Joanna Macy, in one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, says, “The central adventure of our time is the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

“Adventure” is a gentle word for the challenging work that must be done for the life of the Earth to be honored, defended and learned from.

Yes, learned from. This is far different than learning of. The Earth and its life forms are teachers. We are the students. Humility is called for, not head-of-the-classroom superiority. Indigenous peoples’ spirituality captures this life-saving world view that will lead to a “life sustaining civilization” in their wisdom saying, “the life of one is dependent upon the life of all.”

In the language of my Christian spirituality, the challenge is for us to learn to open our eyes, minds and hearts to see the sacredness of all and each life. Then, our civilization will be shaped not by exploitation but the natural reciprocity empathy and the natural world practices.

Natural reciprocity, this is Kimmerer’s summary of the Indigenous ethic. It is not live and let live but live and help live. It means receive with gratitude and give back with gratitude that you have a part in life’s sustenance. Our everyday experience of this is breathing in oxygen generated by trees and breathing out carbon dioxide breathed in by trees.

Do these thoughts seem invitation and give you hope or do they seem pie-in-the-sky, impractical abstractions of a liberal who doesn’t understand human nature? If I’m going to practice the humility I advocate, I have to say that both responses present questions that deserve respect and also tell you that calling my opinion pie-in-the-sky feels less than respectful.

Rather than an intellectual debate, however, I offer a story of a group of us who are doing relatively small work locally to establish and encourage life-sustaining civilization. It is just a step to toward accomplishing what Macy and David Korten call “The Great Turning”, but we are not bystanders. As Lao Tse said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

We live on or near the Royal River, one of two significant rivers running into Casco Bay. We call ourselves the Royal River Alliance. We hear the river saying, “I am not well.” We are made up of members of Yarmouth-centered groups, the Royal River Conservation Trust, Maine Rivers and the Earth stewardship Team of the Yarmouth First Parish Church, UCC, and regional environmental groups.

The Royal ran free in preindustrial days. The bones of 300 years of industry still exist on the river in Yarmouth – two dams and various structural parts in Royal River Park. The life of fish, insects, plants and birds in and around the river is far less than it could be because of these bones. But marinas and residences have been established that will be affected by dam removal.

The alliance is working for a healthy river and a healthy community, a community of citizens that can learn together how to listen to nature and to one another, share the work and its costs of turning our part of the Earth and culture toward a life-sustaining civilization. The river will heal itself if we can find a way to get out of its way.

In the overall scheme of the Great Turning, being stewards of the life of the Royal River is a small step; but it is our step to take. It is in step with the prophet Micah’s call to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God.

Jesus added, “And walk humbly with one another.”

Bill Gregory is an author and retired UCC minister. He can be contacted at:

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