Teacher, is the earth alive?
“Sweet is the lore which nature brings.
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.”
It was May 18th in Korea. I was teaching English to elementary schoolers. The pre-assigned lesson was about “living” and “non-living” things.
According to the textbook, things that need air, food, water, and shelter are “living”, and they always “change and grow.”
“Non-living” things do not need air, food, water or shelter, and they do not change or grow.
After going over these terms and definitions, the next assignment was to look at a two-page picture spread of a beautiful nature scene and identify “living” and “non-living” things.
There was a mountain, a gurgling stream, a wolf. There were fish in the stream, rocks on the shore, and wild flowers at the base of the mountain.
After discussing the definitions and looking at the picture, we again turned the page. The final assignment was to correctly identify the living and the non-living.
The book’s answers were:
Wolf, fish, and wild flowers are “living”.
Mountain, water, rocks are “non-living.”
My students strongly disagreed.
“The mountain, the water and the rocks are living, too!” They protested.
“Do you think so?” I asked. “I think I agree! But what about the book’s definition of ‘living?’ Are they alive according to the book?”
After a pause, one little boy said, “Yes, they are!”
“How?” I asked.
“They also eat food,” he replied. “The mountain eats dirt. The water eats sunlight. The rocks are full of gold. They eat gold”
“You’re right!” I said.
We didn’t have time to try out the other parts of the textbook’s definition that day.
But I had heard enough not to need much further convincing.
The children weren’t about to accept a series of simple definitions about reality from a US textbook in a foreign language. Not if it meant saying something like “Mountains, rocks and streams are non-living.” They already knew in their bones that this claim was absurd.
They were willing to work with the premises from the book, but not the conclusion.
And I left class deeply moved, and wondering what kind of a person or company produces a study like that? And to what extent do simple lessons like this bear responsibility for the reality we face in the modern world?
And how many of us are confident enough to engage with the language and definitions around us, playfully and creatively, drawing life from them while refusing to capitulate to the conclusions wielded by unknown authorities when they contradict what our bodies and minds know to be true?
I suspect very few of us are confident and childlike enough to do so.
The children didn’t just disagree with what they heard. They engaged with it, and quickly and creatively began to upend and repurpose the given premises.
I found this amazing and inspiring.
When much of the English speaking world is being taught from early on that water, mountains, and rocks are “non-living”–is it any wonder that we are where we are? Is it any wonder that so few feel any conviction to defend rivers, mountains, and rocks?
“Mni Wiconi.” Water is life. The rallying cry against pipeline expansion on native land.
“The earth is my mother and she isn’t for sale,” the Palestinian farmer declares to Israeli settlement expansion project representatives.
“Gureombi is alive, don’t kill Gureombi!” villagers cry as they resist a new Korean-US naval base on Jeju Island.
“The whole earth is full of the glory of god!” The prophets sang in the face of insane kings claiming divine guidance for their empires.
“Woe to any who lead a child to stumble,” Jesus said. “It would be better for such a person to wrap a millstone around their neck and throw themselves into a deep lake.”
“Teacher,” the little student asked before class ended, “what about the earth? Is it living or non-living?”
Is the earth alive?
It was May 18th, 2017, in Korea. My second home.
I wandered toward the subway after class, thinking of a different May 18th, back in 1980, in the Pacific Northwest, when the roaring fury of a long-silent volcano buried my homeland in ash, blasting out nearly 30 bridges with a wall of floodwater and what was the forests and houses and wildlife and roads and glacier debris and mountainside only moments before.
And I think of May 18th, 1980 in Korea. At the same time that Loowit, or Mt. St. Helens, was reminding all the world that she was very much alive, the citizens of Gwangju City were arming themselves and doing their best to resist and survive the US-backed massacre of normal citizens directed by a South Korean military dictator.
And I think about the Fireweed flower sprouting up in the fields of ash and burnt out soil after Loowit’s eruption.
And the candlelight demonstrators in Seoul, who just nonviolently sent a corrupt leader to prison while singing the March of the Beloved–the freedom song and symbol of resistance and memory to the survivors of Gwangju.
The Water eats fish.
The Mountain eats trees and rocks.
The Rocks eat gold.
The fireweed blooms.
The candlelights pierce the darkness.
It’s all connected.
It’s all alive. All of it.
The next day, in class.
I asked the children if they remembered our previous lesson.
“Yes,” replied a little girl. “Living things eat food, drink water, and need shelter… And the mountain eats trees, the river eats fish”… “and the rocks eat gold!” The little boy said again.
*** Seth Martin, a folksinger, writer and activist from the US Pacific Northwest, now living with his partner Lee Nan Young in Korea.