Child of the Earth by Elizabeth Cunningham


I have a vivid childhood memory of being sick with the stomach flu and standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom looking for my mother. Her care for sick children was tender and thorough. She would bring us ginger ale and toast with jelly. When she had time, she read us stories. I can remember her steering me, heavy with fever, back to a bed that she had magically smoothed and cooled. But that day my mother lay in her own bed in an old nightgown, not stirring. She had the flu, too, and could not get up to care for the rest of us. It was a shocking and sobering moment.

As I grew older, I transferred my need for comfort, reliability, and continuity from my mother to the earth, the sure turning of the seasons, beloved trees, waters, and rocks.  As a young mother, I looked forward to sharing my own childhood joys with my children, among them jumping into autumn leaf piles. The first time my children leaped into a leaf pile, they came up covered with the ticks that have now made my region the epicenter of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. Nor was I able to share with my children the joy of drinking water straight from a stream.

Vera under the Oak by Barbara Upton

During a bout with Lyme disease, I pondered the biblical Job’s declaration after God visited him with various afflictions: “Though he slay me…I will cling to him.” I decided would go on clinging, so to speak, to the earth, the source of all life, comfort and wonder. I would take precautions against ticks but remain as close to the earth as possible in the garden and in the wild.

But the earth is not slaying us as a test or as a punishment, unlike Job who is set up for suffering by a wager between God and the Adversary. We are wounding the earth. Many times I hear people say, “Oh, we may do ourselves in, but the earth will go on.” That may be true in some long run we will not live to see. But right now, we are not only hurting ourselves. A million other animals and plants face extinction due global warming and the harm done to rivers and ocean, ground water, soil, air, forests.

Another memory of my mother. Being a visiting adult child at her dinner table with extended family. If anyone appeared to be looking for anything, she jumped up, “What do you need?” she would ask, tense with tamped down anger. My mother, for reasons both personal and cultural, invested her whole identity in meeting the needs of others while ignoring her own—not even feeling entitled to have needs.

Fallen Oak by Douglas Smyth

As a counselor, I have clients, almost always women, who have difficulty setting and knowing their limits. Sometimes I say to them: people treat women the way they treat the earth, as if we are limitless, ever-giving, needing nothing, just there to supply what people often don’t even acknowledge they’re demanding. (Or to put if more strongly, who can be raped and abused with impunity.) When you stand up for yourself, consider that you are also standing up for the earth.

(Note: It is not only women who are treated this way in patriarchal capitalism—a topic beyond the scope of this post—but farm workers, domestic workers, factory workers, anyone in a service position.)

Some of my happiest memories of my mother are moments when she allowed me to give back. I would bring her afternoon coffee. I took pleasure in her pleasure. I am happy now when my flower gardens host bees, butterflies and other pollinators, when the once-lawn-now-meadow is full of milkweed and other wildflowers. There have been, and still are, many cultures where giving back to the earth is a way of life. Though we are in ecological crisis, it is not too late for people everywhere to pay attention to the earth and ask, “what do you need, what can I give? How and where shall we live that respects the lives of other beings on earth?” It is not too late to love the earth, not too late to learn that we are not separate from the earth.

This year I became aware of how I still crave the comfort of the apparently unchanging. For the seven years I’ve lived in my current home, I’d wake and gaze out my window, tracing the twisting branches of a three-hundred year old white oak. Every day I would stand beneath the tree, feel rooted among its roots, know the comfort of being so small and young beside its ancient being.

And then, one day last spring, right before my eyes, the huge old oak fell. There’d been a week of rain and the tree, sending water to the baby leaves, was too top heavy to go on standing. I visit the fallen tree every day, and I know life goes on around it and is even now nourished by it. Still I miss the living, standing tree. I miss my human mother. I miss the seeming predictability of the seasons in my childhood. I am comforted by nearby rock formations, but I remind myself, they were formed by cataclysm. They are changing, too, just more slowly than what I call myself, a child of the earth.

I close with a passage from my novel Magdalen Rising:

It’s not all pretty. The earth knows terrible things. She receives all deaths, gentle and brutal. She bears the pain of every birth. She turns all things back into herself; she worries the bones to dust. She is changing, always changing. Layers shift. Her own bones crash and break. Tides heave. Rock erupts into fire. It’s not all pretty. Beauty never is.

 

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. She is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, was published in August, 2020. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.



Categories: Childhood, Ecofeminism, Nature, Women's Power, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , ,

41 replies

  1. Elizabeth, this is a very timely essay for me. It is the Season of Beltaine here, and I am contemplating Beauty, and also the passing of it. I have been grieved. Your words ring so true in this moment today. The Fallen Oak is a poignant image of how Beauty is not all pretty; life goes on around it and is nourished by it. Such a contemplation.

