Gifting Games Round II: Nature 🌾
My intention in writing this piece is to share an unexpected experience I had on this year’s Spring Equinox, marking a joyous milestone in my ongoing journey towards coming into right relationship with the living Earth. First I’ll share the story, then I’ll add some commentary. This is a follow up to last fall’s Let The Gifting Games Begin 🏁🎁.
I wrote this on land that has long been stewarded by the Karuk people.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Best. Spring. Equinox. Ever.
Last September I spontaneously decided to try something I had never done before: dedicate an entire day to creating the most love and joy for other people in the world. I tried it two days later in New York City and it was one of the the best days of my life. I immediately wrote about The Gifting Game, and wondered when I might do something like that again. Could it become a seasonal or annual ritual? How might it be different next time?
Gifting strangers IRL hasn’t been very top of mind lately, as I’ve camped out for winter five hours away from the nearest city, physically and digitally isolating myself further from human connection than ever before, partially in service of bringing that overstimulated aspect of my life back into balance.
Meanwhile, I’ve been learning more about land stewardship and Indigenous wisdom, remembering the sacredness of the natural world, and delighting in opportunities to practice gardening and farming in the coming seasons. So when I sat down on this Spring Equinox morning (also Shabbat — a special ritual I’m thrilled to have back in my life — for without it I’d totally keep forgetting to stop doing doing doing!), wondering how I might spend the open ended day, I was suddenly struck with the idea of :
Why not play The Gifting Game.. with nature?!
And so it was. I brainstormed some quick ideas: pick up trash, sing songs, hug trees, make prayers and offerings. Packed a bag and began the adventure.
First I visited our community’s Ancestor Grove of nature alters encircled by some of the eldest Cedar and Pine trees on the land, to make an offering to those in my lineage (I finally know the names of all my great grandparents and have been enthusiastically learning their stories), and say The Thanksgiving Address (known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else) that I learned about in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
This Haudenosaunee ritual prayer (sharing it is encouraged, as they have been waiting hundreds of years for people to listen..) opens each gathering by offering gratitude to all who share their gifts with the world: trees, fish, birds, medicines, Creator, sun moon and stars. A little different from pledging allegiance to an imaginary state built and reliant upon the disenchantment of and violence to the environment. The Thanksgiving Address opens with:
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the races around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.
(spoken in unison) Now our minds are one.
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love and respect.
Now our minds are one.
I proceeded to the area around the Mongolian Yurt I’ve had the privilege of calling home, collecting specs of rubbish and acknowledging some of the trees in the neighborhood for the first time. I was struck by how they have been the first beings I see when I open my eyes the last 75 days, and yet I’ve never paused to thank them for all that they provide to me and the larger web of life. Or to ask for forgiveness for my ignorance. Though I had been making little gestures of gratitude to the land during my time in the Hestia Winter Incubator Program (a couple of personal audio updates recorded here!), it still felt new, contrived and awkward at times.
However on this special day of gifting experimentation, I gave myself permission to just go for it. I stepped into a groove of verbalizing my thanks to the trees, showering them with complements and phrases I might say to a friend. I’ve been appreciating the idea that nature (humans included) like to be seen, paid attention to, tended to. Perhaps if we brought more presence to these life forms, we might understand their needs better, and then tend to them, thereby developing a real relationship of reciprocity. By slowing down we can pay attention to the subtleties, realizing where we’re out of integrity, have caused harm, or may cause harm if we’re not careful. And then restore things when we messed up.
Hence the first principle of permaculture design: observe and interact. So I set out to notice the land with fresh eyes, singing and dancing to the trees and stones and creeks. My body wandering by intuition, keeping alert for opportunities to be of service to life, which conveniently kept me out of my wandering mind.
Though my busy mind was noodling on some pretty good stuff. I had just read the Braiding Sweetgrass chapter on the Honorable Harvest: Indigenous canon of principles and practice that govern the exchange of life for life. I was moved by the sufficiency oriented mindset with which material needs could be met, which was grossly mistaken by settler colonists as evidence of laziness and racial inferiority.
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.
While I wasn’t harvesting anything, I was able to incorporate some of these principles in my giving and taking and sharing. I can only imagine what our culture of extraction, destruction and over-consumption could from these traditional ways of being. It brought a sense of pride to have worked with organizations like One Nation that valued and actually practiced sufficiency, minimalism, and sacred reciprocity.
