Ask not what the Earth can do for you, but what you can do for the Earth

When my kindergartener began concocting a little dirt-pile offering for the tree, to say thanks for the fallen branch he had harvested to be a sword, I wondered if maybe I’ve gone a bit far with my semi-pagan ramblings.


I had relayed the rules of the honourable harvest to my little forest sprite, as I had just absorbed them from a 15 minute online video by Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, author, professor of environmental biology and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

I pronounced, in a conspiratorial whisper, that we should ask permission of the trees and thank them and offer something back for everything they give us, including the air we breathe.


I delivered this mystical proclamation earnestly, reveling in the captive audience that is one’s own pre-school aged progeny and the prayerful way he stage-whispered “may I” into the old cedar’s rough bark, despite the fact that I have I completely failed to live up to this pact of reciprocity in my every day life… I mean, when was the last time I gave thanks to the earth? When was the last time I remembered my reusable shopping bags? When was the last time I made a gesture of offering?

But out in the forest behind our house, where I mark the seasons by observing the shifting flows of the creek, “the earth” is not an abstract entity, it is right there, exhaling and shimmering around me, and talking to the trees seems as normal as any plot point in the fairy tales I read to the boy.

The Honorable Harvest is a set of ethics that were taught to Dr Kimmerer by her teachers to guide her when she would go out to pick berries or medicines, and they landed somewhere in my son’s small body, and there he was, weeks later, offering a gift of humus, a hand-packed dirt pie, to the cedar tree.

Is this how we grow a generation of honourable men? Or is it just a way to prolong his belief in magic a little longer? I wish I knew.

 The first rule for foragers, shared Dr Kimmerer, is you never take the first one – berry, mushroom, plant – because it might be the last. You restrain yourself, until you’ve checked the health of the population, asked permission of the plant, and listened for the answer. If you’re given permission, explains Dr Kimmerer, you take only what you need. You take in the way that does the least harm. You use everything you take. Then you give thanks, and share what you glean.

The last and most important tenet is to reciprocate the gift.

“If you take from the earth, in order for balance to occur, you have to give back. We have forgotten this. Even our definitions of sustainability are all about trying to find a formula by which we can keep on taking.”

To heal our relationship with the land, says Dr Kimmerer, we have to reclaim our role as givers.

“I don’t think what we need today is more data, more studies, new technology, or more money,” says Dr Kimmerer, “but an ethical shift. A change in the story that we tell ourselves about our relationship to the living world. We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands — we need a restoration of honor. This is where our efforts at de-extinction can go. To the regeneration of the ethics of reciprocity. It’s not the land that is broken, but the relationship between us and the land. We can heal the relationship, by asking, what will I give in return for the gifts of the earth, in return for the gifts of birds and berries, in return for the privilege of breath.”


Small hands in the dirt. That’s where my answer, and a new story, begins. Will it be enough? I don’t know. But begin we must.