Three Commandments: Stay, Learn, Go

Three Commandments: Stay, Learn, Go

A Gary Snyder poem helps me find my way in our messed-up world.

Exotic Roots of a Bay Fig Tree - Stock image

© Marje/iStock

© Marje/iStock


I’m angry. I’m mad at climate change deniers; I’m upset with environmental deregulation by the Trump administration; I’m furious over the construction of “alternative facts” in the face of physical data. Modern society seems to be hell-bent on enraging those who have a sense of environmental justice. Being angry is exhausting.

So I want to provide a respite and offer a few positive words about humanity and nature.

One of the most evocative poems about our place and future in the natural world is Gary Snyder’s “For the Children.” In its final lines, he offers insight as to how we might find our way in a messed-up world:

one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Snyder says “one word,” but then provides three admonitions. First, to survive, or even flourish, in the coming days we must “stay together.” We must restore and sustain human and biological communities. We must literally stay together as people and as a species woven into the web of life. At a personal level we must integrate the virtues of honesty, compassion, and responsibility. We must keep our lives together—assembled by working hands, informed by wondering minds, and motivated by willing spirits.

This admonition lies at the heart of the Unitarian Universalist engagement with environmental issues. We won’t all agree on paper versus plastic or hiking versus gardening, but the center holds. I dearly hope that the same can be said of social justice concerns. As our religion navigates the stormy seas and rocky shoals of racial inequity, I offer the simplest prayer: my friends, stay together.

Next, Snyder tells us to “learn the flowers.” I take this to be both literal and figurative. Indeed, we must come to know the flowers—along with the animals, microbes, waters, and rocks—to know nature and ourselves. Unitarian Universalism calls on us to “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science” in cultivating “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

In Genesis, we are told that God created the creatures and Adam named them. Naming is important. We name our children with great devotion to family history, cultural heroes, and personal experience. We learn one another’s names [and pronouns] as the first step towards relationality. The same holds for the natural world. It takes time, energy, dedication, and commitment to learn the flowers. It is not easy to see or know in this way, but it is essential if we are to live well.

Taxonomy is a way of knowing, but Snyder tells us to “learn the flowers” not just to learn their names. If you were to learn everything there is to know about any flower—the entire story of its evolution, the full scope of its relationships, the entirety of its beauty—you would possess staggering knowledge, even wisdom. Another poet, William Blake, proposed that we see a heaven in a wildflower. Yes, learn the flowers.

And finally, Snyder reminds us to “go light.” The future is frightening, but little is gained by forecasts of doom. My fellow environmentalists can be a dark and dour lot. In our struggles to change ourselves and thereby change the world, remember to have a light heart, to laugh and play. The leaders of my UU fellowship in Wyoming take their responsibilities seriously, but I’ve seen them laugh while working—and this, perhaps more than anything, is evidence of a healthy community.

Try to go lightly on this Earth. Do as much good and as little harm as you can. To go light on the land means knowing which tree to cut, which insulation to use, which variety to plant, which campsite to occupy. And be sure to go towards the light, towards that which provides warmth and allows you to see your place in the world. Seek goodness while embracing the joy of the here and now. Let us go light.

So then, Gary Snyder’s “one word” includes three elements: stay, learn, and go. These are the essence of being part of a religious and biotic community. I’ve come to understand that physical staying requires knowledge of a place, that moral staying demands humility and conviction, and that spiritual staying requires the discipline to find meaning in the present moment. And I’ve discovered that learning the lessons of nature and life demands long hours of private work and intense moments of public struggle. Finally, I’ve come to realize that to go takes courage, faith, and—most importantly—a vision for oneself, one’s community, and our shared Earth.