Human life is shaped and moved not by abstract systems of thought or ethics but by value-laden symbols. One of the most powerful of these and one that carries most of the nuances of place, is home. Just as the Earth as place is revealed through and incarnated in local place, so the Earth as home (oikos hence, ecology) is first encountered and embraced in one’s primal home. And it is through a deepened understanding of home that we come to an understanding of how to care for the Earth -home or -household.

Home is more than the interaction of family members. It is a world wherein the furniture, stairs, walls and fixtures become “affective entities” that play a formative, integrative and conserving role in shaping the character and history of the family. The defacing of the home by an intruder is experienced as an insult because of the expanded sense of self-identity. Similarly, the dumping of toxic wastes, the pollution of water sources and the scarring of local landscapes is experienced as personally revolting to those who identify with this expanded home or place.

Home is a multivalent world that is both given and transformed. One generation acts as a model and transmitter to the next generation of the values, affections and behaviors associated with home. The younger generation, through its own lived experience shapes its own unique bonds with and leaves its own mark on home. A world of textures, colors, sounds and odors forms into a patterned collage. Years later deep emotions can be stirred and memories relived by the smell of the porch warming in the sun or the feel of the arms of a favorite chair. If this sense of home fails to be passed on, the younger generation may think of its value only in terms of the market. Home will be split into two quantitative entities: house and consumer. As house it will be reduced to competing with other dequalified houses for the consumer dollar. Place as an organic intrinsically valuable being will have been reduced to space, i.e. a quantitative, standardized entity. Home as a cultural achievement will have been reduced to house as a physical structure.

Similarly, there are many dimensions to place. When individuals or a community lose or never acquire a sense for the deeper bonds that link them with place, then economic considerations alone dictate action. The community becomes a “human resource” and the environment becomes a “natural resource.” Outside investors and speculators “develop” each separately and for separate goals. The now separated spheres are further splintered. Community is replaced with zones of distinct interests. Religious and civic leaders lament the passing of “traditional” values of the home while serving on commissions and supporting institutions that undercut and destroy home and place. The destruction of many local populations of insects, animals and birds resultant on the destruction of the ecosystems reflects what has also occurred less visibly to the spirit of the place.

Caring for the earth household is not vastly dissimilar from caring for any household. There is the same process of mutual influence and change and the same sense of respect and reverence needed to preserve its integrity. One must learn to work within the constraints imposed by the household, while an imbalance caused by overpopulation and rising demands can cause serious deterioration. Endless competition by residents for a particular part of the household or for its limited energy can wreak havoc.

The Earth is forcing people toward a recognition that they all belong to one household. The Earth is insisting that all work be seen in its spiritual dimension as housework. Institutions, corporations and nations have pursued their own narrowly defined goals with little recognition of their interconnectedness except in the most trivial way. The growing recognition of interdependence, however, opens the possibility for deeper insights. If in fact the household is beginning to break apart, this is not only a sign that we have trespassed some ecological limits set on human activity but that we have basically misunderstood or failed to grasp the meaning of that activity and of our lives together as household-earth. Our old paradigms have failed.

Our household is constituted by the structures and processes of the Earth and our family consists of all living beings. All play their part in the cycles of housework. It is within this household that humans have evolved and it is as members of this family that they are essentially marked. Humans must discover and articulate consciously what other members have learned instinctively, i.e. their place and identity as household members.

Humans do not want to do housework but to play destructive games. This childishness must give way to a more mature realization that human fulfillment and self-realization can only come through meaningful, creative work. Humans are one species occupying many places throughout the entire household. They therefore have the potential to raise to consciousness the history, structure and meaning of the whole household. Humans can be the mind and heart of the household, assuring that it remains a home for future generations and for all species.

Donald P. St. John is the Executive Director of the Institute for Ecosophical Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA

“You ask us to think what place we like next best to this place, where we always lived. You see the graveyard out there? There are our fathers and our grandfathers. You see the Eagle-nest mountain and that Rabbit-hole mountain? When God made them, He gave us this place. We have always been here. We do not care for any other place …. We have always lived here. We would rather die here. Our fathers did. We cannot leave them. Our children were born here – How can we go away? If you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this …. This is our home …. We cannot live anywhere else. We were born here and our fathers are buried here …. We want this place and not any other ….”

–Cecilio Blacktooth