by Janet Kent
It is mid-winter. Outside the Wood Frogs are croaking, calling others in from the surrounding forest to congregate and breed in the unseasonably warm rain. They are here a month early, but they will be fine. We live in the Southern tip of their range and they are accustomed to cycles of intermittent freezing during the time they gather in vernal pools. When the temperature drops in a few days, they will go back under the leaf litter and wait for the next thaw. The honeybee sipping on an impossible seeming Honeysuckle blossom I saw last weekend may not be so fortunate. These winter weeks that feel like spring are hard on the bees. They go out to forage only to find few plants producing nectar or pollen. They return to the hive having wasted valuable energy months before there is enough to eat. We lost hives several years in a row. At our local county bee club, I met an old-timer in his 70’s who has been keeping bees since he was 12 years old. He said he had lost all his hives for three consecutive years. One more bad year and he’s going to call it quits.
Wherever you live, you are likely aware of the changes in the patterns of life, some slight, some catastrophic. You may have noticed some shifts in the migratory patterns of local birds and/or seen changes in plant distributions. You have probably read of the enormous loss in birds and relatedly, of insects, over the past few decades. You’ve seen the grizzly images of wild animals affected by the wildfires in Australia. Whether we learn of the ongoing disruption and devastation from the news or from direct observation, we feel it. We live in varying levels of grief, from acute debilitating episodes to dull constant mourning. As we contemplate this loss, and our complicity in it we wonder, what is our place in this fractured landscape? What are we to do?
We are not the first humans to wonder about our role in the web of life. As long as humans have lived, we have told stories to answer that longing. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia tell of humans as co-creators, singing the world into existence. Some of the First Nations of Turtle Island speak of humanity as the younger siblings of the other animals, here to help tend and honor the rest of life. There are thousands of stories of why we are here and what makes us different, both separate from the rest of life and separate from each other, the two faces of the double wound of consciousness.
The story of the role of our species that is foundational to the society and economy currently devouring Life on Earth is one of dominion, of humanity as apex of creation, entitled to use the rest of the planet as we wish. This story emphasizes our place outside of Life, alienated and separate. Too often, I see the response to the ongoing cataclysm reinforce this separation. As if the catastrophe is happening to others, to Nature, a nature that we have long been cast away from. One of the stories that gets in the way of us seeing ourselves as part of nature is the idea of humans as scourge, humans as nature’s lost wager, a species incapable of living in harmony with others, always extractive, always dominating. This story tells us the gift of consciousness is a curse. That what makes us different from other animals is what dooms us to destroy them. This story conflates our species with the system that dominates all of life, including us. This story is a lie.
You are not outside of nature. What is happening to the world is also happening to you. You are part of nature. Not only are you a part of nature, you are one of the strangest and most wondrous creatures to emerge from this astounding planet. You are a part of nature with incredible capabilities. A part of nature that can assess and plan and act to mitigate the ongoing atrocity, a part that can dismantle the ecocidal machine from the inside. That is your place in the web. That is why you are here.
The question is, how? How do we re-member our roles as world-changers who can mend and heal? How do we reclaim our gift now that consciousness comes with a debilitating awareness of what is at stake? How do we re-weave ourselves into the web? The answer begins with the body, the undeniable (no matter how hard we try) connection to the rest of Life. We are made of the same elements that make up the rest of Earth. To work with these elements is to re-member who we are. To this we add our gift for story, the elements both material and metaphoric that we wield to change our world.
The water in your body once flowed down the Nile, fell as monsoon rain onto India, and swirled around the Pacific. The carbon in the organic molecules of your cells was mined from the atmosphere by the plants that we eat. The salt in your sweat and tears, the calcium in your bones, and the iron in your blood all eroded out of the rocks of Earth’s crust; and the sulfur of the protein molecules in your hair and muscles was spewed out by volcanoes.— from Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History by Lewis Dartnell
The body is sensitive to and conversant with the elements because it is of the elements and in the elements.— Alkistis Dimech, On Sabbatic Dance from the anthology Brazen Vessel
~ FIRE ~
Fire is a process. The transmutation of substance from one form to another. It is the oxidation of matter, burning up, combustion. Fire, according to many of our stories, is what makes us human. With fire we learned to cook our food, heat our shelters, smelt iron into jewelry and weapons, and to manage our environment for better hunting and foraging. Fire is a powerful but dangerous tool, both life-giver and devourer of worlds.
In the body, fire is the creation of energy, the transmutation of oxygen and nutrients into fuel the cells need to function. From the cellular level to physical movement, fire is action. It is the vital force that powers life.
Fire governs our passion, our will, our drive. Fire is creative energy, both the impetus to act and the act. We call on fire to step up, to move. Fire is the part of us that fuels the fight. Fire is quick to respond, burns bright, illuminates our surroundings, gets shit done.
