How to Keep Mother Earth from Becoming Smother Earth

We can kick her, stick her, fog her and smog her, but she will keep on trying to give us what we need.  She will always love us, whether we love her or not.  Her love is demonstrable, proven in her bounty, her gentle airs and dews—a bit of fire for warmth, a taste of honey for delight.  She’s our mother, whether we call her Astarte, Gaia, Pachamama, Demeter, Durga, Terra or Devi.  She answers to all, responds in kind to all who treat her with kindness, gives even to those who don’t.

So when did Mother Earth become Smother Earth, and why are people so afraid of her these days?

This is a far-reaching topic with many tendrils.  One book, you would say, cannot encompass it.  But one organization has made a valiant, mostly successful attempt to name names and offer evidence and remedies in the case of Human Stupidity, Greed, Violence, and Carelessness vs. Mother Earth.  Hesperian Foundation, publishers of the widely read and very practical Where There Is No Doctor, have created a comparable large manual entitled A Community Guide to Environmental Health by Jeff Conant and Pam Fadem, a learning tool for development workers, for indigenous populations, and for us all.  It includes case histories and accessible technologies along with horticultural, agricultural, architectural, social and political information.

When training to work overseas, I was shown a documentary produced by the forward-thinking British aid agency, Oxfam.  It described four stages of overseas development work.  The first and simplest is aid in case of disasters such as the Haitian earthquake and the recent tsunami in Japan.  Everyone can agree on the need to help in these situations; our hearts go out to the victims and many individuals chip in.  Second is “teach a man to fish” or technological interventions—in this scenario the development/change agent goes into the foreign environment with a plan to promote a certain helpful industry such as well drilling or fish farming.

But, the documentary asks, what if the rich guys in the village get control of the fish farm (or the new well or the sewing cooperative)?  The poorest, for whom the benefits were intended, are now squeezed out.  So next comes education.  People need to learn to advocate for themselves; this village-level education is often targeted to women who are powerless in most Third World cultures.  But if aid, technical assistance, and education are not solving the basic problem of poverty, the last step is one that ultimately must be taken by the local people: political intervention.

These stages can be seen playing out all over the world, right now.  No more so, perhaps, than in the environmental chaos that threatens so many powerless people.  Gross abuses of Mother Earth abound in places where poor people, not accustomed to fighting back, have to deal with poisons in the air and the water, poisons in the food they eat, poisons in the places they work, too often the result of richer nations’ demands for goods and fuel.

This is not a new thing.  Mother Earth has shrugged off a lot of human-caused abuse in her own long struggle to survive.  As soon as people gathered themselves in tribes, territory began to emerge as something to be defended against others, and whole species of animals and groups of ancient people are gone forever as a result.  But, for Mother, this was a small matter, as compared with what is happening now.

Overpopulation, overcrowding, industrialization—these ills began to show themselves like a slow but invasive cancer on the globe in the late 1800s.  But the symptoms generally went unrecorded.  We can only guess how many citizens, most of them poor, died in London and other crowded cities from inhalation of coal smoke, the infamous “pea soup fog.”  This can be perhaps extrapolated from the known statistics on one unusually thick yellow fog that enveloped London in 1952, when in all 12,000 deaths were recorded.

Deaths from underground mining were similar in nature: inhaling noxious dust and fumes, uncounted numbers of miners died from silicosis of the lungs; in fact most miners developed some form of the disease over time.  Ironically, mechanization of mining brought more problems that affected our Mother—strip mining and the most invasive, mountain top removal.  In very recent times we have seen how unprepared we are for disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, explosions, erosion, floods—that devastate because of our neglect of resources, resulting in widespread after-effects that will still be felt generations from now.

But Terra soldiers on.  In the mid 20th century, there were small signs of improvement among the creatures living off her abundance.  People of vision began to wonder if we humans were doing right by our old Mom.  The English banned coal fires from cities, and we Americans cleaned up our act with the creation of the EPA.  Problem solved.  Or, shall we say, problem outsourced.  We are careful now how we harvest our trees, and the legacy of the Dustbowl is a more conscientious approach to large-scale farming.  We eat organic when we can and decry genetically engineered food, we drink clear water, cherish clean air, and “take care of ourselves.”  Yet all around the world, poor people are still burdened with our outsourced toxins.  Even here, under our very noses, abuses continue, better hidden but still rife.  Take for example the cultural genocide that has yet to be sufficiently redressed among our native peoples: the after-effects of uranium mining in the Southwest on the Navajo and other people in the Four Corners region.  In The Community Guide to Environmental Health, there is a poignant cartoon illustration of two peasant women standing together, the younger saying of her elder, “Grandmother did not know what radiation was until it killed Grandfather.”

Like Hesperian’s other books, The Community Guide is illustrated with cartoons that would be charming were they not depicting such dire issues as dealing with mercury and pesticide poisoning, the life-threatening effects of farming and manufacturing that puts profits above people, and the harm that comes from macro-industrialization (one section is tellingly titled “Every Part of Oil Production Is Harmful”).

True stories (more than 100 of them in The Guide) demonstrate that despite their daily struggles within the first three stages of development—basic issues of food and shelter, education and infrastructure—even “ignorant peasants” have learned to act collectively to battle the invasion of exploiters.  In other words, they have moved themselves to stage four: community action.

In Junín, Ecuador, for example, a Japanese company opened a large copper mine over the protests of the local people, who then organized, confiscating all the miners’ equipment, turning it over to the authorities, and burning down the camp while the miners were on vacation.  The local people took these actions despite alluring promises from both companies of school, roads, and even high prices for their land.

