Thursday, April 14, 2011

In sickness and in health

In any deep human relationship--from friendship to kinship to romantic partnership--you can't really claim richness unless you know both the goods and bads of the other person. According to the Values Project Roundtable, the group of scholars I introduced in my last post, the same can be said for our relationship with nature.

And yet, the Roundtable claims ours is a culture that continually denies or ignores the negatives of our relationship with nature. We've become too "sentimental" in the matrimony. In a sense, we are stuck in the honeymoon phase, and have not yet been ready to deal with the real dynamics of a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

But what is on the negative side of this relationship?

Well, for one, we need to eat to stay alive. But in order to eat, we have to kill other creatures, be they plant, animal or fungus.

Also, nature often eventually becomes our doom. We all die--a natural part of the life cycle. And many of us meet our ends because of "nature," from old age to disease to natural disaster.

And one more: survival is hard work. Well, it used to be, at least, before most of us became alienated from all the things we had do to survive, like grow, hunt and gather all our own food, chop wood for cooking and heating, build our own houses, etc.

Have I burst your bubble of bliss? I promise I'm not implying that we should all become 1970s back-to-the-landers.

A back-to-the-land wedding. Photo: State of West Virginia

As Juliet is to Romeo, humans cannot live without nature (though nature could probably live just fine without humans). And this dependency entails some things that are hard to love. But the Roundtable believes that accepting these more troubling parts of the relationship and finding ways to deal with them could turn an otherwise doomed relationship into something truly wonderful.

To briefly step away from the marriage metaphor, the success of which I am wary, I'll give you a couple more concrete examples to further illustrate the ambivalence of this relationship.

Take hunting and fishing. People in Western cultures hunt and fish for a variety of reasons, such as a chance to spend time in nature, the thrill of the catch, and (less commonly) for subsistence. While these positive aspects motivate people to hang out with nature, there lies a more difficult notion on the flip side--a successful hunting or fishing expedition results in the death of other creatures.

Or, take ecological restoration. A big focus these days is on getting rid of invasive species, because of the harm they cause to native ones--namely they bully the food and habitat away from native plants and critters and, thus, take over the joint. However, in order to restore a habitat so native species can move back in and thrive, we must kill the invasive species. Thus, in nurturing life for some species, we take away the lives of others.
And so, the first step in the Rountable's hypothesis is this need to embrace the whole of our relationship with sickness and in health, til death do us part (sorry, had to). Only then can we really begin the work of creating the values foundational to a long, happy and sustainable life together on Earth.

My next post will attempt to explain the next step of the Roundtable's hypothesis. Coincidentally, it has something to do with ceremonies...but I promise to save you from the marriage metaphor.


  1. Love the photo. Wonder if they're still married? :) My first thought, as a recovering public health veterinarian, was "watch out for ticks!"

    I actually really like the marriage metaphor. Nearly ten years of a good marriage has given me a lot AND I've had to give up a lot, too, in order to nurture the relationship past the honeymoon stage. It makes sense to me that most Westerners haven't started thinking about what they have to give up (e.g. mindless consumption) in order for the relationship not to tank. But of course, the metaphor isn't perfect... for example, people generally survive broken marriages -- whereas we can't subsist without Earth.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement about the metaphor, Amy! I was afraid it was a bit trite. And you are so right that the consequences of a failed relationship with a spouse are much different than a failed relationship with the environment.

  3. I think the metaphor works. We could even be seen as the needy type that takes and takes expecting to give nothing in return.

    I look forward to your next post!

  4. I've been thinking a lot recently about our relationships with other animals, but your post reminds me that we also have a relationship with nature as a whole as well. I have never been married, but seeing my parents go through almost 30 years of high and lows I do think that a sustainable solid relationship is not based on being "needy" as Marianne says - you've got me thinking about what I can do to take less, and give back more to the environment.

  5. I'm seeing more and more that the closer you look at the borderline between "man" and "nature," the fuzzier it gets. People are part of our natural environment, too! We are the most social creatures, and we would not be quite the same without each other. Indeed, the only way we can gain immortality is by passing on our genes, one way or another. We can't all be Henrietta Lacks, so we normally need another person for that.