Environmental Messaging Is Missing the Point

12/01/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Schuyler Brown Founder and Strategy Director @ Sightful (, faculty @ Design for Social Innovation program at School of Visual Arts, writer

Six years ago I went to hear a Cherokee man speak. At one point he described the sacred use of tobacco by Native Americans. Before first contact the plant was considered a medicine, and the way it was harvested reflected the reverence people had for its powers.

A medicine man would approach the plant. On his knees, at "eye level" with the plant, he would ask for permission to take leaves. He would explain how they would be used and promised to take only as much as he needed, no more. "My people need something from your people," the Cherokee man said, imitating the ancient medicine man's request.

My people ... your people. The story, especially this phrase, struck me to the heart. In it was revealed a vast distance of time and attitude. At what point did the relationship of equals between man and plant devolve into the "relationship" (or lack thereof) we have today with plants -- and not just tobacco plants. We abuse them, strip them, use them, poison them, and then we wonder why they poison us. What the medicine man understood that we don't is the power of intention. We don't receive the gifts of the plant when we don't ask for them.

A couple of months ago, a similar story came to me during a conversation with a woman I was interviewing for a client. Veering off topic, she told me about a transformative experience she'd had recently. On a journey to visit sacred sites in Europe, she found herself in England. Stonehenge was her intended destination, but on a side trip suggested by her guide, she met two ancient oak trees. The trees are over 2,000 years old and are believed to have been planted by the Druids as part of an "avenue of oaks" leading to a sacred site. In recent years, the trees have become an attraction for spiritual seekers who make pilgrimages and leave offerings and gifts in exchange for ... healing, wisdom, insight, reverence, visions, whatever it is the trees "give."

The woman described the wonder of being in the presence of two such ancient living organisms. Her guide suggested she wrap her arms around the trees to really feel their energy. "The male tree," she said, "was nice, but the female tree ... as I approached her she stopped me in my tracks and turned me around. I leaned against the trunk and felt her 'arms' wrap around me." She searched for words to explain the realization she gained in that moment, "It was like she was laughing at my naivety and saying to me, 'Oh honey, I don't need a hug from you. You need a hug from me.'" I listened in amazement as she painted a picture in words of this tree literally reaching out and embracing her. It was a gift that she'd had no choice but to accept.

Both of these stories stuck with me, but the connection between them was not apparent until a single word spoken in a moment of receptivity brought to light the truth contained within. It was in a yoga class.

The teacher had just returned from a retreat in Peru and she talked at the beginning of class about the clean water, air, and food. It was a rainy New York morning, but she promised to bring some Peru into the studio. Halfway through the class, we stood with our feet planted squarely on the ground. We paused and she said, "Now feel your feet on the earth. Feel the transfer of energy. You give her your energy and the earth will return it. Give her the 'bad' and she will recycle it into something useful. Feel the reciprocity ... "

Reciprocity. The moment I heard the word, the exchange of energy between me -- all of us -- and the earth became powerfully clear. It was visual and sensory. It was no longer conceptual. It was real. Instantly I was thinking about the Cherokee man and the woman's experience with the ancient tree. I was thinking about innumerable times in my life when nature has healed something in me. Nature's force and omnipresence was made clear and with it came a realization of my own supreme arrogance. I was humbled.

I carried that humility with me out of class and into the world. As it enveloped me it shoved aside a great wall of shame that I'd placed between me and the natural world. I wondered where the arrogance had come from, where the wall was getting its support, and I saw that it was coming from a feeling of inadequacy -- my own and ours as the generation given the great responsibility of healing this relationship; a monumental task that is suffering because we don't believe we can do it.

But we're wrong. We can do it. It's not that difficult because Nature wants us to succeed. And it's a reciprocal process that will feed itself once its started. Our great mistake -- the misconception that cripples us -- is that we're working on this alone; that it's up to us to save Nature, as if she were a damsel in distress. This is an enormous burden to bear. It makes sense that we've put it on the back burner.

My husband summed it up, "Nature doesn't nag," he said. He's right. Nature is and does. Why then, do well-intentioned people nag on behalf of nature?

Part of the problem with the environmental movement we're in the midst of now is that most people understand reciprocity in theory only. It's an intellectual exercise. Just this morning I was reading a piece in The New Yorker about climate control and I found myself bored. Bored! It was all words, politics and policy, and fear mongering. The story was written for my brain but there was nothing in it to touch the part of me that knows how critical this issue is.

People and politicians have resorted to a message of urgency because the matter is urgent, but also because the true message -- the one where we are reminded of the precious and critical presence of this benevolent force in our lives, there to help us survive and evolve -- is hard to convey. Effectively, it must be experienced in the form of personal events, or the conveyance of a great and powerful story.

If sharing stories is one avenue to enlightened thinking -- and for me it was -- then the good news is that we're in closer contact than ever before. We email, blog, twitter, and text. We have created the means for unlimited connectivity -- a worldwide web that connects us equally with our friends down the block and "strangers" around the world.

It may be time to tell stories that stick; or better, create the conditions for people to live and form their own stories. It's time to lodge stories in the collective unconscious that will build up strength and through no effort of ours, but left to the laws that govern the timing of such things, break through in a way that can be felt, and remembered by more people than ever before.

Let's start talking about what nature has given us. Let's share our own wisdom with others, speaking for nature, becoming the advocate for her in a move towards a more reciprocal relationship. Let's replace fear tactics with appreciation. Motivated by fear, giving is a finite exercise. Motivated by appreciation, it is infinite. Once a healthy reciprocity with nature is established, giving becomes a pleasure because it is met, and raised, every time.