Returning to Reciprocity

hands in soil with small plant

Our planet is truly miraculous.

Each living being plays a role in the success of the whole, and no one is more important than another. Believe it or not, humans are a part of this grand design, although we have gone a bit astray in the last few thousand years … I often hear people saying that the Earth would be better off without us. But what if our presence could actually enhance the vitality of this planet? When Europeans decided to colonize what is now North and South America, they were astounded by the lush and thriving natural landscape — and they never stopped to think that maybe the people who lived there had something to do with it. 

The first definition for nature in the Merriam Webster dictionary is “the external world in its entirety.” If I am interpreting this correctly, the writer of this definition is separating humans from nature, and if this is so, it is a grave mistake. This is the same attitude that says the natural world is something to conquer or to be feared, it is what has led to so much destruction, and the separation of the human species from our role on this beautiful planet. The fact is that we are inextricably connected to this place, and the sooner we understand this, the sooner we can help restore balance and harmony.

Let’s change that mindset from conquer, manipulate and fear to support, revere and respect. 

Indigenous peoples around the world still hold the understanding that humans are meant to play a role in the stewardship of the land, which is much different than the western ideology of domination and control. We are meant to harmoniously coexist with this land and the others who live here, to help maintain the delicate balance.

Have you ever heard the term "ecosystem services?" Essentially, it refers to the key roles that different species play in maintaining the health of an ecosystem, and more specifically, benefits provided to the human species. The way bees pollinate flowers, and how mangrove forests prevent flooding and help purify water (among many other things). Left to their own devices, other species do their jobs perfectly, and contribute to the whole. How have humans strayed so far from that? Why is our existence so destructive to the natural world/ourselves? What can we do to return to a way of reciprocal relationship instead of domination How can we be of service? These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I can give you a few ideas to get you started on shifting your mindset and building a better relationship with the land where you live. 

The way our society is built does make that task seem daunting, but there are many ways that we can each make a difference. 

If you have influence over the landscaping of your home, plant a garden of indigenous plants instead of a lawn — the bees and other little critters will thank you. You could even take this a step further, and petition your city council to introduce more native plants to city-controlled areas like highway medians and parks. This will support the local ecosystem, and add beauty to your surroundings. 

Another very tangible way that you can be of service to your local ecosystem is by making a commitment to pick up litter whenever you see any. Carry some sort of vessel with you whenever you go out that will make it easy to pick up little pieces of trash that you see along the way ... this could be a repurposed plastic bag from the grocery store or anything you don't mind getting a little gross. 

Taking time to give reverence to the land where you live is important and very enjoyable. This can be as simple as going on a walk and giving yourself a moment of silence to feel your gratitude for the beauty of the place or the myriad of ways that it provides for you. Or it can be as complex as an official ceremony, or anything in between, whatever feels right for you. Really any act in support of the land, done with intention, is a form of reverence. What’s important here is establishing and nurturing a conscious relationship. 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a book written poetically at the intersection of scientific botany and indigenous wisdom that gives a ton of insight into ways we can get back in touch with the land, and I highly recommend it. One lesson I found very poignant is the way food is treated in cultures that live in close relationship with the land. Kimmerer writes that "the guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or consistently spoken of as a whole — they are reinforced in small daily acts of life. But if you were to list them, they might look something like this:

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

This insight about food is particularly interesting to me as someone who shops at the grocery store and can buy produce from halfway across the world. Taking our globalized, complex food system into consideration, our disconnection from the land begins to make more sense. Most of us don’t regularly walk by the fruit trees that feed us; we don’t chat with the farmer who grows our salad greens, or ever see the living animal whose body we consume. 

One way to establish a conscious relationship with the land where you live is cultivating a garden using regenerative and organic techniques. You’ll get your hands in the dirt and end up with some beautiful, fresh produce. I know not everybody has the time and space for this one, but if you do, it has the potential to improve your health and that of the land. If you don’t have the resources for it, you could get involved in a community garden (or start one!) and of course support your local farmers, and try to buy from sources as close to you as possible.

No matter how you get your food, it is always a good idea to recognize the profound gift that it is. If you don’t already, see how it feels to say a few words of gratitude before you eat. 

Establishing a reciprocal relationship with the land has many components, but above all, it is a mindset and way of life.

The best thing we can do to move in this direction is to start by changing the way we view the land and the other life forms with whom we share it. Listen to and uplift indigenous wisdom and knowledge, and take time to get to know the land and the plants where you live.

If you are not sure where to start in your search for more tangible information and understanding, head over to our blog post “All My Relations,” it contains some beautiful insights about our relationship with the other beings on this planet. And of course, I encourage you to read Braiding Sweetgrass, it's a very enjoyable, accessible and important piece of literature to guide us on this journey back home. I also recommend “Good Fire,” a podcast that “explores the concept of fire as a tool for ecological health and cultural empowerment by indigenous people around the globe.”



1 comment

  • Another slice of wisdom from Planet Joy. Thank you. I resonate deeply with the perspective offered here. I think you are right: humans can contribute to a sustainable ecology—as, indeed, indigenous peoples have done from time immemorial (as you note). Of course, one of the greatest blunders of modern “civilization” is the idea that “humans are special,” that we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. That blind spot lies at the root of the eco-crises (yes, there is more than one crisis).

    Humans are not special—no more special than any other species. If folks wish to believe (or claim) that humans are special, then so be it. But remember: ALL species are special (that’s what makes them a distinct species). So, yes, humans are special . . . but there is nothing “especially special” about human specialness.


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