Caring for and Healing the Earth

Philosophy of Caretaking


Joe Zapach

    Ever since I was young, Nature has been a large part of my life. From the early-on afternoon walks at my grandfather's pond, to summer trips to our cottage in the Poconos, to advanced wilderness survival skills practiced deep within the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, the wilds have always called to me, and I have always responded. There's something about it that draws me in, that demands attention and requires that I attempt to solve some of its infinite mysteries and discover its most intimate secrets. For most of my life, I had a good idea of what I considered to be Nature and where Nature is.
    But a recent series of questions have challenged these assumptions and made me take a hard look at exactly what I believe. What is the difference between an anthill and a towering skyscraper? Are humans, a seeming evolutionary "mistake," destined to destroy the planet? Am I just another part of this human cancer spreading across the globe? And what exactly is this Nature, this term that everyone uses but few can define? In all my experiences, Nature has provided Her comfort and help in times of need.
    So, assuming that the sign-makers know what they're talking about, I headed out to a patch of land called the "Binghamton University Nature Preserve," hoping that it actually was Nature, that someone had a good definition of the word and was able to confidently erect the sign to show the world where to find it. Where better a place than in a Nature Preserve to ask questions about its own identity?
    I stood at the trailhead, hoping that this would be the beginning of a journey that would settle the questions in my mind. A crow called above me, alerting the rest of the area to my presence, a call to the wilds announcing the arrival of a questioner, one looking for truth and insights in a confused world. A styrofoam cup near my feet tainted the purity of the moment, but nothing could distract me from my search for answers. I started down the trail slowly; answers don't come to those who rush. I felt the wind blow through me, cleansing my questioning mind. It whispered to me, playing through the trees and bare branches like a musician playing an instrument. Its song relaxed and comforted me, calming my mind and opening my peaceful heart to the answers the forest would freely provide.
    Nature has always been like that for me: calming, relaxing, a time to let go of worries and problems. To me, it's a reality, the reality, a place where all are equal, all are able to discover similar things if they take the time to look. The moments of my life when I've felt most alive and most at peace with the world have been played out within the natural areas. Is this what Nature is? A universal sedative, or meditational vehicle? No, its power and mysteries go far beyond such a simple and limited definition. Though this may be a start, there has to be more.
    So my journey continued down the now-narrowing path. I made my way along the lake, bordering the drought-lowered waters, passing beaver-felled aspens and communities of cattails. Up ahead, a flick of crimson caught my eyes and my curiosity forced me to pick up the pace. I reached the destination and paused in a moment of respect and reverence. Though not yet the season, a red maple was in full colour, its scarlet leaves almost ablaze in the afternoon sunlight. I reached my hand up and grasped a single, bright leaf, gently plucking it off, excited to hold a piece of Heaven in my hand. Yet a story from the past sobered-up my beauty-drunk mind...
    One of my most important and inspirational teachers, the author Tom Brown Jr., once wrote of the first deer he ever hunted and killed. He tracked it for months, living with it, understanding its every move and learning its personality. He knew that deer like a brother. When the day came to make the kill, he climbed a tree, armed with only a stone knife he had knapped himself. The deer paused under the tree and Tom dropped, only to miss his mark, sending the deer struggling to the ground. With an animalistic rage from within, he strangled the remaining life out of the small, frail yearling, feeling its spirit slip through his fingers. Crushed and sickened by the whole ordeal, he walked back to camp with tears in his eyes, covered in the blood of his kill. If this was what the woods was all about, he wanted no part of it. He was going to march right back to his teacher, Stalking Wolf, drop the deer at his feet and walk out of the woods forever. As he approached the Apache elder, ready to let all of his anguish out, before he could even say a word, Stalking Wolf pointed an old, gnarled finger at him and said, "Grandson, when you can feel the same pain and suffering for a blade of grass ripped from the Earth as you do for that deer, you will truly be one with all things."
