Keep An Ear To The Ground


We don’t listen to the voice of the earth.

The present administration continues ordering significant reductions in the restrictions the Environmental Protection Agency had in place to preserve the health of the planet.

The voice of the earth is a metaphor. It describes the planet as a living organism. To hear her voice is frequently a spiritual experience because it broadens our humanity by providing us access to something that transcends us but also lives deep within us. For example, most religions express spiritual wisdom through the images of the natural world. The two are interconnected, the spiritual and planetary. Some astronauts, after returning from space flights were reported to have been overwhelmed with reverence for the planet, and knelt down and kissed the earth. Sometimes you have to leave home for a while and then return to actually see it for the first time. Listening to the voice of the earth is our best chance of having a home to which to return.

Consider how the debate over land use might go if the earth were taken seriously as a living organism? How might we relate to the land if she were understood as companion rather than commodity to buy and sell? We rarely hear discussions about land except as real estate and property. An understanding of the ‘living’ earth would move the discussion from ‘use’ to that of a partnership or a relationship with the earth. Because economic stakes are so high, it’s difficult to shift our prevailing paradigm of the earth as fundamentally raw material and real estate to one of neighbor. As soft as this may sound, the central fact of our lives physically and spiritually is that we’re inextricably tied into the planet earth( and to each other) as intimately as our bodies were once integral to our mothers’. We wouldn’t ever have gotten here without either mother or the earth. As we grow up we may cease to need mother, but there’s no way we’ll ever live without planet earth.

An old proverb says that we are what we think in our hearts. My purpose in this essay is to invite consideration of ‘what we think in our hearts’ about the planet earth and how those assumptions may be guiding our relationship to and deliberations over the land. It’s an invitation to include the voice of the earth in our deliberations.

Late one autumn afternoon I went on the front porch of my house to be outside and rest. I fell into a kind of half sleep, alert, but in a dreamy sort of way: I saw my front yard as one might see things in a dream, with curiosity and attentiveness to whatever passed in front of my eyes but with no sense of myself as an observer. It’s as if I were simply part of the landscape.

A few butterflies, monarchs, made their way in and out of the petunias, lighting on one for a moment and then moving on. Bees, too, hovered languidly over the potted flowers on the porch but never landed. Perhaps they stayed cooler on the move. A hummingbird, with feints and dodges, tried working herself around wasps which had placed themselves, like watchdogs, around the ports of the hummingbird feeder. The hummingbird was trying for a sip at the feeder. In the yard, a solitary squirrel rolled around in the dirt. A blackbird, sitting on the edge of the birdbath, would dip his beak into the water. Then holding his beak upright, as the water descended down his throat, he’d shiver all over, as though he were sitting at a bar, belting down shots of straight whisky. At the edges of the creek the water lapped rhythmically, and everywhere the crisp dry leaves of the oak, locust and cherry trees shook and whispered to each other coaxed on by the southeasterly breeze. Everything pulsed with life. I heard the voice of the earth.

What was she saying? Something about the stupendous diversity of this planet’s happening we call life. I know names for only half of what I saw in that hour in my front yard. There were trees; Locust, Cherry, Sassafras, a Hawthorne, White Birch and Pines. There were squirrels, blackbirds, robins, a bluebird, jays, yellow finch’s and a ruby throated hummingbird. I saw ants, yellow bees, wasps, and I listened while a carpenter bee drilled away on the fascia boards of the house. And I was there, too, as one among all these creatures, watching a hazy sky, and listening to the water and the wind. Other life forms were there that I couldn’t see, like fish and crabs, creatures that lived under the earth and the millions of cells and bacteria which attend my body at every moment. My front yard is busy place. I am a busy place. So are you. We’re alive.

If the voice of the planet earth were telling me about her great diversity, what then might this mean for my relationship to her? One thought I’ve had is that like members of a family, we share a common heritage, although we have individual differences. How the families of all living organisms regulate their differences assures mutual survival. To regulate the differences of humans and the other living species on planet earth is first to recognize the differences and respect them.

I’m again on the front porch. This time it’s early morning. There’s still no rain. Why so little rain here, why too much there? The reasons the planet has for fire, drought, storms are still inscrutable. Our critter cousins on this planet seem to behave strangely to us: bats see with their ears, fish never close their eyes and breathe under water, and bears sleep away a whole winter. Wooly bears turn into tiger moths. But we must seem weird to them, too. Animals must wonder why we change clothes all the time, eat with implements and mate at any time we want. As strange as some life forms may seem as compared to others, we’re all a part of that amazing happening called life. As goes one of us, so eventually go all others.

This is what I heard voice of the earth teaching me one day on the porch.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. carla massoni says

    I am overwhelmed with gratitude – thank you.

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