After stopping by the creek convergence to offer a prayer to the water, I crossed into my favorite field under the gaze of majestic Mt. Shasta. I felt guided to a lone pair of Pine trees, where I decided to sit down and work with a little bit of Tobacco, Damiana, and Cannabis–a plant medicine that I put down for nearly a decade after abusing it in youth, only to recently reconnect with it in a balanced, intentional way; which has taught me about balance with all medicines.
That’s when playtime began. I did a little stretching, running and jumping and making sounds in and out of the woods, napping (favorite nature activity since 2010), building structures out of Pine needles and cones, smelling and kissing trees (with permission, actually! Not like full on making out, but more passionate than a peck.. give it a try 😉) and rolling around on the ground. If hugging a tree can feel so good, why not hug the giant organism that is our living planet?
I laughed at thoughts like:
Would we solve climate change if enough people cuddled the Earth at the same time?
They say you need to first love yourself before you can love another. What if you really need to love Earth?
I laughed harder upon realizing that the first Gifting Game took place on or around the Fall Equinox.
The notion of “nature as a teacher” was resonating deeply. I could pick a random, seemingly inanimate object and in time glean several lessons from it, that I suspect could help us learn to live in a more balanced relationship with our environmental home, as well as our bodily home. In this post-Truth, divisive and destabilizing time, perhaps nature is the one true leader we can rely on. Nature certainly permissions us to be ourselves and to be courageous. I’ve certainly come to intellectually appreciated how regenerative culture (based on Indigenous ways of being and scientific observation of the patterns of nature) is a guiding light for our species to avoid self-termination and thrive into Anthropocene Age (geological epoch marked by humankind’s activity on Earth), but it has been challenging for me to actually bring those ideas into practice. It’s not straightforward for our Western minds.
This winter I’m really getting that it’s one thing to get it or talk about it. It’s another to live and embody it. That takes slowing down. Listening. Paying attention. Humility. Love.
A bird call beckoned me back in the direction of home. Along the way I received clarity on some questions I had been sitting with. I marveled at mounds of Sap, sprawling Moss, my first Worm of the season, the Mountain which often has a message for me in its distant snow covered tree canopies, but today it didn’t, and that was okay. I appreciated how nature is a beautiful mirror for how I’m showing up in the world, reflecting when I’m out of presence or body, integrity or alignment. I chirped with the Stellar Jays (shouts to Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app, and while we’re here PictureThis plant identifier). I smiled and waved to all the trees that look like they have faces on them if you soften your gaze enough, wondering if everybody saw trees as funny looking aliens that happen to move really slow, maybe we would be nicer to them. I sat down with some Stones, wondering the last time they had moved, and recalling the idea “To the mountains, the trees are simply passing through.”
Upon arrival I was greeted by the neighborhood Woodpecker and invited to plant some Rose and Daffodil bulbs around my yurt. A sacred occasion, as these were the first things I’ve planted in living memory (I know I helped out in the garden as a small child, but don’t have clear memories of it). Then we all gathered for Cacao and storytelling. I shared my experience of playing The Gifting Game with Nature, and how I can finally hear Mother Earth’s cry for her children to come home.
Putting Things In Context
The initial journey to balance my relationship with technology has brought awareness to all sorts of relationships that require tending: with body, money, food, family, social life, speech, sexuality and gender, anxiety and judgement, and so on. And more recently, with ancestors, religion, whiteness and racism, nature and women, Spirit, dreams, the elements, time.
Even holidays–both religious and secular–have taken on new meaning since COVID began. Suddenly I’ve become curious about the deeper spiritual and political meanings of Jewish holidays I had been observing in some form since birth, celestial holidays that humans have been observing since time immemorial, official and unofficial American holidays that vary widely in interpretation and ritual.
Seasons as well. I’m understanding that each season is a teacher that can help us better attune to the rhythms of life around us. Having grown up in the New York area, but spent the last seven sun cycles within ambiguous urban California seasonality, I’ve been somewhat blind to the changes around me (and how much did I really pay attention in the 20 years prior?). In contrast, it is becoming very apparent that winter is turning into spring up here in the mountains, physically (animals appearing) and energetically (I feel like my work is budding after a several months gestating), thus adding layers of significance to this Spring Equinox. Which happens to be all about the balance of day and night (12 hours between sunrise and sunset, +/- a few minutes no matter where you are on the planet!), light and dark, inner and outer, intuition and rational, conscious and unconscious, female and male. The dance of life. Becoming whole. Eggs hatching. Everything is coming alive.