But we must remember fire is also unstable and unpredictable. Fire can easily devour more than we intended, leaving a scorched path in our wake. When we act with urgency, on impulse alone, we may burn bridges and destroy connections. Fire without structure can decimate the landscape. Fire without planning is also unsustainable; it burns out when it runs out of fuel. When we depend on fire alone to sustain our movements, we are prone to burn out.
To cultivate Fire: Move. Dance, martial arts, exercise, sex, hiking and running ignite our cells and support the body’s use of fuel. If your range of movement is limited, work to find ways to build energy that are within your capacity. As we cultivate Fire we should remember that this element benefits from structure, adding discipline to movement helps generate energy.
Set intentions, meditate, focus on goals and work to reach them. Picture an arrow, draw back, aim and release. That is your will going out into the world. Fire needs focus to get results.
To balance fire, remember the importance of nourishment. Eat well, sleep well, rest when you are tired. You are not so important that you cannot sleep. Inflated ego often comes with a fiery temperament. If you do not balance your fire, you will destroy your relationships, which limits the work you can do.
~ WATER ~
Mni Wiconi, L’eau est Vie, Water is Life. The mantra of the Water Protectors across Turtle Island tells the story. From the ocean, around 4 billion years ago, life emerged. The first unicellular organisms retained that saline matrix as they evolved, as did we. The salt water that covers two thirds of the Earth flows in us as well, within our cells and without. Water not only birthed us, but constitutes us.
Water governs all the fluids of the body: mucus, urine, sweat, tears, amniotic fluid, lymph, blood, extracellular fluid, ejaculate, plasma. We depend on our waterways to transport nutrients and fuel throughout the body and to release waste. When out of balance, this flow and its delivery can be impeded. Water requires structure to flow efficiently, otherwise it spills out. Porous boundary tissues can lead to fluid loss which can deprive the body of nourishment.
Water also rules our emotions, our vision and our dreams. We need water to forge strong bonds with others. We call on Water when we dream of the world we want to live in, when we visualize communities and relationships that sustain us rather than hinder us. Water also helps us grieve and release the despair that can get lodged in the body.
While our culture favors the showy power of fire, Water is just as powerful in its adaptability and persistence. If there are obstacles in its path, it flows around them or eventually, over time, wears them down. Water carves canyons.
Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.— Laozi, Tao Te Ching
To cultivate healthy water: promote flow with movement, walking, inversion poses, salt scrubs in the bath, self-massage. Make time for visioning, imagine what is possible, dream new worlds and ways of life. Perform periodic grief rituals as a way to release built up sorrows.
To balance water: Water that does not flow becomes stagnant. Make sure to balance feeling with activity. Be cautious of getting stuck. Also, remember that overly porous boundaries can impede your flow. Maintain healthy boundaries. Pay attention to how much you take in and how it affects you. Be careful not to live too much in your dreams. Ground your visions, make them happen.
~ AIR ~
Air may be the element we most take for granted. It is all around us, invisible, almost imperceptible unless there is wind. Air is our atmosphere, the space where one of the great foundational processes of life occurs. We and other animals breathe in Oxygen from the atmosphere. We use this gas as fuel at the cellular level. Once we break it down, we produce Carbon Dioxide as a waste product which we exhale through our lungs. This gas then feeds the plants, who consume the Carbon, which they transform into parts of their structure, and release the Oxygen back into the air. This cycle is foundational to terrestrial life.
In the body, Air is composed of the gases needed for life; wind is the movement of them. Air governs the brain and the nervous system. Air also rules the electrical current that uses the network of the nervous system to create movement. While we need Air to facilitate movement, Air out of balance can lead to tension and spasm.
Air governs our thinking mind, encompassing thoughts and worries and problem solving. Thinking, figuring, and ruminating are such characteristic tendencies of our species. Our gift. But also, the aspect of our being that keeps us from being present in the moment, that can keep us in our heads, disembodied, removed. If we are not careful, the thinking part of us can exacerbate our separation, can keep us from our work.
Air is a powerful agent of dispersal. Many plants and fungi depend upon wind to disperse their pollen, seeds and spores. This teaches us the efficacy of spreading our thoughts and strategies far and wide, of sharing information and skills. When we share widely, our ideas have a better chance of taking root. Air is expansive and decentralized, relies on networks rather than vertical structures. Air as a strategy for resistance identifies the strength in horizontal power, the weakness of hierarchy. Nodes of connection and resilience emerge on well- worn paths.
Air is such a dominant force in our culture that cultivating it seems counter-intuitive. We can speak of giving structure to this element as a way to cultivate it. Meditation and breathwork ground and support Air in body and spirit. As does working towards clear and direct communication.
