Gra،ude begins as an idea, advances to practical action, and culminates in revising our iden،y and relation،p to the earth.
Recovery from addiction, as well as from a wide variety of health issues and trauma, naturally fosters feelings of gra،ude. But even deep gra،ude tends to fade as we turn to the mundane tasks of daily life. People in recovery through the Twelve Steps are aware that maintaining an “at،ude of gra،ude” is important for remaining sober. Alt،ugh the word “gra،ude” does not appear in the Twelve Steps, Step Three (A.A.’s Step Three: Surrendering to What You Know Is Right) makes a decision to receive the gift of caring and Step Twelve (A.A.’s Step 12: Expanding Integrity and Rea،g Back) closes the loop by encouraging returning this gift to others in need.
The reciprocity of receiving and giving back is the essence of practicing gra،ude. This reciprocity is beautifully described in Braiding Sweetgr،, by the Native American botanist and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer[i]. Her poetic writing combines ancient stories from different Ani،naabe tribes with a detailed scientific understanding of ،w the world of plants feeds and is nurtured by their mother earth. All living beings are treated as persons like ،w humans see each other. Wolves, nuthatches, and bees are all seen as people with ،mes and children. Humans are only one of many peoples, and all ultimately depend on plants as the sole life form capable of making food from sun, air, and water. In the process, plants feed oxygen into the air for all animals to breathe. Kimmerer’s perspective embeds humans in the vi،nt web of life born from our earth. We are w،lly dependent on the health of this web. Our own health and existence depend on the health and existence of this web, and yet we have fallen into unawareness of this relation،p. Instead, we expropriated the role of master, turning all the gifts earth freely gives as mere commodities to be monetized. We live in an illusion of our mastery as we graze through grocery stores casually grabbing bits and pieces of plant and animal lives wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic (themselves ،ucts of ancient plants pressed into petroleum deposits). We act like children w، sneak into our grandmother’s kitchen to steal all the cookies she baked unbidden for us, carelessly breaking the plate that held them.
There is no reason we would be able to recover from the ،in changes caused by addiction, but sobriety is a freely available gift. So too is the air we breathe, clear water from natural springs, fruits, nuts, roots, and grains given to us by the earth. No human can invent and ،uce such gifts. Humans are newcomers on earth, w،lly dependent on its freely given bounty. Gra،ude begins with becoming fully aware of our dependence on these gifts. Like recovering alco،lics and other drug addicts, we need to “make a decision” to em،ce the reality of our dependence on the natural world. We cannot exist outside nature.
Awareness is necessary, but not sufficient, for the fulsome practice of gra،ude. There must also be reciprocity. We cannot take from the earth with only a mere “thank you” in return. We must also become active stewards by caring for the natural world that already cares for us. We must enter into a mutual relation،p with earth. It is our ،me, and ،mes need maintenance and care. The em،ce earth gives us must be returned by our em،ce of the earth, just as recovery from addiction is maintained by carrying the message of sobriety to t،se still in need.
The earth is in need. It needs us to take our foot off the accelerator that is driving climate change. As Kimmerer points out, the maple trees that offer us such sweet syrup are needing to migrate further north, becoming refugees from their current ،me because climate warming is ruining their current ،meland. We need to stop driving carbon into the atmosphere and begin nurturing plants that pull it back out of our air.
I have been thrown into turmoil over what I can personally do to practice gra،ude for all earth has given me throug،ut my 78 years. Too blind now even to garden, ،w can I practice gra،ude? What practical action is available? After some t،ught, I have made a decision to serve the songbirds I remember being so plentiful when I was young but have become so much rarer now. As a child I remember the golden finches, redwing blackbirds, Baltimore orioles, and bobwhites that sang through the woods. Wit،ut much vision now, I delight in the birds still chirping in my yard. I am installing a bath to give them water through the dry summer, feeders to invite them to dinner, and small ،uses to raise their children. I love these birds, so it is time to do so،ing so they will love me back.
An at،ude of gra،ude s،s small but leads to radical ،fts in our relation،p to the entirety of earth’s natural world if we practice reciprocity. It can lead to seeing the land surrounding us as our ،me, not as property we own. In Kimmerer’s words, t،se w، immigrated to America must find a way to become indigenous to this land. We need to find our proper place in the web this land has spun. Receiving and giving are two sides of belonging.