September 5, 2022 by Jean
This summer I read two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, which spoke to one another and to me in their reflection on the relation between humans and the rest of the natural world. Both books explore how connection with nature can make us happy by providing a sense of bounty and by filling us with gratitude for the natural beauty around us.
Beneficence by Meredith Hall (David R. Godine, 2020) is a novel that follows the life of a rural farm family for several decades and is told from the points of view of three different family members. Outsiders might see the family as living a hardscrabble life without many material comforts, but that is not the way they see themselves. The children spend many pleasurable hours in one another’s company observing the natural world, and their father encourages them to savor all the wonders that God has provided. Their mother provides a sense that, although it is hard work, the farm will provide what they need:
Dodie and I washed up the dishes and I put beans to soak for supper and then we went down cellar to organize the canning shelves and root cellar to account for what is available until the garden starts to produce this spring. There is always an abundance, never a concern, and so it is a chore we both enjoy. (p. 252)
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s memoir, Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2020), explores gratitude for nature’s bounty as a philosophy characteristic of indigenous cultures. In one part of the book, she takes college students on a week-long field experience to teach them how to find what they need in nature. When she tells them that they are going shopping for the provisions they’ll need for dinner and then takes them to a nearby marsh, they dub it “Wal-Marsh.” Kimmerer contrasts cultures of bounty with cultures of scarcity; assumptions of bounty lead to sharing and generosity while assumptions of scarcity promote greed and hoarding. As I read this, I was struck by the fact that I live in the richest country on earth, structured by an economic system that is based on assumptions of scarcity. We have a powerful advertising industry devoted to convincing us that we need things we don’t have. And value in our culture is measured by price, where price is determined by scarcity. It seems to me that much of the current rage and meanness in our politics is fueled by assumptions of scarcity and people’s fear that they will lose if others gain.
I was particularly inspired by the part of Kimmerer’s book that describes the “Thanksgiving Address” recited by the Onondaga Nation of upstate New York, The address, which is typically recited at the beginning of meetings and ceremonies, connects bounty to gratitude by focusing in turn on each part of the ecosystem and giving thanks for all the bounty it provides. For example,
We give thanks to all of the waters of the world for quenching our thirst, for providing strength and nurturing life for all beings. We know its power in many forms—waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans, snow and ice. We are grateful that the waters are still here and meeting their responsibility to the rest of Creation. Can we agree that water is important to our lives and bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to the Water? Now our minds are one. (quoted in Kimmerer, p. 104)
I was reading about the Thanksgiving Address over breakfast on the day I transitioned from strawberries to raspberries in my breakfast cereal, so I was especially charmed by the recitation of thanks to the berries:
When we look about us, we see that the berries are still here, providing us with delicious foods. The leader of the berries is the strawberry, the first to ripen in spring. Can we agree that we are grateful that the berries are with us in the world and send our thanksgiving, love, and respect to the berries? Now our minds are one. (p. 105)
Imagine if we began every meeting or discussion of a contentious issue by reminding ourselves of all the natural blessings that we have in common and can agree to be grateful for!
One form of bounty I’ve been enjoying this summer is that of monarch butterflies in my garden. Their abundant presence has been a cause for celebration in a year when they were officially designated as an international endangered species. These insects are both beautiful and amazing. Monarch butterflies go through a lifecycle in which they mate and the females lay eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves; the eggs hatch into caterpillars that feed on the milkweed leaves, growing larger and larger through several stages of molting; each fully grown caterpillar then leaves the milkweed plants to pupate on other plants (or, sometimes, on the side of a building) by hanging upside down in the shape of a J and enclosing itself in a chrysalis; and the magic of metamorphosis happens inside the chrysalis as the molecules of the caterpillar are rearranged into a butterfly, which then breaks open the chrysalis case, crawls out the bottom and hangs on the outside of the case to unfold and dry its wings.
A few weeks ago, I had dozens of monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed in my garden. The last of them formed its chrysalis on the siding below my deck yesterday. Meanwhile, those that pupated two-three weeks ago are emerging from their chrysalises as butterflies. For the past week, I’ve been averaging one or two newborn butterflies in the garden each day. I never get tired of watching this process, and it can be hard to tear myself away from the “nature channel” in my front yard to get anything else done! One rainy morning last week, I watched a butterfly that had not taken enough time to dry its wings, crawling across the top of a flower, struggling to drag its wet, heavy wings behind it. Finally, the insect managed to crawl back down to the empty chrysalis case, where it hung in the wing-drying position for another three hours before it fluttered away.
I don’t know how many chrysalises are left. I’m aware of eight, but they are surprisingly difficult to spot as they hide in plain sight. One day, I was looking down at a clump of spirea below a retaining wall in my front garden and thinking that it would be a great place to hang a chrysalis, because it would blend in with the color, size and shape of the leaves on the shrub. As I thought this, my eye was travelling along one branch, and suddenly my focus shifted and I realized, “Wait, that third leaf from the end isn’t a leaf at all!”
Most monarch butterflies live only a few weeks, long enough to mate and reproduce, but the butterflies emerging in my garden now are the “super generation” that will live for many months and fly thousands of miles to central Mexico, where they will hibernate for the winter and then mate and reproduce in spring. It is their offspring who will fly north next year – although it will take several generations of reproduction before they get as far as Maine. Amazing!
A friend recently offered the opinion that the world would be a better place if everyone had the time and opportunity to observe nature’s wonders. I think Meredith Hall and Robin Wall Kimmerer would agree, and I am grateful for my own opportunities to savor the bounty of natural beauty around me.