Image by Imogen Edmundson

Cultivating Compassion For Nature

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This article was first published in The Oxford Blue magazine. The illustration is by Imogen Edmundson.

Our relationship with nature is based on the weak foundations of assumed dominance. It reduces plants to inanimate objects and fails to recognise that what hurts the individual (nature), hurts the whole. We need to adopt a more compassionate relationship with nature, to improve the state of our planet. We need to connect to a part that has long been silenced.  

The Three Sisters 

Long before the world of science and the objectification of nature, Native Americans cultivated crops in a loving manner, never taking the first or the last of the crop. The legend of ‘The Three Sisters,’ originally from North Carolina, told a story of this relationship between nature and humankind. A woman of medicine could no longer bear the fighting among her three daughters, and so asked The Creator for a solution. Then she had a dream where she saw each daughter as a seed, entirely different, but dependent on one another. The three sisters, ‘corn,’ ‘bean’, and ‘squash’ grew entangled in an embrace. This dream provided a scientific purpose. The bean (nitrate-fixing bacteria) provided a home for rhizobium, enabling the rejuvenation of fruitful soil. The plant needed help from an elder to grow, one who would kindly watch over and cultivate with compassion. Corn, the first sister to arise, offered this support. The sprawling squash followed and provided protection to the sisters by shading the soil to retain moisture. Without one another, all would fail. Interconnections are found not from scientific understanding, but instead from observation. Society has driven distance between us and the natural world. The inaccurate portrayal of mankind having a ‘higher position’ over nature, lessens our appreciation for the miracles that we see before us every day.  

We express gratitude every day. After a long day of work, a cup of tea is received with thanks. Yet the 5 minutes spent boiling the kettle is in no way comparable to the weeks a tree put into growing an apple. Where are the thanks? The three sisters give and take, support and in turn, are supported. In contrast, our relationship with nature is one of greed. We manipulate the natural world into an efficient system, suited to our demands. The three sister’s intercropping of squash, bean, and corn, the process where two or more crops grow in close proximity, is now considered the best and most efficient way to provide crops for humans. The message behind the legend of ‘The Three Sisters’ which highlighted the importance of humankind supporting nature in return has been disregarded, and instead, used for personal gain. Taking the indigenous tradition of balance and harmony and manipulating it to prioritise efficacy, is just one example of the damaging liberties some humans have inflicted on our extraordinary natural world. By suggesting that it is a human system providing us with the highest yield of the crop, gratitude and awareness of the role that nature plays in our survival are removed. We don’t own the natural system. We don’t even own the plants, and yet we take from them what they produce by force. 

The Honourable Harvest

Indigenous practices such as those shown by the three sisters, present us with a healthier relationship with the natural world. ‘The Honourable Harvest’ is another route towards achieving this. ‘The Honourable Harvest’ is an unspoken guide to producing a harvest beneficial for both humans and plants in balance. When we don’t take the first or the last crop, always leave half untouched and seek permission to harvest, we treat nature as an equal and entire, a mutually beneficial relationship that is needed to heal our planet. 

Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology Robin Wall Kimmerer interpreted ‘The Honourable Harvest’ in her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ as follows:  

‘Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you make take care of them 

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking you for life.  

Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.  

Never take the first. Never take the last.  

Take only what you need.  

Take only what is given. 

Never take more than half. Leave some for others.  

Harvest in a way that minimises harm.  

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.  


Give thanks for what you have been given.  

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.  

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.’  

My experience of ‘The Honourable Harvest’ 

A friend of mine once bought one cauliflower for a dinner of 13 people. Holding the cauliflower, after unwrapping it from its suffocating plastic casing, I closed my eyes to fully appreciate the presence of fresh food. I wondered if the cauliflower was enough to sustain us all. We had only taken half but that thought excited me; that someone else, hiking swimming, or wandering would purchase the cauliflower from this little store and experience the same feeling as us. We were united by the joy of sharing and never taking more than needed. 

Seeking permission to take fruit may seem incomprehensible in a world where so many of us abuse our ability to utilise all of nature’s products. But permission does not have to sought in words. Actions and silence can be more powerful conductors. As Kimmerer explains in ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’ the Potawatomi Tribe from Northern America notice nature’s resistance to non-consensual harvest. A nest in a tree, a natural obstruction. After observing these features, the tribes would not take and instead leave the plants in peace. In turn, when they were harvested, every part of the plant would be used and no more would be harvested than deemed necessary. 

Simply, the human need to survive should be treated in an equal manner to nature’s own needs. It is a mistake to see the natural world as infinitely giving. We should not take something that is not rightfully ours solely on the basis that we planted it, and gave it water. Does the Earth not already provide both of those things to plants in our absence? Claiming propriety of things that are not ours is a bad habit seen across history, and nature too. 

By recognising abundance in a world that thrives on unmet desires, we should proceed with gratitude and compassion. Not only does this mean that we are capable of reconnecting to nature, but we can lower ourselves to the ground that supports us, to recognise ourselves as part of nature. This is the way to healing our planet. Treating the natural world as an equal, one and whole. 

Molly Scrase-Kings

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