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  2. The earth is always changing just more slowly than we always see. But our contribution to its current change is so sad to think about. “This earth is my sister…All that we have suffered. All that we have lost and all that we know.” Susan Griffin

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    • It is devastating to know that many of the changes–alarmingly swift in earth time– are caused by our own kind. To consider what is part of a cycle–an oak falling after three hundred years, tectonic plates colliding–and what is caused by human ignorance, indifference, or greed is a painful and necessary task for each of us individually and I hope, increasingly, collectively.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this essay that so beautifully speaks to the web of connections between ourselves, all living beings, and our Earth. I was especially struck by how you so wisely advise women in your practice to realize that when they stand up for themselves they are also standing up for the Earth. This is true spiritual empowerment!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Carolyn! Being a woman and also a preacher’s kid, I have struggled with the idea that (my) giving and availability should be boundless, without boundaries. I still have that, well, temptation in a sense, to push to the point of exhaustion and depletion rather than acknowledge a limit. Learning…very slowly and repeatedly! Remembering and respecting our mother and sister the earth is salutary.

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  4. Oh, I forgot to mention the problem with Lyme disease – we have it here too and it is out of control. Two weeks ago I was bitten by a Lyme tick – fortunately the test was negative – but the day I discovered the tick embedded in me I had been raking leaves and happily depositing them in my new compost heap – remembering how my brother and I used to jump into piles of leaves…I refuse to stay separate from the forest but am aware that my daily meanderings put me at risk. This time of year ticks are drawn to the moisture in dying leaves…a caveat for all of us, I am afraid.

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  5. Oh no – this is the second time in a week that I have lost a long reply – darn – what is going on here?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, darn, indeed! I always want to hear what you have to say. Recently I wrote a comment and before I post it, I scrolled up to like another comment, and returned to find my comment had vanished. Don’t know if that’s what happened this time. But things like that have happened several times to me.

      Oh, Sara, I am so glad your lyme test was negative. Alas, I have noticed that the ticks are most present in Spring and Fall, just when we most want and need to tend the garden!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Elizabeth – let me just say how much I resonated with this post and especially with the words that when we stand up for ourselves we stand up for the earth. I too struggle with boundaries with respect to giving – and gosh it s no better now than it ever was…As you say, it is never too late to ask the earth what she needs from us…

    Briefly – oh I feel such empathy for the loss of your oak. Had you considered raising a seedling from an acorn? I did this again last spring and recently planted my little tree.

    Curious synchronicity – I was just writing about oaks…

    Thank you for this post – so dear to my heart and way of being in the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Sara. Alas, no acorns from this tree in a while. I put some of the branches with new leaves in water to see if roots would grow, but they didn’t. I think I will do some memorial planting around the oak of trees or other plants. We are leaving the trunk and the big branches which form a sort of a semi-circle. Friends have called it the Grand Oak Room. I look forward to your writings about oaks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You could still search for an acorn and start your own tree? When I lost my cedar I was devastated – planting a cedar garden full of seedlings really helped… remember all oaks share the same oak field… so any acorn is a relative.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I could. Seems like last year was a mast year. It was a beautiful white oak. I know where some of the white oak relatives live. I have many red oak friends, too. One who stands not too far from where the old oak stood. I sense her awareness and offer of companionship, and I am grateful.

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  7. Love this essay, Elizabeth! This sentence struck me: “My mother, for reasons both personal and cultural, invested her whole identity in meeting the needs of others while ignoring her own—not even feeling entitled to have needs.” I’ve often imaged myself as having multiple sets of flowing paps from which those I come in contact with imbibe freely. My particular personal background reinforced this image because “woman was made for man.” Am fortunate to be working with a therapist these days who understands this internalized sense of not having any needs. (BTW, I did watch some of your recent (August?) interesting interview on FB.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Esther! As noted above, believing I should be limitlessness is something I still struggle with. Glad you have a therapist who gets it. I know we grew up in different church communities, but both Christian. Those early messages go in deep. I resonate with the multi-breasted image! Now that I think of it, when I was a nursing mother, my breasts did have to rest and refill (in the 45 minute breaks from nursing my first-born would take!) Here is to rest and replenishment for us and the earth!

      Liked by 2 people

    • And thanks for listening to the interview. I did a couple and have a couple more coming up. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So sad, so beautiful, so earthly, so sad. Even one such as me who doesn’t go outside much because (mainly) I don’t like to get nature all over me, even I feel sad when I see what mankind (mainly men, right??) is doing to our blessed Mother Planet. I guess everybody and everything, from trees and ticks and flowers and butterflies and our national parks to women and children are trying to do what they can to survive these awful days. Is there a reason for optimism anywhere?

    Thanks for writing this enormously touching post. Thanks for all the work you’re doing that is ultimately for everyone. Keep writing! Bright blessings all the way from SoCal to upstate New York and everywhere in between and around the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Barbara. You have always lived with cats and plants, so you know nature and are earth’s child. I agree it is mostly men–or at least I think of men when I think of drilling, fracking, agribusiness. Many of us have probably been dismayed by Amy Coney Barrett’s responses in the judicial hearings this week, so being born a woman doesn’t seem to guarantee anything. As Carol notes in her posts about egalitarian matriarchy, men in those cultures are nurturing and responsive to others and to the earth. Patriarchal capitalism has its hooks in all of us to some extent. May we all be part of a shift to becoming more aware of our connection to and effect on the earth.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Barbara, you DO have a connection to nature – Elizabeth is so right!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have so much empathy for you and your lovely piece . The earth is my support and my teacher and it is good to remember that she does not bow to anyone or anything. Why any of us would think that her reaction to our behavior towards her would not have consequences, I pray that our future will come to a place of complete adoration of all she has gifted us with..

