Whenever I go to environmental events I sense the collective frustration at the denial and inaction of the mainstream. There is a palpable urge to ‘Do Something’. I understand this drive to stop the madness and all the seemingly needless loss (plants, animals, insects, landscapes, waterways and even a stable climate), but more and more I feel that if are to create a more beautiful way of living then we need to first remember our place in this interdependent universe. This means re-establishing meaningful relationships with the more-than-human world.
Developing relationships takes time and a dedication to be present and open to the connection that is arising. A friendship does not become a deep, valued connection overnight, or even in a years time. Think of the comfortable, trusting friendships you have with people from your childhood and how it has taken years, and perhaps even had to change form and adapt as you and your friend each grew. Then consider what it would take to reconnect with the Earth; to find our way back to a deep and meaningful relationship with our Earth. This, I think is essential for those of us who have been conditioned to think of ourselves as separate individual entities struggling for survival in a harsh, inanimate world. Even for those of us who can now see the lie of this, there is a void between intellectual knowing and the embodied being that comes from a collective cultural belief.
So where to begin? For me one has been learning the plants that belong in the place that I live. Those plants that over thousands of years have co-evolved with the particular collection of soil conditions, animals, insects, birds and water availability to become an ecosystem. I have been doing this largely through walks in the bush and photographing the flowering plants I come across and then going home and looking up the ones I don’t know. As part of this I have long been fascinated by the range of tiny delicate orchids that are native to Australia, but this past winter I went through a phase of being obsessed with hunting out ones I hadn’t seen before. To me, their ephemeral above ground existence and their range of unusual flower shapes which have inspired common monikers like Donkey, Bulldogs, Duck and Spider distinguish them in the flower world, where there are an abundance of beautiful and eye-catching blooms.
With some orchids only coming up for a few brief weeks it has meant getting out regularly to old haunts and keeping a keen look out as I walk. Some like the Helmet Orchid, which I spotted for the first time this year, is a mere 2cm tall, while other more common ones like the Spider Orchids are between 30 – 60cm tall are much easier to notice. In learning the different types of orchids I’ve also learnt a little about their life. Native orchids have a range of pollinators including bees, wasps and flies but certain species require a particular insect for their pollination. The orchids also require the presence of fungi for the seeds to germinate, again in some orchids this can be a specialised relationship with a particular fungi. Relying on one particular species for any stage of reproduction makes you much more vulnerable to changes in environmental conditions. The extinction of one may well be the death knell for the other – a co-evolved living and dying if you will. So if the land is disturbed too much the orchids can no longer survive. It is a joy then to see these orchids as a signal the land I am walking through is doing alright. Even if the exotic weeds like freesias or the sour sobs are creeping in, there is some diversity of native plants holding on and providing food and homes to the insects, animals and birds that are not always as easy to spot.
Photographing these little plants, even with my fairly basic compact camera, reveals details that my eye could never see. A whole intricate level of beauty is revealed from the metallic sparkle of the Blue Fairies Orchid to the little ridges lining the tongue of Finger Orchids. Isn’t it wonderful how creation has come up with a such a range of ways in which to satisfy a being’s need to reproduce? This diversity speaks to me of an exuberant imagination that delights in experimenting. It also brings me to the awe and reverence for life that seems to be missing from our modernity, where only human achievements receive praise and recognition.
As the months slip by I realise too that learning the timings of the flowering of these plants ties me back into the seasonal changes and how the Earth responds to these rhythms. It is too easy in our modern world to be disconnected from the relationships that underscore all life. After all, everything we want to consume is available every day of the year in climate controlled supermarkets that can be reached in climate controlled cars from climate controlled homes. All we need is money to purchase what we want. Obscured by this is the toll it takes on the Earth for food to be grown in one part of the world, packaged and flown across the globe, criss crossing in the skies other produce going in reverse. Sometimes, insanely the very same product.
It seems small but somehow I keep coming back to the need to know much more deeply the place I call home. To resist the modern mentality that urges us to traipse the globe in search of waged work or the excitement of an exotic destination holiday. Rather to stay and feel the returning heat of the sun as it hangs higher and higher in our sky and notice the riot of growth that comes from the warming soil that still holds some moisture from the winters rains. Soon as the water dries the growth will slow and things seem to go into a battle of will to hold out until the rains return.
This is how it goes in my part of the world and it feels comfortable to know those rhythms. Whereas the monsoons of my birth land are a mystery to me and I wouldn’t have a clue how to live well in that land. Here I know that summer means tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, stone fruit and melons and after a hot day seeking out cool southerly breezes with a walk along the beach. While winter is for growing peas, greens and oranges and snuggling up inside on the long cool nights. Again little things but they help me to be grounded in what the Earth can support.
I am reading ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by the wonderful story teller Robin Wall Kimmerer. In it she talks about what is commonly known as the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address (a more accurate translation being the ‘Words That Come Before All Else’) that are used at the beginnings of gatherings. It is great cultural expression of what it means to live from the space of interdependence. There are several versions but the one quoted in Robin’s book begins as follows:
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now are minds are one.
The Thanksgiving Address then goes on to acknowledge the various elements of the world including the plants, animals, moon, sun, water and the winds. Having just been to a forum on Greening Cities run by my local council I can’t help but wonder what our meetings would be like it they all started with the Thanksgiving Address. What would our society be like?
“Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come. Now are minds are one”
(This was written last spring and somehow I never got around to sharing it till now so the references to seasons are a bit awry, but perhaps that’s an apt reflection on how the western lifestyle attempts to control and ignore the earth’s cycles and seasons.)