The way we see the world is really no more than a social convention. When we experience the Earth not as a place where everything can be bought and sold, but as a place of wealth and generosity, we open the door to a life of gratitude and wonder.
The story begins two years ago. We’ve just moved out of the city to a house in the countryside. From my urban perspective, the garden looks enormous. For forty years, it has been lovingly cultivated by the previous owner, who covered it with flowers, plants and a few trees. We begin unpacking in midsummer, when the garden is just past the height of its growth. As we walk the narrow paths through the wilderness of greenery, its beauty astonishes us. I am seized by a sense of responsibility for this plot of land, and my mind fills with questions. What we will do with it? Will we thin it? Grow more edible flowers and plants? Or maybe turn it into a field of flowers?
I’ve spent time in wild nature, and we’ve had a small garden, but I’ve never tried to design a plot of land before. The garden is beautiful, but so big. Do I really know enough about the world of plants to take care of it? To be honest, the weeds creeping up between the cobblestones are the kinds of plants I’d like to have in my garden.
We have to renovate the house, so at first we don’t have time for gardening. In autumn, the dying plants turn every color of the rainbow. But by winter, we’re making good progress with the renovations, and I take a more critical look at the bare garden. What can go and what can stay? We pull up some bushes and fell a tree at risk of toppling over, but instead of being glad that we’ve finally gotten to work, I feel like crying. Strange, I’ve always heard that gardening is good for you, that grass is there to be mown and weeds to be pulled. Letting the
garden run wild would be like never straightening up the house.
When spring arrives, the garden truly explodes. At first we’re amazed by the wealth of flowers and salamanders and the tree laden with sweet currants. But I soon come to see the garden as a jungle I could never tame. I try to do some weeding but don’t trust myself. What am I pulling up now? And why? Meanwhile, the unchecked growth continues, blocking the paths and making it ever more difficult for me to reach the chickens in the back of the yard. I put a bench in front of the house and get into the habit of drinking my coffee on the street side. It’s an odd situation: At last, we have a patch of soil where I can try out all my ideas about permaculture —planting an herb garden, a vegetable garden and fruit trees, but every time I touch a plant or pick a flower, it feels as if I’m taking something that doesn’t belong to me. You might even say I feel like a shoplifter. No matter how hard I try, I can’t tap into the joy of gardening that I saw on Instagram and in my glossy guides. The garden doesn’t want me — that much is clear — so when autumn comes around again, I let it wither untouched.
That winter, I stay indoors by the fire, and we unpack the last of our moving boxes. When Marie Kondo’s series on tidying up comes on TV,
something clicks for me. Before Kondo starts to reorganize, she sits with her eyes closed and introduces herself to the house. Of course! Even though I took the time to cleanse our new house of negative energy, introduce myself to it, and get to know each room, I never did anything similar in the garden. I just started digging and tugging, seeing it through judgmental eyes. How could I have been so arrogant?
In a thick winter coat, I sit under the large beech in the back of the garden and follow Kondo’s example. “Hi, garden, plants, trees and animals, I’m Sarah. We moved in recently, and I’m sorry I never introduced myself. I’ve only just realized how rude that was. Will you give me a second chance? I’d really like to get to know you.”But nothing happens. The garden remains a closed door to me. A while later, I find myself standing by the holly tree by the drive with a pair of pruning shears, but I can’t bring myself to touch it. Who am I to cut off a branch? To pick the holly berries that feed the birds? And what for? To decorate my dinner table? I slink back indoors, defeated. As a human being, I feel I don’t have anything to add to nature; it doesn’t need me at all, and everything I pick or do or plan or buy will only lead to more for me and less for the Earth. I know our relationship with nature is out of balance, but now, for the first time, I can really feel the truth of that. My attitude toward the holly tree at my doorstep is the world in microcosm. It’s all wrong, but I don’t know how to change it.
For my birthday, a friend sends me a present. “Because this beautiful book keeps making me think of you,” she writes as an inscription. The title is Braiding Sweetgrass, and the author, American scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botany professor of Native American descent, combines her traditional, local knowledge with modern science. That gives her a unique perspective on nature and the role of humans in it. I learn how surprised she was the first time she encountered university research on plants. “In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companions to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science. The questions scientists raised were not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘What is it?'” Later, she grasped the importance of this difference. “It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.”
Her words go to the heart of my relationship with my garden. I know I should try to listen, but I don’t have any idea how to talk to nature or what she wants from me. All I can do is think about what I want from her: a place to recharge, a source of food, a way to show my Amsterdam friends why I chose to move so far away. I’m conscious of my limitations, but even so, I find it hard to look beyond them. How can I heal my
relationship with nature if I can’t even imagine how a more positive relationship might look?