Well, I think it’s imperative, urgent and awesome that we get to tend to our individual and collective relationship with the natural world. Especially those with access to power, or who are coming into it, and have a larger footprint of influence. Our great invitation is to re-imagine civilization to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet (see: Doughnut Economics).
Turns out, this is old news to most peoples. Our human family knows what it needs to do. It’s just that those in power today have forgotten. Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations highlights a message from the Haudenosaunee, in addressing the 1977 UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples:
“The original instructions direct that we who all about on Earth are to express a great respect, an affection and a gratitude towards all the spirits which create and support Life.. When people cease to respect and express gratitude for these many things, then all life will be destroyed, and human life on this planet will come to an end.”
“The majority of the world does not find its roots in Western culture or tradition. The majority of the world finds its roots in the Natural World, and it is the Nature World, and the traditions of the Natural World, which must prevail.”
We keep forgetting. So we need to culturally encode rituals at different time scales. That seems to be the brilliance of religion, and reflects what I’ve recently re-learned about Judaism, a deeply Earth-based tradition in its roots. The Shema, one of the most essential prayers, is essentially a call to listen, remember that there is one force uniting us all, and that we are all connected. The prayer immediately following, the V’ahavta, instructs us to do everything we can to remember this idea, and literally warns of drought and death if we fail to live by it.
We literally have the whole world in our hands, but are not capable of the job, treating her like a stress ball instead of a gentle creature ,that gives us everything we could ever possibly imagine.
New sciences of systems thinking call for an updated and integrated worldview to meet the complex challenges of our time. One that centers relationships, patterns, and contexts in order to understand the interconnectedness of all life, so that we do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life (see: The Systems View of Life — A Unifying Vision).
In Climate–A New Story, author and speaker Charles Eisenstein argues for an expanded view of this moment to include perspectives such as those of Indigenous peoples who see rivers, forests, and creatures of the natural and material world as sacred and valuable in their own right. I recently heard him on a podcast state that the impulse to spend time in nature must become about more than just getting exercise or fresh air; it’s an invitation to cultivate meaningful emotional and psychological connections that provides real, actionable steps to caring for the earth.
The meta-question I’ve been musing on for the last while is:
How can we support the next generations of leaders to create in a more life-honoring way?
Technologists, social media influencers, business leaders. We have so much unlearning and relearning to do. My little Saturday adventure may sound kind of silly, childish, wacky. But I learned a lot about myself and the world, and am lucky to be in a context that enables integration, so that this experience doesn’t become a distant memory, but something that changes my habits moving forward.
And don’t we desperately need more play, imagination, and originality in our lives? Writer and educator Zak Stein has taught me that learning is optimized when it involves sustained interpersonal relationships, emotional connection, embodiment, and dynamically interactive hands-on experiences. And that instead of approaching learning with the the mind-as-computer metaphor,
“We ought to move towards a view in which educators are understood as environmental stewards tasked with nourishing the complex and evolving ecosystem that is the human mind.”
We’re all stewards of life, including each other. To that end, this winter my world has been shaken upside down by my friend and teacher Sara Jolena Wolcott’s ReMembering For Life course (she also runs Sequoia Samanvaya with a broader arrange of offerings), that retells history through a more holistic and intersectional lens, “a healing process that can re-join our relationship to place, other people, and the Divine Beloved.” I’m going to close this piece with little plug for the course, because the next class starts in April and it has been profound learning and growth for me. The course covers the ways all of the following are deeply connected to each other:
…climate change — race — wilderness — class — historical trauma — art — grief — islamaphobia — religion — legacies of slavery — intellectual property — corporations — colonization — inheritance — fear — gender — theology — nature — spirituality — witch/hunts- music — drowning islands — healing bodies — storytelling — re/centering — meditation — indigenous knowledge — ritual — violence — somatic beings — despair — doctrine of discovery — raising a family — belonging — hope — past — present — future — space — time — love …
It’s a lot to traverse these thorny and unsettling topics, moving from having a “vague” feeling of “everything is connected” to a concrete and visceral understanding of that connection both historically and today. I fully agree with Sara that “it is particularly critical that those of us who identify as white
be able to speak from personal experience about the damage that colonization and whiteness has done to ourselves; the amazing possibility of wholeness that derives from fully acknowledging our historical role in the creation of white supremacy.”
