Earth as our Human Condition

“Art can die; what matters is that it scatters seeds on the ground … we shouldn’t care whether it remains as it is, but rather whether it sets the germs of growth, whether it sows seeds from which other things will spring.”

Joan Miró

How often do you think about the ground beneath your feet and your relationship to it? 

We moved out of water onto land and found in the earth new ways of sustaining and growing life. Yet like water, we often overlook earth’s living properties, objectifying it and using it primarily as a means to an end. 

If we consider earth’s symbolism as a fundamental element, it represents stability, practicality, groundedness and rootedness; earth holds water, it holds the centre. It holds us, allows us to grow, and to move. It is where we get our power from.

So how can we relate to this ground under our feet? Margaret Wheatley tells us we cannot go on through life ungrounded and this ground has to be cultivated, “we create ground by nurturing our convictions, by learning from our experience, by developing trust in ourselves and the world.” Without this, we cannot withstand turbulence.

But becoming grounded is not about focusing on ourselves or our own problems. “[T]o come to ground is to begin the courageous conversation, to step into difficulty, and, by taking that first step, begin the movement through all difficulties,” David Whyte writes in Consolations.

This is a much needed exercise for our work and organisations too. Many of us have been taught to look at work – and life – as a linear journey, that we have to get on that path and stay on it; often from a very young age. This limits our worldview and disconnects us from possibilities. A disconnection from nature is also increasingly being recognised as a leading cause of depression, something that was first observed in animals in captivity. 

Yet there are so many lessons to learn from nature. What goes on beneath the earth’s surface? What can we learn from trees’ root systems and fungi’s collaboration? How they create webs that form a multitude of patterns that branch out, weave, expand, change directions and multiply.

In Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake studies how fungi and their networks can help us understand the planet we live on, the ways we think, feel, and behave. “Imagine that you could pass through two doors at once. It’s inconceivable, yet fungi do it all the time. When faced with a forked path, [they] don’t have to choose one or the other. They can branch out and take both routes.”   

If we look beyond ourselves and at the state of the planet today we may interrogate whether our lost connection to the earth is in direct correlation with our inability to care for it. 

In many indigenous cultures, people do not own the land, it does not belong to us, we belong to the land and we have a responsibility to care for the land. But borders and aggressive corporate pursuit of land ownership has mostly destroyed land-subsistence communities. 

Land Defender Sii-Am Hamilton speaks compassionately to those who are disconnected from the land because she doesn’t know what it feels like, “when I see resource extraction, when I see pollution, it feels like somebody is hurting my family; relatives that are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years in the making are being disrespected.”  

For farmers who are protesting in India – like Umendra Dutt, who leads a people’s movement for sustainable farming and food – farming or agriculture is more than an economic activity. “It’s part of our life. It is culture, social and even spiritual,” says Dutt.

This commodification of the earth goes beyond land itself to the seeds we plant; today, three quarters of the seed market is controlled by ten companies. Often, these are the same companies that then go on to produce the pesticides that poison the land, our food, and all living beings.

Our human activity on earth is threatening what is believed to be one of the largest and oldest living organisms on our planet. Pando, otherwise known as the Trembling Giant, found in Utah, United States, is a grove of aspen trees that share one single root system. It is believed to have travelled thousands of miles to escape the great ice fields in North America, sending its roots ahead, over thousands of years. The roots remain secure and wait for the right conditions to emerge from the earth, then rise up. Individual trees die, but the root system lives on.

If we could imagine our collective efforts as a pando-like root system, one which we nourish, store seeds, preserve wisdom; perhaps we could become braver and more outward looking than we generally tend to be. Our own roles, struggles, organisations becoming but one small piece of a great artwork.

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes