Why do we see Earth as mother?
Early people recognized that it is Earth that nurtures them. They also saw that it is the female of the species that has the power to create life through the birth canal. They also saw that love, especially life-long bonded love — the type which is independent from sexuality — comes first through mothers.
Sexual love matters, too. Yet, it is other love and affinity, held together in symbiosis, collaborative creativity, and life-affirming qualities that creates tolerable living situations for most of life on Earth.
Mothers naturally bond first with their infants because they are carried within her body for nine months, followed (externally) by up to four plus years. There are many other reasons Earth, and even moon, became represented by female aspects, whereas sun is more often portrayed as male.
Given all of this, and more, it is not unusual that Gaia, the goddess representing Earth, should have been designated as female.
Whether this is a good thing is seriously debated because people fear that attributing human qualities to any part of nature makes us vulnerable to the naturalistic fallacy. This view may provide justification for domination hierarchy, and/or tends to create prejudice toward male qualities, and also seems to tap into our human need for seeing “our mother” as purely benevolent. A binary answer is too simplistic.
There are other reasons, too, why, depicting Gaia as female is problematic.
All of that said, I still believe that we should continue to think of Earth as mother Earth.
Some issues with hierarchy
It is absolutely true that domination hierarchy says might makes right. It says that the more powerful should dominate the less powerful, exploit all resources, take what is of value, and devalue all other systems and organisms that do not first and foremost reward the dominate powers that be.
All of these attitudes have been supported historically, and even when leading to tumultuous unrest and tragedy — slavery, misogyny, war, genocide, extinction, climate crisis, — to name just a few, they continue to persist in our modern world.
Yet, more recently in human society, we have begun to see the major flaws in these ways of the world. Fighting the injustice of racism, for example, was part and parcel of fighting Covid-19 in the year 2020. Fighting also continues, for climate justice, which notes that the most marginalized suffer the most from famine refugee status, pollution deaths, and inadequate disaster relief.
Being a person who sees all of this, can either empower one, or make them feel entirely helpless. I think you should choose empowerment. That is, recognize your belonging to a much larger family of creation.
There is more than meaning in a mother’s love
Nature, like a good mother, supports interdependent relationships. A “bad” mother allows her children to fight among themselves, vying for favoritism. She may smother, or she may neglect. She may stifle freedom, or she may ignore bullying and brutality.
Nevertheless, most mothers do the best they can, given their assigned role. These assignments, however, can be adjusted to be more inclusive of all people. Embracing our human sphere demands that we also embrace the wider bio-supportive communities that sustain life such as water sheds, habitat, non-toxic food and soil, and more. The labels we assign natural entities affect how we view and experience life: old man winter, Lady spring, Cupid’s love darts, sister and brother wolves, Ganga Mai (Ganges river), the rainbow Iris. There are many more, and they help us relate to nature.
Mother Earth, I would argue is a good mother. Many times, I have been accused of invoking the naturalistic fallacy that says “natural equals good,” or if something “is” one way, then that way is what it “ought” to be. This is often called the “Is/Ought problem.”
This is not what we are getting to in this argument, however.
Some natural things are subjectively horrible: disease, earthquakes, fires. Some are subjectively fantastic: beautiful sunsets, starry nights, a mother’s ferocious love, and so on. The key word here is “subjectively.” We don’t see a violent, geologic event as good even if it was necessary to create the island we live upon. (I live on Hawaii.) We don’t see a disease as good even though without such a plague, resources to live would not be available for overcrowded billions of people.
Conversely, we don’t see a mother lion killing an antelope for her cub as bad, as it is her natural inclination to display her ferocious mother love for her baby.
Nature made us, but we make labels
My point here is a simple one. Nature is not subjective, but objective. That is, nature is just as benevolent as she is cruel. All value judgments come from us, not from natural laws.
The same is true for human beings. Whether you are a good mother, or a good father, depends upon values. If human beings are both good and bad, and seen as persons, why can’t we depict nature in the same way?
If “good and bad” comes from ourselves, why not make the most of appreciating the good, in order to protect it and inspire our lives? Would you gain more from a partnership if you told people: “I worship my spouse, I have so much to adore,” or if you choose the attitude: “My spouse always lets me down.” I am not talking about wishful thinking, here, but framing in the most productive way and noting that absolutes such as “always,” are faulty.
Noting nature’s magnificence does not imply there are no challenges.
Are you a person, place, or thing?
Gone are the days when most people on the planet worshipped the sun, sea, or Mars, as male. Yet, even now, we may say “Mr. Sun feels warm today,” or “the demon sun is brutal, today.” When we use personification of Mother Earth, it is just as useful, and more definitive. We say; “Nature is cruel, a bitch”, or “Nature doesn’t care about your feelings.” Or we say “Nature is splendid, wise, and beautiful.” None of these statements can be said to be right, or wrong, but all of them are subject to our prevalent human prejudices.
…the importance of revealing nature’s wisdom and secrets can not be overstated to those who need her nurturing.
At the same time, I am always reminded of Einstein’s quote that we should “Look deeply in nature and you will understand everything better.” This nod to the importance of us revealing nature’s wisdom and secrets can not be overstated. If we unlock genetic secrets, we can genetically modify food supplies, and we don’t necessarily have to destroy ecosystems to do it; if we study how creatively Mother nature does it.
Quite the contrary, learning what works best usually benefits all “bit” players in an ecosystem, from water and soil quality to pollination protection.
Nature, then, has extremely important lessons to teach us about how we get along; careful balance and symbiosis are evident in every organisms’ interdependence. Domination and conquest of any resource such as water, meat, labor of other humans, and access to land, leads to imbalance. There may be a temporary “survival of the most forceful” but it seldom lasts long, wreaking havoc in in its wake.
We must self identify as persons, but we are also things (matter made from bits of nature) and place, collections of air, water and soil around us. In what way is a living planet not also such a collection?
The naturalistic fallacy and subjective human nature
We hear fallacious arguments all the time in regard to nature. Some will say homosexuality is not natural, or breastfeeding (only) is. They will say that we should not genetically modify our food, GMOs, because it is not natural. But the same people will rarely argue against indoor plumbing, corrective lenses, or even computers which don’t, after all, spontaneously emerge from mud. In these arguments, we must always look to the subjective perspective, and neither blame, nor sanctify, nature.
The most beautiful truth about nature is that she is neutral. That is, the most elegant truth is that which is true. At the risk of sounding tautological, truth is true. But words fail us here. It is far more instructive to look deeply, as Einstein instructs, and see it: It is just plain true that we cannot grow peas from watermelon seeds. It is true that the circle of life requires dead zebra for thriving lion cubs. It is true that a parasitic wasp has a hideous life-cycle that nevertheless allows that life form to exist for a bit part in the necessary whole. It is true that my parents’ home was buried under lava in Kapoho, but that I live on.
We create the frames that capture the portraits of our lives.
In contrast, the rules, laws, and hierarchical orders which we, homo sapiens create, (including religions and their restrictions), tend to always marginalize someone, or something. This, we are just beginning to learn for our improved harmony, must be corrected. Hence, we have gay rights, women’s rights, animal rights, and now, at last, even Earth rights, to name just a few wise steps toward cooperation.
Existence is rare, yet it “is”
Beauty, awe, wonder, and our ability to “be” rather than “not be,” is directly attributable to nature being a good mother; she is neutral, fair, objective, and reliable. People have strange objections to this. “Ah!” They may say. “But just a meter down, or a few meters up, there are no good conditions for life to thrive!” Space is bigger and less breathable, the argument goes, so life is a rare exception, often nasty, brutish and short.” All true.
However, the speaker observing this, was nourished in a mother’s womb, and thrived in Mother Earth’s bosom, entirely dependent upon photosynthesis, plant oxygen, and a whole host of interdependent systems and organisms, in order to have the breath to speak the words.
The thread that is shared DNA weaves through generation after generation from amoeba to astronaut, and is, in this aspect, life itself. It proves we are family.
Love, invented by Gaia for the benefit of her organisms, is a crucial aspect to collaboration, cooperation, human rights, and now, of course, climate justice and ecosystem “rights.” We can entirely eliminate orangutans in order to grow palm oil for food and shampoo, but love of biodiversity and beauty can make us stop and question what quality of life do we want to have? Similarly, we can continue to relegate some “others” to being less than, and therefore best eradicated, but we stand to lose our humanity, and eventually forfeit our own belonging to a larger, stronger, more forceful, fully honest, whole.
Is it not preferable to listen to our mother, see the wisdom in her ancient matriarchal nurturing and balance? As to her personification, we tend to take better care of a “he,” or a “she”, than we do to an “it”. If you had a pet name for every chicken nugget that passed your lips, you would be more loathe to consume them. In the same vein, if your Uncle Bob is merely an “it,” you may be more pre-disposed to eat his flesh than if he is seen as family. Of course, these are human conceits, but we create words and meaning ourselves, and must live with their utility.
We are family
In conclusion then, with all implications considered, and most known prejudices observed, I see every advantage, and no drawbacks, to continuing to use the metaphorical richness and meaning we can give Earth by seeing her as Mother. This seems counterintuitive to some, who may yet view our history of seeing God as father. We can easily point out the troubles of domination that proceed from paternal, or toxic patriarchal, attitudes. This is now being realized, worldwide, however, as one conceit that holds us back form more collaborative mutual respect.
Perhaps we can only, then, see the blazing energy of sun as male, and moons and planets as female. I think it is a personal choice as to whether we see the Creator as sharing aspects of gender, or as the creation, which of course, the creator must become in order to create with available tools: attraction forces, matter, evolution, and space/time.
You can not, after all, have any understanding of God without these tools.
As long as a person is wise enough to look at a moon or star and note that in actuality, they have no reproductive genitalia (as we know it), there is no problem. It’s obvious that they are not human in the same sense that we are. However, in our need to honor, protect, love, and appreciate them, we must find our relationship to them as meaningful, important, deeply connected, and in fact, as vital as we can because we are created (and create) through these.
We decide in our humble humanity what aspects of life are “real” and which are representational, but also which are of profound practical utility.
It is true that human lives can end before they begin, but most often, once born, people have more “life” days, wherein we thrive, rather than “death” days wherein we expire. To say viewing Earth as mother is useless and counterproductive is like saying life itself is useless.
Challenges too, create us. It is true that vultures would devour your carcass, or that malaria kills millions. Yes. Yet, we can see beauty worth protecting in everyday miracles. And here, we persist.
Previously published on medium
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