As we come to realize that the environment is not something “out there” but is, rather part of us—that we are earthlings—we begin to rethink many other things we have taken for granted. One of them is the meaning of “community.”
Our Western culture tends to think of a community as a place—a neighbourhood, a town, a city. But many indigenous peoples who have lived most of their history as nomads think of a community not in terms of place but in terms of relationship.
One of the traditional indigenous definitions of community is this one. “A community is an intimate relationship with all living things both animate and inanimate”. I smile when I think of it. It seems that it was developed specifically for white guys like me. They knew we would jump on the definition and point out that something cannot be “living” and “inanimate” at the same time. But it would make sense if we adopted their concept that other species and even the rocks and mountains are part of a living land.
This awareness is not something new or even an exclusively indigenous concept. More than two centuries ago Plato, in his Timaeus, spoke of the anima mundi—the soul of the world. He said: “Therefore, we consequently state that this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence…a single, visible entity containing all other living entities which by their nature are all related.” This concept of the anima mundi has come down and been refined through the ages.
This new awareness does not mean that we can’t cut down trees or till the soil or fish and hunt or use and enjoy the fruits of the earth we need for our existence. It does mean, to quote Thomas Berry, that we must use these things in a way that develops a mutually enhancing relationship between our species and Earth.
As for me personally, the lights went on when I was struggling with the aboriginal sense of community in the Arctic and came across the words of Thomas Berry: “We are not a collection of objects. We are a community of subjects.”