A Circle at the Edge of Town

by: Michael Nickerson

The Earth makes life possible. The soil, water and atmosphere, stimulated by the Sun, give us food, materials for clothing and tools, places to live and endless wonders to appreciate. All this and more, yet few of us sense the Earth as something that we can love and care for, as we would love and care for our partners, our children or our parents.

The experience described here can bring our planetary home into our hearts and minds to motivate the care necessary to secure well-being in the times ahead.

Everywhere we go, the Earth surrounds us. Like fish in water, we scarcely notice that we are living on the surface of a material sphere; a life-covered oasis circling the Sun in a vast emptiness broken, only minutely, by other planets and distant stars.

Only the few people who have travelled in space have watched the whole Earth. Theirs is the sort of experience that forms an emotional bond, a heartfelt appreciation of our life-supporting globe. The pictures and stories of that view have helped others to appreciate this place in space, but for most, the planet on which we depend goes unnoticed.

More than six thousand million people live here and more join us every day. We command ever greater numbers of mechanical and chemical tools, with ever greater capacity for creation and destruction. Without an emotional connection with the Earth, we are poorly equipped to respect and accommodate its well-being. How can we care spontaneously and effectively without a personal relationship?

The circle at the edge of town is a path upon which to construct an experience of recognition and appreciation for the Earth. I will walk you through it, if you wish.

The Circle at the Edge of Town

Credit: Terra Nova Rubacha

The circle is marked off in the four directions that give us position on the globe: north is aligned precisely with the North Star and the universe in which that star is found. South, east and west are marked geometrically from north. Upon this matrix we can locate our planet and dress her with the elements and life forms that make her viable.

When we reach the circle, we will walk counterclockwise, the direction that the Earth turns from the northern perspective. The path approaching the circle enters at the western point. The Sun seems to set in the west because the surface of the planet moves from west to east. Sense this motion. The southern point comes next. Picture here the world turning clockwise as it would appear from the South Pole, looking toward the equator. Walking on to the east, sense the western area moving toward you. At the northern point, picture again the planet turning on its axis, this time from the counter-clockwise, northern view.

With some practice making these visualizations, one can feel one’s self turning with the globe. The mental image can become as clear as if one were sitting on the moon watching the Earth turn, with hours passing in minutes.

Once you feel yourself upon the rotating planet, the four elements can be added. Continuing around the circle, in the west, from where the wind frequently blows, consider air. There are few visits to the circle when a breeze does not move past my skin, drawing attention to air’s presence. If one breathes on a refrigerated apple, the thickness of the moisture that condenses there is greater, relative to the size of the apple, than the thickness of the atmosphere is to the size of the Earth. The atmosphere is a delicate layer without which our future could be measured with an egg timer.

Moving on, in the south is the element of fire, the heat of sunshine. From a camp fire, or a burning match, we feel sunshine breaking free from material that plants have assembled using Sun energy.

In the east is water. The Atlantic Ocean is east of here, and from it comes much of the rain and snow that waters our lands. Oceans cover four fifths of the planet surface; lakes and streams, clouds, mist, fog, dew, and vast underground lakes and rivers are the water which cycles through life.

On the West Coast, since water is observed in the west where the mighty Pacific Ocean lies, air is assigned to the east. I hope that no confusion arises from the liberty taken here.

Finally in the north, earth is brought to mind. Not the planet as a whole, but the layer of soil upon which we walk and into which roots grow to draw up nutrients: phosphorus, potassium, calcium and all manner of minor, yet essential, elements.

A foot or two of black soil holds most of our nutritional needs. Below that sometimes, are 20 or 30 feet of loose material into which trees and other plants sink their roots to assure the water they need, the porous areas where water flows and the Mother rock; everywhere providing the substance of earth and supporting the weight of all.

Having identified the rotating sphere and clothed it in the four elements that make life possible, a third walk around the circle is dedicated to other life forms with whom we share this Earth. The creatures of the air are acknowledged where air was identified at the western point; the birds and bugs. Thoughts also go to the lives serviced by air as it flows through lungs, leaves and gills.

In the south are beings that live on sunshine. Here we acknowledge all the green things that use the Sun’s power for their own growth and from whose bodies all other life gathers the energy to live and grow.

In the east are the creatures of the water: the fish and whales, dragonfly nymphs, plankton, snails, and countless other creatures great and small. Every living thing, in its own way, is a creature of water. The blood flowing in our veins and the sap in plants make us all water beings.

Finally in the north is all that lives in soil: fungus, bacteria, roots and worms.

Everything that lives will die. Within the earth, countless tiny lives gain energy by disassembling the remains of all that’s passed away. Remnants of sunshine, still stored in dissolving forms, power the work of the decomposers as they release nutrients for those alive and generations yet to come. While rot and decay get bad press, without their service, the world would soon be nothing but a wasteland with all essential nutrients bound up in lifeless forms, littering what once was thriving ground. Within the earth, all dead things are rendered into basic elements which are then gathered by the roots of plants and raised up to nourish all that lives.

