While on holiday recently, I read Ursula Le Guin’s story, “The Word For World Is Forest”. As always with Le Guin, it’s superb, imaginative, thoughtful writing. The story is set on a distant world, Athshe, which humans from Earth are trying to colonise. In many ways, the planet has similar conditions to Earth, the significant exception being that its people have evolved somewhat differently. Most of the colonizing ‘Terrans’ treat the Athsheans as primitive sub-humans and enslave them. But it emerges that they are in fact highly sophisticated, with a deep spirituality.
The Athshean word for ‘world’ is ‘forest’. The land on the planet is densely forested, which is why Terran humans, who have laid waste to Earth, are interested in it: wood is a highly valuable commodity back home. The native Athsheans see themselves as part of the forest and live a highly integrated life with the trees. They understand themselves in terms of branch and root.
Ursula Le Guin makes the point, almost in passing, that in the same way for us, Earth is both the name of our planet and a word we freely use for its surface soil. This strikes me as significant. In Judeo-Christian mythology, God formed humans from the soil, from the earth of Earth. We are mud people. When we die, our mud bodies return to the earth: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. The planet itself is alive, with a hot, red, beating heart. As I understand it, without volcanic activity, there would be no life, and there would be no earth either, as all land would have been eroded flat by now and lie under the sea. Again, there is an echo of this in Biblical (and other Near-Eastern) mythology, where God battles against the chaos of the sea to form (and preserve) land and life.
We are mud people, Earth people. We are a living part of this living planet. It’s a deadly mistake to weaken that connection, hardly ever getting our hands and feet muddy.