with the natural world. So I think the issue here is not “why doesn’t this or that idea that we already have in Western culture work to get us into a sustainability mindset,” but simply realizing that so far it hasn’t. Will it? I don’t know. I only know so far it hasn’t.

C: This is hard to admit, but I really want the Land to be alive. I want to be able to go into the forest and have the animals come up to me instead of being afraid of me. But I’m afraid to believe it IS alive because of how horrible I will feel later if I find out it wasn’t after all. I’d have been a fool.

R: Oh dear. Understanding that the Land is alive doesn’t mean you can go into the woods and be friends with all the animals. It means you can live in a healthier relationship with animals. In Western culture, there are only a few standard kinds of human-animal relationships: people relate to animals as if they are other human beings, people treat animals as if they aren’t living things at all but merely objects, people train animals to serve their needs, or people leave animals completely alone because they figure no animal benefits from being in relationship with human beings. People in Indigenous worldview generally recognize animals as independent nations that have their own ways and customs — ones that are not the same as those of humans. So a big part of relationship with animals is coming to understand each other’s different ways and customs so we can accept and respect one another. That’s where a genuine relationship starts.

C: I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but aren’t you talking about a primitive and even superstitious belief system here? I don’t see how any educated person could possibly take this stuff seriously.

R: I’m an educated person. You can see my credentials here. If you look at the list of references for this paper, you’ll find a whole host of Indigenous scholars with advanced degrees from major Western universities. There are prominent Indigenous theologians who have graduated from mainstream seminaries and served as major leaders in different Western religious denominations. We all experience the Land as alive.

C: Then you must all be crazy.

R: It’s interesting you say this, because fear of being crazy is the precise building material Western culture used to construct the fortress wall between itself and the natural word. You might remember that this wall between people of Western culture and the natural world is there because Western culture fears that natural world (and the Indigenous people who are part of it). Further, Western culture’s primary way of knowing is intellectual, so one of the things it fears most is a loss of sanity — being “crazy”. So the fear you’re expressing IS the very wall that you started reading these pages to tear down. What do you do, now that you’ve hit that wall so hard you can feel its real strength?

One option is to see the “crazy” fear that’s making you recoil from these ideas as, tactically and philosophically, the “denial” phase of a paradigm shift. Saying that those who challenge your own paradigm are insane invalidates the troubling information they’ve provided. It’s possible stepping back from the emotion far enough to see it in the context of a paradigm shift can permit you to figure out how, and if, you want to handle it.

But it’s also possible that if this is really how you feel at this moment, you might need to honor that fear. It may be telling you that you’re not yet ready to make this paradigm shift. You don’t have to do it, after all. I only wrote these pages in response to a particular group of people in Western culture who had asked Indigenous people to explain why and how we have a different relationship with the natural world, because they wanted to develop a relationship like this themselves. But there’s no reason for you to push yourself into a landscape you’re not ready for, that frightens you. So another option is to just close this webpage and forget the whole exercise. You don’t have to do it.

C: OK, if no one else will say it, I will: Nature will kill us if we don’t control it. Look at the wildfires burning through whole towns. Look at that tsunami in Japan a few years ago. If “the land” is alive like you’re saying, then it’s out to get us. Every advance humans have made, it’s been because we’ve been able to control nature. We have to keep doing it.

R: If the Land wanted to destroy us, it could very easily do so. It doesn’t take much to disrupt the modern world’s food supply chains, for example. That’s one of the things about the pandemic that’s sent a shiver down so many people’s spines is suddenly realizing just how vulnerable we are. But a lot of people in Western culture feel the same fear you do. That’s the fear that created and maintains the wall separating the people of your culture from the natural world. The thing is, it’s not enough to simply perceive a new reality. We have to understand what it means to our lives, how it impacts our behaviors. But this is why you asked us for help to begin with, isn’t it? You didn’t initially ask us if the Land is alive or not. You asked for help to establish a better and healthier relationship with the natural world so you could have a more sustainable society. We are telling you the key to doing this is to understand that the Land is alive. That’s a starting point, not the goal. So this is where we need to look at how realizing that the Land is alive impacts the ways we think about things like wildfires and tsunamis — how it helps us create more sustainable societies. Essentially, you are really asking the question: “So what?” — as in, “OK, if the Land is alive, so what? How does this change anything?” And that’s a really important question. It’s one you should think about responding to yourself, once you complete the whole exercise.

Click here to return to the list of pages at Weaving the Basket.
Click here for list of References.