Monday, July 9, 2007


I've been thinking lately about the concept of stewardship, specifically stewardship of this benighted and beautiful blue planet.
What does it mean to be a steward of a place, a community, of this planet?

According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the word steward comes from the Old English words for ward or manager and house. A steward is thus someone who manages or tends a house, and stewardship has its roots in caring for home. If we think of Earth as the home of our species - and it is in fact as far as we can tell the only home our species has ever known - then how we manage or tend that home is a critical factor in the survival of our children and their children, of the genes that carry our species into a future we won't know. That makes stewardship pretty important.

But what is it? How can we be good stewards of our planet? Stories about being green are all over the popular media these days and web sites from Live Earth to Audubon and even Oprah have sections with tips on how you can be "part of the solution." Changing your household lightbulbs to compact fluorescents will indeed save energy and that means less CO2 added to the atmosphere, a very good thing. Driving less is good too, both for you and the planet. But it seems to me that stewardship is more than just buying new lightbulbs or walking more. As the original meaning implies, it's a commitment of sorts, a commitment to managing our own lives' and our species' impact on Earth.

I think stewardship is based on sharing. It means acknowledging that there are a lot of us humans and our impact on our home is huge. And it means having a new vision for our lives that springs from making space for the other lives around us, whether we ever see those lives or not. It seems to me that stewardship means joining the community of the land, the web of living beings who together green and maintain the ecological and spiritual health of our home, this planet.

I think stewardship is how you live your life, not just one action now and then. It's about making space for the other species native to the places where you live, about learning who else belongs to the community of your land and making those lives welcome. The first part of that is living your life in a way that's less consumptive of resources of all kinds, so that your choices allow other species to meet their needs.

The second part of that is actual restoration of habitat. It's not hard: If you live in a city apartment, get to know the native species in your area and welcome them to share your neighborhood. Put out a pot of native wildflowers, a hummingbird feeder, a box for native bees to nest in. Or volunteer to help restore wildlife habitat in a local park, schoolyard, or vacant lot. If you have an actual yard, make yourself a wild corner and plant it with native species: a tree, a few shrubs, some vines, wildflowers, and grasses, and let them twine how they will. Cultivate untidiness (but learn which plants are native and which are true weeds, harmful invasive plants that take over, disrupting the relationships that form the native community).

When my husband and I adopted our 2/3 of an acre of decaying industrial land on the wrong side of the former railroad tracks in our small town, we vowed to restore the native mountain bunchgrass prairie. Ten years and lots of weed-pulling, spraying, and burning later, our new house looks out on a front yard awash in scarlet, blue, yellow, and purple wildflowers and buzzing with the wings of hummingbirds, butterflies, and native bees. (The same bees that pollinate the heritage tomato plants in our kitchen garden, ensuring huge yields.) We'll always have weeds to pull, and we'll also always have the joy of knowing we took the place in the first photo and turned it into the second photo.

If you own or manage a larger piece of land, measure its health not just in how many cows it produces, how many bushels of corn, or how green it looks. Think of its health in terms of the larger community of the land: How many native species live there? Who are they and what are their needs? Challenge yourself to welcome these neighbors to your land and see how they fit, and what part they play in the web of relationships that nurtures you, too.

Stewardship is about nurturing the community of the land, not just one species. It's about belonging to this blue planet with every fiber of our being, every choice we make in our lives. Welcome to life on Earth!

1 comment:

About the Artist... said...

Wonderful essay, Susan. I loved seeing photos of your restored little spot on earth.

I agree...stewardship means looking at the whole earth...but tending to your own back yard, too.

bobbi c.