Our Lady of the Elements

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.

— Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

My life is a work in process, a cascade of patterns in flux. My habits and routines and rituals are not what I was taught as a child. I’ve had to find my own answers to the big questions: Who am I? What does it all mean? I’m still working on it.

Every morning at sunrise, I meditate out-of-doors, in my backyard or at a park near my home. I repeat my resolutions for life, to live each day to its fullest, but without expectation; to be bold and unpredictable while keeping a sense of humor; to love humanity and serve the Earth. I end always with the same words: “With reverence for Gaia, the ancestors, and the teachers, without whom I would not be here as I am, I receive this day as a gift. May I honor you with my actions.”

Eclipse over Antarctica (Image by NASA)

At solar noon, when the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky, I sing a hymn to Gaia. Every evening at sunset, I meditate on the day that has unfolded, reflecting on my gratitude but also on my choices and actions.

And once every week, I gather with a few other people in a city park near my home. We come together under the ancient oaks, sit in a circle, and take a little time for reflection, meditation, and conversation.

We convene to celebrate Gaia and support one another in our efforts to blaze a Gaian path. We are part of an emerging network, with similar Gaian Guilds now meeting in at least three locations: Honolulu, New Orleans, and Connecticut.

I spend a little time each week actively trying to recruit members. Not everyone recognizes Gaia’s name, so I often find myself trying to explain. It’s tempting to equate Gaia with the Living Earth, or Mother Earth, and in fact I often say exactly that. Such constructions place emphasis on the element of earth beneath us, but Gaia is also constituted by the air around us, and the rivers and oceans, and all life — including us. I’ve been learning to see Gaia in every element of this planet.

Earth

We use the same word to refer to the soil beneath our feet and also the planet where we dwell—and rightly so. It is life that makes this place special, and if it is earth that gives rise to life, then what better name for this place than Earth?

Our ancient ancestors, whether they conceived the Earth as round or flat, certainly understood that plant life springs from the soil. Whether they were hunter-gatherers or farmers, they understood that human life depends upon plant life, directly and indirectly, completely and utterly. It is only right and natural that our ancestors regarded the dirt under their feet as alive. It makes sense that they related to the soil and the rocky foundations beneath as holy and sacred and worthy of reverence. It seems intuitively correct to ascribe to the element of earth a motherly quality, and to think of the body of Earth as the body of a divine personage.

The ancient Greeks spoke of Gaia as the source and sustainer of all life, ultimate mother of all the gods and goddesses, titans and monsters, plants and animals, indeed just about everything short of the stars and the primordial chaos from which she came.

They were not wrong. Some of their biophysical ideas may have been incorrect, even dangerous—think of the practice of bloodletting, for example—but they were not foolish to regard the soil as alive. Many Indigenous cultures have never lost this understanding. Rather, it is Western industrialized culture, and a particular sort of European scientific mindset, that has, through reduction and mechanistic metaphor, come to see the soil and the world at large as inert, disenchanted, and essentially dead.

That’s not the end of the story, however. There has long been a tension within science between this mechanistic-reductionist tendency and a holistic systems-oriented approach. In recent decades, science has affirmed what ancients knew and some have never forgotten: Earth lives.

Even the USDA understands that the soil is alive. You can learn more and color some springtails here. (A great packet for kids.)

Caveats and confessions

This is where I come in, where I need to inject myself back into this narrative. I cannot pretend to some authoritative objectivity, for reasons that will soon be clear. I have confessions to make, and caveats as well.

First of all, though I am not a scientist, I do want to be careful about characterizing the science correctly. Scientists don’t generally say that rocks are alive. However, many scientists have come to the conclusion that life arises and exists in concert with the surrounding planetary environment. That is to say, there is a tightly coupled relationship between the living organisms of Planet Earth and the inorganic components. Rocks are thus an integral part of the intricate relationships that make up the web of life.

Second caveat: this science is still controversial, though increasingly it is accepted in one formulation or another. The field is known as Earth System Science, recently described in the prestigious journal Nature as a “rapidly emerging transdisciplinary endeavor aimed at understanding the structure and functioning of the Earth as a complex, adaptive system.” Another name for it is Gaia Theory, after the ancient Greek deity, mother of all life. To be clear, many committed Gaian scientists shy away from characterizing Gaia as a living system. Life is surprisingly hard to define, and Gaia is clearly not an organism like any other in our compass.

That brings me to my third caveat: I am not a neutral observer. I am a partisan. I am a Gaian. But then, aren’t you? Aren’t we all? The difference, if there is one, may be that I am self-consciously Gaian. That is, I am aware that I am a product of and participant in Gaian processes. I understand that there is no intellectual space for me to step outside of this reality as an impartial or detached observer. I’m caught up in the web of Gaia and implicated through many strands.

We are all inextricably interwoven in the web of Gaia. (Image from Pezibear via Pixabay)

Scientists may be shy of saying that Gaia lives, but I am not so reticent. I can go one step further and say that I relate to Gaia as a living person, though clearly Gaia is not a person like any other I’ve encountered. As my fourth and final caveat, let me clarify that I am cognizant of the fact that I am employing metaphor. This is not science but poetry, which activates the affective dimension and sets me in right relation to serve the Earth. We are social beings, after all, and we feel our gratitude and reciprocal obligations most clearly in relation to other living beings. By relating to Gaia as a living being I can express my gratitude and remember my commitments with greater ease.

Yet Gaia is truly unique, at least so far as we know. I am not so much a child of Gaia as a part of her. How do I relate to a greater person of whom I am a part? All our metaphors and similes and comparisons seem to break down in the face of her realities. That’s one reason I remain so interested in the scientific approach, because it continues to reveal intricacies and patterns which spark awe, wonder, and reverence in my heart.

