Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home

Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home
David R. Weiss – May 27, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #27 – Subscribe at

“Then the LORD[1] God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7) Forget Jesus’ breath in John’s Easter scene (GIT #26), this is the moment when the Judeo-Christian tradition first affirms permaculture.

In my last post, I said Christian communities were “commissioned” as it were to be permaculture communities all along. Of course, that’s a bit of a rhetorical claim—permaculture as an intentional movement appeared nearly 2000 years after the first Christian communities. But my point stands. John’s Gospel links Jesus so clearly with the Biblical figure of Wisdom (who the Bible links with the wisdom inherent within creation) that Christians ought to enthusiastically embrace the core insight of permaculture: that nature itself is a repository of lived wisdom useful in shaping human life as well.

Not that nature dictates how we live, but our capacity for reflection, self-transcendence, and choice doesn’t set us above nature any more than the capacity for flight, parthenogenesis, underwater breathing, or photosynthesis sets any other bit of creation above nature. Permaculture, the infrastructure for the Transition Movement, suggests it’s both wise to learn from nature and ethical to seek to live in harmony with nature because we are nature. We’re simply nature with elevated cognitive, emotional, cultural, spiritual capacities.

That most Christians find this idea quite foreign reflects how far we are from the truth of our own tradition. Worse, given the way scientific-industrial progress has raced forward largely unbridled by ethics in a culture self-identified for generations as “Christian,” the church has been (at least!) complicit in the reckless advances that now threaten to wreck the ecosystem that sustains us. Permaculture argues that other paths were, and perhaps still are, available to us. So does this creation account in Genesis.

As a creation myth it oozes truth (not fact) in a story about how creation came to be and where we fit within it. However, it’s a myth made for people in another time and place. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say to us, but it does mean we’ll need to listen carefully to hear across cultures, languages, and whole eras of understanding. Still, for those of us who continue to draw meaning and life out of this faith tradition, that extra care is worth it. And as we meet the climate emergency in front of us, there’s an added urgency to pay attention. Because some of the things we’ve often missed just may become lifelines in this moment. I’ll suggest several.

English translations have always told us “God formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The exact words vary, but every translation I’ve seen BURIES the truth of the Hebrew where God fashions an adam from the adamah. Later on, these translations render adam as the man’s name, Adam. But it is Hebrew for “earthling” fashioned from earth, or “dirtling” made from dirt, or “humus being” formed from humus. The truth intended by the original teller of this tale was that we are dirt. Enlivened by divine breath, but nonetheless still—forever and always—kin to the ground beneath our feet. The claim isn’t intended to humiliate us. Rather it tells us, on this ground we are home. No small truth for beings who have evolved our way into existential loneliness.

In this tale, God’s breath brings one particular bit of humus to life by breathing into it. We become humus beings—living soil. Later on the Hebraic Wisdom tradition begins to intuit what both science and permaculture confirm: we aren’t the only soil that is alive. Whether you call it the breath of God or the ferment of microbes, the black dirt under our feet is fairly crowded with animate energy. Permaculture begs us to honor it; this Genesis creation tale says no less.

This creation account goes on to describe Eden, the garden planted by God into which the humus being (adam/Adam) is placed. We do an injustice to the peoples who first heard this tale when we presume they regarded it as a divinely-relayed newspaper account of an anthropomorphized God, who acted like a supernatural botanist in setting up Eden. AND—we do an injustice to ourselves when we presume we’re either beholden to read the verses that way today—or entitled to be embarrassed by verses so unembarrassed about narrating divine activity. Ancient peoples were “fluent” in myth. They felt no need to decide between fact and fiction. Myth told truth—and it moved freely across these less important distinctions in telling its truth.

With the garden in place, we learn that God set the adam [that is, “the humus being”—as yet single and ungendered] in the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15) This, then, is the paradigmatic human vocation according to this account: to work the land and sustain its abundance—in other words: to practice permaculture. There is no talk of being imago Dei (“in the image of God”) or “having dominion” in this account—I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Almost as soon as the humus being begins tending the humus, God observes, “It is not good for the adam [the single “humus being”] to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) So God fashions all manner of animals, none of whom provide quite sufficient companionship, until God splits the adam itself into two: man and woman. (Gen. 2:19-23) One might consider a host of (worthwhile) gender issues here, but today I simply want to note that in this story God invites the humus being to name each creature. The invitation and the act are significant because throughout the biblical text names are not used to establish the power of ownership or exploitation, but to carry the truth of relationship.[2]

In Eden, naming is a vocational act alongside tending the garden. It is a prototype of ecology. Indeed, once we see the purpose of naming as placing ourselves and our companion creatures into appropriate relationship, then naming and tending become essentially one interwoven vocation. We cannot tend the humus well if we do not attend as well to the ways that all life is humus-borne.

From creation to Christianity, authentic biblical faith anticipates permaculture (and Transition). To understand ourselves as humus beings—“breathing earth”—places us firmly within this natural world. And not as punishment or burden, but as home and calling. We were not made to be masters of this material world. Rather, we were intended for intimacy with it. Facing a climate crisis of apocalyptic scope, that intimacy will mean allowing ourselves to feel unfathomable grief. But it will also mean catching glimpses of revelatory joy. Perhaps most of all, it will mean holding earth in our hands and feeling the goodness of home.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here:

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)

[1] In many English translations of the Old Testament you’ll often see the word LORD printed in upper case letters. When you do, it indicates that behind this word lies the Hebrew word often viewed as the name of God: YHWH. Jews consider it too sacred to speak aloud, so when reading their scriptures they replace it, by saying the word Adonai, which means “Lord.” (It actually means “Lords”—plural—which is itself a fascinating detail, as though in the midst of Judaism’s strict monotheism, a bit of the God’s ineffable “moreness” leaks through here.)

[2] Just a few examples: “Eve” means “the mother of all living”; “Isaac” means “laughter”—the child whose unexpected birth brought laughter; “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” There are a number of ways to convey the sense of YHWH: “I am what I am”; “I am who I am”; or “I will be who I will be.” Because the most vivid account of God’s self-revelation comes in the scene with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), linked to a series of future promises, I find it evocative to hear the name as “I will be who I must be for your liberation.”

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