    I thank you for you continued generous sharing of your thoughts and words <3

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this post that so beautifully interweaves memories of your human mother and of our Mother Earth. For me the most important sentence was: “It is not too late to love the earth, not too late to learn that we are not separate from the earth.” I hope we all realize this and do our little part in changing the paradigm in our country as well changing the trajectory of climate change. That’s what keeps me sane and even happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nancy. It is doing that little part that keeps me from being totally overwhelmed and gives me moments of happiness and maybe sanity, too. Good to remember that a minute shift can alter the trajectory. .

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Elizabeth, your essay moved me deeply. Your parallel between Mother Earth and your human mother is compelling, and you make me wish I had done more to heal the earth.

    Was appalled to learn you fell victim to Lyme disease. Hope you have recovered from it. The death of the great tree feels like a personal tragedy—we don’t think of trees dying, do we? I’m sorry it fell, but perhaps it will live on in some form.

    Thank you for this beautiful post. Blessed be!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dear goddessfiction (I know you by your other name, too!) I am sure you have done as much as anyone to heal the earth. About all I do is wander around and say wow! and thank you!

      Over the past twenty some years or so I’ve had lyme disease 15 times, always caught early and completely cured. I get the classic early symptoms–rash and fever. Some people don’t and end up with long-term, which is more serious. This summer I had babesiosis, another tick-borne disease that resembles malaria. Also completely cured. I have tick repellent socks and pants for gardening and hiking. I take showers after being outside, but some still slip through, especially in the nymph stage when they are tiny.

      The fallen oak is very beautiful. We will leave most of it where it is.Thanks again for your kind words!

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  12. Beautiful essay Elizabeth with so many layers from the fallen oak tree (I so love that you are leaving it so it can continue to support life even as it lays on the earth), to the work of your mother, to your own, to the way service workers are treated. It is indeed all connected – at least in my mind – to the dysfunctional and destructive paradigms underlying our culture. It is so hard to disengage ourselves from these teachings that have seeped into our bones. And it is such an important step to speak these patterns out loud which you do so beautifully.

    And oh my to the lyme disease and babesiosis. And to think how you still go forth without fear (but with good precautions) is a wonderful testament to your connection to nature and life.

    Thank you for this poetic prose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Janet. Yes, it is all connected isn’t it and sometimes hard to find all those connections or to know what to make of them.

      Being outdoors feels so essential to me. I am usually careful. I think I got the tick that gave me babesiosis last June when I decided I just had to take off my boots (which I wear to discourage ticks) and be barefoot on the grass. It felt wonderful. That night I found the nymph tick embedded. It was still wonderful to be barefoot, and I will no doubt shed my boots again, but next time I will shower thoroughly afterwards!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This is so beautifully written, Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your memories with your mother. Your article opened up a lot of childhood memories and now make me look at them somehow differently and I feel I have received a gift from you and I wanted to thank you for that. Thank you and have an inspiring and healthy week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cornelia Weber. It is fascinating to me how memory keeps changing. Maybe not what we remember, exactly, but how, what the memory means. Interesting that memory is the mother of the muses. Wishing you health as inspiration as well.

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      • Thank you Elizabeth for your kind reply. Indeed it is very fascinating, I think it also has to do a lot with one’s inner growth and overcoming in forgiveness what happened in our childhood, in recognizing the ability of our parents, which had been limited through their own issues they had grown up with. Thank you again and wish you health and inspiration.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree. I wrote two novels (Murder at the Rummage Sale and All the Perils of This Night) that included the points of view of characters based on my parents. It was a revelation to do my best to see through their eyes.

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  14. So beautiful Elizabeth. Your connection to our Earth and your ability to put the totality of both the lightness and the darkness we are immersed in into words is always inspiring. Some days all I can do is cry at the destruction going on around us and at the memory of how long our species as been at its need to control and conquer nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Judith. I think crying is an appropriate response to the all the loss and our part in it. Thank you for all the beauty and wisdom you see, celebrate, and preserve in your work.

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  15. I will send this on to my granddaughter Vera. I’m sure she’ll be excited to see she “made news”. A beautiful essay Elizabeth. I too resonated with the sentence, “When you stand up for yourself, consider that you are also standing up for the earth.” and of course, making it easier for other women to stand up for themselves as well! May we all draw strength from the healing powers of the earth and of sisterhood!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad the post spoke to you, Barbara. I’m sure Vera is much taller now, but it was wonderful to have the image of her under the oak. I remember our afternoon together fondly and vividly!

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