Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You | Daniel Cooperrider

Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You

The following is an excerpt from Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You by Daniel Cooperrider. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

It is the full Buck Moon, and the apex of summer in Wisconsin. Born on the fullWinter Moon at the end of November, our daughter Reverie turned eight moons old today.We’ve been calling each full moon her “Faye birthday,” in honor of her middle name and its etymological connection to the faeries and nature spirits.To celebrate, our family of three went for a hike in the community forest we’ve come to know and love just a couple of hills over from where we’ve been living this past pandemic year in the Driftless area of southwest Wisconsin. Stretching from a bit west of Madison to a bit south of Minneapolis, and including some of the northeastern corner of Iowa and the northwestern corner of Illinois, the topography of the Driftless area is unlike the rest of the Midwest. Here, rather than cornfields and a landscape flattened by glaciation and spotted with lakes, you’ll find a rugged, ancient, and enigmatic terrain of hills upon hills and steep limestone valleys carved by cold spring fed streams. Here you’ll find the highest concentration of trout streams anywhere in the world, the highest concentration of Native American effigy mounds anywhere in the country, and the squeakiest cheese curds around.

“Drift” is the technical term for what glaciers leave behind when they recede—erratics, boulders, eskers, drumlins, sand, gravel. This area is called driftless because it lacks all such evidence of glaciation, especially from the last ice age that scrapped flat the rest of the Upper Midwest twelve thousand years ago. The pocket of the Driftless area in southwest Wisconsin is thought to be even more ancient still, as geological evidence suggests that this region has been untouched by glaciers stretching back at least 2.5 million years. While in human terms driftless suggests a person who is aimless and wandering, in terms of this area it names a landscape that has not wavered or changed much over time, at least compared to its surrounding regions. As such, the Driftless feels like it holds forgotten secrets, like it holds complexities and multitudes, and like it moves at a different pace than the rest of the region, much like how people here drive slow on the backroads, where the next passenger is just as likely to be an Amish buggy, a wild turkey, a family of deer, or an ATV. It is a wonderful place to get lost for a while, to dream driftless dreams, to ponder geologic time, and to meditate with the earth element.

As this is high summer, the native prairie ecosystem that fills the fields of our community forest is in full swing. We begin our hike in the prairie under the high sun as we walk through fields of wild berg-amot, oxeye daisy, Indian cup, yarrow, yellow coneflower, and prairie fleabane, among other flowering perennials. While the bees and but-terflies are smitten with the pollen, we’re sidetracked by perfectly ripe thickets of black raspberry and blackberry. Before the prairie portion of the trail ends, a side trail takes you deep into the coulee forest, where the temperature drops and you can find alpine plants enjoying the natural air conditioning effect of the cool, algific talus slopes that sug-gest the presence of sinkholes, caves, and groundwater springs under-foot. We hike past the spot where we gathered morels and ramps earlier in the spring, now covered in nettle and mayapple with the occasional blue bellflower rising above the floor canopy. We clear the ridge and make our way back down to the prairie below.

The moment of transition from the dark forest back to the open prairie is always a moment of astonishment for me. Before making the turn, I pause in the last pocket of cool forest shade.With Reverie asleep on my chest in her baby carrier, I too rest my eyes and let everything go dark for a moment—trying to bracket and set aside thought and mental striving, assumptions about life and the world, religion, lan-guage, everything. A moment of emptying, like entering a cloud of unknowing, like groping around in the darkness of nonbeing, like befriending the void.

As I open my eyes, I make the turn from forest back to prairie.The trees cast a half curtain of shadow across the trail just in front of me, but beyond that the world opens with light, and it is as suddenly and surprisingly bright as when the opening moments of a film are first projected on the dark, blank screen. With my eyes closed, there was nothing, and now with them open, everything in its summer glory overwhelms the eyes and the senses. It is too much. And delightfully so. It is dizzying and blinding. It is magnificent.

And there’s more. The world is not for one moment static, but moves and is alive with constant change. A red cardinal zips across the field. The grass sways with the wind and hums with insect life. Summer cumulus float over the field like a herd of turtles on the slow go. The trees catch the light breeze and the forest as a whole swells like a green sea. Things appear, change, and then disappear. If I stood here long enough, I could see the wave of the prairie lap against the hillside forest, going up the hill for a time, back down for a time, and then back up. I could watch the hills themselves come and go. I could watch again and again the fullness of summer fade away in fall into the emptiness of winter, only for presence to emerge again in spring. With my eyes closed, and then open as I gaze out mirrorlike, as an opening of con-sciousness through which the world reflects and registers itself, I sense the essential connection between the nothingness from which things emerge and the field of presence in the fullness of its glory. I sense the absence from which presence steps forth for a brief time, before dipping back into the empty pool of the void, and I know that I too am part of that absence-presence continuum, that churning and turning of life, that tilling of the soil of nothingness from which the flowering field of the world is born.
Alongside the nearly universal four classical elements of nature, some-times a fifth element is proposed. The ancient Greeks called it æther, ether, or the quintessence (in Latin). They imagined it as a substance like pure air, or translucent air, like the air that filled the universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere, like the air that the gods breathed. In the Japanese godai account of things, there are also five elements, and the fifth element is the void (ku). The void is the absence, the hole at the center of things, the nothingness from which the ten thousand things emerge and to which they return. The void is the empty space that atomic physics suggests makes up ninety-nine percent of every atom. The void is the ninety-eight percent of the universe that astron-omy suggests is made up of non-observable dark matter and dark energy. The void is what you’re looking for when you don’t know what you’re looking for, only that you’re looking for something. The void is what we try to avoid when we distract ourselves with our busi-ness rather than sit with the wordless mystery that is always with us and within us. There are a million daily ways to try to fill or forget the void, and yet there is no way to fill or forget it. “There is a God-shaped void,” as Blaise Pascal put it, “within the heart of every human being.” And so, here we are as we glide through this universe, us and this void.