One example of this is rock weathering, the process whereby wind and rain with help from lichen and bacteria dissolve rocks and whole mountains. In this process, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, combined with mineral elements, and sequestered in the oceans. This is one of many Gaian systems that effectually regulate so-called greenhouse gases, helping to maintain the planetary climate we know and love. This is one of many ways that life and environment interact and produce the very conditions favorable to life.

Ironically, we gain scientific recognition of these processes just at the time when we also recognize that we are now putting it all at risk, in so many ways, most especially by the volume of carbon we’re extracting from the earth and spewing into the air. That’s why I believe Gaian consciousness needs to spread, for the love of humanity and all life, indeed for the love of Gaia.

3.6 billion year old rocks captured from space. (Image from NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)

Air and water

I began with earth, but the example of rock weathering incorporates air and water as well. Thus three of the four classical elements recognized by the ancient Greeks can be seen as constitutive elements of Gaia. It makes me curious. Did the ancients see Gaia in the atmosphere, in the ocean? The Homeric Hymn to Gaia, written in the 7th Century BCE, references earth and sea and sky:

She nourishes everything on earth,
all that go on land, and all that swim through the sea,
and all that fly
(translated by Michael Homan)

That indicates they understood that all life was utterly dependent on Gaia, which we would do well to remember. But did they actually see the sky as part of Gaia? Did they see the waters as hers? Gaia’s grandson Poseidon ruled the sea, according to the myths, but perhaps he was a later addition, a patriarchal usurper. There is evidence that the cult of Gaia was much older. But I’m veering into speculation; just as I am not a scientist, I am not a scholar of antiquity.

What is clear, however, is that Gaian science places significant emphasis on the atmosphere and the oceans as constitutive elements of Gaia. Gaia is not below us but all around us. We now know that the molecules of air which circulate through our lungs and cycle through our bodies are in fact the same molecules that have been circulating the planet for millennia. We now know that all that life-giving oxygen was generated by our ancient microbial ancestors (far more ancient than the ancient Greeks!) in the Great Oxygenation Event two billion years ago. We now know that our planetary atmosphere not only sustains life but is actually created and maintained by life. As given eloquent expression by the ecofeminist writer Starhawk, “This air we breathe is a gift of the early ancestors. With each breath in, we take in the results of their great creativity. With each breath out, we give back.”

We may look at the salinity of the oceans through much the same lens. Seawater generally has a salt content around 3.4 percent. If it was much higher, life as we know it could not survive; take a look at the Dead Sea, for example. Purely inorganic processes should have led to a much higher salinity in the oceans millions of years ago. Gaian scientists speculate that life itself might play a role in keeping the salt levels relatively low. Stephan Harding and Lynn Margulis go further to assert that Gaian processes keep the planet wet, that without life this world would be a dry and desiccated desert.

“A wispy aurora intersects with Earth’s airglow” as this image from NASA describes. If this doesn’t make it clear that we live within Gaia, what will?

Fire

And what about the element of fire? Regular forest fires are said to have beneficial effects and probably qualify as another Gaian process. Volcanoes vent fiery energy from deep inside the Earth. It’s also tempting, to me at least, to think of life itself as fire: a dynamic process that consumes and transforms. Yet in the context of Gaia, the ultimate fire is surely the solar furnace—the life-giving energy that comes from our nearest star, the Sun.

Virtually all the material that makes up the substance of Earth, including our very bodies, was spun out from the solar disk of the Sun when it first formed out of matter accreted from the supernova explosions of other even more ancient stars. Now a vast amount of radiation showers down on Earth continually from the Sun, a vital source of energy for life as we know it.

In my Gaian community, we honor this connection through the observance of the solar holidays (the solstices and equinoxes) and through our practice of meditating thrice daily, at sunrise, at solar noon, and at sunset.

For a brief moment, eclipses remind us just how dependent we are on this ball of fire in the sky that rises and fall each and every day. (Image of a partial solar eclipse over the US Capitol from NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Just as we are dependent on Gaia, Gaia is dependent on the Sun. This is a distinction from traditional monotheistic, especially Abrahamic, conceptions of divinity. Typically, the god of Abraham is defined as the ultimate first cause, the prime mover, a being without dependencies. Clearly, Gaia is not like that, at least not in the planetary terms that I have outlined here. As a result, reverence for Gaia is available to Christians just as freely as to Buddhists and to those with no particular spiritual or religious commitments, and our weekly meetings in the park draw an eclectic bunch.

Some go further and see Gaia as a local expression of a general cosmic creativity. I’m not completely indifferent to that notion, but I find my love and awe and reverence focused right here on Gaia the immediate and ever-changing, the visceral, the elemental.

In other words, I am happy staying down to Earth. The need for humility seems paramount at this moment, as a counter against the hubris to which we humans have proven so susceptible. In that spirit, I close this reflection with a passage from Daya Dissanayake, the celebrated Sri Lankan writer. I recently stumbled across this from an article in Ceylon’s Daily News, and it still sends a shiver down my spine.

Our ancestors worshiped Nature. They worshiped Mother Earth, and treated Nature and natural elements and forces as sacred. It has now been accepted by many scientists, that Mother Earth is a living goddess, Gaia. When we look at Gaia as a living organism, and as a tiny planet in a multiverse, man is probably like a single-celled creature in the mighty ocean. Then we can learn to be humble. 

Bart Everson helped found the Green Party of Louisiana as well as Friends of Lafitte Greenway, the Earth-Based Spirituality Action Team of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the Earth-Centered Special Interest Group of POD Network, the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, and the Crescent City Gaian Guild. He is the author of Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. He is currently running for New Orleans City Council At-Large. More at BartEverson.com.

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