Saying “ily” to Mother Earth by Planting Four Trees

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Being raised in a Christian household, the Ten Commandments were instilled in me at a young age. Commandment #6 states, “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Deuteronomy 5:16 KJV)¹. Like much in the Bible, interpretation changes the viewpoint and the weight of the sacred scriptures. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass inspired me to expand the scope of what this verse means to me.

I grew up knowing, cherishing, and loving my family— I hold family near and dear to my heart. Yet, on a planetary scale, who can I consider my siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles? How can I also honor them?

I didn’t think about this much until Kimmerer opened my eyes. As a Native American woman and trained botanist, she blends the worlds of science and Native teachings in a way that’s rooted in compassion and reciprocity. Early on in her book, I learned that “in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’”² Trees, being far older than us advanced-brained apes, gained an exorbitant amount of knowledge and wisdom about the biosphere that we inhabit together. Surviving epoch after epoch, trees learned a thing or two about adapting to changing climates, extreme events, and great uncertainty. From the Dahurian larch, we learn to take a break to regroup when times get tough. The beech tree, with its uncanny ability to detect if a branch breaks due to the wind or a nibbling creature and respond accordingly, teaches us to diagnose the root cause of an issue before haphazardly stitching together a solution.³ Not only can we absorb insights from observing these ancient relatives, we can also develop physically and spiritually nourishing relationships with them.

I used to think that the best way to protect and cherish nature was for humans to completely leave it alone. Untouched land is the best land. Humans suck. Kimmerer taught me how the land seeks the care of Homo Sapiens and is stronger when we work with it respectfully. But what does it mean to respect the land? Kimmerer provides insight into the Honorable Harvest, the Indigenous principles that govern the exchange of life for life.

Honorable Harvest Guidelines

  1. Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
  2. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
  3. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
  4. Never take the first. Never take the last.
  5. Take only what you need.
  6. Take only that which is given.
  7. Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
  8. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
  9. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
  10. Share.
  11. Give thanks for what you have been given.
  12. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
  13. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

Armed with this knowledge and a newfound vigor to reciprocate love to the land, I racked my brain to think of how I could show that care. I wanted to show my love for the planet without any personal gain. So, I decided to plant a forest. On December 28th, 2021, I planted four trees on a plot of land that I purchased in northern CA. I currently have no plans to develop the land in a humanist sense. The humanist creed calls for a system of thought that attaches the prime importance of life to humans. That outlook often leads us to see land as an area for development: either the next strip mall or row of apartments that will maximize profits and directly serve humans. While real estate developers seek to solve our housing crisis, I strive to develop a relationship with Mother Earth and a step towards reciprocating the love I receive on a daily basis.

I don’t think many people would consider four trees a forest, especially when three of them are actually shrubs. But it’s a humble start. While visiting the land, I took some soil samples for lab analysis to determine which organic materials I need to properly enrich the soil. After giving the earth some loving on my next visit, I plan to follow an afforestation method pioneered by Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist, to grow a dense forest filled with trees, shrubs, and herbs native to California. Doing this work has shifted my relationship with Mother Earth, in a small yet meaningful way I was able to give just a bit of what was given to me.

How we show our love for Mother Earth and our planetary siblings is unique to each of us. It’s a spiritual journey in which I am merely crawling, teeming with excitement to soon take my first steps. Planting those four trees felt like giving mother a kiss on the cheek. The planet gives so much to me; now I’m giving something back— planting a tree yesterday, sharing my love with others today, picking up a piece of litter tomorrow. Hoy por ti, mañana por mi.

Let us pledge reciprocity with the living world!

P.s. Get outside 🙂

P.s.s. There’s a funny side story...

A day before planting the trees, my family and I were out exploring my property which isn’t directly connected to a road. We parked our car in a neighbor’s lot and made a short trek to the parcel. After snapping two measly photos and finally getting our bearings, we heard what appeared to be wolves howling and promptly began to track back to our vehicle. We channeled our inner Harriet Tubman and forged over the forest hills and under the tree canopy as expeditiously as possible while the howling continued in the distance. Thankfully, we made it back to our vehicle without any run-ins with predacious wildlife. As we drove away for the day, we saw the nearby horse and four rams huddled together, facing the direction of the howls, and we knew what we heard wasn’t a facade. Backcountry lesson 1: the animals around give tons of information— listen to them. Until next time, wolf pack!

Sources:

  1. The Bible.
  2. Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 2015.
  3. Davidson, Annie, and Liz Marvin. How to Be More Tree: Essential Life Lessons for Perennial Happiness. Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2020.