Living Close to the Earth

[When Light Morning was an active community, those wanting to visit or intern here sometimes asked about our core values. In response, we posted three articles to an earlier version of this website: Living Close to the Earth; A New Kind of Family; and A Transformational Journey.]

How do we learn to live close to the Earth? Paying attention to the needs of our body and stretching toward higher octaves of health is a good place to start. Living close to nature and working close to home is another approach. This necessitates making a slow transition from a cash-intensive to a more labor-intensive economy.

While improving our physical health and meeting our outward needs more directly are helpful, being close to someone also implies emotional intimacy. According to the dictionary, an intimate relationship is “a warm friendship developing through long association.” Might it be possible to nurture such a friendship with the planet we call home?

Stretching Toward Radiant Heal

Pink Radiance

We demonstrate care and affection for our body by stretching toward higher octaves of health. If we’re in poor health, we strive to get better. If we’re blessed with what passes for good health, we aim for radiant health.

Can you recall a time when you were really sick? How hard it was to remember, lying in bed, what good health felt like? How far away it seemed? There’s a comparable vast distance between normal health and radiant health.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to optimal wellness is that we have so few models for it and have experienced it so rarely ourselves. It’s hard to stretch toward something if we don’t even know it exists.

In a recent dream, Darrell Green — a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Washington Redskins — was talking about the field of work he was planning to enter after his retirement from professional football. “It’s a field for which I am well-suited,” he said, “and the demand for it is growing exponentially.” He called it motivation training.

Motivation involves cultivating an evocative image of who and what we want to be. The image must be personal and visceral. It must also be gradually purged of hidden doubts and fears. Our motivation is quite literally what moves us to act. It’s the want-to that precedes and energizes the how-to’s and makes them sustainable.

So what might motivate a person to craft such an evocative image and stretch toward radiant health? One compelling reason is that higher octaves of health yield higher octanes of energy. Since energy determines mood, and mood determines perception, and perception determines reality, then enhancing our health is a direct way of changing the world.

The how-to’s of optimal wellness are self-evident. A healthy body needs sunlight, pure water, fresh air, and wholesome food, as well as sufficient exercise and rest. Living close to the Earth gifts us with direct access to these essential nutrients. If we are not fully utilizing them, we are probably suffering from a case of inadequate incentive and could likely use another round or two of “motivation training.”

Finally, there’s a direct correlation between a healthy body and a healthy mind. Excellent health necessitates clarifying the mind. At a deeper level, the seeming duality of mind and matter is an entrancing illusion. For energy is iridescent, the mind-body continuum is seamless, and the universe is playful. We experience radiant health by allowing this one playful energy to move through us freely.

Working Close to Home

Bleeding heart

We live in a highly segregated society. Parents go to work, children go to school, and older folks go to nursing homes. Food comes from grocery stores, houses from real estate agents. Healing takes place in hospitals, as do childbirth and death. Canned entertainment, meanwhile, beams in through our screens.

It’s no wonder that so many families are dysfunctional. When home become fragmented and anemic, how can it serve as a metaphor for what it represents? When home loses its meaning, in other words, how shall we find our way Home?

Living and working close to nature, close to the Earth, is a path of re-integration. Physical proximity to our ancestral home deepens our relationship with what’s just below our feet. To move in this direction, however, is to engage in an ongoing struggle against the riptide of a cash-intensive economy.

The Industrial Revolution increased a dependence on goods and services that can only be obtained indirectly. People increasingly paid others to do what they once did for themselves. More recently, corporate ad agencies have honed a dark magic ability to seduce consumers into wanting what they don’t need and to conjure onetime luxuries into necessities.

Light Morning spent forty-five years disengaging from this powerful tractor beam. We simplified our needs; adopted a do-it-yourself, pay-as-you-go philosophy; and cultivated a labor-intensive instead of a cash-intensive economy.

What does a labor-intensive economy look like? Day by day, season by season, we followed in the footsteps of earlier homesteaders by channeling our energy into:

  • Gardening
  • Growing fruits & nuts
  • Preserving food
  • Preparing meals
  • Building & maintenance
  • Homemaking & housekeeping
  • Gathering firewood
  • Keeping the vehicles running
  • Tending paths and roadways
  • Landscaping
  • Tracking income & expenses
  • Hosting visitors & interns

Hiding behind this mundane list is an exceedingly odd creature: the living close to the Earth in a new kind of family lifestyle to which we apprenticed ourselves. Drawing on patterns from the pre-industrial past — and maybe tuning in to the future as well — this lifestyle somehow felt familiar. From the perspective of the dominant culture, however, it was disturbingly alien.