Stringing together some relevant ideas from the thesis, which the course is based on (ReMembering the Story of the Anthropocene Age: Papal Bulls of Domination, Private Property, and an Ecotheology That (Re)members Towards Creating the Beloved Community):
Without disputing the critical role of the Industrial Revolution, we need to now (re)member colonization into our collective socio-ecological story.
One is what I think of as the ultimate reMembering: reMembering our relationship to all beings.
Second is the nature and origin of evil in the world, Monotheistic religions led to the initial process of disenchantment in which local systems of life-conduct were gradually displaced by a unified total system of meaning and value. In the second phase, disenchantment delegitimated monotheistic religion as a valid unifying world view, favoring instead modern science.
As people were forcefully displaced from the socio-ecological systems of forests, mountains and rivers that had informed their cosmological systems as well as their social physical identities, a new identity, determined by the colonizer. The colonizer saw himself and his own white skin color as “normal”, “good,” and “civilized,” and everyone else was viewed on a racial scale in comparison to that. Their ways of relating to the earth — their orientations, epistemologies and ontologies — were alternatively ignored, scorned, ridiculed and deemed inferior to what became known as the “Western”, “European”, or “Christian” orientation.
The disenchanted world is no longer animate, alive, or drenched in meaning; it is characterized by bureaucracy and rationality. If disenchantment was core to how the human-earth relationship evolved into one where the potential survival of humanity is precarious, then might re-enchantment be necessary for us to thrive?
I trust this version of history. I commit to sharing these ideas, deepening my understanding of them, and changing how I live in order to embody a more just and beautiful world.
I’m grateful to be supported by such a large village in taking a few more steps on my journey from separation to interbeing, from searching for love outside myself to finding belonging in all life, on mankind’s longest journey from head to heart. From sleepwalking frat bro and Silicon Valley savior to humble servant of life. I’m celebrating the dawn of a spring and summer of greater intimacy and learning, tending to the cycle so the cycle continues (words by friend and teacher Julia Plevin, inspired by Rabbi Arthur Waskow). Living into questions like how can I give more? What will make the land happy? What does it really mean to come into healthy, reciprocal relationship with place?
Last year I was looking forward to a 30th birthday month (April) of celebrating life, freedom (Passover coming up!), friendship. I didn’t quite get that because of the pandemic. While so many seeds I’ve been planting are starting to bud, I feel moved to spend my final weeks in Shasta communing with the land and celebrating with loved ones. If that’s you, please reach out. Let’s, get, together, and, share our love with nature.
The times are urgent.
We must slow down.
Mark your calendar for the next Equinox and maybe we can play together 😹
Special shoutouts to those who have helped guide me home to nature:
Sara, Julia, Lindsay, Matthew, Vivien, Oscar, Wren, JP, Christophe, Sophia, Benjamin, Robert, Marisol, Sam, Belinda, Peter, Nijlan, Makaylya, Malik, Daniel, Joshua, Kate, Katie, Jared, Muki, Melissa, Simon, Cole
Beyond links referenced in this post, here is some of what I’ve read / listened / participated in that feels relevant, + others on the radar / coming up.
Nature Wisdom & Rights
- Movement Rights (works for climate justice, the rights of Indigenous peoples and Mother Earth/Nature)
- Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (book)
- The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing (book)
- For The Wild (podcast Anthology of the Anthropocene)
- Bioneers (media and events hub for restoration of people and planet)
- Planet Home (community and solutions platform)
Earth Based Judaism
- Wilderness Torah: Introduction to Earth Based Judaism (course)
- Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism (book)
- Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays (book)
- Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There) (book)
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider clapping 👏🏼 (you can clap up to 50 times if you liked it a lot 😂).
The writing is my gift to you. As the source of all capital is nature, I recognize that any increase in any type of capital I am to receive from publishing this (social, spiritual, financial) is a gift from nature that I am simultaneously a recipient of, as a steward of that which I received, as a result of that which I gave ∞
Andrew is a student and teacher at the intersection of humane technology and personal development.