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The Way of the Mother

Mother is an archetype, an energy, a pattern or model, found within each of us. Whenever we exhibit the loving, nurturing, caring, teaching, tender, giving, self-less, generous, patient characteristics, we’re channeling the mother within us. Even if you are not female, or have not been a mother, this is still part of your being. We all have male and female archetypal energies within us and have the ability to choose which we tap into. We need both to be whole and balanced. Allow this concept to sink in as you read further.

Part of what we talked about last week was the power of words. How we speak of people and the world shows our regard for them. Do we like or dislike? Respect or disrespect? Care for or not? Include or not? And we talked about speaking of the natural world as beings instead of objects.

The stories of people also carry power in their words. Power to create understanding or fear. Power to guide and direct. Power to nurture and help grow, or power to steep in guilt. Let's consider, for a few moments, the Native American creation story of Skywoman and the Judeo-Christian creation story of Mother Eve. In the story of Skywoman, with the help of the animals and birds, she spread soil on the back of a huge Turtle and danced her gratitude until it the whole earth was made. Then she planted all kinds of trees and plants and tended them until the brown earth was green with life. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests that Skywoman, “is our ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants.”

Eve, on the other hand, is part of the second creation story in the Bible. She goes astray by listening to a talking snake, eats fruit she is forbidden to eat, and her punishment was to be cast out of the beautiful garden that sustained her life. She, and Adam, were destined then to work hard in a land which was now cursed because they disobeyed. Only with hard work and the sweat of their brow would they have bread to eat, she would suffer in childbirth, and finally they would to die and return to the dust of which they were made. They lived as exiles from their birthplace, charged with fighting with the land for survival. In addition, Genesis 1:26 gave humans the instruction to have dominion over the earth, giving them power over all things to use as they chose.

As I consider these two stories, I have to wonder what impact they have had over the centuries. Let me offer just one possible example.

Have you ever heard of the great forests of cedars of Lebanon? They are mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament. In ancient times they covered about 1500 square kilometers, but were virtually eliminated during early historic times for the empires in the area to construct naval fleets and palaces like King Solomon’s temple and palace.  The walls of the inner sanctuary of Solomon's temple were covered with cedar panels from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling beams were made of cedar. The beautiful forests that covered much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East were exploited until today there are less than twenty Lebanon cedar forests remaining, covering about 17 square kilometers. They are the only old-growth forests in the Middle East, with some trees being more than two thousand years old growing to a height of 160 feet.

We have cedar trees here in the US as well. They are huge trees that can reach up to about 200 feet tall and 50 feet in circumference, rivaling the redwoods. They are not the same as Lebanon Cedars, but it really doesn’t matter for this comparison.

For the Native people of the Pacific Northwest, Kimmerer tells us they thought of their cedar trees as Mother Cedar. The Native people lived abundantly for centuries, at one with the forest and ocean, living respectfully and gratefully in harmony with both. The gifts of the land were plentiful, the Mother Cedar was one of the most gracious in her gifts. Almost everything a person needed could be provided by Mother Cedar – from cradle to grave. Every part of the cedar was used.

The native women were not greedy in their wants, they did not take wastefully from Mother Cedar, but respectfully, singing their way down trails and seeking just the right tree for their needs. Whatever they needed, they asked for respectfully and then they offered prayers and gifts in return.

Cedars are huge and hardy. Women could notch a wedge in the bark of a middle-aged tree (still huge and probably hundreds of years old) and peel off a ribbon a hands-width wide and 25 feet long. This small strip would eventually heal over in time and not affect the health of the tree. Through a long process of beating the strips and shredding them with a deer bone, a pile of cedar wool could be made. This wool would line a baby’s cradle or be woven into warm clothing and blankets.

Families sat on woven mats of cedar, slept on cedar beds and ate from cedar dishes. The fishermen made their canoes of cedar, as well as everything they needed for fishing: paddles, nets, ropes, arrows, and harpoons.

Ropy branches were split for tools, baskets, and fish traps. Long roots were “peeled and split into a fine, strong fiber” that was woven into hats and ceremonial headgear. During the cold winters, Mother Cedar provided firewood to keep them warm.

When sickness came, medicine could be found in her “leaves,” branches and roots. And there was thought to be a great spiritual medicine running through her as well. Kimmerer recalls traditional teachings purport that “the power of cedars is so great and so fluid that it can flow into a worthy person who leans back into the embrace of her trunk.”

And when death eventually arrived, Mother Cedar provided the coffin. She was “the first and last embrace of a human being.”

With the coming of the white man and industrial forestry, in 500 years we exterminated the old growth forests, and their eco-systems with them.

I’m ashamed to admit that until recently I didn't even know what a cedar tree looked like. For me it was wood that didn't decay quickly and was good for my garden beds and fence posts, and I could get it at the hardware store. I didn't count the cost to the tree, or the environment. 

How have our creation stories, our mother stories, formed our relationship to the earth? What would have happened if we'd all grown up hearing Skywoman's gracious and grateful care of the earth? What would have happened if so many people over the centuries hadn't grown up hearing that we were to have dominion over the earth?

I lost my mom when I was 17. I was young and self-centered, and didn’t have the wherewithal, or adult mentors or friends (including my parents) who could help me understand what this would mean for me long term. I didn't comprehend that I should cherish the few moments I had left, that I'd miss her her over and over again as I grew up. I lived in denial as she slowly died, not asking all the questions I'd wonder about later in life. I’m sure I took her for granted every day of my childhood, and I simply continued to do so. Mothers are there for our every need, because that’s what mothers do. And they do it without a fuss because they love us, not expecting anything in return. But mothers are so easy to take for granted; our human mothers and our earth mother.

I didn’t understand what I’d lost until much later. And the same seems to be true for Mother Earth. We have lost so much when it comes to old growth forests, rain forests, fishing grounds, coral reefs, glaciers, and species. Right now one quarter of the world’s mammals, 1-in-6 bird species and 40% of amphibians are threatened with extinction. Yes, extinctions are part of the planet’s natural evolution process, but right now extinction rates over the last few centuries has been much higher than should be expected.

Our Bible doesn’t say anything about taking care of the animals, or responsible forestry, or climate change. But it does tell us that our children, and our children’s children are our heritage, our gift from God. And it tells us to remember those things that we’ve seen and learned, don’t forget them as long as we live and teach them to our children.

The way of the mother, especially as we grow older and our kids become self-reliant, is to take our wisdom and experiences and use them to teach our grandchildren, and to care for a wider and wider community, including embracing and caring for our earth and all that is on it. 

This is truly the path for all of us, women and men alike.

Love & Light!

Kaye