Unbalanced Air can spread too thin, dilute its power through over-expansion. Power that is too diffuse loses force, becomes scattered. Air needs structure. To balance Air in individuals and communities, bring the ideas back to the body, to Earth. Spend time outside, garden, create structures to ground your strategies. Limit screen time. Prioritize nourishment and sleep. Remember to center the body and the gathering of bodies as a balance to the time spent in your head.
~ EARTH ~
Earth is both the name for the planet we belong to and the matrix foundational to terrestrial life. Earth is the ground beneath your feet. Earth is minerals, rocks and soil, red clay and yellow ochre, delta silt and rich black loam. Garden, farm and forage all depend upon this element. Considering how much we depend on Earth to survive, it is incredible the harm the over-culture has done to this essential but slow to restore stratum.
In the body, Earth is the structure: our bones, muscles and connective tissue as well as our solid organs. Earth is our solidity, our foundation, where we store energy, our reserves. Without structure, we fall apart. Though too much structure can impede flow.
Earth is work, especially that work that nourishes us, that which we feel called to do. Earth plays the long game, builds to last. Earth governs the structures in our lives, our homes and schools but also our routines and schedules. Earth is the material realm, the concrete. Earth is how we ground our visions and plans in the world. Earth finishes what it starts.
Earth is a necessary balance to the Fire and Air which often dominate people and groups working for change. Earth reminds us to stay grounded, to work to manifest our goals, to be wary of distraction and never-ending action. We need structures for gathering and sharing resources. We need to prioritize rest and nourishment, to keep the long view, to understand the importance of slow, intentional building.
Earth work is above all building soil. Literally, it is working to restore those landscapes eroded, depleted and neglected by the ever-expanding extractive economy. In our communities, building soil is working to create a nourishing matrix of mutual support, for thinking and acting like forests. It is the work of fighting alienation and separation by fostering connection.
To cultivate Earth: spend time outdoors, lay on the ground, practice slowing down. Finish projects. Learn a skill and do not give up if it does not come easy. Build a strong foundation of mutual support.
Earth out of balance can be sedentary and stuck, tending towards inaction. We can become overly cautious and avoid taking necessary risks. To balance Earth, move, exercise, dance. Go outside your routine. Take a chance.
~ ALL IN ~
The world doesn’t environ us, but passes through us. What we inhabit inhabits us. What surrounds us constitutes us. We do not belong to ourselves.— The Invisible Committee
The world is on fire. Entire ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. In our lifetime, we will see unfathomable shifts in society and in the environment. What good does it do us to contemplate our connection to the rest of life in the present moment? Why should we consider our role within the web? The answer is inside us; it is us. Our shared elemental makeup provides a map to the future, a blueprint for the world we want to shape and a set of instructions. We need only relearn who we are and what we are made of.
Life on this planet requires the collaboration of all the elements. As part of that life, so do we, both as individuals and as movements. Physically, we thrive when we cultivate a balance of these forces. A body that enjoys the harmony of movement, rest, nourishment, flow, and connection to others tends towards resilience. When we move past the material plane, the stories we tell of the elements weave us back into the web of life and remind us how to foster resilient communities and movements. We need Fire to incite us to action, to move, to destroy obstacles and to create lives worth living. We call on Water to restore and nourish us, to forge bonds, feel empathy and to dream of the world we desire. Water gives us vision and an appreciation for the love and beauty that feed us when we are in danger of burnout and cynicism. We need Air to create our networks and to forge widespread connections. Air provides strategy, communication and the power to disseminate our ideas. Earth grounds us, helps us bring our dreams to fruition. Earth anchors us and nurtures us. Together, the elements provide the tools we need to fulfill our role as world-shifters, acting to dismantle the structures that are destroying life, imagining the society we want to inhabit, spreading that vision worldwide and building the next world. We are in the elements and of the elements. We err when we let one element dominate our approach. We need an all-element, fully embodied resistance. We do not belong to ourselves.
Many of the ideas about the elements in the body and the elements as a framework for strategy have emerged from talking to my friends and colleagues Jen Stovall and Dave Meesters. Together we run the Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine. We use these frameworks in our curriculum.
To learn more about elemental constitutions from Southern Folk Medicine, check out Phyllis D. Light’s book Southern Folk Medicine: Healing Traditions from the Appalachian Fields and Forests.
Mountain Gardens is a 45 year running project that exemplifies many of the themes presented here. Mountain Gardens is the art/work/life of Joe Hollis who details his philosophy of making a life based around the garden in his essay Paradise Gardening.
For an instruction manual for possible futures, go here.
To learn about skills for grounding in tumultuous times, go here.
To learn herbs for staying grounded, go here.
To learn about herbs for the resistance, go here.