The void is nothing, and yet it is a gracious, generative sort of noth-ing. We open our eyes, and the empty mirror of the mind finds not dark nothingness, but the world in all of its flickering beauty, the bright burn of being, the searing truth of something rather than nothing. And so we know that while the void is absence, it is an absence that makes presence possible. In searching for the God-shaped void, in searching for the invisibility of God, we find the universe as it is, we find the vis-ibility of the world. We, who are children of the void, are at the same time heirs to a glimmering world. When we open our eyes in this way, we can find ourselves nearly blinded by a ravenous and rapturous grat-itude for the earth and its abundance. We open our eyes and we can find ourselves falling in love with the world with the type of irresistible love that we describe as love at first sight. It’s not a love we can choose to have or not have, but a love that has us, that holds us, that keeps us here and awake and present to our creative task of helping the world describe, understand, and celebrate itself as it comes into being and translates itself from absence to presence, seeking its fullness of expres-sion. By embracing the void, by befriending it, we come back to the world with a more properly ecstatic appreciation for what is, and a more urgent call to attend to its flourishing.
“Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
—Robert Frost

With Reverie asleep for the night after celebrating her eighth moon, we step out to gaze at the Buck Moon as it rises in the southeast over the dark Driftless hills. The moon is a pumpkin orange tonight, and not because it is a supermoon or a blood moon, but because wildfires have been raging out west, their smoke casting an ominous glow around the sun by day and the moon by night.We are on pace to set yet another mark for the hottest summer, and hottest year, on record. Other species, our fellow creatures and evolutionary journey mates on this planet, are disappearing, becoming extinct at an unfathomable rate, each one taking away a bit of God’s glory with them as they go. Mean-while, the richest people on the planet are busy making plans to leave earth and colonize Mars, among other extraterrestrial dreams.

With all due respect to the daring creativity and adventurous spirit that seeks to push the frontier of human presence further out into the solar system and beyond, the real frontier at the moment for our species lies in our quest to dwell with this earth in a mutually beneficial, mutually beautiful way. The real frontier, the real edge of discovery, can be found within the longings of each human heart, as we will only ever learn to treat beautifully and carefully and compassionately what we first love truly and deeply. The climate crisis reveals a misplaced longing.We seem to be in love with something other than the earth and its flourishing. If we discover or rediscover a boundless love for the earth, it will be for our species, as it has been said, like discovering fire for the second time.

From the climate crisis to the sixth mass extinction event that marks the beginning of the Anthropocene, what is this critical moment in the history of our journey as a species but an opportunity and an urgency to fall more deeply in love with the earth? The rivers, the mountains, the trees, the clouds, all of it. This, then, I believe, is the call of our times that is coming to us from the direction of the earth—to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind. To love God through loving the world.

Praise for Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You

“This is a volume that’s equal parts charming and necessary. As we try to grapple with the greatest crisis humans have ever faced, it would be of immeasurable value to have the Bible helping, not hindering. And as Daniel Cooperrider makes clear, that also makes for good theology. This book will make a serious difference!”
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“Cooperrider’s writing is evocative, poetic, and accessible. He expresses a reverence for the natural world and the God who created it, inviting us to love God through loving the world.”
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas, The Christian Century (June 2023)

About the Author

Daniel Cooperrider

Daniel Cooperrider is a writer, teacher, and pastor in the United Church of Christ. A fly-fisher and forager, Cooperrider lives with his spouse and their young one on the edge of the Driftless Area in Madison, WI, on ancestral Ho-Chunk land.

One Response to Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You | Daniel Cooperrider

  1. Paul Renaud October 8, 2023 at 9:38 pm #

    In the rabbanical teachings accepted by most Jews, God is unknowable but allows us to understand him/her thru Nature. That is the underlying revealation of the Garden of Eden.

    In the Anishinaabe indigenous concept of Natural Law, we cannot have a basis for understanding each other, without first understanding our relationship with Nature which interconnects all living things. This is the same teaching in different words.

    Sadly in our modern society we have become disconnected from Nature, God’s reality, to the point of destrôying it on a global scale. The path away from this madness is to find God thru Nature.

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