Teachings of the Land

totem_poles_in_stanley_park_6157926634I was raised to be an urbanite. Sure, I spent plenty of time outdoors, playing in parks, riding my bicycle, walking to get everywhere. But I grew nothing, protected nothing, and gathered almost nothing except a little honeysuckle nectar from the vines that grew in the lane.

Until I became a young adult.

Friends introduced me to hiking. I learned that a change of landscape can literally bring about a change in your consciousness, in how you think and feel, in what you think and feel about.

My husband taught me to grow food. I learned that you do your best to protect your yield, but you can’t avoid sharing some with other creatures, winged, four-legged, and six-legged.

My mother developed a growing interest in animals and I became an amateur urban naturalist, observing our squirrels, racoons, crows, ants and bees at work and play. I learned that they notice and respond to sights, smells and sounds that I hadn’t even known existed.

A few years later, I began to develop a more sophisticated understanding of my own religious tradition, and the eco-theology at the heart of Hebrew Bible. This theology, I now know, leaps out in the opening verse. “By way of beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Or, for an equally literal but less famous translation, “By way of beginning, God created the sky and the land.” This verse is like a topic sentence. The next thirty verses detail explain the details of this creation. As it turns out, the land includes continents, plants, birds, amphibians, mammals, and humans. “The land” is an ecosystem, and we are part of it.

You may know that names are symbolic in the Hebrew Bible. The name of the first human being, “Adam,” was not a random pleasing sound. Adam is a variation on the word Adamah, which means “red clay dirt.” To understand this symbolic use of language in English, understand that Adam is a human, made of humus. Adam is literally an earthling, who is made of earth, eats the produce of the earth, and will eventually return to the earth. Adam is created in the image of God. Think it through. The earth, the land, the ecosystem is a key Biblical image of God.

Early Jewish Biblical commentators asked, why does the creation story in Genesis chapter one end with the creation of human beings? Is it because humans are the most sophisticated creature, the crowning glory of all creation? Or is it because humans are the most interdependent creature, our existence depending on everything created before us? Because the amount of unpaid work that other creatures do to pollinate our food and till our soil is staggering.

Gradually, I understood that the Hebrew Bible is an Indigenous text. All its stories about animals make perfect sense if you understand the animal’s form of life. The snake that tempts the humans to awareness in the garden actually has a more highly developed sensory system than we do. The crow that served as Noah’s scout actually uses language to bring reports to its flock. The donkeys that help confused characters find their way are known among working animals for their steadiness and intelligence. The ancient Israelites are in fact so attuned to local animals that many of the tribal leaders named in the book of Numbers have animal totem names. There’s Caleb, the dog. Nachshon, the snake. Gadi, the goat. Susi, the horse.

Hebrew Bible does not stop at recording the people’s engagement with the land, and their love of fellow creatures. In fact the often misunderstood and neglected book of Leviticus speaks explicitly about how to “walk well on the land.” That is the language it uses. Leviticus says: we must take care not to allow our greed to consume the land. If we harvest the land without pause, we will destroy our physical ecosystem. If we destroy our physical ecosystem, we will destroy our economic and cultural systems. We must always remember that we are only one part of a planetary ecosystem, that the ecosystem is an image of God, and that ultimately, if you want to speak in an anthropomorphic way, the ecosystem belongs to God. Not to us.

After learning all this, I was so ready to take classes in Vancouver School of Theology’s Native Ministries summer program. In 2015, I took a course called “Indigenous Theologies,” taught by Rev. Dr. Randy Furushima. I came into the course feeling a kind of spiritual kinship, believing that my own Jewish eco-theology resonated beautifully with Indigenous Canadian eco-theology – which it does. But in the course I learned that the contemporary Indigenous Canadian relationship with the land is anything but theoretical. Indigenous Canadians are not only connected with a spirituality of the Creator’s land; they are also constantly negotiating specific land claims. In my naïve understanding, I had spiritualized the concept of the land, imagining that my abstract idea really constituted a good understanding of Indigenous thought. Which it did not. I was actually a rank beginner in understanding Indigenous thought.

In 2016, I took Rev. Ray Aldred’s course “The Land is Sacred.” That course turned upside down everything I learned in undergraduate anthropology. In anthropology, I had learned about primitive hunter-gatherer societies. When Ray took us on a tour of UBC’s botanic gardens indigenous species area, I realized that a hunter-gatherer society specializes in sustainability. Hunter-gatherers know just how much and just what kind of hunting and harvesting an ecosystem can tolerate. Sustainability is not a primitive notion – in fact, it is a next level of economic evolution. Indigenous peoples who know their regions well hold the keys to this evolution.

You’ve heard the legend that the Native Americans and First Nations are the Ten Lost Israelite tribes? Now I understand it to be a metaphorical allusion to our similar histories of physical and cultural displacement. And I understand more deeply the urgency of reconciliation.

Presented at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, as part of a symposium “Teachings of the Land: Our Oldest Relative,” featuring my colleague Rev. Ray Aldred, and organized by Heather Clarke.

Image: Totem Poles in Stanley Park, photo by Francisco Anzola. Pictured are the Chief Wakas Totem Pole and the Oscar Maltipi Totem Pole.

  1. thanks so much for this Laura and for sharing it at Shaughnessy Heights United Church Engaging Dialogue “The teachings of the land: Our oldest relative” on Sunday evening – February 12, 2017

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