The Word for World is Earth (Day 7 of 30)

This is part seven of a thirty day trial, during which I am going to write and publish a post every day. No refunds. Comments welcome and encouraged!


There’s a chill in the air, this morning. Fall approaches.

I like the fall. I like every season, I think, when it first arrives. There’s something about the change of season that seems built into our DNA, into our long, deep relationship with the world.

I wonder what it must feel like, to have the timing of seasons switched or shuffled — to move from one side of the world to another for an extended period of time. Perhaps one gets used to it, when it’s a long-term shift, the quarterly change more ultimately important than any one order of change at any one time.

I was thinking about Earth yesterday.

I’m reading a book — The Word for World is Forest — by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a science fiction novel, taking place in a universe where man has traveled to, has even evolved separately on, planets across the universe. Like any good works of science fiction, however, Le Guin’s books reflect our own world more than its fictional counterpoint(s).

I encountered this one moment in the book, in reading before bed last night, wherein a main character is reflecting upon the legacy and etymology of our planet. Specifically, he notes the shared name, Earth/earth, that we have given to the world based on the stuff of which it is comprised.

While this particular book appears concerned, like some others in the genre, in raising question of ecology and sustainability, Le Guin often has a beautiful knack for distilling her environmentalist and/or her humanist warnings into fine examples not necessarily of direct warning — but of the beauty, that would be lost, if we aren’t careful.

That small detail, that the character in question would be so touched in recollecting the similarities between his home world, and the one on which the story takes place — where he lives as an alien, and where the native word for the lush wooded planet on which the book takes place is the same as their word for forest — stands out all the more acutely, when combined with the fact that the future Earth of Le Guin’s universe in the book, is a place nearly barren of vegetation.

A place no longer itself, if we are to follow with the example of identifying name with substance of origin.

There are a few ways in which this can be viewed, I think. To be sure, it’s a warning to think conservatively, economically, about ecology, to consider sustainability. The fact is, there’s a very real possibility that we’ll deplete this planet’s resources beyond their ability to safely sustain human life — before we’re ready and able to spread to other planets. Count me among those concerned with this possibility.

In the more immediate sense — though linked to this larger scenario — there’s the question of natural and unnatural (human/technological) change.

How do we view and compare the change of seasons, the relationship of man to Earth, when our lives are increasingly dependent not only on food, water and shelter — but also information?

Has it always been so? Are we humans simply maximizing efficiency, reaching new heights of speed and achievement as a social species? Or have our technologies set us on a path towards the super-human?

There’s a side to that second possibility that seems romantic, given our current obsessions with youth, virility, long-livedness and physical or mental perfection.

Who wouldn’t want to be super-human? And yet, in pushing the boundaries of the natural, are we dooming ourselves to an eventual loss of the very humanity we originally sought to embody, protect, and maintain?

So long as we remain mammals that need food, shelter, water — even as we strive further and further away from these basic needs and responsibilities in terms of focus, leaving behind whole swaths of the world population in the pursuit of knowledge — we remain, at our core, naturally human. But do we endanger this core identity, as we continue to grant equal or greater importance to other, less intrinsic needs, both on the personal and societal levels?

I don’t know. I have tended towards more optimistic views, in recent years. I want to believe the change of seasons will always remain generally the same, that as we strive and leverage the gifts of this planet and of science — that we will continue to enable ourselves to focus more completely on what it means to be human, to pursue knowledge and civilization as we make living easier through technology.

But there are warnings that we could, collectively, yet fail at this.

I also worry about apparent shifts in the seasons, no doubt at least a combination of human intervention as well as natural flux. I still worry about general trends that put the greed of the few ahead of the needs of the many.

Despite my hopefulness, it still sometimes seems just as possible that we’ll eventually face of day of reckoning, in regards to our relationship with this Earth, which we deign to have mastered but will always, more accurately, depend upon for everything.

We are of this beautiful place. It deserves our due respect, our love.

Day 1: Struggles and Wonders and Dying in  Chair

Day 2: Fear, Panic, Identity and Anti-Focus

Day 3: Purple Sky of Towering Clouds Over a Far-off City

Day 4: Circle Up and Laugh

Day 5: On The Future of Labor

Day 6: Appreciating Difficulty, Harnessing its Momentum


Writer and Filmmaker

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