One final round includes other creatures that walk. More than once I have seen deer grazing as I approach the circle space. Rabbits and chipmunks, raccoons, our cats and dogs; with these and other creatures we walk the Earth. Bring them along in mind for one further round to collect together all the directions, elements and living things. With as much of the whole Earth as our minds and hearts can hold, enter the centre of the circle.

The progressive improvement in my ability to visualize all these things together reminds me of learning to play the flute. There are many notes, and the fingering for each must be learned individually. At first I had to stop and think of how to make each sound. Eventually, I could make the basic notes at will. With practice running them together in scales and further into a few favourite tunes, I can now concentrate on the feelings and sound of music rather than on how to position my fingers.

So it is with the circle. At fIrst, I had to stop and, with some effort, bring to mind images of the Earth, the elements and life forms. Having walked its circumference daily; in sight of coloured autumn leaves, through snow drifts, fresh green plants and the various blossoms and fruit of spring and summer, I can now; on good days, envision the Earth, my home in the universe, as one vital image. It is the image of a remarkable planet, rich and radiant, supporting all of our lives in a selfless giving, not unlike the love of parents for their children. It is the image of a reality which is present right now; as you read, and it will continue as present reality throughout our lives.

With as much of this image as we can hold in our hearts, carry it into the middle of the circle, for a few moments, to be present with the wonder of it all. In the tradition from which this circle comes, we can ask:

Who is our Mother?

The Earth is our Mother.

We must take care of her.

Although, I encourage you to go there if you will, I cannot take you beyond this point. As my practice has evolved, the time in the centre of the circle has become a statement of personal commitment and a prayer that others might also commit themselves. The Earth is my Mother; I must take care of her.

That affirmed, I think of the people closest to me, those with whom emotional connections keep my spirit whole: The Earth is our Mother; we must take care of her.

Then I think of the great number of people who realize the need to care for the Earth and who work to do so; activists for the environment, for peace and for justice: The Earth is our Mother; we must take care of her.

Finally, I envisage all humans, rich and poor, aware and unaware of the need to balance the relationship of humans with the Earth. People from across the continent of North America, which extends out in all directions from where I stand. Up to Alaska, across to Newfoundland, south to Mexico, through Central America and down southward across the long reach of South America.  Toward the east, I know Africa is there. Its distance from here is but a tiny fraction of the distance to the moon, which I often clearly see. Due east across the Atlantic, Europe extends around the globe, merging with the vast expanses of India and Asia. The Pacific, an ocean covering half the planet, spotted here and there with islands; Japan, Australia, New Zealand and all the others. Everywhere there is land, vast populations of people go about their daily lives, their hearts pumping the water of life through their bodies and their lungs breathing the air we all share. All these people are present, right here on this planet, right now: The Earth is our Mother; we must take care of her.

Until it is understood that human communities must live in ecological balance with the Earth, the task at hand is to involve others in the effort to establish that understanding.

On departing the circle, I walk around one more time, returning all that was collected to its place. As this circle is laid out, I pass north first. The decomposers, worms and roots are acknowledged and returned to where they do their work. Then, in the west, the birds and bugs, our breath and the breeze are noticed, returning to where they belong; green plants next surround the globe to do their work of gathering sunshine. Then fish and frogs, the salt water in our veins. All these things are essential to our lives, all have work that must be done.

As I depart the circle at the edge of town I pass the north one more time. When I pass that point again, I imagine the turning Earth and, in my heart, give it a spin to help it on its way. The gesture is a wish that the land and life will effectively continue their essential work.

This circle walk was inspired by a book in the new and growing genre of eco-topian fiction. It is a form of storytelling that recognizes the dependence of human societies on the ecology of planetary life. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, the author, Starhawk, presents a “declaration of the four sacred things:” Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The declaration states that whatever tradition people may live by; these four elements are essential for the fifth sacred thing — Life. To call Air, Fire, Water and Earth sacred, “is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become  the standards by which our acts, our economies, our laws and our purposes must be judged. No one has a right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.”

We are invited to “dedicate our curiosity, our courage, our silence and our voices” to their protection. I try to grasp the magnificent whole of our planet so that I might contribute better to this task. The more of us who nurture such a relationship with the living Earth, the better we will be able to accommodate its life-giving wonders for the next seven generations and beyond.

Welcome to the task.

Produced for the
7th Generation Initiative
Earth Day, 2003
RR #3 Lanark, Ontario, Canada, K0G 1K0

1 Response to A Circle at the Edge of Town

  1. Mark Millar says:

    Thanks Michael

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