But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the Earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.
In today’s world, seven generations consist of about 200 years. It is difficult to think what the world might be like in the year 2204 while living in a world run on annual budgets with five-year plans considered long range.
But we can envision what we would wish the world to look like. To live by the concept of seven generations, we do not need to know what the world is going to be like—but we are asked to take the seventh generation into account during the actions of our lives every day. What will this action I am about to take mean for tomorrow, for my children’s tomorrow, and even for the unknown lives seven generations from now?
To explore this concept, it can be helpful to consider the "3 Ws": wonder of nature, web of life, and wisdom to move forward.
Wonders of Nature
Exploring nature gives us respect, appreciation, and a deeper understanding of its wonders. Nature includes a vast array of interactions, some competitive and some cooperative. What can we learn from them and where do we fit in the picture?
An ant colony demonstrates competition when it raids for resources and territory, causing the death and destruction of another ant colony. The walnut tree and the wormwood herb excrete poisonous substances from their roots that limit the growth of neighboring plant species. There is also parasitism in nature. The wasp lays its eggs in caterpillar larvae which then feed off the remaining parts of the dead caterpillar.
With commensalism, two species eat at the same table, but only one member benefits from the association, such as the species-specific mite that travels on the hummingbird’s beak from one flower to the next, looking for other mites of its kind.
Finally, there is mutualism in nature, or symbiotic relationships. The most familiar example is the bird that cleans the teeth of the alligator: the bird gets food and the alligator gets clean teeth. Ants and aphids also have a symbiotic relationship. Ants herd aphids like dairy farmers herd cows. In exchange for a milky substance that the ants harvest from the aphids’ bellies, the ants protect the aphids from predators and store their eggs over the winter. This mutualism benefits each species.
Nature follows God’s laws unquestionably, but as humans, we could fit in any one of these catagories. What relationships to nature and each other will we choose to nurture?
The Web of Life
A spider’s web is a connecting maze of incredibly strong, sticky thread. If you break off one thread, the web usually holds firm; another, and usually Miss Charlotte still has a working fly-catcher. But break enough and, even though woven with multiple threads, it no longer works to catch flies. The web has lost its integrity.
There is a web game I play with students. In the class, each child is a different plant, animal, or part of nature, like water, nutrients, etc. The one child who is the sun, the engine for all of Earth’s rhythms, starts the game by passing a ball of string to someone or something that is needed or needing. Everything—directly or indirectly—needs the sun, so she tosses the ball of string to anyone in the circle. Then that tree, say, passes it to the earthworm, who passes it to the soil, who passes it to the rock, who passes it to the stone mason, who passes it to the bean plant, who passes it to the aphid, who passes it to the water, who passes it to the ant—and so on. Eventually the circle of students has made an incredible web. Then I cut the thread from the earthworm and the web begins to unweave. It becomes unstable.
How many threads of God’s Creation can we cut before the web of life unravels? Which thread’s disappearance will cause instability? Is it the passenger pigeon? Is it the loss of the soil? Is it the harmful effect humans have had on the songbirds or frogs? Nature’s cup may be still half full, but will only remain so insofar as we recognize the realities of God’s web of life.
According to the dictionary, wisdom is a combination of common sense and experience. It is what we need to guide us in faithful action—to know when, how, and what to do.
Around 2,000 years ago, when a simple carpenter engaged the world with love and conviction, it was an age when Roman control was oppressive. The rulers were far away, serving their own interest and not representing the common people of the day. The temples and gods were accessed through the hierarchy. Many people were poor and hungry. The time was ripe for God’s light to shine clearly again—then, as today.
It is significant that Jesus studied and journeyed into the wilderness to be with God. He challenged the status quo, moving outside the box of acceptable behavior. He offered another way, a different and more difficult path to travel. A path of love, faith, and hope—a path of Light.
What would Jesus do now? How do we, as citizens of the Earth and God’s servants, move from concern for the Earth and all of God’s creation to loving, faithful, and hopeful action? Will we choose parasitism or symbiosis? Will we be web builders or destroyers? Can we consider the unborn generations in the choices we make today?
As Quakers we are asked to follow leadings, and we have tried to be faithful to ours. We have been led along a rich and challenging path, different in many ways from most people we know. After picking Finland, Minnesota, out of an atlas in a New Mexico library (my wife wanted to move back to her native Midwest, and the northern geography met my criterion for homesteading), we found the "perfect" piece of land and began to renew an old Finnish homestead in a lifelong experiment to weave our faith and practice into every step of our lives. We wanted to live without fossil fuels and within nature’s cycles. We wanted to be faithful to our ideals, and of course we wanted to save the world! We were fresh out of college and absolutely positive that this was the road we were supposed to be on. Though there have been some twists and turns, we are still convinced that this is the life for us.
In the beginning, we were surprised but—amazingly—only slightly discouraged when we dug into our soil and found solid bedrock only 6 to 30 inches below the surface. Our first crops grew 3 inches tall, then withered in the barren, gravelly soil. It hadn’t occurred to us that there may have been a reason the Finnish farmers only lasted one generation here!
The cabin already on the land was our first home together. It conveniently provided summer "air conditioning" through the cracks in the floor and winter refrigeration in the space under our bed. When our two children joined the family we quickly learned why pioneers used a family bed, realizing it could mean life or death on a cold winter night. We began a decade and a half of pickaxing roots and boulders out of our gardens and feeding manure, ash, and cover crops to the soil. We learned how to keep goats alive and how to enjoy their milk.
Our road through the swamp and up the hill is still quite an adventure, both in the summer when we drive it, and in the six months of winter when we walk or sled it. When the snow melts in the springtime, we have to canoe across the creek to our car parked on the other side, and we have had to come to terms with the beavers who occasionally dam up the culverts and swim across the road. Herding moose from our fields and burying the remains of our dog from a lone wolf’s meal has taught us our place in the cosmos.
Throughout the past 16 years we have
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