The Understory

Our “Unpaid Debt”

Even small acts of gratitude begin to pay down our balance with the Earth.

April 22, 2024
by Karin Swann-Rubenstein

Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about our unpaid debt on Turtle Island (the indigenous name for the North American continent.) She wrote: “I owe my small human life to the generosity of the more-than-human beings with whom we share this precious homeland. The Earth was made not by one alone but from the alchemy of two essential elements: gratitude for her gifts and the covenant of reciprocity.”

I experience this alchemy whenever I join Roy Blodgett on our land at Whispertree. Roy was hired, along with Lindsay Dailey, to create a land stewardship plan for Whispertree. Together, Roy and Lindsay spent the better part of a year compiling a 150-page report chronicling observations from each acre of Whispertree’s land. The report documented the land’s biodiversity within different ecological communities, it referenced evidence of native regenerative practices, assessed the current health of the land’s ecosystems, and pointed in the direction of regeneration efforts that could protect and restore the valley’s ecological balance. While we have begun implementing some of these efforts, our work represents a small fraction of all we could do to repair and care for the land.

This report, however, represents more than an action plan for environmental responsibility. It was authored by dedicated students of the land who, over years of observation and study of native wisdom and traditions, are being trained to see the natural world through new eyes. This focus was born from more than just a good work ethic; it was born from Love – a Love you can feel in subtle and profound ways when you walk with Roy’s guidance through the valley.

When on a tour with Roy, retreat guests learn about forest succession, planned burns, basal sprouting, native practices to preserve the biodiversity supported by oak trees, and so much more. As Roy shares his stories, retreat guests’ hearts are slowly opened to the profound intelligence of nature and often, also, to the grief that ensues when they begin to see the often irreversible impact of actions taken by humans who have not been taught about our integral interconnection with non-human life. Retreat guests begin to see through new eyes their essential interdependence with nature and the critical role of reciprocity in thanks to a planet that gives us so much.

In speaking to the state of our disconnection from the earth in America today, Kimmerer writes: “We are called to a movement made of equal parts outrage and love.” She ends her piece with the reminder that “the Earth asks that we renounce a culture of endless taking so that the world can continue, [and] asks that we give our considerable gifts in return for all we’ve been given and … all we have taken.”

We are grateful for students like Roy and Lindsay, who have become our teachers. We honor the alchemy that, under the “covenant of reciprocity,” and with our love and reverence, is essential to creating and sustaining Life.

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