From the Archives: Child of the Earth by Elizabeth Cunningham

Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade that they tend to get lost in the archives. We have created this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted October 18, 2020. You can visit the original post here to see the comments.

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 the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.

Author: Elizabeth Cunningham

Author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one's disciple. I am also interfaith minister and a counselor in private practice.

11 thoughts on “From the Archives: Child of the Earth by Elizabeth Cunningham”

  1. Such an exquisite post – and so moving. I love the way Elizabeth moves back and forth between her experiences with her mother and her love for the earth… I had just the opposite experience – no loving mother – but I had the earth – and S/he has endured…and so fa so have I.

    “We are wounding the earth.” I have been writing about this problem as an earth advocate for too many years. Only recently have I reached the point where I feel that advocating simply doesn’t help because most humans can’t or won’t listen… Now I still write about the earth but without expectations of helping anyone to make a shift. I’m more like a reporter, I think to myself.

    I do comfort myself with the words “the earth will live on, regardless – humans probably will not.” This perspective allows me to focus on the big picture – helps me to deal with the cruelty and indifference I see all around me when it comes to earth -anything.

    My heart is broken.

    Terry Tempest Williams, acclaimed author and naturalist tells a great story of a friend of hers who is a biologist who regularly ran through a grove of redwoods to relax. One day she heard the trees say ” we are suffering and dying – can you hear us”?. She heard these words three times and thought she was going mad. The Biologist most certainly did not believe that trees talked. But she had other scientists study the redwoods and discovered that the trees were dying. Why? Because too many humans were crushing the shallow roots of the redwoods – killing them slowly. The path had been paved. The pavement was removed… now this has become a sacred grove. The caveat here is that too many ‘recreationists’ stamp down the tender roots of the trees and plants they walk or run over without any thoughts of harm, regardless of whether there are paved paths or not. The mycelial net – the earth’s skin – lies just below the soil surface and too much foot traffic destroys it and the forest above…

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Hello, dear Sara. Thank you for your thoughts and thank you for your faithful witness for the earth over the years. You have opened my eyes and heart to so many things. My heart breaks with yours for all the beauty and loss. Thanks for the story of Terry Tempest Williams hearing the redwoods. May we all have years to ear and walk with tenderness and reverence on the earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brava, my friend! As I keep saying, you are one of the best writers on the planet. And, yes, you’re right that the Earth is our Mother and we are wounding Her. And we have been wounding and abusing our blessed home planet for centuries. I love the quote from Magdalen Rising, which is on my shelf along with your other books. Brightest blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth. I remember being so moved by it when it was first published, and I’m more moved by it today, when we are in such a state of peril on the brink of a European war. Like your mother and Earth, it is so grounding and honest, and reminds us that no matter how distressed we are, we can lie on the Earth’s skin and absorb strength, but that we must also be aware of both our mothers’ and the Earth’s needs – that one requires the other, we must give to receive. And thank you for making so clear the connection between the oppression of women and of the Earth, that we must work both for our own needs and Hers if either is to have well being.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Carolyn. And thank you for all your wise and beautiful posts. I have been the people and place of Ukraine all day. There is a beautiful image some have posted of Our Lady Protector of Ukraine spreading her arms and mantle over both. Thank you for reading and commenting, Carolyn. Blessed Bees!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “I am comforted by nearby rock formations, but I remind myself, they were formed by cataclysm. …”: yes, every morning I bend down and touch the ground remembering Her fiery belly below me, what we come out of and are part of – beyond my ken really, but I try.
    And I love the quote from your book, especially “… It’s not all pretty. Beauty never is.” – amazing and brings a smile to my face.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Glenys! What a beautiful practice to touch the earth and remember her fiery belly! A way to connect with all of us, all that is. Thank you!


  6. Thank you, Elizabeth, for your eloquence, which is always so uplifting and inspiring. I also thank all those who have written so many powerful replies. There’s little I can add at this point. I live in Northern California, and the number of trees that are dying in the Bay Area is beyond heartbreak. More than three-quarters of forests in some places. Yes, the earth will live on after we destroy ourselves, but we are taking so many beings with us! But it is indeed a comfort to hear your many voices. Carry on!

    Liked by 1 person

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