Our cultural conditioning about work also needed healing. We couldn’t just garden with hand tools, use a scythe, keep bees, and build our shelters. We had to approach these activities in a new way, with new attitudes:

  • Work is love made visible
  • Do what you love
  • Do what is needful
  • Set high standards
  • Leave few loose ends
  • Be accountable

  • See the work as a dream
  • See the work as service
  • Encourage synergy
  • Move into the moment
  • Be open to coaching
  • Integrate work and play

Embracing the Earth

Tiger Swallowtail

How do I rediscover my love for the Earth? We experience human love as children, as parents and grandparents, as lovers and friends. Love is a binding spell. It softens hard edges, blurring the sharp distinction between self and other. Love induces paradoxical feelings of both ecstasy (standing outside oneself) and intimacy (going deeply within).

How can I experience such feelings for the planetary Being which nurtures and sustains me?

It was the desire to leave this planet — a brave, high-tech enterprise involving space ships, moon walks, and global TV — that gave us a true moment of ecstasy. Unexpectedly, as though by grace, we found ourselves gazing at the televised image of a small, blue-green sphere, set like an emerald in the luminous darkness of interstellar space. For one shining moment, we literally stood outside ourselves. The haunting beauty of that image was so profound that fifty years later we are still trying to assimilate it.

But what about intimacy? Technology gave us a priceless glimpse of our home planet from a distance. Perhaps fantasy can offer ways of knowing it close up. Albert Einstein once said that, “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.” Fantasy, like dreams, gives shape to vague intuitions, secret needs, and subliminal fears, luring us beyond the hypnotically safe confines of the known.

Shortly after the last moon landing of the Apollo program, Patricia McKillip began writing a fantasy trilogy called Riddle-Master. Partially inspired by The Lord of the Rings, McKillip’s story centers around Morgon, the young land-ruler of a small island kingdom. Like all the other land-rulers of the realm, Morgon is able “to become one with his rural homeland, his heart and senses bound to its every living creature.”

As the story opens, Morgon is contentedly ministering to his land of sheep farmers, ship builders, and brewers. But ancient forces that long ago destroyed the realm are re-awakening. Morgon is soon compelled to relinquish his comfortable responsibilities and somehow open himself to the land-law of the other kingdoms. He does so through a highly refined, almost magical use of empathy.

Like Morgon, we live in perilous times, driven by dangers and drawn by longings that are not easily named. Empathy — for one another, for other cultures and species, for the Earth itself — has now become essential. Perhaps fantasies like Riddle-Master can remind us what enhanced empathy feels like.

In the following passage, for example, Morgon allows his awareness to wander into the heart of Isig 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 awareness, Morgon goes deeper. With the permission of Isig Mountain’s land-ruler, he opens himself to an empathy 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…

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. Morgon leaves Isig mountain and journeys to the wild northern wastes of Osterland. The terrain is unfamiliar, but the bonding process is the same: 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 fantasy-woven world, profound empathy grows out of a practiced ability to become still. An ancient harpist, who embodies the pivotal riddle of the realm,

…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, which in turn must be tempered, not only by the implications of power, but by love. Love for others. Love of the land. The wordless awareness that binds land-rulers to the realm.

Morgon’s lessons, then, as well as his escalating 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. We, too, are beginning to realize that if this power is not to destroy us, it must be tempered by love.

Stories like Riddle-Master help me imagine higher octaves of empathy and love. Empathy for the complex needs of my body. A loving embrace of the Earth, with all its creeks, stones, crows, and trees.

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 the same realization. Late one night, having absorbed the land-law of yet another kingdom, he is confronted by the implacable stillness of that 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.

* * *

Patricia McKillip’s enchanting story 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, called Riddle of Stars, was published by Nelson Doubleday in 1979. Twenty years later, Ace published a lovely paperback edition called Riddle-Master, with a new introduction by the author.

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