Witnesses and Testimony: Of People and The Earth
Earth is humankind’s unblinking witness. ~ Heather Lynn Mann
I’ve been experiencing a deep undercurrent of sadness and grief during this season when I am also experiencing great joy at blooming bushes and trees, sun shining, and a colony of wild rabbits (or, word fact: fluffle” as such a colony is known!) hopping along the trails in my neighborhood.
After a series of somewhat disturbing dreams, I realize that some of the undercurrent has come from the energies of those bearing witness, testifying, in Derek Cauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. The testimony, whether of those on the scene during the very public death of this Black man, or of those brought in to share their expert opinions, has been soul deep devastating, and heart wrenching for me. I am tearful, I am angry, I am fearful that, as has been usually the case, justice will not be dispensed for this needless death. And I want to be wrong.
Who are we, all of us, as a people, I keep asking myself? Who and what is America in the 21st century? And who and what am I in it?
Witness is both noun and verb, originating from the Old English “witnes,” meaning “attestation of fact, event, etc. from personal knowledge” and “one who testifies”. By the late 14th century Christians used “witness” as a literal translation of the Greek “martys” (or martyr). As a verb “witness” meant “to bear testimony” and by the late 16th century its meaning expanded to “see or know by personal presence, observe.”
The Chinese American feminist and activist, Grace Lee Boggs once said that her husband Jimmy Boggs, a Black man, often talked about loving America enough to change it. “I love this country,” he used to say, “not only because my ancestors’ blood is in the soil but because of what I believe it can become.” Grace said, “Jimmy Boggs used to remind us, revolutions are made out of love for people and for place.”
And for all time and the world over, the earth is humankind’s unblinking witness.
Jimmy’s statements connect with my concerns as a Black woman in 21st century America, which includes my concern for the Earth and its people in general. We are living in what some scientists call the Anthropocene Epoch, an unofficial unit of geological time described as “the first period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.” Anthropocene is derived from the Greek words anthropo, for “man,” and cene for “new”.
Officially though, we’re still in the Holocene Epoch, which began almost 12,000 years ago after the last major ice age. In 2016, after some debate, scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group agreed that this still unofficial epoch began in the year 1950 when the Great Acceleration, a dramatic increase in human activity affecting the planet, took off. I think we all know that said human activity has not resulted in good for the planet. I am stunned by the immense harm we’ve done within the last six decades alone. The flagrant disregard and wanton disrespect.
I imagine the earth as an unblinking witness of all the stuff we humans do.
The expert testimony of various scientists refers to research models that give us anywhere from 6-30 years before humankind has crossed the threshold for dangerous global warming. Humankind because the planet itself will continue on, hot or cold, with us or without us, and will likely heal itself, one way or another as it has in epochs past -- even if it’ll no longer tolerate us.
This month we celebrate Earth Day. As with any such celebration, whether for Black history, women’s history, Native Americans or so on, a month, weekend, or day never quite does it. They simply mark the things we need to pay attention to all the time with an idea that we would come into better relationship with them.
As with George Floyd and all that his death represents, I feel a soul deep undercurrent of sorrow bordering on panic as I consider the testimony of both human witnesses and that of the earth.
But, when I am most anxious I intentionally shift from the overwhelming big picture to pull in up close to what’s set directly in front of me that I might do, believing, with faith, that somehow it matters.
May we learn to hold the people of this land, where too much blood of so many has been spilled into its soil, with love, respect, and justice for all.
May we each be in good relationship with the earth, listening and acting with regard for its testimony.
May we live to see that our actions matter, and make a difference, and call it forward.
May the earth continue to be our unblinking witness.
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