Recently, a friend and I sat at Atomic Cowboy on Colfax discussing our stakes in things we’re passionate about and I spoke about both working with young people and nurturing the earth. My friend …
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Recently, a friend and I sat at Atomic Cowboy on Colfax discussing our stakes in things we’re passionate about and I spoke about both working with young people and nurturing the earth. My friend asked me to explore this further—the links, what’s at stake for me, how this plays out in the ways I show up in the world. I only had half-formed answers but my friend’s interrogation caused me to reflect more deeply on what motivates me.
A common piece of wisdom among environmentalists and conservationists is that people will not protect that which they do not know. Filmmaker Rob Stewart once said “conservation is the preservation of human life on earth, and that, above all else, is worth fighting for.” It is, in other words, in our self-interest to develop, and deepen, bonds with the world. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes “knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
When I worked with youth, one of my goals was to help them connect with the earth. We pulled out guidebooks to learn the names of trees in their neighborhood, made nests of leaves, picked up litter. I took them into the garden where we explored the texture of compacted versus fluffy soil, passed around earthworms, dropped seedlings and seeds into the ground and tended plants into harvest. Our geography was limited, but questions and observations rolled off their tongues. Sometimes I’d give them a straight answer but often I’d ask them to observe—because the art of observation can be what helps us connect seemingly unrelated (re)actions.
My goal was to get these young people a little closer to wanting to nurture the earth and let it nurture them through the growing of foods and medicines, through sparking their curiosity and imaginations because it’s in their self-interest and in mine. These young people belong to the generation after mine; they have the chance to become stewards of the earth or to continue the disconnected, self-and environmentally-destructive patterns of previous generations. My work, in many ways, was helping them learn to connect with the world and each other despite the fact that much of our current culture is already pushing them—and all of us—toward further disconnection.
This disconnection, not only from the more-than-human world but from our human communities worries me because disconnection makes it easier to distance ourselves. Nature becomes a thing to be commodified; people become flattened players in our lives or are so fully dehumanized we struggle to see that those people are a lot like us. It’s this dehumanization—and intentional obfuscation of the negative impacts of capitalism—that allows us to be okay with children being exploited to mine rare earth minerals for our smart phones or to ignore the loneliness that drive so many of us toward self-destructive behaviors.
When we engage in othering, we lose something of ourselves as well and it becomes harder to know how—or what—to fight for, even if (and once) we’ve made the choice to fight for something.
What then, does connection look like? That answer necessarily differs for each of us but for me it’s strongly rooted in nature. As a child, I spent much of my time interacting with the woods, a cow pond filled with turtles and sunfish, an old pasture, the nooks of a creek, the gardens my mother kept, cornfields where I’d play hide-and-seek with other neighborhood kids, the lake where my friend and I rooted freshwater clams out of the muck. Connection with nature—and other people—meant finding adventure and sanctuary, learning the art of observation and stillness, exploring the movement of imagination.
As an adult, connection looks like being intentional about building, joining and nurturing communities—both human and more-than-human—I want to see flourish. It means being intentional about engaging in and with the world, rather than trending toward isolation. It looks like late night conversations at Atomic Cowboy as much as it looks like distributing compost across my garden or working with people to help them strengthen their sense of place and belonging to the world. It is learning the histories of the places I’ve called home. It is honoring the bonds that connect.
Liz Clift holds a Permaculture Design Certificate, and works for a restoration ecology firm. In her free time, she is involved in social justice and community-based medicine. She is working to expand her knowledge of native plants.
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