Another story highlights the rebellion of women in the Niger Delta who were oppressed by the inhumane policies of Chevron/Texaco in their region.  They staged a peaceful protest by “imprisoning” oil workers and threatening to shame them by stripping naked to express their disgust for those who would work for a company that exploits their own families.  In the end, these women, who were beaten and harassed by the company authorities, won major concessions including a fund to set up small businesses.  Other stories of both large and small “p” political activism detail such diverse topics as a one-woman campaign in Somalia to set rocks around newly planted trees to conserve water, and the community development of biogas fuel in Nepal.

Women protest oil exploitation.

“..First, the skilful and wary Husbandmen in time past, being those of good abilty, built them walls about of Free-stone artly laid, and mortered together, and some did with baked bricke like handled.  Others of lesser ability, and of meaner sort, formed them inclosures, with stones handsomely laid one upon another with morter or clay; and some of them couched the broad salt sontesk, with other bigge and large stones (in like order about).”  (Thomas Hill, c. 1545).

As we open the wooden gate, we see a simple pattern unfold before us: raised beds, radiating out in four sections, marking the compass points and symbolizing the four seasons.  (The most common model was square or rectangular but circular forms were not unknown).  The centerpiece is a small fountain, not the bathing pool found in the luxurious gardens of the highborn, but a practical spring for watering plants.  Still, despite its humble purpose, it is designed so that water passes through a bowl held by a stone cherub.  The sight delights the eye and the sound adds to the sense of tranquility.

Though raised beds are often touted nowadays as the height of good horticulture, they were originally developed for mere custodial convenience.  Why bend over more than necessary?  The width of the beds was measured for compatibility with gardener’s arm’s reach for planting and weeding, while the length was deemed unimportant.  The paths between beds, of bricks, stone, or sand, were also for the gardener’s convenience, with the coincidental result that our pre-modern ancestors could stroll through the garden and easily see and appreciate everything in it.

Beyond this quadrangle, on the far wall opposite the gate, is a row of fruit trees beneath which is a “flowery dell,” or small meadow.  The trees are meant to remind us of Eden.  Behind them may be seen treillage or espalier, more French for which no translation should be necessary.  The espalier system allows vines or trees to be trained to spread on horizontal wires or poles; the fruit can then be plucked at shoulder height or lower (espalda = shoulder).  Vines, both grapes and fragrant flowers, are espaliered or trained to drape over a trellis or pergola.  Another combination of practicality and beauty.

The fruit trees and “meadow” invite bees.  Pre-modernists believed that bees were like unto human beings: their society was orderly, they knew their place, they worked without complaint  Human beings spoke softly and trod lightly around bees, not only to keep from gettin’ stung but also to please the bees and provoke the production of honey.  The buzzing of bees, a sound equated with intelligence, organization, and even saintliness, would add to the pleasant whisper of the pre-modern garden.

We settle for a spell on a turf bench (planks laid across sturdy squares of flowering sod).  The sheer variety of plants around us is food for contemplation.  To give a flavor of the way our Shakespearian gardeners mixed and matched, we find rosemary among the herbs for stews, and again as a flower, and again as a hedge.  Lavender also crossed many paths, being valued as an aromatic, a medicine and a hedge as well as a flavorant.  Violets, considered by the Celts to be the heralds of spring, were part of the meadow-plot, could also be made into candy or wine, and contrariwise, as a tea to cure hangovers.  Basil was said to both make scorpions grow—just put some under a pot for three days and, lo and behold!—and, paradoxically, to soothe wounds of scorpion bite.  Could this be homeopathy at work?

Cabbage was a remedy for tummy ache, and onions were thought to repel hostile dogs and cure “sudden dumbness.”  Scorpions seem to have been something of an obsession, as even the common radish was reputed to repel them.  Bay leaf protected people from the devices of Satan, while Angelica Archangelica, used to make sweets, was perhaps the most powerful nostrum against witchcraft (hence its potent name).  Many plants were hopefully listed as contraindicative to The Plague, a misguided notion we moderns would have to contradict.

Saffron, a spice and a powerful ochre dye, could be used as an aphrodisiac and then to ease labor pains— thus connecting two important aspects of life.  Aphrodisiacs were pretty common, it seems, with cloves, garlic and radishes among the claimants.  A pensée worth considering: why did our European ancestors need so many aphrodisiacs?  And why do we?

The overriding impression we get from our garden walk is that our great-great-great-greats lived within their environment, not separate from it.  They were not burdened by a barrage of scientific claims and counter-claims, ads or infomercials.  They tried in their own ways to connect what they saw, smelled and tasted with what happened in their bodies and minds.  They postulated that “as the cause is, so must the cure be.”  They took into consideration the motives of the heavens and the subterfuge of the devil as they mulled over what contributes to good mental and physical health.  They appreciated the garden as a microcosm, created ways to enjoy it for its own sake, and meditated upon its eternal qualities while imbibing its odors and colors.

They had the happy conviction that coddling the senses can make us happy.  If we are not properly coddled we will end up needing something from the garden, a symbolic replica of the first garden, a place of innocence and simple delight.  If the cures proved ineffectual, it was because “God may have other ends best known to himself.”

It still seems remarkably sound, durable and workable world view.  So as we close the garden gate and return to our twenty-first century concerns, I gently suggest that you, and I, wake up and smell the lavender.

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