    My mind flashed back to the leaf I was holding. With its lobes, it almost looked like a hand. I whispered to the wind: "Acer rubrum, my maple friend. Did you scream, but I have not yet learned to listen?" Its quaking leaves seemed to forgive me. All things, all life is equal. Whether it's a huge grizzly, a tiny ant, a towering hemlock or a microscopic water flea, all share the same life-force, the same spirit. The Taoists call it the Chi, or the Force. Stalking Wolf called it the spirit-that-moves-through-all-things. Even Einstein, the father of logic and rationality, recognized this power when he said, "Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe -- a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."
    I let the leaf flutter down to the tapestry of colour on the ground, seeing it as a physical marker to another insight Nature provided. As I walked from the site, I looked on the surroundings -- the trees, the squirrels, the mosses, the gnats -- as kin. We are all family on this planet, connected by the common life-force. Yet, as a human, I still felt so separated. I couldn't understand how I fit. The philosophers see us as a mistake, the religions see us as kings, the aboriginals see us as a part of it. Who is right? Which meaning worked within my heart?
    I continued along the path, hoping for more enlightenment. Though the path led away from the waters into the damp recesses of the woods, my mouth kept reminding me of its dryness. I hadn't quenched my thirst since breakfast, and the afternoon hike was demanding water. I searched the landscape, finally discovering a lone pine tree among the deciduous forest. I stroked its feathery needles and plucked off a few of the younger, more tender shoots. Hoping that stimulating my saliva would alleviate my thirst, I put the young needles in my mouth and chewed them.
    The piney flavour almost demanded a short rest to savour the connection I was partaking in, so I sat down next to the tree. The flavour and aroma of the needles took me back to my first cup of pine tea I had at my grandfather's house. I also thought back to my first taste of pine bark: a nutritious emergency source of flour. And though I saved most for the squirrels, I even tried the small pine nutlets nestled within their cones.
    I thought of how the branches can be used for fire wood to warm those chilling fall and winter nights. I reached down and stroked the carpet of dead needles, remembering how they were the insulation that kept me warm my first night in a naturally-built survival debris hut. I then looked up and saw the whole forest as home. Everything around me could be used: the mosses as a bandage, the animals for food and clothing, the rocks for axes and hammers, the bark for cordage, and so much more. The survival skills I had learned and practiced gave me the freedom and ability to live in the woods, relying upon nothing but my ingenuity and my own two hands. The skills truly are the "doorway to the Earth," as Tom Brown always says. They allowed me to belong, to fit in with the grizzlies and the ants and the hemlocks and the water fleas. I am a part of Nature, and Nature is a part of me.
    Even with this realization, I still felt at odds. I may be a part of the whole, but are survivalists not unlike a swarm of locusts that sweep down over the land, devouring everything and leaving the land to waste? I pictured the mountain men of old cutting down huge sections of forest, burning the underbrush and building their cabins, leaving a huge scar upon the Earth that would take decades, maybe centuries to completely heal. If wilderness survival, the lifestyle with the least impact, meant destruction of the Earth, I wanted no part of it. It seemed that the philosophers had the right idea: we are a mistake, a cancer that can never be cured.
    I remembered the Far Side cartoon where a large jar labeled "humans" was broken on the ground, and several people were happily running from it. From the clouds, God was saying "oops," as if our release into the world was an accident. The pine needles in my mouth felt too soothing and too comforting to accept this, so I returned to the path and continued walking.
    I rounded the lake, eventually entering a large patch of towering hemlocks, their spreading branches blocking out most of the light leaving the ground devoid of vegetation. They looked like huge guardians, stately columns in a grand natural cathedral. I paused for a moment to pay respect in their temple, feasting on the beauty and power of the surroundings. As I began walking again, a chipmunk let out a squeak and hurried into its burrow. In the distance another chipmunk began a constant squeaking, soon joined by another and another. From the trees, the crows heard the alarm call and began their calling, flying away in a flurry of "caws." As they moved away, farther in the distance a blue jay let out its alarm scream, no doubt alerting the animals in its territory. My disturbance seemed to have stirred up the whole Nature Preserve. Like Tom would say, the effects of my walking rippled out over the land like concentric rings on a still pond.
