Unwrapping Our Reciprocity with Nature
The holidays are a time for giving and receiving. But how often do we consider where our gifts are coming from beyond the person handing them to us? How often do we think about the natural journey that our gifts have taken? It’s time that we understand our reciprocity with nature during this gift-giving season.
Guest Post by: Jamie D’Souza, Content Manager for Happy Eco News
T’is the season to be jolly, but then why do I have so many mixed emotions about the holidays? For the past few years, just the thought of presents and shopping make my stomach churn. Don’t get me wrong, I love just about everything about the holidays; the songs, the baking, the decorations, but it’s the sheer amount of stuff that I’m uneasy about. And every year, it seems like there is more stuff. You walk into a store or a mall, and it’s hard to even know where to look with all the holiday-themed gizmos and gadgets filled from wall to wall.
My inner Grinch comes out when I think about what people do with these things after the holidays are over. Some buy things for one season and get rid of them the next. Or even worse, get something as a gift and never use it again. Sure, some people donate it, which is fine- I know I’ve picked up some holiday gems at secondhand stores. But just think about how many of these things get thrown away… into the garbage. It always makes me think of that scene in the live version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where he calls out the Whos about their overconsumption problem. And I’m on his side, just thinking about how much we accumulate during the holidays and where much of it ends up makes me sad.
Holiday shopping on the internet doesn’t help with the amount of stuff we consume either. With the never-ending sales and the ease of purchasing items without ever having to leave your home how can you not love online shopping? I’m sure there will be many delivery boxes out on recycling day this year. Convenience is great, but how far are we willing to go?
I also find it ironic how COP15 is happening during the holiday season. It’s being hosted in my home city, Montreal, at a location that is just minutes away from the downtown core. It’s hard to focus on protecting biodiversity when at the same time these discussions are being held, crowds of people are filling their shopping carts with holiday things only a few blocks away. And I know this mentality is probably not going to change. People enjoy receiving gifts over the holidays, I get it. But I think the ways in which we consume need to change.
I won’t bore you with a blog post about how to make your holidays more sustainable. I think I covered that extensively in last year’s post, but on the topic of COP15, I want to bring your attention to this relationship between gifts and nature. Some of my friends from the Green Party of Quebec and I have started a green book club in which we’re focusing on books that explore the environment and leftwing politics. The first book we’ve chosen to read is “Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As the name suggests, the author takes us on a personal journey about their experiences with the environment and touches on how we should incorporate our appreciation for nature into our everyday lives.
What I love about Indigenous culture is their respect for nature. How every tree, branch, and leaf serves a purpose, and everything they take from the land is used to its full potential. One tradition that the author talks about, which has changed the way I see things, is the Honorable Harvest.
“The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back in reciprocity for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more than human world. We can do it through gratitude, ceremony, land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence”.
When you live in a city as I do, it’s so easy to lose sight of this reciprocity. Back when people’s lives were directly linked to the land, it was easier to see the world as a gift. Nowadays, we tend to take from nature without reflection. Our reciprocity in a sense comes in the form of money, and there is little thought about the journey the product took once you tap your credit card and walk out of the store.
The author, who lived in New York, does an experiment to help understand the Honorable Harvest and to see how it can work in a system that is structured around the economy. She begins at the grocery store where buying food, especially produce, is a little more obvious. You can thank the trees that provide the apples, and the soil that helped grow your carrots. But when she goes to the mall, it becomes a bit less clear.
“How can I bring honor to this purchase, use my dollars as the currency of honor when the lives behind the product are invisible, everything for sale here is dead?”
I encourage you to try this experiment, especially when holiday shopping to see how many items you can trace the lives of. How many products can you trace back to nature? And how many components of these products can you thank individually? As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about what I’ve purchased this holiday season, and I’m trying to trace their life. It’s a lot more difficult than you would think. Some things are more evident than others. I’ve purchased a lot of LEGO… and I mean the company is working towards good things, right? I’ve also found some great finds at the Salvation Army, I purchased some handmade earrings made out of clay, and I bought my Christmas tree directly from a grower. I’m trying. But for things like a puzzle or a stuffed toy, it’s hard to trace their life.
“We could lament that urban dwellers have little means of exercising direct reciprocity with the land. Yet while city folks may be separated from the sources they consume, they can exercise reciprocity through how they spend their money”.
Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in buying things that are local, handmade, or have a limited impact on the earth. I want to try to understand the product materials and ingredients a bit more. That’s why Christmas markets and farmer’s markets are so important. More often than none their products are handmade, and you can talk directly to the people who made them or grew them. I think we have a lot of options to support nature more directly. Of course, it depends on where you live. I live in the city, and I’m lucky that there are quite a few smaller stores around that sell local products. Financially, I cannot make a complete switch. And I am far from perfect when it comes to buying gifts. But little by little we do what we can. The importance is being aware before your transaction is over and then bringing awareness to others. I like to think that tagging these places on social media or doing what we do here at Happy Eco News and inviting these small businesses to write about their products can influence how and what people buy.
I don’t think the traditions of buying presents it ever going to change. I think stores will continue to be packed from floor to ceiling with things you can buy. And I know it’s hard to convince people not to buy so much stuff, or not to buy from unsustainable brands. We’re not going to be able to change everyone in a day. But if each year, we become more aware of what we’re buying and where it’s coming from and even switch from departmental store shopping to local markets then maybe it will have an impact on the way we give gifts. And maybe it will help to bring back the reciprocity to land and nature that may have been lost by many of us.
Kimmerer, R.W. (2020). Braiding Sweetgrass Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.
I strongly encourage reading this book and sharing it with others!