Nourishing the Roots: Soil and Ancestry in Healing

I’m going to suggest to you that we are moving trees, and, as such, we aren’t rooted deep enough in the soil to keep us healthy and assist healing. Yes, you read that correctly, and I mean it in more ways than one.

Today’s infants and toddlers, fretted over by helicoptering, pandemic-addled parents, aren’t eating enough dirt. Within the matrix of living soil, there are billions of microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria: a swarming, vibrating cacophony of life. Humans coevolved with these organisms, and most of what’s in our guts, helping us digest our food, is not us: it’s the beneficial bacteria that inhabit our intestinal tract. If we don’t eat enough dirt, our immune systems never get strong. Our kids aren’t eating enough dirt to be healthy.

At a slightly more metaphorical level, we, as a modern culture, don’t have our hands deeply enough in the soil to be healthy. We don’t fully understand our kinship with trees. Although you’ll rarely find this in medical textbooks or literature on mental health, our well-being is interwoven with the health of the biosphere and our intimate and tender entwinement with the living world. The earth is alive.

As our friend and mentor Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, tells us: the earth misses us. It would be good if we put our faces close to the earth’s surface and sank our fingertips into her like roots. If we whispered to her: “Thank you.”

We don’t have relationships with what we don’t value

The conservation movement, globally, is aging out. The last generation raised before television, who spent their unsupervised moments outdoors and not in front of a screen, is retiring from the conservation scene. We care for what we love. Relationships are the foundation of connection, and what we don’t have a relationship with, we don’t value.

To a child who has never laid belly-flat on the ground watching an earthworm secrete a silky mound of tailings, who has never laid back-flat in a spring meadow watching the pirouettes of long-legged butterflies stumbling drunkenly from nectar-heavy flower to nectar-heavy flower, nature is just “something over there.” It’s not a part of us.

Modern children recognize hundreds of brands but fewer than a handful of plants in their own backyards. How will our children be well? Adidas and Nintendo won’t love you back. They won’t caress your face with wind, warm it with sunshine, or dapple it with leaf shade, no matter what their advertisements tell you. We can’t build reciprocal relationships with sneakers or video games.

To be well, we need to get grounded

To be well—flourishingly, belly-achingly, and joyfully well—we need to be connected and grounded. We need to be connected to ourselves, one another, and the living world. We need soil and ancestry. We need grounding in place, and grounding in history.

A hallmark of modern American identity politics is that we all gave up our history to become American. In Lee Mun Wah’s seminal 1994 film The Color of Fear, Victor Lee Lewis, a brilliant Black activist, tells David Christensen, a white man:

You gave up who you were to become American. And you can do that because you are white. When we give up who we are, we know we are dying. You are dying too, but you don’t know it necessarily.

As a white man hearing these words from Victor for the first time, I found myself pondering ancestry, or should I say my estrangement from my own ancestry. My family is Jewish. But in the origin stories of my family growing up, the darker, more-obviously Jewish side was always less emphasized.

After hearing Victor’s words, I began digging deep into my family’s story. My great-great-grandfather, I discovered, emigrated to the United States from the vicinity of Cracow, Poland, and returned there during World War II to retrieve six nieces and nephews who were in hiding. His brother and sister-in-law had been murdered in a pogrom, and their children were forced to hide for their lives.

He spent his life savings to cross the Atlantic. Somehow, he found the children stowed away in a shed near a wheatfield down a country lane in Poland. He brought them aboard a boat and trundled them back to Ellis Island, where they were all promptly sent back to Europe because the quota of immigrants from Poland had been reached that month. After being sent back, they turned themselves around and made the voyage a second time. I surmise he paid for the transatlantic return twice.

Growing up, I never knew why this side of the family didn’t have resources. I didn’t know that my great-great-grandfather risked everything to save his family. I still don’t know the whole story of how he actually managed to find them or what that reunion in a wheat field must have been like.

Not knowing this story diminished my childhood because it deprived me of a necessary history, a necessary context. I didn’t know that in cracking the assimilation code, my family surrendered Yiddish, their mother tongue, to become more white. I grew up ashamed of this side of my family, ashamed of the children of a man who had risked everything to save the lives of his nieces and nephews. I never knew the stories about my elter elter zeida, the terms of endearment I would have used to refer to him in his own tongue.

We must reclaim connection to nourish our roots

We stand in a moment in which we must reclaim connection to nourish our roots. We need to drink up sustenance and find new stories in the soil, and we need to be reminded of older, ancestral stories. We need to reclaim the beingness of trees, to slow down, sit in circles, build campfires, smell the forest, and watch the stars. What we aren’t connected to, we destroy. People who don’t know that they’re part of nature cannot avert a climate catastrophe.

In 20 years of studying languages around the world, I’ve found that many cultures have a word or phrase that expresses the awareness held in the Nguni Bantu word ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I am because we are.” It’s an acknowledgment of interconnection and interdependence. In Unangan Tunuu, an Aleut language, the greeting is aang waan: “Hello, my other self.” 

Modern American English speakers don’t have a word for this. But we need one. There is one earth, one humanity. If we go deep enough down into the roots—in the soil and into history—we discover that we all come from the same place. It’s time to find our way home.

Here are five simple things you can do to nourish your roots:

  1. Plant or tend a garden.Get your hands in the soil. Let your kids get dirty.
  2. Learn hard-ground tracking.Our mentor John Stokes, founder of The Tracking Project, tells us he has spent 40 years teaching people how to track so that they will bring their faces down close to the earth and remember that she is alive.
  3. Wear barefoot shoes (or no shoes at all).Our feet are replete with nerve endings, and the earth generates electromagnetic fields, so having the two in contact is mutually beneficial. Wearing barefoot shoes is one of the more effective ways to address anxiety; physiologically, anxiety disconnects you from feeling the ground if you don’t lean into the flight response. Having sensory input coming up from your feet can help shift that.
  4. Learn about the ancestral stewards of the place where you live.The United States is a young country, one that was taken by colonizing the land of the Indigenous people who lived here before. In all likelihood, your home is on unceded territory of some Indigenous Nation that stewarded the land for thousands of years before your arrival. Learn the history of the Indigenous Nations of your area. Pay respects to them by respecting the earth and paying a land tax back to them if you can.
  5. Learn about your ancestry if you can.For many people brought to this country against their will, this direct connection to familial ancestry was interrupted. For those who came to this country by choice, learning about your ancestry can clarify and reconnect you with your history, as well as what amends you might wish to make.

Create roots in your body, in your community, and in time. Become tree-like. Tellingly, the Lakota word čaŋté, which means heart and people, translates as “treeing-being.” The Lakota understand: nourish your roots.

Natureza Gabriel Kram is founder and CEO of Applied Mindfulness, Inc., and co-founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine. He convened the Restorative Practices Alliance, where he serves as part of a global faculty comprised of more than 50 connection and well-being experts from more than 25 disciplines and 20 cultures. His new book, Restorative Practices of Wellbeing, unites cutting-edge neurophysiology and ancestral awareness practices, sharing more than 300 practices for personal, community, and ecological thriving. Learn more at restorativepractices.com/books.

Photo courtesy of Natureza Gabriel Kram and Restorative Practices Alliance, used with permission.

 

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