And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
—W. Shakespeare, As You Like It (II.i.14–17)
During the first three days of the new year, the two of us went elk hunting in the fragmented landscape of the Winston Game Management Unit, which lies in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. As we searched for elk sign in the patchwork of deep forests and clear cuts, we discussed Robin Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore’s question: What does the Earth ask of us?
We recognized that Earth does not use a language of verbs and vowels, inflection and punctuation. But in the past, at least, the Earth has spoken. The writer W. S. Merwin wrote a poem called “Witness,” in which he indicated the presence of a common language that existed previously:
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
In a forgotten language.
In the present, the Earth still speaks. Its expressions emerge in many forms. Just as the elk tell us where they have been by the direction and freshness of their hoof prints, so does Earth tell us what it asks of us by exerting its physical, temporal, and biological imperatives upon us. Our responses—often attempts to avoid or bypass these imperatives—communicate to us what Earth cannot ask with words.
The Earth asks us to respond to its physical imperatives by complying with its physical forces. First, the tremendous mass of the Earth creates a gravitational pull that asks that we stick to the ground—unless we can use other laws that temporarily suspend gravity, such as the aerodynamics of the wing of a raven or an airplane. Second, no living thing, including ourselves, can escape the physical law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Earth also asks life to deal with temporal imperatives of night and day, seasonality, and the phases of the moon. Looking at the sinking sun, Nalini indicated the path uphill to the habitat where elk respond to Earth’s diurnal imperative of night falling as the Earth spins. The elk gather for the night in the open to feed and improve their odds against cougars and wolves.
Earth’s biological imperative requires living things to draw upon the senses they have evolved to live. Because we—and all biota—have organs that sense surrounding stimuli, we know that Earth asks us to see, hear, touch, smell, and feel so that we can fulfill Earth’s biological imperatives: to survive, eat, kill, die and be eaten, and replicate genetically. Because we developed brains that can reason, abstract, analyze, synthesize, remember, and project, we can surmise that Earth asks us to think. Our senses as well as our brains help us figure out how to survive and reproduce in a resource-limited world.
Intersections of Earth’s imperatives were played out on the small stage of our elk hunt. The struggles we carried on to kill an elk that would put food on our tables and contribute to our survival were equaled by the efforts of the elk—with their remarkable visual, auditory, and olfactory senses and their ability to remember and project—to escape us so that they might nurture their young into the next generation.
The elk survived our efforts for that day. As night fell, we walked back to our truck and asked a corollary of Robin’s and Kathleen’s question: What happens if we avoid answering these imperatives that Earth asks of us? We have used our senses and brains to adapt quickly in ways to avoid Earth’s imperatives. We enhance our senses with microscopes, binoculars, and telephones. We fly across the country in airplanes by burning carbon that was created 50 million years ago, light the dark skies above our cities, and manipulate the genetics of our food. Many of these actions cause reactions that erode the diversity and functionality of Earth’s habitats upon which we depend.
We avoid Earth’s imperatives in more subtle ways. We drove back to the cabin in the town of Castle Rock, where a hot shower and diner dinner would prepare us for another cold day of hunting. Our inventions allow us to use our own senses less, to reduce our awareness of the planet’s temporal dynamics, and to be ignorant of the origins of our food, shelter, and other critical resources.
We asked, if we as a species are to live in a sustainable manner, what must we do to begin to answer what Earth asks of us? By using our brains to investigate and learn through scientific methods, our understanding of the physical and biological world is growing rapidly. Science and scientists are getting better at detecting changes in Earth’s signals. The instrumentation used to detect tiny changes in ozone, carbon dioxide, and pollutants in our air and waters—as well as the analysis and synthesis of the terabytes of data needed to understand these trends—is improving.
But scientific investigations only provide part of our answer. We must also apply the strength of our senses to feel and appreciate the world around us. Stumping around in the wildish landscape of Winston, intent on finding elk, we felt ourselves becoming closer to answering Earth’s imperatives by looking, listening, touching, and smelling the forest and its inhabitants. We were somehow more empathetic, understanding, and responsive to what the Earth asks of us.
It was easy to become more mindful that humans are not separate from the Earth as we stood still behind tree trunks, and crouched between rocks, hoping to disappear from sight lines of elk. When we return to our everyday routines in urban venues, our challenge is to remember to find Shakespeare’s tongues in trees and books in running brooks. By recognizing and articulating Earth’s imperatives in our own words, we might remember that forgotten language we shared with Earth long ago.
"Ibis World, Capercaillie tail feathers, 20 by 16 inches, 2013" by Chris Maynard.