A gently probing question from a friend leads me to shift my worldview toward kinship with nature
Many years ago I met the Chickasaw poet and writer Linda Hogan at a conference. We fell to talking, and I told her about the memoir I was writing. The working title was A Wider Circle of Friends, and I told her it was about my lifelong journey toward becoming more aware of the other beings of nature. Drawing closer to birds. Listening to trees. Becoming an activist for a local creek.
Linda looked into the distance and paused for a long moment. Then she asked, very gently, “Why do you talk about friends — and not family? Why not relatedness? Kinship?”
I took a deep breath. “Well, that’s part of the story too,” I finally said. “My family was pretty dysfunctional. So it’s easier for me to imagine healthy relationships in terms of friends than of family.”
She nodded, quiet for a moment. “I can understand how that happens,” she said.
The book I was writing did get published a few years later, and it was called Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature. But there was still that word friendship in the title. And now, many years after that conversation with Linda, I find myself returning to her question: Why “friendship” and not “family”? Kinship?
Many Indigenous cultures, such as Linda’s, teach their children that every human person is embedded in the larger family of Earth. All beings share breath. Growing up means learning to share gifts and give back to others. Recognizing “all my relations” is the foundation of living well.
My ancestors were shaped by a different story. My people were farmers, and farming in a European tradition usually meant wrestling with the Earth. Applying toil and sweat to the land so the land would give up some food for the people-more like a tussling match than a partnership. The Europeans carried with them a story of nature as opponent. Nature has a wildness that must be contained and controlled.
Many say that this story goes back to Genesis, when God created humans and told them to “fill the earth and subdue it.” But the Jewish owners of this text never tried to subdue the earth. Judaism never developed an oppositional relationship with nature in the way Christianity did many centuries later. In Jewish tradition, nature is an avenue toward becoming aware of the Creator, who provides this immense gift to us of an orderly world. Though human beings might stand above other creatures, this is no license for dominating or exploiting them — and Jewish rabbis in the Middle Ages stated this very clearly. We humans, they said, are responsible for taking care of the natural world and repairing it.
One Jewish commentary, or midrash, says, “The Holy Blessed One took the first human and passing before all the trees of the Garden of Eden said: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are? All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’”
No, it was not the Jews but rather the Greeks who developed the idea of nature as opponent. I think of how Socrates said that “trees and open country won’t teach me anything, but men in town do.” Dismissing the wisdom of forests goes back at least to him. I think too of Plato and his chariot pulled by the two horses of the passions. There may be good horses and wild horses, but both alike must be controlled. The charioteer of Reason holds all the reins tight.
So it was the Greek tradition of trying to control nature — and not the Jewish tradition of caring for nature — that ruled in the Roman Empire, where Christianity began. And it was this mindset of control that got adopted into the church when Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century.
This was the same time when the philosopher Augustine developed his idea of original sin — the idea that human nature tends toward wrongdoing. It was a powerful idea at a time when the Roman Empire was falling apart and traditional authority was failing. The church adopted it as official — and then proceeded to keep people in line for the next thousand years. Because if human nature is inherently flawed, then goodness won’t just happen by itself, and people need to be regulated by higher authorities. So the idea of original sin provided a theological foundation for centuries of authoritarianism, in the form of the European feudal system, where kings ruled by divine right and landowners controlled and exploited their workers, the serfs. My European ancestors who became colonists retained this belief in authoritarian control and brought it with them to North America.
And here’s the thing about top-down control. Once it gets inside people’s heads, it lives far longer than empires. Even after the power of kings and popes was broken in the old countries, the belief in top-down control lived on in this country. In white people enslaving Black people. In men controlling churches and governments and businesses and families.
And it lives on today as well — in white supremacy, in police violence and a prison-industrial complex that can only cage and control people. It lives on in sexism, so that no woman yet has occupied the Oval Office. And think of every corporation, arranged in a hierarchy, where owners can tell workers what to do but workers cannot turn around and do likewise. Hierarchy is so ingrained in the Western imagination that it can seem natural. (In fact, plenty of people throughout time have organized themselves in other ways, but that’s a topic for another day.)
And of course control and domination are the tools we have reached for first in relation to the rest of nature. I think of the 75,000 dams still controlling rivers in this country alone. That’s the equivalent of building one dam every day since the time of Thomas Jefferson. We have a thing for control.
So our problem with nature is indeed a family one. We’ve been infected with the story of control. In my troubled family, the idea of controlling children derailed my parents’ good intentions. They thought being good parents meant making their children obey. I know from experience the bitter taste that control leaves in the mouth.
We need better ways of imagining ourselves in relation to the rest of the Earth creatures. Putting down control and taking up humility. Becoming students of other creatures, ready to learn from Grandmother Hummingbird and Grandfather Oak. Ready to hear what Great-Grandmother Whale has to say about climate change. Yes, plenty of people are now listening, but for the most part we still consider ourselves separate from other beings, as if we were neutral observers. Or maybe we become adoring fans — of whales or dolphins or giraffes, but we are slow to take that last step of relatedness. Of kinship. Of listening to and working for the good of other beings because we are related. Because we are one family.
And I too have been slow. Learning to be family has been my growing edge. If I were writing the book today, I would choose a different word in the title. Instead of friendship, I’d talk about kinship: “Stories of Kinship in Nature.” Because joining the larger family of Earth will change us. Becoming family has that power. And the power of family is the power we need to tackle pandemics and police brutality and habitat loss and climate change. It is the power of imagination, and the power of love. We are all related. We are one family.
For digging deeper
Pulitzer Prize finalist Linda Hogan writes heart-opening poetry, novels, essays, plays, and short stories. I have been shaped most deeply by her book of essays, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (1995); the poems in Rounding the Human Corners (2008); and her edited and coedited anthologies, The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World (with Brenda Peterson, 2001) and Inner Journey: Views from Native Traditions (2009).
The mandate to “subdue the earth” appears in Genesis 1:28. On Judaism’s relationship to nature, see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Nature in the Sources of Judaism,” Daedalus (2001). The midrashic quote is in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13, from that article.
The Socrates quote comes from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, 230d. This translation is by R. Hackforth in Princeton’s edition (1982). For Plato’s image of the charioteer of Reason, Wikipedia’s article “Chariot Allegory” is a start. For Greek views of nature and ecology in general, check out Robert Sallares, The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (1991).
Attorney and author Teri Kanefield writes a lively Twitter feed full of legal and political commentary on current events, where she connects the dots on authoritarianism and reactionary politics. She also collects those threads as blog posts on her website.
The statistic on dams was given by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the film DamNation: The Problem with Hydropower, a powerful documentary available on YouTube.
In Kissed by a Fox I connected the dots between the ancient Christian idea of original sin and the story of control in relation to nature that it influenced many centuries later. See the middle chapters especially for how that history developed.