Published in Elephant Journal, November 2015.
Picture this: you’re at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
One by one, your friends and family say what they’re grateful for—children, partners, good health… as well as the exquisite beauty of flowers, a special tree they love, and the deep peace they feel after a walk in the woods.
Hard to imagine? Expressing gratitude for the gifts of the Earth is not a common practice in our modern, high-tech culture, but it has been for most (if not all) other human cultures on this remarkable planet—and it could be again.
Every day, we receive food, water, air, and many other beautiful and practical gifts from the natural world. However, we are often too busy to notice or appreciate them, so they are effectively “hidden in plain sight.” Similarly, when we’re out in natural settings, gifts like peace, inspiration, and healing are freely available to us, but we are generally too preoccupied to fully receive and enjoy them. Bringing just a little more awareness to these gifts could make a big difference in our lives.
It’s clear that gratitude is good for our well-being. Appreciating gifts we receive from the natural world (a practice I call natural gratitude) is an especially nourishing form of gratefulness. It reawakens our innate connection with nature and brings moments of authentic peace and joy into our lives. It helps us access the remarkable power of the natural world to heal mind, body, and spirit. And in subtle yet profound ways, it reminds us that we are never really alone, but rather part of a vast and beautiful web of life that supports us every moment of our lives.
Yet how do we practice this natural gratitude, when so many of us are leading intensely busy and stressful lives, in cities and mostly indoors? It’s easier than you might think. It starts with noticing what we are already receiving:
• The daily essentials of nutritious food, clean water, and fresh air (thank you, plants!)
• Simple pleasures like the luscious taste of a ripe berry, the sweet sound of birdsong, or the warmth of sun on our skin
• Everyday wonders of the world like seeds that create new plants, birds that fly, and our own waking to a new day
• Seasonal firsts like the first rain or snow, harvest of a vegetable, or sighting of a favorite bird
• The delights of sharing our lives with animal companions and neighbors
Five Simple Ways to Thank the Earth on Thanksgiving Day
Thanksgiving Day is a perfect time to express thanks to the natural world. Here are a few suggestions for how to do that:
1. Give thanks on your own: Take a little quiet time to reflect on the gifts you receive from the Earth and connect with your gratitude for them, perhaps on a walk or while sitting outside. Find a way to say “thank you”—out loud, in writing, or in your heart.
2. Give thanks with others: Invite your loved ones to share something in the natural world they are grateful for, perhaps during or after the Thanksgiving meal. (If you’re not comfortable doing this with your family, try it with friends on another day.)
3. Give thanks for your food: As you prepare the meal or when you sit down to enjoy it, take in the bounty it represents. Imagine some of the people, plants, and animals that made it possible and thank them, either silently or out loud.
4. Enjoy a gratitude walk: Walk to a nearby place where you can find plants, water, birds, or other aspects of the natural world—it might be a park, your neighborhood, or your own backyard. Notice and appreciate your natural neighbors, and find simple ways to express your gratitude—a smile, a gesture, a few words, or simply silent appreciation. If you go out with others, consider spending part of the time in silence, or sharing what you noticed afterward.
5. Write a letter: Write a thank-you letter to the Earth, or to a special being or place that inspires or supports you (Dear oak trees…), outdoors if possible. You may want to read your letter to them if you can, or invite loved ones to write letters of their own and perhaps share them with each other.
…Or the Day After
If Thanksgiving Day feels too full already, or if you can’t imagine sharing your gratitude for the Earth with Uncle Ralph and Aunt Edna, take heart! Every day is a good day to thank the Earth—and the Friday after Thanksgiving is one great option. Consider dedicating part or all of the day to this purpose, ideally in a natural setting that you love. Help create a new tradition of observing “Thank the Earth Day”—a Green Friday instead of Black Friday.
Going outside instead of going shopping appears to be an idea whose time has come. Last year, outdoor retailer REI Coop made the radical decision to close all its stores and online sales on the busiest shopping day of the year and pay its staff to spend the day outdoors, and encouraged others to join in. Their #OptOutside campaign was wildly popular and widely praised, and it’s back and much bigger this year, with more than 275 organizations and 1.6 million individuals participating. Why not “opt outside” and invite friends to join you?
…Or Other Days
Natural gratitude is too delicious and nutritious to limit to only one day a year. You can savor it any time simply by noticing what you’re receiving and pausing to appreciate it, even just for a few moments. You might give thanks for the new day as the sun rises, appreciate the wonders of water as you shower, spend a few quiet minutes in the garden after your workday or write about what you are grateful for at bedtime.
Integrating natural gratitude with daily activities makes it more doable and strengthens your connection with the Earth wherever you are. You may be surprised at how just a few moments of gratitude can dramatically shift your mood and your day.
The more fully present you can be for these moments, the more you will benefit—there’s a big difference between saying a cursory “thank you” and actually taking in what you are receiving and feeling grateful in your heart.
And when you share your gratitude with others, it can plant seeds of awareness of the natural gifts we all receive and the rewards of appreciating them. And that appreciation may in turn inspire them to give back to the Earth by making greener choices, reducing consumption, protecting local green space or donating time or money.
Imagine a day when it will be commonplace to hear children in a park enthusiastically thanking a tree for all that it gives, or executives opening a business meeting by expressing gratitude for the gifts of the natural world. Through small and large acts and quiet and bold statements, we can create a culture in which is it once again safe and normal to love and thank the Earth—and a foundation for a more balanced and respectful relationship between humans and the natural world. Our health, happiness and even future survival may very well depend on it.