Living Close to the Earth: 3 — Embracing the Earth

Embracing the Earth

Tiger Swallowtail
Tiger Swallowtail

How do I re-discover my love for the Earth? We experience human love in various ways–as children, parents, lovers, and friends. Love is a binding spell. It softens hard edges, blurring the sharp distinction between self and other. It induces a paradoxical feeling of both ecstasy (standing outside myself) and intimacy (going deeply within). How might I learn to experience such feelings for the Being which nurtures and sustains me?

It was, curiously, humanity’s desire to leave the planet–a bold, high-tech journey involving space ships, moon walks, and global TV–that offered us a moment of true ecstasy. Unexpectedly, as though by grace, we found ourselves gazing at the televised image of a small, blue-green sphere, set like an emerald against the luminous darkness of interstellar space. For one shining moment, the species literally stood outside itself. The haunting beauty of that image is so profound that even now, thirty years later, we are only just beginning to assimilate it.

But what about intimacy? If technology has given us a priceless glimpse of our home planet from a distance, perhaps fantasy can suggest ways of knowing it close up, from within. Albert Einstein once observed that, “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.” Fantasy, like dreams, gives shape to our vague intuitions and secret longings, luring us beyond the hypnotically safe confines of the known.

During the same years that humans were first going to the moon, Patricia McKillip, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was writing a fantasy trilogy called Riddle Master. The story revolves around Morgon, the young land-ruler of a small island kingdom. Land-rule confers upon a land-ruler the ability, “to become one with his rural homeland, his heart and senses bound to its every living creature.”

As the story opens, Morgon seems content to be ministering to his land, with its sheep farmers, ship builders, and brewers. Ancient forces, however, that had once destroyed the realm, are re-awakening. Soon Morgon is compelled to relinquish his comfortable responsibilities and to open himself, ultimately, to the land-law of all the other kingdoms of the realm. He does so through a highly refined, almost magical use of empathy.

Like Morgon, we live in perilous times, drawn by desires and driven by dangers that are difficult to name. Heightened empathy–for one another, for other cultures and species, and for the Earth–is essential. Perhaps a dream-like fantasy, such as Patricia McKillip’s artistically crafted story, can provide both inspiration and instruction.

In the following passage, for example, Morgon lets his awareness wander into the heart of a mountain.

He let his brain become stone, rich, worn, ponderous. He drew all knowledge of it into himself, its great strength, its inmost colors, its most fragile point where he might have shattered it with a thought. The knowledge became a binding, a part of himself, deep in his own mind. Then, searching within the stone, he found once more the wordless awareness, the law that bound king to stone, land-ruler to every portion of his kingdom.

Having touched this wordless awareness, Morgon reaches deeper. With the permission of Danan, Isig Mountain’s land-ruler, he extends an empathy which has been keenly honed by prolonged inner and outer stillness.

The king left him alone. Morgon dropped the torch to the ground, watched it burn away into darkness. He stood up, not fighting his blindness, but breathing the mountain-blackness into himself until it seeped into his mind and hollowed all his bones. His thoughts groped into the stone around him, slid through stone passages, channels of air, sluices of slow, black water. He carved the mountain out of its endless night, shaped it to his thoughts. His mind pushed into solid rock, expanded outward through stone, hollows of silence, deep lakes, until earth crusted over the rock and he felt the slow, downward groping of tree roots.

His awareness filled the base of the mountain, flowed slowly, relentlessly upward. He touched the minds of blind fish, strange insects living in a changeless world. He became the topaz locked in a stone that a miner was chiseling loose; he hung upside down, staring at nothing in the brain of a bat. His own shape was lost; his bones curved around an ancient silence, rose endlessly upward, heavy with metal and jewels…

Slowly, as hours he never measured passed, he touched every level of the mountain, groping steadily upward through mineshafts, through granite, through caves, like Danan’s secret thoughts, luminous with their own beauty. The hours turned into days he did not count. His mind, rooted to the ground floor of Isig, shaped to all its rifts and channels, broke through finally to peaks buried under the first winter snows.

He felt ponderous with mountain. His awareness spanned the length and bulk of it. In some minute corner of the darkness far beneath him, his body lay like a fragment of rock on the floor of the mountain. He seemed to gaze down at it, not knowing how to draw the immensity of his thoughts back into it. Finally, wearily, something in him like an inner eye simply closed, and his mind melted into darkness.

Part of the richness of the realm is its diversity. After leaving Danan’s mountain, Morgon journeys to the wild northern wastes of Osterland, which is as different from Isig as Isig was from Morgon’s island homeland of hop vines and plow horses. But though the terrain is unfamiliar, the bonding process is the same–fierce intent, inner silence, empathy.

He stood quietly, enfolded in the Osterland night. His mind opened to all its sounds and smells and shapes. He laid his hand against the wet, rough flank of the tree and felt it drowsing. He heard the pad of some night hunter across the soft, damp ground. He smelled the rich, tangled odors of wet pine, of dead bark and loam crumbled under his feet. His thoughts yearned to become part of the land, under the light, silvery touch of the moon. He let his mind drift finally into the vast, tideless night…

Slowly he began to understand the roots of the land-law. The bindings of snow and sun had touched all life. The wild winds set the vesta’s speed; the fierceness of seasons shaped the wolf’s brain; the winter night seeped into the raven’s eye. The more he understood, the deeper he drew himself into it: gazing at the moon out of a horned owl’s eyes, melting with a wild cat through the bracken, twisting his thoughts even into the fragile angles of a spider’s web, and into the endless, sinuous wind of ivy spiraling a tree trunk.

In Patricia McKillip’s poetic, fantasy-woven world, Morgon’s remarkable empathy grows out of his ability to be still.

He had a gift for silence. When he chose, it seemed to ebb out of him, the worn silence of old trees or stones lying motionless for years. It was measured to his breathing, in his motionless, scarred hands. He moved abruptly, soundlessly, and it flowed with him as he turned.

Silence yields knowledge. Knowledge confers power. And power must be tempered, not only by understanding the implications of power, but by love. By land-love. By the wordless awareness that binds land-rulers to the Earth.

Morgon’s lessons, then, as well as his sense of urgency, are not so far removed from our own. For we, too, are wrestling with the implications of power, a power derived more from science than silence. And we, too, are learning that if this power is not to destroy us, it must be tempered with love.

I open myself to love through the use of empathy. To the degree that a strong dream, or a story like Riddle Master, encourages me to develop this faculty, to that same degree will it gradually teach me to respond to the needs of my body and to embrace the Earth–creeks, stones, crows, and trees–in a new way.

The long journey toward such an embrace is, in essence, a homecoming. As one of T.S. Eliot’s poems suggests, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring shall be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Morgon awakens to this same realization. Late one night, having absorbed the land-law of yet another kingdom, he is confronted by the implacable silence of an ancient harpist.

Morgon waited for him to speak. He said nothing; he did not move. Moments wore away; still he sat with the silence of trees or earth or the hard, battered face of granite; and Morgon, listening to it, realized that his silence was not the evasion of an answer, but the answer itself.

He closed his eyes. His heart beat suddenly, painfully, in his throat. He wanted to speak, but he could not. The harpist’s silence circled him with the peace he had found deep in living things all over the realm. It eased through his thoughts, into his heart, so that he could not even think. He only knew that something he had searched for so long and so hopelessly had never, even in his most desperate moments, been far from his side.

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Riddle-Master, by Patricia McKillip, was recently re-printed by Ace in 1999. It was originally published by Del Ray in three volumes–The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979). A hardcover edition of the trilogy was also published by Nelson Doubleday under the title Riddle of Stars.