Books & Culture

Love Letter to the Earth: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mindful Reminder of the Planet’s Resilience

We needed Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth. We needed it more than we knew.

It was not Mordor. It was the Gulf of Mexico. Major news sources referred to it as an “eye of fire.” Not even Homer had imagined Charybdis being this terrible. The whirlpool of flame spiraled in the turquoise sea. Hoses dumped water on water that had turned to fire. The whole thing felt like a cosmic joke. It looked like hell itself. Actually, no, it didn’t. Not even Dante Alighieri could have imagined a hell like this. Either way, Dante imagined his hell as frozen. The fact that the burning water came to me mediated through a grainy video shot on a helicopter in the middle of the Gulf did nothing to blunt the horror. Is the essence of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” at all muted because one cannot see the brushstrokes? Atrocious realities and fathomless feats of imagination withstand the distortions of mediation well. The fire burned in the Gulf, but it wasn’t the first time something like this has happened. Just over ten years ago, for 87 days, I watched the live online video of the Deepwater Horizon pipe vomiting oil into the Gulf of Mexico from my apartment in Canada, where I was living at the time. When all was said and done, over 4 million gallons of oil ended up in the Gulf, and the Environmental Protection Agency called it the “largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations.” Years after the spill, dolphins and other marine animals were still dying at record rates. These are only minor tragedies when we think of the more immense challenges facing the planet today due to climate change, but I write about these oil spills because they offer such a stark visual record of the tragedies unfolding, and because they are a clear reminder that in 10 years since the worst oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling, nothing at all has changed. It is easy to feel hopeless. But Thich Nhat Hanh in his exquisite book, Love Letter to the Earth, offers hope through his mindful reminder of the planet’s resilience. This is not to release us from responsibility, but to remind us that each mindful act of conservation and restoration matters even as the Earth burns.

Imagine the Buddha sitting by the Bodhi tree, barely breathing, in perfect peace. Now, imagine people passing by, marveling at the sight. Day after day, crowds of people pass him by. Some, while passing, throw down their trash. Others pass in automobiles. Some are leaking oil. The trash piles up. One day, a man passes, lights a cigarette, and drops the match, lighting the Buddha on fire. He didn’t mean to.

Hanh considers the earth a bodhisattva, “a living being who has happiness, awakening, understanding, and love.” To Hanh, the earth is “an inexhaustible source of creativity” that nevertheless endures the mortifications of industrialization and climate change with “equanimity.” I fear that Earth’s equanimity won’t last for long. Already, we are starting to feel the tremors of her anger—in California and in Oregon’s wildfires and droughts, in the dead coral reefs, in rising seas, in stronger storms.

And yet, Hanh believes in the power of transformation: “We can throw fragrant flowers on the Earth; we can also throw urine or excrement on the Earth, and the Earth doesn’t discriminate. She accepts everything, whether pure or impure, and transforms it, no matter how long it takes.”

It is this faith in transformation that grounds Hanh’s faith in humanity. He believes that we can take refuge in the Earth to heal ourselves, and that in doing so, we can become mindful of our interconnection with the Earth, and heal the Earth in the process.

Healing ourselves means reframing our relationship to ourselves through mindfulness, but it also involves reframing how we consume.

Consumption is not without a moral imperative. How we choose to spend our time and money has an impact on the planet. This goes beyond choosing to drive electric vehicles or buying carbon offsets. This affects everything we consume, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University writes in his stunning collection of essays Ethics in the Real World, “Consumers have an ethical responsibility to be aware of how their food is produced, and the big brands have a corresponding obligation to be more transparent about their suppliers, so that their customers can make informed choices about what they are eating.” Could mindful choices really save the planet? Could all of us together, making mindful demands of ourselves, each other, and the companies that supply us our necessities change the planet?

Perhaps Hanh is up to something, particularly when I consider my time a finite resource that has the capacity to better or worsen the planet. Time is the one thing we have that is a non-renewable resource. How we spend our time is perhaps as important as how we spend our money. The choice to stay home and meditate rather than to drive somewhere. The decision to create art rather than to buy new things. The choice to go outside and hike instead of going to the mall. These are small things, but they matter.

Hanh writes: “Many of us are lost. We work too hard, our lives are too busy; we lose ourselves in consumption and distraction of all kinds and have become increasingly lost, lonely, or sick. Many of us live very isolated lives. We’re no longer in touch with ourselves, our family, our ancestors, the Earth, or the wonders of life around us.” We try to fill the void with consumption, “Yet our addiction to consumerism, to buying and consuming things we don’t need, is causing so much stress, so much suffering, both to ourselves, and to the Earth. Our craving for fame, wealth, and power is insatiable, and this puts a heavy strain on our own bodies and on the planet.”

To be lost is to be alive. The journey out through the lostness is life itself.

Fire. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Fire. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

To Hanh “There is no difference between healing ourselves and healing the Earth.”

Perhaps Hanh is right. What would happen if everyone, all at once, gained mindful clarity about what needed to be done? What if the world’s greed were reduced? If we were all no longer alienated from ourselves, from each other, and from the planet, could the Earth heal?

Hanh writes, “Allow yourself to be yourself…healing will take place on its own.”

What a radical thing it would be—if we all found peace in doing nothing, if we all learned at last, how to be ourselves on this fragile planet. Perhaps less doing, and more thinking is in order.

Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.