This past Friday I was given the great honor of officiating my first wedding. My good friend and former Worldwatch colleague, John and his new bride, Niloofar, got married at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Coming from Connecticut, where the temperature was 20°F, the wedding was extra joyful—being an outdoor ceremony in the spring-like southern temperatures. Plus, the Gardens were still lush, filled with holiday lights and a festive spirit.
Even more exciting than the weather (and almost as exciting as seeing what a wonderful couple John and Niloofar make) was the fact that the ceremony had quite a few Earth-centric elements included in it—a land acknowledgement to the Native Americans who were the original stewards of the land under Atlanta and to the wounded body of Gaia; a reading from Dana Meadows’ “Dancing with Systems;” and a new tradition: the exchange of “Wedding Strings” to complement the long-standing tradition of exchanging wedding rings.
This new tradition, which the couple was so gracious to allow me to offer, serves a complementary role to the ring exchange. Rings, being circular (with no end or beginning) and often of gold or a long-lasting metal, are symbols of the marriage’s permanence. But having been married for 11 years and living in a country where a large percentage of marriages end in divorce, it’s clear that marriage isn’t always permanent, and it certainly will not last without regular care. Hence the wedding strings, which John and Niloofar tied around each other’s wrists after exchanging rings.
These strings will wear over time—it’s inevitable—but their breakage gives the couple a symbolic moment to sit down and talk through their relationship—discussing challenges or resentments that they might have held in, and offering gratitude for the many things—big and small—that their partners did that might have been taken for granted. It’s like renewing one’s vows but on nature’s timeframe.
Each bracelet was made of three interwoven strings, one representing each partner and the third representing Gaia, as Gaia serves as the foundation of all human relationships—a fact worth being regularly reminded of. When the couple has a child, a fourth string would be added in, making these interwoven threads stronger, but also increasing the importance of keeping these bonds strong and intact. A child, of course, can give strength to a marriage, though she can also increase the strain (including on the strings as babies do love pulling on things with their strong little fingers!).
The nice thing about these strings is that they can be made from any fiber—Niloofar actually already had cotton thread as making bracelets is a part of her cultural tradition. But they could easily be made from leather strings—in a culture where leather/animal hides play an important role, or cordage from tree bark, or any other fiber that is symbolically important. And the material chosen will also shape how long the strings last and how often the couple discusses their relationship.
What’s also nice is that unlike official vow renewal or asking a partner to go to couples therapy, it’s not too difficult to imagine one partner picking at the threads to initiate a break in order to talk through the relationship. That may sound manipulative or perhaps passive, but it is a safe and simple way to ritualistically reduce the threatening nature of assessing what is often the most important relationship in one’s life.
I like the idea of having both rings and strings. Rings are permanent—even outlasting the wearer. My wedding ring was my father’s. My wife’s ring is my great grandmother’s. But the gold ring (or even any ring) may not always be a symbol of marriage. I can imagine gold jewelry becoming rare in the future, whether because we figure out how to live in balance with Gaia or we fail and suffer through a societal collapse.
Let’s imagine the positive scenario first. Gold will be limited—certainly we will have chosen to stop mining new gold in a sustainable future—as every ring currently creates about 20 tons of mining waste. Even if technology got that ratio down, it’d still take huge amounts of energy and the continuing destruction of Earth’s crust and ecosystems that are far more precious than a shiny metal. As for the existing stock of gold, it may be reserved for more practical applications: electronics, heat shielding, telescopes, medicine, or whatever new uses we come up with.
But in the more realistic scenario of societal collapse, gold’s value will probably skyrocket (as a currency) and wearing it may be dangerous (in the worst scenarios). Wedding strings on the other hand would not be valued by anyone but the wearers. Of course, most people could choose to wear steel or even wooden rings, which might not be valued as greatly. And with the shortened lifespans that will become more normal in this more difficult future, marriage’s “permanence”—and thus symbols of its permanence—might also become more normalized again.
Ultimately, whether a complementary or unitary symbol, the wedding strings reflect the impermanence of our time here as sentient beings and that we are never separate from Gaia. Before we know it, we will return to Gaia, our brief dance, our moment of consciousness, being over. Relationships, like our lives, are fragile and impermanent. Yes, memories will continue on, as will their influence—my father certainly continues to shape who I am nearly 15 years after his death. But looking day after day at fragile threads slightly frayed is a gentle reminder not to take your marriage, or any relationship, for granted. For sooner or later, relationships and lives end, and either we, or our partner returns to Gaia. So tend, and mend, your relationships while you are here.