I read on. Kimmerer describes the arrival of European colonists in North America. The land of her ancestors, which they had always seen as sacred, as a place of abundance and tranquility and a communal home, was suddenly turned into private property. Columbus introduced a new worldview: You could own land and do whatever you liked with it — as if the countless creatures around us weren’t living beings with personalities of their own, but resources, just waiting to be exploited. Kimmerer writes, “One thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.”
My cheeks are burning. I know all this, and no matter how much I may reject the settler mindset, it’s rooted deeply in my genes and character. It’s all too clear to me now that I’ve been approaching my garden like a colonist: “You’re mine now. Let’s see what I can do here, how I can benefit and profit from you.” How short-sighted I was to believe that only colonists in history books thought that way, and not modern nature lovers, or that the Earth is dependent on humans and needed me to flourish. The garden is an organism in so many ways I can’t understand. All around me in my village, I see people pruning, weeding and raking. I apologize for letting my garden get so overgrown. But why? In the newspaper, I read about the decline in the numbers of insects, wild animals and wildflowers, but my garden is full of them. When I try to prune away some stinging nettles and prickly shoots, a blackberry branch hits me full in the face, leaving a bleeding scratch.
Kimmerer says, “In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top — the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation — and the plants at the bottom.” That kind of thinking, she writes, is what got us into the climate crisis. We imagine that we’re alone in the world, that we’re the ones who give everything form and meaning, that we’re in charge of the planet. “Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection ‘species loneliness,’ a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from a loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”
I sit down under the tree Kondo-style again. This time I start by offering my deep and sincere apologies. “Dear Garden, I’m very sorry about the way I acted. So arrogant, greedy and self-centered. I ask your forgiveness and would like to show you I can do things differently. Could you point the way for me? Could we move toward a more balanced relationship?” And then, for the first time — I can hardly believe it — something happens! I feel a gust of wind, smell a flower in bloom, notice a blade of grass tickling my leg. Suddenly the purple and yellow and white and green all seem a little brighter. For the first time, I feel a tiny bit like part of this green world instead of an outsider. But the same
questions still hang over me: What can I give you, when you already have everything? As a human being, what could I contribute that might
nourish our relationship?
I’m confronted not only with my relationship to my garden, but with all my relationships. I have to admit that I usually focus on what I can get out of things. How often do I ask myself what I can contribute to a party, a school event, a work meeting, or my relationship with my parents, husband, or neighbors? And what can I offer the people around me? I find the answer in the teachings that Kimmerer passes on from her ancestors: “In return for the gifts of the Earth, gratitude is enough.” We receive all the gifts the world around us has to give, from water and food to natural resources to shade and relaxation, and we are permitted to have it all in return for our gratitude. By being grateful, we show that we understand our place in the order of things. We render an account to our natural habitat of what we have received and what we have to give.
Kimmerer describes her family’s daily ritual of paying homage to the Earth, “By those words we said, ‘Here we are,’ and I imagined that the land heard us — murmured to itself, ‘Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.'” Ceremonies like these remind us of the gifts we receive and our responsibilities toward those gifts. By showing respect for them, by offering our attention and wakeful presence, and by knowing how to say thank you, we forge a reciprocal relationship with the world around us. “Ceremony is a vehicle for belonging — to a family, to a people and to the land.”
Finally, I’ve found words for my feelings about the garden — that patch of land that doesn’t need me. We have no reciprocal relationship. My critical gaze conveys the message that I will exploit the land and sends nature into retreat. When I see the countless gifts the garden gives me — from serenity to fruit and nuts, from beauty to firewood — and feel truly thankful for it all, I have an immediate sense of connection. I realize what a nuisance I’ve been, with my critical attitude, my ideas about what had to change, what I would pull up without stopping to wonder whether it was meant to be there. But now, from this new point of view, the garden finally seems to open up to me. The sun breaks through the clouds, and the plants seem to wave to me. I murmur a thank-you to each berry that I pick. When I find a toad tangled up in the undergrowth, I release it with care, stalk by stalk, talking and singing all the while. I tell the Earth its plants will be returned in the form of compost. Nothing will be lost. I sit down and ask the dandelion how it wishes to be picked. I put the flower on the table to admire it. Suddenly I don’t need a big bunch of flowers anymore; one is enough. I leave the others for the bees and insects.
