how to be of benefit?



How can we be of benefit to Earth? Is it even possible? Everywhere you look, there is evidence of humans killing the world. It is easy to think that just because we drive a hybrid car, or shop at the farmer’s market, we are being environmentally positive or neutral. In fact, if we truly look at the impact of each item we use each day, from our toothbrush to our shoes, it’s simply staggering.

While listening to my friend and permaculture teacher Eric Conn raise the questions above, I felt that he had touched on something truly important. As the small cluster of us sat chilly in the darkening evening, thrushes wove the air with gossamer threads of song. Herons roosted in the trees. The beauty of the evening touched us in haunting ways as we let these poignant questions under our skin.

How can I be of benefit? How can I give back to Earth? Is a deeply human question, I said. It is an extremely important question. Humans have been asking this question for a long, long time. Too many of us have lost touch with it.

I am fascinated by the world’s indigenous peoples. While I am certainly no anthropologist, I am drawn to every scrap of information I can find. One of the the strands of information that I find again and again in my reading is this question of how can I be of benefit? How can I give back? Indigenous peoples see the ways that they tear life’s fabric, and they know how to repair those tears. In Guatemala and Colombia, gifts are exchanged between the ocean and the mountains in a ritual exchange that keeps the world in balance and brings rain. In Mongolia, offerings of milk are used to thank the earth before moving on. While these gestures may not seem like solutions from a Western perspective, they reflect a basic orientation, the dignity that comes with the sacred burden of truly giving back.

I feel that these questions are deeply spiritual in nature because they have no easy answer. They ask us to dig deep enough in ourselves to actually

Hold to (y)our own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with. (David Whyte)

Our own way of giving back is like a code in our hearts that we have to crack. Like offering songs and milk to the land, it may not look like a powerful solution. It may look like taking a walk at a child’s pace, or doing that dance that only that one dark canyonland can teach us. Yet it is our own scintilla, our own spark, of the earth’s story. Each of us has a very individual journey to find what amounts to our ecological niche. The old adage, the longest way round is the shortest way home, fits here.

As a society, we have a long way to go before we approach the level of humility required to really ask these questions. Yet, I can think of no more organic and therefore lasting way of changing society than to strike our own note clearly.

On my knees, in the garden, a relationship is formed that is different than the one I have when I am standing up. It’s like a membrane that I have to pass through in order to be humble enough to spend my life kneeling. To live inside of earth’s grace requires this of us, but also gives us many gifts. One is simply energy: the green growing energy seems to seep into our veins. Another gift is the dignity of engagement, of relationship, of contact with the questions of giving back.



Aluna. Dir. Alan Ereira. 2012.

Cave of the Yellow Dog. Dir. Byambasuren Davaa. 2005.

Prechtel, Martin. (2004). Long Life, Honey in the Heart. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic.

Whyte, David. (1997). House of Belonging. Langley, WA: Many Rivers.


One thought on “how to be of benefit?

  1. Fantastically written. Your final paragraph gives me chills. I find myself thinking everywhere I study “ecopsychology” isn’t this a Northern European’s name for practicing sensitivity indigenous peoples have held for eons? This same question I just read yesterday as a focus for a new certificate program: “What lasting, practical, and positive contribution can I make in a time of worldwide environmental upheaval?”

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