Regarding the Land

“What I stand for is what I stand on.”
― Wendell Berry

Several years ago I was invited to work on a ‘Soil and Story’ project for the Soil Association.  It was a wonderful opportunity to do some research into different cultural approaches to soil and earth. Now that I am in the process of co-organising A Land Conference in Devon  I decided it might be worth looking up some of what I discovered working on that project. What follows is an extract from some of my research.

“The world’s indigenous peoples revered and still revere the soil as a power in itself, rather than as merely a provider of food, minerals or structural support. Native Americans say ‘the earth is our mother’ and refer to the soil as ‘our mother’s flesh’. The Maori of New Zealand call themselves ‘tangata whenua’, people of the land, and call her ‘the mother that never dies’. For the Australian Aborigines the land is the place of ‘dreaming’, and dreamtime stories explain how the land was created by the journeys of the spirit ancestors.

In ancient Slavic cultures the soil was referred to as Mati Syra Zemlja, ‘moist mother earth’ and treated with profound respect as well as imbued with magic powers. In Russian folklore, the hero, having fallen to the ground, often has his strength renewed, or even doubled, as a result of an appeal to “mother earth.”

No one was allowed to strike ‘mother earth’ with a hoe, until the Spring Equinox, Maslenica, as she was considered pregnant until then. Earth was so sacred that oaths were sworn while holding a piece of her, sometimes in the mouth, and ancient wedding vows were taken while swallowing a small clump of Earth or holding it on the head. Anyone spitting on the Earth had to beg her forgiveness.

Boundaries were measured while walking them with a clump of earth on the head and peasants settled property disputes by appealing to Mother Earth to witness the truth of their claims. Far into the 20th century the custom of asking the Earth’s forgiveness before death was still being observed and when a priest could not be found it was considered appropriate to confess sins to ‘moist mother earth’.”

Reading these worldviews again after so many years I was struck by how different they are from what passes for the Western approach to the uses and meaning of land.

At this very moment work has started on a canal that will bisect Nicaragua, running through pristine rainforest and wetlands requiring the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic metres of earth and displacing the indigenous population. Millions of hectares of African land are being bought by international corporations, many of these deals depriving local farmers of their livelihoods. Closer to home, in London, lifelong residents face extortionate rents and homelessness as the world’s super rich purchase homes as financial investments.

Nowhere in these interactions around property, assets, resources and profits is there any mention of ‘moist mother earth’. You laugh. Yes, how ridiculous would that be? How could we do business if we allowed the plight of the people who stand to lose their ancestral lands, their livelihoods, or simply the roofs over their heads to get in the way of a lucrative transaction? How could we run an economy if we had to consider the connection between humans and earth beyond the level of commodity?

These two worldviews – Earth as living being and Earth as commodity – could not be further apart and yet it is imperative that we bring them closer together. The ‘Earth as commodity’ view brings us ever closer to the brink of ecological collapse, in the process robbing the majority of us of the freedom to meet our needs in a way that is appropriate to our locality and culture. It uses a language deliberately devoid of relationship, reducing humans and the land to mere productive capacity and capital.

‘Earth as living being’ makes relationship explicit and it is this relationship that needs examining and deepening, with the aim of putting into place systems that bring about an ecologically and socially just society. Express it how you will – the words ‘Mother Earth’ are not likely to enter the boardroom in a hurry – but each of us has a relationship to the land.

Wherever you are – whether you are standing firmly on the earth or in a high rise with several layers of steel and concrete between you and the soil – somewhere below you is the land. Whether your food is brought to you by a complex chain of international suppliers or grown in your back garden, it started life in the land. The clothes you wear, the bed you sleep on, the car you drive, the house you live in, the plates you eat from, the smart phone in your pocket – it all comes from the land.

Despite what a rational-reductionist view of the world would have you believe, this is one relationship that is non-negotiable.

terence kearns resized

Pic by Terence Kearns


If you would like to explore how we might grow a proper relationship between people and place, please join us at A Land Conference on March 21 at the Civic Hall in Totnes.


This post first appeared on the Stir To Action blog.


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