Gratitude proves to be not only the doorway to a sense of connection and mutual satisfaction, but also the antidote to taking too much. In her book, Kimmerer describes a dream in which she is strolling through a familiar market. She has a long grocery list, as usual, but when she opens her purse to pay for her cilantro, the vendor waves her off with a smile. She says a surprised thank-you. Then, at the next stall, exactly the same thing happens. She looks around and is overcome by a sense of euphoria. No one is being asked to pay for anything. The only currency accepted there is gratitude. The merchants are just passing on the gifts of the Earth. Her shopping basket is only half full, holding just a few of the things on her list. Yet it feels full. She admires the goods on display at the cheese stall, but knowing she won’t have to pay there either, she decides she has as much as she needs. She realizes that, strangely enough, if everything at the market had been very cheap, she would have bought as much as she could carry. But since everything is free, she doesn’t feel like taking any more than she needs. On her way home, she thinks about what presents she’ll bring the vendors the next day.
The dream fades, but the feelings of euphoria and restraint stay with her. She’s often thought back to that dream, she writes in her book. “I was witness there to the conversion of a market economy to a gift economy, from private goods to common wealth. Across the market stalls and blankets, warmth and compassion were changing hands. There was a celebration of abundance for all we’d been given.”
I try to walk through the garden as if strolling around the market from her dream. I do the same thing in the supermarket, around town, and while scrolling through the wares at an online clothing store. When I look through the prism of gratitude, how much do I need? Following Kimmerer’s lead, I acknowledge and use gratitude as the powerful human quality it is. When I drink a glass of water, I take a moment to imagine its long route to my faucet. It comes from a wild river that flows from a spring somewhere high in the mountains. Starting out as rainwater running down rocks and treetops, it sank into the earth, came gushing out again, and rushed down the mountainside in a raging current. It takes me a moment to retrace the whole journey in my mind’s eye, but when I make the effort, the water tastes so much better. All I have to do to go on cultivating my relationship with the world around me is keep my eyes open. Hello, coffee, so far from your tropical home. Thank you for coming all this way. Hello, wooden table, you were once a tall, strong cherry tree, laden with fruit that fed many people and animals. Now you support me, day in and day out, as I write. Thank you for your faithful service.
Kimmerer reminds us that although gratitude and reciprocity may seem like weak medicines in our day and age, there is nothing more powerful than changing our perspective and choosing to see the world in a new way. I can live as if the world is a gift and I am the grateful recipient. And if I change my perspective that way, then maybe I can change yours as well. And then we can change minds together. What if we stop doing that and instead agree that the world is a gift to us?
The story of the world in which everything can be bought or sold is only one of the stories we tell ourselves. We are free to return to a different story that shaped our lives much longer, for tens of thousands of years. A story that opens the door to a life of gratitude and wonder at the richness and bounty of our world. One that asks us to offer the world our own gifts of friendliness and gratitude, and to celebrate our connection with the earth. The choice is ours.
Every morning when I wake up, I put on my yoga pants and boots and open the kitchen door to the garden. Instead of grumbling as I clear a path to the coop in back to let out the chickens, I now take my time. I say hello to all the plants, the flock of sparrows in the ivy, the rose beginning to bloom, the flourishing chicory with its beautiful blue flowers and the sage that doesn’t feel like growing. It strikes me that the herbs I’d like to use — mugwort, ground elder, teasel — have naturally started growing within easy reach. I pass them and let gratitude flow from my heart as if watering them, as if love were raining down. I say hello sun and hello grass and clouds and trees. Thank you for being here again today and sharing your lives with me.I thank the bees, the slugs, and the chickens for their presence and for the eggs I gather. And one sunny early Monday morning, I sit down under the old beech for the third time.
Dear world of nature, I understand that I am a member of the family of humans, who have forgotten how to be your friends. I would like to remember what that kind of friendship means and offer a flood of gratitude for everything you give us. I would like to remember how to receive your wisdom, food, medicine, and joy and learn what I can give in return for that abundance. I am here. I am present. I am ready. Tell me what you need and I will listen. Please help me understand what I must do to repair my connection with you.
On the way back, I pick some raspberries, red currants and wild strawberries. Not all of them, just enough for breakfast. The garden is still wild and overgrown. I still don’t know how to weed or what the land wants from me, but it no longer feels urgent. I believe it will be all right; as long as the earth has room to breathe, it will find its own balance. And before returning inside with a smile, I pause for a moment, holding my breath. If I’m very quiet, still quieter, maybe I can hear it. And then, somewhere deep in my heart, beyond all today’s thoughts and ideas, blows a gentle wind: Thank you for being here.
This article is part of Edition 23 – Rituals. Order it in our webshop now!
Text: Sarah Domogala