The Earth’s Teeth

“I felt the Earth. It’s all connected, it is, but… it’s not all good and pure and rootsy. There’s deep… deep black. There’s… I saw… I saw the Earth, Giles. I saw its teeth.” – Willow, from the episode “Lessons” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Over the past few weeks we’ve been reminded over and over again that the Earth has teeth. There was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We’ve seen flooding in the Midwest. Now we’re in the middle of tornado season. There have been a few here in North Texas, and yesterday was a horrible day for the Southeast. Last night I had a call from a close friend in Trenton, Georgia telling me about sitting in a closet as a tornado came through, fully expecting to die.

How can we love and worship Nature when she does things like this?

This is not an easy question, nor is it a new one. People have been asking “why do bad things happen to good people?” for thousands of years. The only certain answer is “we don’t know” and I don’t propose to have any insight that hasn’t occurred to philosophers and theologians over the centuries. But if we view Nature as sacred – and I do – this is a question we must contemplate.

We begin with humility. Our large brains and opposable thumbs may have put humans at the top of the food chain, but we are not the most powerful force in the universe, and there’s nothing like an earthquake or tornado to remind us of that fact. Nor are we the most important. Other animals, plants, and elemental processes like winds, rain and earthquakes all have power and all have interests. Why should ours trump theirs?

Life isn’t all about humans, not collectively and certainly not individually. This isn’t a pleasant thought for some, but the evidence tells us it’s true.

Events like these remind us to continually challenge dualism. Our brains have evolved to instinctively classify everything as “good” or “bad.” This is understandable. If you live in the trees or on the savannah (as our ancestors did until very recently, on an evolutionary timescale) you don’t have time for nuance. You need to quickly determine whether a particular plant will cure you or kill you or whether a particular animal will eat you before you are removed from the gene pool. Dualistic thinking is very efficient. It’s also very incomplete.

We know that fire can cook our food and fire can burn our houses. Water can quench our thirst and water can drown us. Fire and water aren’t “good” or “evil” – they simply are what they are. Likewise, earthquakes and tornados aren’t good or evil, they simply are what they are. Nature as a whole is beautiful and powerful and awe-inspiring and terrible and live-giving and deadly.

And we are part of that beauty and terror, a tiny part of a much greater Whole. All life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor. The Earth, the Sun, the Moon and all the stars and planets formed from the elements created when our universe began. We are all connected: the trees and lakes and cool breezes, the thorns and floods and hurricanes. And if we are connected to the rest of Nature, then the rest of Nature is due the honor and consideration – and love – that are due our closer relations.

Yes, the Earth has teeth. Yes, sometimes those teeth cause pain and suffering. No, I don’t know why. I just know it is.

Blessed be the Earth.

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