    This realization did little to help my questions. I understood that everything I did affected everything else, but I was disheartened to remember my thoughts at the pine tree. My actions, as a cancer, spread in ways I couldn't even imagine, affecting places both near and far.
    Further depressed by the new insights, I exited the hemlocks and crossed the wooden bridge spanning the marshland. Now walking on the wide trail heading out of the preserve, my eyes were lowered in sadness. I had come to the woods to find my place, how I fit and how I contributed to the world, and I found I was nothing but a nuisance. Why would the woods even bother giving me the first few good insights when my actions would probably end up destroying them?
    With my head hung low, I continued walking, sensing the end of my journey. My eyes caught a bright glint from the grasses bordering the trail. It looked so out-of-place in the muted shines from the plants and demanded attention and a side trip to examine its source. I walked through the grasses and shrubs and found that the reflection was from a recently-discarded beer can. As was my usual habit, I picked it up to take it out of the preserve and discard it in its proper place.
    I held it in my hand, and I was again saddened by my species as a whole. Is there no other way? "What're you looking at there," a voice questioned from the path. "Just a beer can," I replied. Perplexed, he asked back, "Why? You been drinking in here?" "No, sir. I was just cleaning up after someone else. I hate to see such a beautiful place ruined by garbage." "Hm! Very good! I don't think I would have ever done that. Enjoy the rest of your walk," he said. "You too," I ended with as we both continued down the trail in opposite directions.
    Attempting to enjoy the rest of my walk, as the man had requested, I raised my head and tried to appreciate the surroundings. As beautiful as the overgrown field was, I still looked at the bad, seeing the land as another scar cut by humans. Where once the place was an unbroken forest, it had been cleared, and though succession was trying its best to reclaim the lost territory, the presence of humans was still there and it dominated my thoughts and feelings toward what I was seeing.
    A small flick of blue darted above my head and immediately caught my attention. I followed it with my eyes as it sailed to a nearby tree and landed on a branch. "Sialia sialis. Eastern bluebird," I whispered under my breath. "Thank you for cheering me up." It took off, but I decided to follow as it flew so beautifully, dipping and flitting around.
    It finally landed on a small wooden bluebird house, and I stood and stared for awhile, happy to see such a beautiful little bird. As it entered its house, I could almost make out a smile on its beak; a content look of joy to be alive and to have such a warm, protective shelter.
    The bluebird had led me to the answer I was looking for. Humans could do good in this world! Why I was blinded to this fact before is still a mystery. Our knowledge of the world, the information we can collect about the environment allows us to help the natural world, to pick it up when it falls down, to heal it when it gets sick, to help our fellow creatures grow strong and flourish, to provide shelters for animals in need. But the bluebird house was just the beginning.
    The field that I saw as a scar before now looked like a life-rich ecosystem. Where once there was only dense forest with a low diversity of trees, plants and animals, now there was succession, a transition area able to support many more forms of life both in abundance and diversity. Our decisions had helped the area, creating a place for new, shade-intolerant plants to live. With those plants came the animals that fed on them. New species found the overgrown fields more tolerable and decided to call it their home. The choices of the humans had actually improved the area!
    The words of Tom Brown Jr. hammered home: We do not own the Earth; we are its caretakers. We have a responsibility toward it … Anytime we enter the landscape, we should look at it as a gardener looks at his garden, or as a caretaker oversees his grounds. Then we should weed, trim, and propagate the land to get it back into balance and harmony. We have been give the sacred duty to help bring back the Earth to what it once was.
    Overwhelmed by the new insights, I sat down and thought back to a recent class I attended in the Pine Barrens. Tom took us to one section of the forest. All the trees there were healthy, tall and beautifully formed. The ground vegetation was diverse and strong, and the tracks of animals crisscrossed every visible patch of land. By caretaking, by assuming the role of a gardener, Tom had turned the area into a Garden of Eden, lush with a diversity of healthy and strong life. There was no disease here, no overpopulation, no food shortages. The land was beautifully in balance.
    He then took us to another section of land nearby that he had purposely not touched. The trees were twisted and diseased. There was very little ground vegetation, and the few plants that were growing had wilted, discoloured leaves. Two trees were crowding each other. Eventually they would both die from the competition. The ground was almost devoid of tracks, except for a few animals that had to pass through this area to get to another. This was truly a startling contrast to the heaven we had just witnessed.
    Standing up, I smiled and looked across the land as a gardener would. I saw a large branch rubbing up against the trunk of a tree and I took it down, saving the healthy tree from being scarred and diseased. I broke open a few milkweed pods, planting a few seeds in the immediate area, then letting the others fly away in the wind, wishing them good luck as they departed. I picked up a few more pieces of garbage, but left a small plastic container that had become the residence of a mouse family.
    Tom once said that the Apache term for "survivalist" directly translated into "Creator's healer." With this in mind, I looked over another pine tree. One branch had many young needles sprouting, another had very few. I took from the branch with the many needles, allowing the one with few a chance to bring them all to maturity. I chewed them, knowing that this time I had made a good choice in selecting.
    With my new-found knowledge of my place in this world, I walked the last stretch of trail leading out of the Nature Preserve. A small ember of wisdom began to glow within me, and I knew that for the rest of my life I would feed it until it became a roaring flame. I would continue questioning and Nature would continue providing answers. And though it would take millions of lifetimes to ever know all of Nature, I know I will be satisfied and honoured with what wisdom I can discover in this one.
    As the trees of the preserve gave way to the open, bare roads and parking lots of campus, I was able to look upon the whole scene. The buildings extended beyond the school grounds, out onto the distant hillsides, covering much of the landscape. Like a cancer, humans seemed to be spreading to all parts of this land. We have truly lost touch with the truths I had discovered and no longer fill our role as the caretakers. Again, my heart was saddened. If only they could know, if only I could show them....
    My thoughts trailed off as I spotted the same man I had met earlier, exiting the preserve where I had originally entered. I saw him glance down at the ground for a moment and pause. Bending over, he grabbed something and continued on his way, stopping momentarily at a garbage can to deposit some trash. With high hopes in my heart, I rushed over to the trailhead and searched around. With a tear of understanding glistening in the corner of my eye, I could not find the styrofoam cup present at the beginning of my journey.
    My example had changed the man's heart, showed him that it was okay to care and to do something for the Earth. I had made a good concentric ring that rippled through him, and from him, it will ripple to others, extending out beyond anything I will ever understand or realize.
    I would never be able to see the far-reaching affects of my simple action that day, but I knew that just as the jay spread the word in the forest, so too would the man spread his new-found attitude toward the natural world. He had made the path pure and ready for another to follow.
    I paused for a moment to take another look at the new, healed landscape. A spider web stretching between two branches brought a quote from Indian Chief Seattle to mind: "This we know: the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that connects us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
    My strand and the man's strand had crossed, and I had changed his direction, even just the slightest bit, to strengthen the overall web. My concentric ring had been thrown and its limits would spread beyond anything I could ever see.
    I looked down the path from the original starting point and realized that my journey had not ended; it had just begun. I had travelled the circle to the point of origin and was ready to continue down the path again, revealing new insights, different every time I walked it. I would never run out of secrets to discover, places to explore, mysteries to solve or wisdom to gain. My life would forever be a search for truth, circling through my own path until I discover it.
    So my trip into the Nature Preserve answered my questions, and revealed my place in the overall picture. I am a caretaker, here to tend to the gardens of the Earth, to strengthen and heal the land and to live in balance, that my grandchildren will be left with a pure, healthy world in which to live. I am the "Creator's healer."

Though the events in this story did not happen as were written, similar experiences at different times in my life did change my views of the world. The largest influence, though, was Tom Brown Jr., and his teacher Stalking Wolf, to whom all of the above insights can be attributed. I can take no credit for the wisdom in the preceding words. Those two were the sign posts that pointed the way, that showed me the direction and that started me down my own unique trail, and to them I dedicate this essay.


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