Once when the morning sun shone bright on the forest in the spring just as the trees started to bud and the early flowers were waking, a woman stepped out onto the doorstep of her little cottage and saw a basket lying there in the shade of a juniper bush that still had it’s gray needles.
Her heart quickened and she knelt to pull back a fold of cloth in the basket to reveal the sleeping face of a human infant. The woman was overjoyed and also quite puzzled. No one lived nearby. Indeed, her cottage was set off far away from any other cozy place in all the wild, resplendent woods.
So, it was that the woman called Gaia took in the first child. She grew to be a girl with long brown hair and a tricksy smile. After a few years the girl and the woman were awakened in the dark hours of the night by the frantic, terrified cries of a baby. The woman rushed to the door of the cottage as the girl sat up in bed, eyes wide and startled.
There on the doorstep was another basket. Where the first one had been neat and tidy with a pretty cloth to wrap the baby in, this one was a frayed and sagging basket and the baby was wrapped in a rough feed sack. The woman peered into the forest, wondering if whoever had left the baby might still be near. But the baby was hungry and cold from the night air, so she picked him up and took him inside.
For several years the woman and the two children lived happily in the forest. The forest provided all they needed. The woman caught and picked their wild food. She grew a little garden at the back of the cottage. And she kept chickens and a few goats. The children helped and learned to live in the shadow of the forest.
Year turned on year and though each turn was different and brought both joys and small disasters, there was also a rhythm of time. The children took this rhythm into themselves even though they did not know it.
But one change came that did not ebb and flow with the turning of the years. Other cottages sprang up in the forest. Roads were cut through the trees and a town sprouted off to the west on the banks of the river where the woman fished in the summer.
The two children met other children when they were out picking berries and mushrooms. They heard about the world and began to long for things beyond the cottage. Other people also heard about the woman in the forest who took in children that needed a home. And soon enough someone, somewhere heard the tales who had a child they couldn’t feed and clothe.
And so there were more cries in the night. The woman and her children found another basket on the doorstep and then another… and another. Each basket was different. Some were tightly woven, white willow bows. Some were loose grass baskets with holes showing through. Some were made of hard knobbly vines that left the babies sore and others were padded with blankets as soft as thistledown.
But they all had babies in them. Quiet, babies with troubled eyes. Loud, crying babies with red faces. Coughing sick babies with rashes.
The woman took them into her house because she couldn’t leave a baby crying alone outside. She fed them and treated their sicknesses. She took them to the new town and asked whose babies they were. The town councilmen said they did not know and the woman could send the babies to the orphan home if she didn’t want them.
The woman went to the orphan home and saw the listless children there, the harried nurses, the little rooms with neatly made beds and the rows of benches in the cafeteria. She took the babies home again. Somehow she would manage.
The seasons passed and the children grew taller. Soon the first girl and the first boy who had come to Gaia were tall and strong. She asked them to dig up the garden beds, chop wood for the fire and feed the chickens and goats. She asked them to care for the smaller children, to cook dinner and read them stories. The work had no end.
The children met children from other cabins in the woods and from the town. They heard about television and video games. They saw bright plastic toys and fast cars and every manner of candy.
The children tried to please Gaia, their mother. They worked in the garden, chopped the wood, cooked dinner for the little ones, gathered berries in the forest and a hundred other things. They wondered why their mother Gaia kept accepting more children. They were grateful, but… after awhile, they began to resent the new arrivals and all the work.
Gaia had taught them the rhythms of the earth but the growth of people all around them did not follow that rhythm. The settlement just grew and grew. And with it their work grew.
Finally, the first girl and the first boy put on their nicest clothes and took their best tools and left Gaia’s house, hoping to find an easier life. Soon more of the children left. Some left when they were still far too young, before they even knew much about the rhythms of the earth.
There were still plenty of little children who couldn’t leave and Gaia had endless work to do, taking care of them. She grew bent and haggard. The beauty she once had was weathered and worn. Her moods were quick and her discipline was hard and not always fair. She was broken down in both body and spirit.
All around the cottage, broken things piled up. Dirty diapers weren’t washed. Dirty dishes sat for a long time. The children who left, more often than not left big messes because it was the filth and squalor that made them leave.
The children who left fared little better. Some of them found jobs helping out shopkeepers or tradesmen in the town. Some went to work in the new factories or superstores. Some tried to study or make their own crafts.
Some of the runaways had enough to eat and a roof over their heads after a few years and they felt that they deserved all that they had achieved. It had been incredibly hard work after all. They were sure they owed no one.
Many did not have enough to eat or a home though, no matter how hard they worked. They became angry and demanded that those who had better luck should help them. They were brothers and sisters after all. But those who had more insisted that they had worked harder. The eldest boy felt sorry for many of the younger children and he gave them food when he could spare it and felt that he was doing more than his share. He was sure he was honorable and good.
But as time went by some of the children saw that the whole forest was dying. The trees were drying out and the animals became scarce. Year after year the people of the town had to go further and further away for wood and water and hunting. The land was turning gray and barren. The sky was filled with toxic fumes.
At first, some of the children protested and insisted that people had to change, that if they each did their part, as they had done back at Gaia’s cottage that all would be well again. But those who had snug houses and enough to eat mostly felt that if they did a little thing to help, planted a tree or used recycled paper, that they had done their part. And those who had no houses or only broken down shacks were sure that they would do their part, just as soon as they had what they needed.
So the years passed until finally, the eldest girl and several of the other children who were now grown decided that they must do more than these small things. They left their homes, small or large, and went back to that part of the forest that was still hanging on around Gaia’s cottage. They went up to the rough wooden door and they knocked softly.
“Gaia! Mother!” they cried. “We want to come home. We are sorry! we want to work in the garden and feed the goats and take care of the little ones.”
Gaia came to the door, worn and stooped with work and worry. She stood their looking at them.
And now, dear reader, I ask you to decide if she took them in and gave them bowls of soup and useful work to do. And would that make everything right and pure again? Would it turn the tide against the destruction of the forest? Would it make other people start treating each other and their home well?
Your answer likely tells much about your life philosophy and about your faith in humanity or at least about the image you want to project.
And each of you will probably have someone you are ready to blame for the troubles in this story. Conservatives are likely to blame Gaia herself. She took in too many children after all. She should have known that was going to be a problem. She over-extended herself and essentially deserved what she got.
Liberals might well blame the grown-up children for being ungrateful and not looking out for each other, for forgetting that they did in fact owe someone something for what they had. Radicals are likely to blame the whole system, the influx of people, the construction of the town, the existence of factories and those who cut down trees and showed the children bright toys.
And yet when you make this story human. When Gaia too is a person, we can see that each of these blamable characters did only what seemed entirely reasonable and ethical at the time. Even those who built factories and cut down trees were children looking for a better life and believing they owed nothing for their life.
And Gaia? She gave and gave and gave until she lashed out at her children with harsh and unfair discipline. But you must realize that this Gaia does not live only in a nice safe country with a foster-care system. She lives in the slums of Bangladesh and the streets of Syria. She lives where children are truly hungry. She gives and gives because without her, the children really would die.
Here is the thing. We are all the children of Gaia. We all take and take from the earth. And the earth gives and gives until she is worn out and broken, just like an old self-sacrificing mother. And now she lashes out, usually unfairly with storms and drought and wild fires. And some of us want to come back, knocking on her door and promising to be good and feed the goats and tend the little ones, while the human world goes on grinding up the forest and the ecosystem that keeps us all alive.
And the question is what happens next in this story.