Were you fortunate enough to have parents who said to your child self things like, “ Don’t eat with your elbows on the table. Sit up straight. Don’t litter. Say thank you to the nice lady for helping you.” If so, even if you resisted some when you were 5, you learned the language of good manners. As an adult, this becomes a currency of signals that tells others, especially strangers, that you will each stay well when interacting.
With other humans, we learn to recognize feelings and interests that may not match ours, but that deserve space and respect, with harm to none. Yet it seems we are not usually taught how to have good manners in nature. When you enter a forest for a walk, do you introduce yourself? Do you confirm this is a good time to visit? Do you know how to take something–to treasure or to use–away with you? Do you know how to leave?
Good manners in any situation begins with respect, and respect begins with relatedness. We humans mostly pay attention to others whose consciousness seems parallel to ours. So, we offer respect to a whale passing our boat by slowing, but don’t ask a rock if we can sit on it.
I understand that everything that is, is alive. And everything alive wants a place to be and food to eat. I learned from Martin Prechtel to offer the food of my effort to the other-than-human world.
I send my best wishes on a wisp of smoke to every morning,
and a song of solace to every night.
I carry birdseed in my car to feed small creatures and birds, so they might experience a moment of surprised relief at the discovery of an easy meal. I understand that all creatures are my elder sisters and brothers, since they were here first, and deserve gestures of respect for that reason alone.
When I enter an place more wild than tame, without the marks of human movement or habitation, I announce myself. I wait a few moments to feel a sense of invitation or resistance, just like one knocks on a door and waits to hear approaching footsteps. When I leave I take only myself. I stand on the edge between the unknown and the known, and turn in place—first this way and then that in erratic spontaneity. I then say aloud my full name and that I am leaving.
When I take something, I first tell someone in its family—another tree branch or nearby pebble—why I want this, and then I leave something of my effort. It may be as simple as a hair from my head into which I have tied a knot. Just in case you have never tried to remove a single hair, and then tie a knot in it, this qualifies as effort-full.
This quote from Barry Lopez, in his new book, Horizon, tells of his examining slabs of sedimentary and metamorphic rock on a ridge in Antarctica. It is the most remarkable description of a rock’s life form that I have ever read.
I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance. As I sat there, reluctant to put down a single one of these “undistinguished” rocks, contemplating the history of each one in the gigantic sweep of time that was for them a “lifetime.” they suddenly seemed wilder than any form of life I’d ever known.
And yes, I do ask a rock if I can sit on it.